Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Last Saturday, US President Barack Obama played golf while his foreign policy, and that of the nation he leads, was going up in smoke. Literally.
On the same day the State Department ordered the eva–cuation of the US Embassy in Libya. Only three years ago, Obama helped North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies overthrow Muammar Gaddafi as part of his “lead from behind” doctrine, but he has done little to help the resulting democratic government secure its authority.
Not only did the US not support sending international peacekeepers, it didn’t mount a serious program to train a new Libyan army. The predictable result has been utter chaos. In September 2012, US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi. In recent days, much of Tripoli’s main airport has been destroyed in militia fighting. The embassy staff had to be evacuated overland as thick black smoke from the fighting hung over the Tripoli skyline.
In any other circumstances—and especially if the chief executive were a Republican—this would have been a scandal blared across the media. But at a time when we are witnessing the near-total collapse of American foreign policy, it barely registers.
It is hard, after all, for events in Libya to compete with the far greater catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin first annexed Crimea and now appears intent on detaching the eastern part of the country. When Ukraine mounted a sustained offensive against Russian-backed separatist militias, Putin upped the ante, providing his proxies with heavy weapons ranging from artillery and tanks to antiaircraft missiles.
The fact that a rebel-controlled SA-11 missile launcher shot down a Malaysia Airlines flight with 298 people on board has not dissuaded Putin from increasing his support to the rebels, many of them Russian citizens or Russian operatives. Last week, Russia has been accused of firing artillery and missiles from its own territory into Ukraine, something normally described as an act of war.
Why should Putin stop? Obama’s sanctions, although getting tougher, still haven’t been tough enough (for example, he hasn’t barred all Russian firms from the US financial system), nor has he provided aid beyond a few meals to the embattled Ukrainian troops. For all his vaunted powers of persuasion, he has been unable to persuade Europe to go even that far. Although Europe is now tightening sanctions, France is still delivering at least one of two amphibious assault ships that will enhance Moscow’s military capacity.
The disasters only worsen in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? In shambles. Israel is at war with Hamas, and all the administration can think to do is to pressure Israel to stop fighting and to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip while Hamas’ tunnels and rockets remain intact.
Next door in Syria, more than 150,000 people have been killed since Obama declared on August 18, 2011: “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Yet, instead of bombing Assad when he crossed the US “red line” by using chemical weapons, Obama made a deal with him for the removal of most of Syria’s chemical weapons. But the facilities used to make such weapons are intact, and Assad has again used chlorine gas.
Assad’s scorched-earth cam–paign against Sunni Muslims, abetted by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force, remains as vicious as ever. Already far more people have died in Syria’s civil war than have died in all of the Arab-Israeli wars of the past half-century, and there is no end in sight.
Only now is Obama asking Congress for $500 million to give more help to the moderate Free Syrian Army. But it’s too little: The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon plans only “to train a 2,300-man force—less than the size of a single brigade—over an 18-month period,” and not until next year.
Obama’s neglect of the Free Syrian Army has allowed the more radical opponents of Assad — the Nusra Front and the Islamic State — to grow stronger. The Islamic State, previously known as ISIS, has proclaimed a caliphate from eastern Syria to western and northern Iraq. Where US troops once won signal victories, its black-clad fighters reign. The head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, warns that “soon we will be in direct confrontation” with America.
The Iraqi army has been helpless to stop the march of the Islamic State without US advisors, withdrawn because of Obama’s inability or unwilling–ness to reach a status of forces agreement with Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has unleashed his inner sectarian to pursue a vendetta against Sunnis, who have responded by drawing closer to the Islamic State. This, in turn, has led al-Maliki to lean ever more heavily on Shiite militias directed by the Iranian Quds Force. The territory of both Syria and Iraq is being divided between Islamist extremists—some Shiite, others Sunni, but all committed to the destruction of the “Great Satan.”
Yet instead of contesting Iran’s power grab, Obama appears intent on accommodating it. First he granted Iran $4.2 billion worth of sanctions relief and allowed the country to keep enriching uranium in return for its willingness to hold nuclear talks. Now Obama has granted Iran another four months for talks and another $2.8 billion in sanctions relief.
Obama’s foreign policy has not been a universal failure, but it is hard to point to many successes. Afghanistan, oddly, might be one of the few bright spots, yet Obama is threatening to plunge it too into the abyss with his promise to pull out all US troops by 2017.
The US has seen foreign policy failure before—for instance, during the Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush years—but previous pre–sidents eventually confronted the costs of their misguided policies and changed course: Carter initiated a defense buildup after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; Bush initiated the “surge” after the early disasters in Iraq.
It is time for Obama to read the smoke signals and launch a similar course correction. The world can’t wait for 2017 to see a more robust Ameri- can approach.
Max Boot is a contributing writer to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.