The people who most closely identified with President Obama are the ones shaken most by his foreign policy failures
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Tom Donnelly
Best Defense guest columnist
It is remarkable, considering the transformational, ocean-healing promise once attributed to Barack Obama’s rise, how America and the world seem to be coming apart at the seams. The Davos Men — and our president is, more than anything else, a representative of the soi-disant "meritocratic" elite — are flummoxed and getting panicky.
The Islamic State, surging out of the deserts of eastern Syria and western Iraq, underscores how brittle the confidence of the chattering class has become. The threat is "beyond anything we’ve seen," frets Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. "We must prepare for everything."
Hagel has a point. The rapid success of the Islamic State is a direct refutation of the let-it-burn approach to the Middle East that is not only Obama administration policy but would likely be amplified should Rand Paul ever become president. Looking at the world more broadly — including other unpleasant realities like Vladimir Putin’s slow-motion dismemberment of Ukraine and China’s bullying of America’s East Asian allies and friends — the elites see, as Huffington Post writer Robert Kuttner put it, "events of stupefying complexity."
Domestic paralysis further stupefies international politics. Whether it’s simply the Obama-hating fanaticism of Tea-Party Republicans or some kind of larger and longer-term rot, there’s increasing agreement that this is "America in Decay." That’s the headline on Francis Fukuyama‘s latest essay in Foreign Affairs; he’s come a long way from the liberal and democratic end of history.
Indeed, the loss of heart has become so pervasive that one has to wonder whether these are symptoms rather than the disease itself. Is it the world that’s so complex, or are America’s elites simply stupefied?
Normally, I don’t much agree with Cornel West. But West is right on in at least one regard: the president is a creature of the modern American "neoliberal" consensus. The current anxiety of the elites over the president’s leadership reflects, I think, an underlying and growing self-doubt. That wasn’t in the script. Under Obama, the smart set would be in charge, correcting the errors of his dim-witted predecessor. But neither the country nor the world is responding as predicted, or as they should.
Consider the case of New York Times columnist David Brooks, who’s both a truly serious thinker and was one of the first conservatives to succumb to the appeal of Obama’s brilliance. Just prior to the 2008 election, Brooks concluded from "watching Barack Obama for two years" that he was a self-effacing man, the kind warmed by "the placid assumption that they can handle whatever the future throws at them." It was
easy to sketch out a scenario in which he could be a great president. He would be untroubled by self-destructive demons or indiscipline. With that cool manner, he would see reality unfiltered. He could gather — already has gathered — some of the smartest minds in public policy, and, untroubled by intellectual insecurity, he could give them free rein. Though he is young, it is easy to imagine him at the cabinet table, leading a subtle discussion of some long-term problem.
To be fair to Brooks, he could "also imagine a scenario in which he is not an island of rationality in a sea of tumult, but simply an island…. It could be that Obama will be an observer, not a leader."
By last spring, when he accused the president of having "a manhood problem" in regard to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Assad’s atrocities in Syria, Brooks clearly had decided that the president’s powers of analysis impeded his capacity for action. The smartest minds might not be the best minds. Leading a subtle discussion was not the same thing as leading the world.
Barack Obama is our president; this is his watch; he’s responsible for what happens on it. Better to empathize than sympathize. Still, it’s difficult not to hear, most particularly in the criticisms from disillusioned former supporters but also more broadly from America’s elites, a note of shattered self-confidence. These days, our "meritocrats" seem less certain that they are up to the tasks that history is giving them.
Thomas Donnelly directs the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.