AS HE begins his second term in office, President Barack Obama must reconsider his foreign-policy priorities. Though the president successfully convinced Americans that he could handle international affairs more effectively than his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, this was not a particularly demanding standard since Romney identified himself all too closely with the legacy of former president George W. Bush to the extent that he focused on foreign policy at all. And it took little effort at a time when Americans were preoccupied with domestic concerns and thus largely satisfied with clichés and pandering on issues. Obama now has a real opportunity to lead if he is prepared to start a serious national debate on America’s role in the world.
At another time, Obama’s cautious, tactical and reactive approach to foreign policy might be sufficient. The problem today is that we are present at the creation of a new international system in which the United States and its allies remain predominant but are no longer unchallenged. The rise of “the rest”—emerging powers that don’t necessarily share Western interests or values—is changing international security, economics and politics. Though “the rest” are not unified, and emerging powers such as China face their own serious challenges, most share a degree of frustration with the Western-defined international order. Many likely are prepared to be responsible stakeholders but believe that being a stakeholder at all means having a role in writing the rules and connect this role to their own national interests and dignity. The United States needs a proactive strategic policy to preserve its international leadership and can ignore changing realities only at grave peril.
While Republicans criticized Obama for “leading from behind,” the real problem is that Obama and America’s other post–Cold War presidents have been leading blindly, without attempting to set a clear direction or even to look ahead on the path we are traveling. This has exacerbated many international problems and intensified some national threats. A vivid example is the Clinton administration’s obsessive involvement in the civil wars in the Balkans, which distracted attention from greater dangers, including Al Qaeda. Responsibility for the September 11 attacks lies with Osama bin Laden and his minions, but the responsibility for protecting Americans was squarely in the hands of the Clinton administration and an inertia-driven Bush administration. Each neglected to make Al Qaeda a major priority and thus contributed to tragedy.
Eleven years later, political and public discussion of the September 11, 2012, attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, demonstrates little progress. In this case, Republican criticism has concentrated on apparently inaccurate statements about the source of the attack by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Few have asked more fundamental questions about Obama’s intervention in Libya, despite the fact that it was never approved or even adequately discussed by Congress.
In fairness, Obama is right in pointing out that Rice was speaking on the basis of talking points that others had prepared. Still, it is legitimate and important to ask how those talking points were developed and what Rice may have known when she delivered them. But a far more significant question is this: Why did she develop seemingly enthusiastic support for a poorly explained war to remove an aging tyrant who had renounced nuclear weapons after receiving American guarantees and no longer presented a threat to the United States or its allies?
Absent Libya’s predictable postintervention instability and America’s postintervention presence there, attacks like the one that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his colleagues probably wouldn’t have happened. Moreover, one of the war’s most globally visible outcomes—a U.S.-backed militia mob’s brutal killing of Muammar el-Qaddafi on video—runs counter to American values, whatever Qaddafi’s crimes.
Regionally, the U.S.-led attack after Libya gave up its WMD programs and sought to reenter the international system cannot but deter Iran from making a similar choice. And globally, Obama’s liberal interpretation of the UN resolution intended to protect Libyan civilians has made Chinese and Russian support for a resolution on Syria unattainable. Though we are certain that Rice and others in both parties who favored the war in Libya meant well, their good intentions are not an excuse for apparently minimal scrutiny of its likely consequences in Libya and beyond. Egypt’s unfolding political crisis is another reminder of the dangers in nearly automatic support for Arab revolutions, a lesson that appears to have had little impact on the Obama administration as it deepens American involvement in Syria step-by-step.
In fact, the United States has operated without a clear foreign-policy compass for the last two decades. The George H. W. Bush administration’s successful management of the end of the Cold War without widespread conflict and chaos in a region with thousands of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction was America’s last deliberately formulated and successful strategic project. Since then, U.S. priorities have been difficult to understand.