Writing in the Ottawa Citizen and Calgary Herald, MLI managing director Brian Lee Crowley laments the decline of American influence under president Barack Obama. While many saw Obama as the inheritor of John F. Kennedy’s political legacy, he has not shown Kennedy’s willingness or ability to stand for American values abroad. Crowley writes: “Today, America seeks no burden and accepts little responsibility, its status as global superpower dwindling daily from disuse. Its president is largely unwilling to exercise that power to hold the world’s villains in check and far too willing to dismiss the work and sacrifice of allies if he can ingratiate himself with those who are hostile to America’s interests.”
Brian Lee Crowley, JANUARY 31, 2014
The late U.S. Senator Teddy Kennedy electrified the 2008 presidential race when he turned his back on Hillary Clinton and endorsed Barack Obama’s bid for the Democratic nomination.
Through this laying on of hands, the senior member of the Kennedy clan passed the political mantle of his brother, assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy, to candidate Obama.
Judging by Obama’s State of the Union speech on Jan. 28, however, not only has Obama failed to live up to the Kennedy legacy, he has made every effort to escape it. Under Kennedy, whatever his flaws, we saw on the international stage the deployment of American power in pursuit of the best of American values. In his speech, Obama displayed his commitment to doing the least he could for America’s friends while comforting America’s foes.
In his inaugural speech, Kennedy committed America to a stance whose power still reverberates down the years: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
He meant what he said. Like it or not, he stood firm against Soviet intimidation in Europe and Vietnam. He took the world to the brink of nuclear war to stare down Nikita Khrushchev over the Cuban missile crisis. He laid down markers about the kind of behaviour that was compatible with peace and prosperity in the world and held to account regimes that failed those tests, militarily where necessary.
Under Obama, things could hardly be more different. Today, America seeks no burden and accepts little responsibility, its status as global superpower dwindling daily from disuse. Its president is largely unwilling to exercise that power to hold the world’s villains in check and far too willing to dismiss the work and sacrifice of allies if he can ingratiate himself with those who are hostile to America’s interests.
The examples are legion, ranging from his shameful treatment of Poland and the Czech Republic over anti-missile defence to his unseemly haste to extricate himself prematurely even from the “good” war he declared Afghanistan to be. Tehran’s duplicitous mullahs are today almost certainly playing Obama for a fool over their nuclear ambitions.
But the most egregious example from his recent speech is Syria.
Obama claims that American diplomacy triumphed over the issue of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. He had made the regime’s use of such weapons a “red line” whose crossing would bring American retribution down on Assad’s head. The regime then repeatedly crossed that line and Obama prevaricated by seeking unnecessary congressional approval for military action. When he couldn’t get it (itself a scandalous failure of leadership) he fell in with a Russian plan to relieve Syria of its chemical weapons.
But the red line was not about the weapons. The red line was about the kind of behaviour that America found acceptable in Damascus. Obama in effect warned Assad that any regime that used chemical weapons against its own civilian population put itself beyond the pale and that America would punish lapses, by military action if need be. The mere removal of the chemical weapons is not a punishment for Assad’s bad behaviour, but in effect the signalling that such bad behaviour now attracts no serious consequences. And what did Obama say about the issue in his speech?
“We will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.” In other words a chilling rhetorical flight of fancy totally divorced from the reality of one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our times. Dictators the world over breathed a sigh of relief.
As JFK knew, world peace and stability often hangs by America’s willingness to enforce many red lines. There is such a line between the Koreas, another surrounding Israel, a third separating Japan and Taiwan from China. On one side of each such line the enemies of liberal democracy brood darkly, held in check chiefly by the fear of American retribution.
If you were on the right side of those lines under Kennedy, you knew American power was your friend. Under Obama, it is the people on the wrong side of those lines who have taken heart because the signs are increasingly clear that today’s commander-in-chief believes that fine words and sentiments ought to be enough to police bad behaviour. As a direct result, Japan is rearming, many Middle Eastern regimes are seeking nuclear weapons, the “good” opposition in Syria is increasingly being displaced by Islamic extremists and a resurgent Russia tweaks the American eagle’s beak at every opportunity. JFK is turning in his grave.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think-tank in Ottawa. macdonaldlaurier.ca