President Obama fostered the spread of nuclear weapons due to a weak foreign policy and an inability to appreciate “the capacity for evil” on the part of Syria and Russia, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a harsh critique of “Mr. Obama.”
Haass spoke at the 92d Street Y on January 10. When Peggy Noonan asked him, how much did Obama’s Syrian red line hurt America’s standing in the world, Haass said:
An extraordinary amount…. The United States warned repeatedly that if Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons, that would constitute the crossing of a red line, and there would be serious consequences. He proceeded to use chemical weapons several times, and there were not serious consequences. Instead, the United States ultimately worked with Russia on a diplomatic solution to getting rid of the chemical weapons.
But the fact that we did not react was terrible for several things. One is it changed the dynamics of the Syrian civil war. In my view, it emboldened the government and undermined the confidence of the opposition.
It sent a message to would-be profilerators of nuclear weapons, that even if you use weapons of mass destruction, you can get away it. So you can have all the non-proliferation policy you want in the world in the technical sense, but that one moment did a lot to undermine years of American efforts to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons.
Around the world it raised fundamental questions of American reliability. I can’t tell you how many foreign ministers and other leaders in Asia and in other parts of the world took note of that, and they said Wow. If the United States isn’t prepared to follow through on what it says there, what might it mean for us?
Haas said that Obama’s alleged failure in Syria led to a world in disarray (title of his new book) — including the misguided Saudi intervention in Yemen.
Haass’s comments are noteworthy as an expression of an establishment Clintonite liberal interventionist critique of Obama that was surely murmured among Hillary Clinton and others in her circle in the last few years. Haass argued for a far more aggressive U.S. role in the world: the U.S. being the country that shapes the world order, and rallies other countries to obedience. There is not really any difference between Haass’s stance and that of neoconservatives, at this moment.
More of Haass’s hawkish criticism of Obama. He “had trouble appreciating the capacity for evil.”
There was a pattern here. Assad must go. But then there was no mechanism for bringing it about. Mubarak– the push there. “Qaddafi must go.” We did the intervention, but then there was no followup….
He overlearned the lesson of George W. Bush… There was a persistent gap and a recurring gap between his goals and rhetoric on the one hand and what he was prepared to do on the other, and whenever that happens in foreign policy you are cruising into difficulty, whenever you have that mismatch… Barack Obama will be seen as someone who underreached.
I think he simply had an assessment about the reasonableness of the world that unfortunately doesn’t apply. He believe that forces of democracy would inevitably emerge, so when the Arab spring broke out he saw the people holding cell phones and the rest as somehow representing the future. They were infinitessimally small minorities in thier socieites.
I think he had trouble appreciating the capacity for evil, whether it was in the hands of the Syrian government, a Bashar al-Assad, or in the hands of groups like al Qaeda or ISIS, or the kind of intervention that Mr. Putin carried out in Syria. So what Mr. Obama did was essentially think that things could essentially sort themselves out by themselves.
For an antidote on the Russian “evil” hysteria, please see Stephen Cohen.
Haass’s prescription for Donald Trump was being more assertive against Russia, of course:
We need to strengthen NATO… We need to remilitarize parts of NATO… We’ve got to help the Europeans deal with the kind of political intervention through cyberspace that the Russians did here. They’re going to try and do with the French and probably German elections… I think we need to push back against Russia’s efforts to promote disorder in particular in western Europe.
And his view of how Vladimir Putin regarded Clinton and Obama. Again a chance by the man wearing the colorfully-striped socks to hit Obama as weak:
In the case of Hillary Clinton, there was concern [on Putin’s part] that if she were elected, She would carry out a policy– if you remember the Clinton administration was the one that essentially initiated NATO enlargement. You would have support for the so-called colored revolutions, trying to promote various types of liberal movements in the region, potentially within Russia itself. So I think that Mr Putin very much saw a Clinton administration as potentially hostile to Russian interests. It also would have been slightly more assertive in the Middle East… In the case of Obama, I think he just thought that he could do things, whether in Ukraine or in the Middle East and he could essentially– I don’t know any better way of saying it– get away with it.
I believe a lot of Haass’s positions, so reflective of Clinton’s, helped Donald Trump get the presidency.