hat is America’s purpose in the world? At the end of 2016, with Barack Obama’s two-term presidency coming to a close, the question seems almost outmoded. Not only does the United States currently have no national purpose; the very idea of a national purpose is now unfashionable. This is the logical result of eight years of American political leadership devoted to minimizing American global leadership.
In our democratic republic, we choose presidents who reflect the national mood, and they in turn lead a nation that becomes a reflection of them. In 2008, Americans were tired of the war in Iraq and elected Barack Obama on his promise to end that war—but he had a far larger retreat in mind. Pursuing a staunchly progressive worldview, Obama would oversee the withdrawal of American power around the globe. Yet as his vision of a better world lost out to the reality of a much more treacherous one, he refused to change course. Responding to the new threats would have distilled for the country a new sense of national purpose—something Obama expressly feared. In exacerbating and then downplaying a rising global wave of theocratic and secular tyranny, the president has left our sense of national purpose in a shambles. And having done so, he will depart the White House with the free world at great risk.
Obama was, in some sense, the right man at the right time. Opposed to the Iraq war from the start, he could claim credibly to have seen well in advance the hardships that would follow from George W. Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy. After witnessing five years of brutal fighting without a clear pronouncement of American victory, the country had come around to Obama’s anti-war view.
In his election, however, Obama saw the opportunity to chase a more ambitious goal. “This was the moment,” he had said upon receiving the Democratic nomination for president, “when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.” For Obama, those were progressive ideals, and they would guide him in revolutionizing American foreign policy. As he stated on the eve of his election: “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”
In addition to pulling out of Iraq, he would attempt to draw down American forces in Afghanistan. But his transformative project would go beyond wrapping up active wars; it stretched to the ends of the earth, replacing established American policy in country after country with the preferred progressive alternative. Progressives believe that the projection of American power is the problem, in which case the solution is, or at least involves, American retrenchment. The plan was to deliver us into an enlightened future, where a newly humbled America would inspire cooperation from former antagonists, soothe our own national conscience, and eventually allow for the meaningful work of building a fairer and more equal republic. This, as far as Obama was concerned, was America’s national purpose.
The new agenda included conciliatory overtures to a variety of America’s adversaries. The most important of these were Russia, Iran, and Syria. Obama offered Vladimir Putin’s revanchist Russia a diplomatic “reset” in the belief that Russian–American relations had grown too hostile during Bush’s presidency. The reset policy included canceling promised missile-defense assets for Poland and the Czech Republic, signing a New START treaty to reduce Russian and American nuclear arsenals in unison, and courting Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev in hopes that he was a moderate who would take the reins of power from Putin.
Where Russia enjoyed a reset, Iran was offered Obama’s “open hand.” This included unprecedented high-level talks between American and Iranian officials, a secret letter-writing campaign in which Obama appealed to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for cooperation in various endeavors, and back-channel diplomatic outreach that came to fruition in a deal ostensibly intended to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Obama also sought to reestablish diplomatic ties with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The president nominated Robert Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005. He also eased trade restrictions, tried to gain Syria acceptance in international trade bodies, and worked to improve American ties with the Syrian foreign minister. All this was done in an attempt both to bring out Assad’s much-discussed “reformer” side and to peel Syria away from its ally, Iran.
These policies do not make up the totality of Obama’s effort to ingratiate himself with unfree regimes. There was also, for example, his unwillingness to pressure China about its belligerence in the South China Sea, his hard line against Israeli settlements in deference to Palestinian claims, his warm relationship with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his restoration of full relations with Communist Cuba. But, for reasons that will soon become clear, Obama’s core Axis of Accommodation went through Syria, Russia, and Iran—a collective of bad actors who would turn American retreat into global catastrophe and leave us without a unified foreign-policy calling.
o certain was Barack Obama in the soundness of these efforts that he thought of them as existing beyond the disputed realms of ideology. He was just doing what works. His guiding dictum, so he told a group of reporters, was, plainly, “don’t do stupid shit.” Of course, once a man sees his ideology only as pragmatism, he’s become an intractable ideologue. Obama simply defined stupid as that which isn’t progressive. As a senior official in the Obama administration told the New York Times’s David Samuels of the president: “He regards everyone on the other side at this point as being a bunch of bloodthirsty know-nothings from a different era who play by the old book.” Obama put it more diplomatically before the UN General Assembly in September 2009: “The time has come to realize that the old habits, the old arguments, are irrelevant to the challenges faced by our people.”
A funny thing happened on the way to the next epoch. Sadly for us all, Obama’s transformative plans failed spectacularly—and in combination.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the next epoch. Sadly for us all, the old book was proven right. Obama’s transformative plans failed spectacularly—and in combination. In withdrawing hastily from Iraq, the United States allowed for the reconstitution of an al-Qaeda offshoot that would go on to become ISIS, the largest and most vicious jihadist organization we’ve ever faced. ISIS would cross into Syria and capitalize on an uprising against Assad. For his part, Assad never came around to reforming or breaking from Iran’s orbit. In fact, he has waged a war on the Syrian people that has included the deployment of chemical weapons on civilians. And Iran—enjoying its new freedom of action—has come to his aid.
The war in Syria has produced, in turn, a global flood of some 5 million refugees, destabilizing politics well beyond the Middle East. In time, Obama handed the whole Syrian portfolio to Vladimir Putin by agreeing to a deal to put Russia in charge of removing Assad’s proscribed weapons. Putin soon put Russia’s military at Assad’s disposal, cementing an active Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance.1 That anti-freedom triumvirate has not only collaborated to kill nearly half a million people; it has deliberately kept ISIS in play in order to use it as a foil for its own depredations.
Then there was the Iran nuclear deal. The Obama administration touts it as a success. But they’re the only ones doing so. To critics and former supporters alike, it’s become clear that the “agreement” reached with Tehran is little more than a fog of shifting claims, hidden payments, secret side deals, and an endless public-relations campaign. Indeed, it has become increasingly hard to criticize the specific failings of the agreement precisely because so few people concur on what the deal’s terms actually are. But neither the deal’s original limits on enriched uranium nor the required international inspections regime—both inadequate to begin with—are still in place. What’s more, the administration has smoothed Iran’s path to international markets and given the regime a direct infusion of as much as $1.3 billion, much of it likely allocated for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and assorted terrorist parties.
t was the rise of ISIS, above all else, that should have disabused Obama of his progressive scheme. But while the pseudo-caliphate expanded throughout Syria and Iraq, established a multibillion-dollar economy, seized chemical weapons, and mobilized a worldwide terrorist network, the president refused to take action. “Instead of adjusting his policies to the reality, and adjusting his perception of reality to the changing realities on the ground,” the above-quoted official told Samuels, “the conclusions [Obama] draws are exactly the same, no matter what the costs have been to our strategic interests.”
In Obama’s effort to minimize the new challenge, he said of ISIS: ‘They do not threaten our national existence.’ For a war-averse nation this has sufficed. But is it true?
Obama, having planned to deliver the United States into a new and pacified world of global interdependence, instead inflamed and compounded the worst threat the United States faced when he came into office: Islamic terrorism. Unable to acknowledge the perilous state of affairs to which he contributed, he systematically ignored it and thus missed the moment that would have defined our national purpose. For surely if our national purpose after 9/11 was to stamp out jihad and, specifically, al-Qaeda, then the threat posed by ISIS requires an even greater American response.
In his effort to minimize this challenge, Obama said of ISIS: “They do not threaten our national existence.” For a war-averse nation of despairing liberals and dispirited conservatives, this has sufficed.
But is it true? Can it be that the world’s most bloodthirsty opponents of human liberty—having gone from near nonexistence to virtual statehood in less than five years and having acquired chemical weapons and inspired or trained terrorists inside the United States—do not threaten our national existence? As a matter of our immediate reality, the answer is yes; ISIS is not poised to topple the republic. But as a long-term matter, the answer is undoubtedly no. ISIS and its related groups, if not forcefully opposed, will threaten the United States as a whole.
This could happen in one of two ways. In one, small terrorist attacks will continue or even multiply in the United States. As attacks increase, it will matter less and less whether the perpetrators are officially sanctioned ISIS members or whether the number of innocents killed falls short of those killed in proper wars. In actual fact, as Americans, (and other free peoples), acclimate to the new insecurity caused by further attacks, they will impose upon themselves ever more restrictions on their own freedom. This could take the form of new laws and prohibitions designed to keep people safe, or it could come from the accretion of personal choices about where not to go and what not to do in order to avoid harm. Either way, ISIS or its successor will have fundamentally changed the free and open nature of history’s singular beacon of human liberty.
In the other scenario, ISIS could begin carrying out spectacular terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. By spectacular, I mean something on the order of 9/11. This is not hard to envision, as ISIS already has the money, the manpower, and in some cases the advantage of American citizenship to facilitate a coordinated, high-casualty domestic attack. Should this come to pass, then we would inevitably be in an active state of war with another “country,” entailing all the sorrows and upheavals that come with it. Once again, the United States would suffer as a whole.
lthough Barack Obama does not say so in plain terms, he seems to believe that occasional terrorist attacks are something that the United States can, in the long run, simply live with; that the American people could absorb terrorism, in Secretary of State John Kerry words, as a mere “nuisance” of modern life. This gets things exactly wrong. The question is not whether we could live with occasional terrorist attacks but whether our terrorist enemies can live with attacking us only occasionally. According to the “old book” that Obama thinks so little of, the answer is no. The U.S. has always done well to take its enemies at their word.
National purpose is forged in response to a specific challenge—and, then, only when our political leaders recognize that the challenge is so great as to require the galvanization of the country. This is how the United States found its purpose in defeating Nazism and fascism in World War II, found it again in wiping out the threat of Communism during the Cold War, and found it once more in (nearly) destroying al-Qaeda during the War on Terror.
The United States will reclaim its national purpose when the continued threat of Islamic terrorism becomes too great for another American president to ignore. And when that moment comes to pass, the American people, enervated as they now seem, will shake off their doubts and divisions. Even now, liberals know there is no pride in letting ISIS carry on, and conservatives understand that the country they knew wouldn’t blink in the face of barbarians. They only need a president to articulate the truth. In time, Americans will recover their pride and affinity for the only country that, again and again, has proved capable of standing between liberty and bondage in all its forms.
1 Elsewhere on the “reset” front, Putin went on to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea, and to violate Russia’s nuclear agreement with the United States.