President Obama and his foreign policy team are perpetually surprised by the world. The rise of ISIS, the fall of Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood leader who succeeded him, the chaos in Libya, Putin’s aggression, Netanyahu’s reelection — all of these key developments (and others) wrong-footed the president and his advisers. You might almost think they don’t understand the world at all.
Brexit is the latest manifestation of Team Obama’s cluelessness. Once again, the president has been caught by surprise. Surely, that is why, as Walter Russell Mead recounts, Obama, though strongly favoring the “remain” cause, did nothing to advance it until at the last minute he “parachuted in, made a speech, and expected his charisma and wisdom to work miracles.”
What could Obama have done that might have prevented the Brexit? Mead says he could have helped persuade the EU to offer better terms to Britain. Doing so would have enabled David Cameron to make a more persuasive case in favor of “remain” and at the same time strengthened the EU itself.
This, in Mead’s view, “is exactly where skillful, patient, low-profile but engaged and informed U.S. diplomacy could have made a difference.” Instead, “Washington sat on the sidelines until Cameron was campaigning on a weak offer.”
Now that Brexit is a reality, the U.S. has finally engaged. John Kerry has undertaken shuttle diplomacy in the hope of persuading both sides to make the divorce as smooth as possible. In Kerry’s less than articulate words:
It is absolutely essential that we stay focused on how, in this transitional period, nobody looses their head, nobody goes off half-cocked, people don’t start ginning up scatterbrained or revengeful premises.
It’s good that the Obama administration is using its influence in this way. But given Obama’s strong opposition to Brexit, his team should have engaged in the diplomacy that might have prevented the divorce.
[R]arely has a presidency seen so many things go so badly for the U.S. in foreign policy. Obama’s track record is not looking good: at the end of his watch, the Middle East, Europe, and East Asia are all in worse shape than when he entered office, relations with Russia and China are both worse, there are more refugees, more terrorists and more dangerous terrorist organizations.
Obama’s fiercest critics say that much of Obama’s foreign policy wreckage is the intended result of his policy. They are right, I think, to some degree.
But Obama didn’t want Brexit. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that he wanted a failed state in Libya, an ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and a Ukraine compromised by Russian aggression.
Obama’s foreign policy failures cannot be understood without reference to his incompetence and inability to understand the world as it is.