Editor’s note: The following essay is excerpted from “In the Arena: Good Citizens, a Great Republic, and How One Speech Can Reinvigorate America” (Threshold Editions, May 3, 2016).
The world Barack Obama inherited in 2009 was much more stable than today, but still far from a perfect place. Between his election and inauguration alone, Pakistani-based Islamists killed nearly two hundred people in a brazen terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, Israel launched an air and ground offensive in the Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from Hamas, and Vladimir Putin shut off all Russian gas supplies to Europe through Ukraine. All a preview of things to come. At the same time, on the battlefield of the war Obama was elected to “end,” U.S. war casualties in Iraq plummeted to an all-time low between his election and inauguration. And just ten days after Barack Obama assumed office, Iraq held critical provincial elections with very minimal violence. The world was not perfect in 2009, but Iraq was stable, the world relatively secure, and America at least respected.
Yet, in Barack Obama’s mind—and in the mind of progressive elites, foreign policy intelligentsia, and millions of voters—George W. Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks was fundamentally wrong. To them Bush was a cowboy, a bumbling idiot, a simpleton, whereas Obama was the opposite—a peacemaker, a smooth sage, an international man of nuance. George Bush spoke loudly and carried a big stick, while Barack Obama spoke apologetically and was willing to set the stick down and talk to anyone.
But what would Obama actually do? His foreign policy platform in both elections centered on slogans—first I’m not George W. Bush and then, in 2012, Usama bin Laden Is Dead. Both were popular with voters, but neither constituted anything resembling a strategy. As a result, since his first day in the Oval Office, a great deal of ink has been spilled attempting to decipher what an “Obama Doctrine” actually looks like. Speeches have been analyzed, interviews given, and books written yet nobody, including this author, actually knows what the real Obama Doctrine is. If George W. Bush’s foreign policy was defined by bold, unilateral action, Barack Obama’s is defined by incoherence.
But why? The answer is simple, and again rooted in the flawed leftist view of human nature and history. Progressive elitists like Barack Obama—and the so-called elites I went to school with at Princeton and Harvard—are eventually forced to emerge from their utopian ideological cocoons, only to find that there are still lots of people in the world who don’t want to coexist with even a “progressive” America led by someone as culturally sensitive as President Barack Obama. But what do progressives like Obama do when—instead of coexisting—enemies of freedom saw off the heads of our journalists, savagely massacre thousands of innocent civilians (and Christians) in their own lands, and target our military veterans at home for attack? What happens when, instead of coexisting, enemies of freedom want to expand their sphere of influence in the South China Sea or threaten Eastern Europe? What happens when, instead of coexisting, enemies of freedom want to accumulate permanent nuclear capabilities while denying the Holocaust and reiterating their desire to wipe our allies off the map? What happens when, instead of coexisting, the Islamic State throws four gay men off the top of a five-story building in Iraq at the same time the president is lighting up the White House in rainbow hues? At that point, Barack Obama’s brain—and the brain of the American Left—reads: does. not. compute. Unilaterally disarmed by decades of a “coexist” moral equivalency, the modern American Left is incapable of confronting such unspeakable evil—the real threats to America and the West.
Instead, they retreat to warm places and familiar causes. Rather than calling out real threats and abject evil—or, heaven forbid, confronting them—the Left looks around for the mutual understanding mediation groups and global climate change solidarity marches they so eagerly and self-righteously facilitated as graduate students and community organizers. Except this time, they’re in charge; they’re the policy makers, the negotiators, the commander in chief. As such, they lunge for the international equivalents of their campus comforts. They seek an impossible global consensus. They work for peace agreements that are untenably detached from military realities. They declare the need to negotiate without preconditions. They unilaterally withdraw from tough wars. They dismiss growing threats as the “JV team.” They close wartime detention facilities like Guantanamo Bay with no plan to replace them. They apologize profusely for past sins. They provide “nonlethal” aid when the lethal stuff is what is actually needed. They seek moral high ground by “leading from behind,” and they declare the very use of violence a “nineteenth-century behavior.” They secretly and sheepishly hope Iran will defeat the Islamic State for us, so we don’t have to confront the group ourselves. They try to “coexist” with a dangerous, backward, fallen, chaotic world and—surprise, surprise—it doesn’t work.
The result over the past seven years has been an incoherent maze of American interventions, noninterventions, surges, withdrawals, negotiations, high-stakes raids, and plenty of drone attacks. A few different labels have been used to describe the schizophrenic Obama foreign policy, namely “Leading from Behind,” “Don’t Do Stupid Shit,” and “Strategic Patience.” Each phrase pertains to one aspect (“patience”) of their approach, one intervention (“leading from behind” in Libya), or an ongoing obsession with not being “stupid” like their caricatured George W. Bush. But taken together, they are fundamentally incoherent. Hence, America gets intervention in Libya, but no red-line enforcement in Syria; a surge in Afghanistan, but full withdrawal in Iraq; negotiations with Iran, but a worse relationship with Israel; a supposed pivot to China, but only nonlethal aid to Ukraine; the bin Laden raid, and the Bowe Bergdahl swap. What America actually stands for today is unknowable, because America’s leadership doesn’t know what it stands for.
But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. As a candidate, Senator Barack Obama wrote a Foreign Affairs piece titled “Renewing American Leadership,” followed by a very similar speech in July 2008 that laid out five strategic goals for his foreign policy: ending the Iraq War responsibly, finishing the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, securing nuclear weapons from terrorists and rogue states, achieving energy security, and rebuilding America’s alliances. Except for energy security—which happened in spite of his policies—the other four have been utter failures. Iraq is in chaos, the Islamic State has usurped Al Qaeda, the Taliban are swarming Kabul, the Islamic State is actively seeking dirty bomb capabilities and Iran has secured a dangerous nuclear future, and our allies don’t trust America’s word. By any measure, Barack Obama—and his “coexist foreign policy”—has utterly failed to meet his strategic goals.
But why? Because the list above is neither a plan nor a doctrine; it’s a list of tasks. A doctrine is the lens through which the merits of action—or inaction—are evaluated. Almost all presidents have had one, and all previous forty-three presidents have premised their foreign policy plans on the rightness of American values and virtue of decisive American action. There have been shades of gray in all directions—more engagement, less engagement—but never before a belief that America was the problem and her role should be constrained. That is, until Barack Obama and his coexist foreign policy took the helm.
Pete Hegseth is CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. A Fox News contributor, he is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. Learn more at: www.concernedveteransforamerica.org.