WASHINGTON — Defeat can lead to defeatism, or it can lead to constructive rethinking. Which path will President Obama take after setbacks overseas?
By defeat, I do not mean, as some Obama critics would have it, that the U.S. president “lost Crimea.” The bad guy there is Vladimir Putin, not Barack Obama, just as the bad guy in Syria is Bashar Assad.
There was no viable military option that could have discouraged Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and there is no military option to reverse it. Even the now-ridiculed “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations was worth a try; no one knew for sure whether then-President Dmitry Medvedev might offer a viable alternative to Putinism. Obama was right to test the theory.
But while Putin’s annexation of Crimea is not Obama’s fault, it does starkly illustrate that the world Obama confronts today is not the world he expected to lead.
The president came into office believing that military assets were a 19th-century measure of power, of dwindling relevance in the 21st century. He believed that diplomacy could solve problems that George W. Bush had ignored, created or exacerbated; that the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons was perhaps the United States’ most important goal; that economic reconstruction at home had to take precedence over — and was a necessary prerequisite for — leadership abroad.
His policies have reflected these understandings: Total pullout from Iraq. An Afghanistan withdrawal schedule untethered to conditions on the ground. A hasty departure from Libya after helping to depose its dictator. No meaningful assistance to the opposition in Syria.
When democratic uprisings stirred hope from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, some foreign-policy veterans, like former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, urged Obama to seize the unexpected opportunity and help support historic change. Obama stayed aloof, and the moment passed.