by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Moments of clarity often come when you least expect them. In a speech to contributors last week in Seattle, Barack Obama made the case that his presidency has made America better. In most respects, it was precisely the kind of political pablum you’d expect from a president who seems more concerned with legacy-polishing than governing. He ticked off his accomplishments, a list that was equal parts premature celebration (deficit reduction), hyperbole (Obamacare), and borrowed glory (rising college attendance, a strong stock market, increased energy production).
Even if few in this fawning crowd were going to question him, circumstances required the president to acknowledge the growing tumult around the world. Despite all of this success, he conceded, there are some “big challenges overseas” that have some people anxious.
What are these big challenges and why are we facing them? It’s worth quoting the entire passage:
I am very proud that we have ended one war, and by the end of this year we will have ended both wars that I inherited before I came into office. (Applause.) But whether people see what’s happening in Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression towards its neighbors in the manner in which it’s financing and arming separatists; to what’s happened in Syria?—?the devastation that Assad has wrought on his own people; to the failure in Iraq for Sunni and Shia and Kurd to compromise?—?although we’re trying to see if we can put together a government that actually can function; to ongoing terrorist threats; to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza. Part of people’s concern is just the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles, that’s based on a sense of common humanity, that’s based on economies that work for all people.
These are remarkable words from an American president. They suggest that Obama either doesn’t appreciate the causal relationship between his policies and the current crises?—?or doesn’t care. He is proud that he has brought about the “end” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he seems not to understand that the unrest he goes on to describe is their direct result: How those wars ended shapes how others perceive the United States and its role in the world. …
… It’s not just the wars. With remarkable consistency, Obama has demonstrated that he is unwilling to accept the responsibilities that come with being the world’s only superpower. We said little as the Iranian regime put down a democratic revolution in 2009, for fear of accusations of “meddling.” We watched as Assad began to kill his citizens by the thousand, calling plaintively for restraint. When the Russian military rolled into Crimea in an audacious land-grab, we announced our disapproval and pushed for sanctions that we knew?—?that everyone knew?—?would have little effect beyond allowing us to say we pushed for sanctions.
In Obama’s telling, the chaos Americans see on their television screens every night?—?more than 150,000 slaughtered in Syria, a terrorist army taking over major cities in Iraq, dozens of rockets daily targeting citizens of Israel, nearly 300 innocent travelers dead after a surface-to-air missile downs a passenger plane, and continued Russian aggression?—?is just part of a natural evolution. In the old world order, the United States played a dominant role. In the new one, we will not. With a rhetorical shrug of his shoulders, Obama says that these things may be unpleasant, but better days are ahead?—?a new order based on a “different set of principles” with “economies that work for all people” and a “sense of common humanity.”