When Barack Obama won the election in 2008, the cover of TIME magazine showed the president-elect grinning like Franklin Roosevelt, with FDR’s signature fedora, wire-rimmed glasses, and long-stemmed cigarette. The cover article, “The New, New Deal,” suggested how Mr. Obama could emulate the accomplishments of Mr. Roosevelt. The two leaders have been compared numerous times—occasionally by critics, usually by sycophants—but nearly always in reference to their domestic agendas.
The more significant comparison — and arguably the most troubling — involves the foreign policies of these two standard-bearers of Democratic liberalism. Although FDR’s war leadership was ultimately successful in defeating the Axis Powers, his pre-war priorities effectively blinded him to the existential threat of international fascism. His utopian impulses in foreign affairs nearly allowed a totalitarian nightmare to engulf the West.
In this, Mr. Obama is a student of FDR. As a consequence, he has left the United States in one of the most dangerous and destabilizing security environments in nearly half a century.
Promising a new spirit of U.S. diplomacy, Mr. Obama deployed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “reset” relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. By abandoning plans for a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic, the administration hoped to soften the imperialist ambitions of a demonstrably repressive autocrat.
Instead, Mr. Putin violated Ukrainian sovereignty by instigating a civil war and annexing the Crimean peninsula. Ignoring U.S. sanctions, Moscow continues to provide sophisticated arms to separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. There is no credible threat or any intent from the United States to block further Russian aggression.
In a March 27, 2014 speech to the European Union, Mr. Obama mentioned the importance of NATO to European security, but then seemingly made NATO irrelevant to the crisis. “Of course Ukraine is not a member of NATO, in part because of its close and complex history with Russia,” he said. “Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force.” By announcing in advance there would be no American military support, the president left Ukraine vulnerable to Russian designs.
In his approach to Moscow, Mr. Obama seems to be reading from FDR’s diplomatic playbook. In November of 1933, after less than a year in office, Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to formally recognize the Soviet Union. He did this over the objections of his own State Department, which warned him that the Russians would “not live up to the standards of civilized society.”
The hawks had the facts, and moral clarity, on their side. In 1929, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the collectivization of agriculture by forcing peasants off their land, ultimately executing those who resisted and causing mass starvation. Over the next five years, between 10 and 14 million Soviet citizens perished. Leszek Kolakowski, the Polish philosopher who rejected Marxism and inspired the influential Solidarity trade union, called this episode “probably the most massive warlike operation ever conducted by a state against its own citizens.”
Nevertheless, at that moment of unprecedented communist savagery, the American president extended an open hand. It would be met with an iron claw: a Russian bear emboldened in its plans for territorial conquests in Eastern Europe.
Now consider Syria and the administration’s infamous warning about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, which broke out in March 2011.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the president told reporters in August 2012. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” Secretary of State Kerry subsequently communicated to Damascus the extent of the U.S. military campaign, promising it would be “an unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”
No administration has ever described the threat of U.S. military power in such diminutive terms. No dictator could be dissuaded by it.
The Obama administration, of course, backed away from its “red line” threat, leaving it to Russia — Mr. Assad’s key ally — to negotiate a deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. In the end, the only thing that has changed is the method by which Bashar al-Assad continues to wage a genocidal war against his Sunni enemies.
The president’s mantra — “there is no military solution to this problem” — has effectively strengthened Mr. Assad’s position and prolonged the suffering of the Syrian people. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 300,000 Syrians have been killed since the outbreak of the civil war four years ago. An estimated 7.6 million are internally displaced, with a further 3 million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, creating a refugee crisis not seen since the end of the Second World War.
Mr. Obama’s reversal of his red line pledge is eerily reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “quarantine speech” in 1937. Following Japan’s aggression in Manchuria and Germany’s in the Rhineland. President Roosevelt asked other democratic states to join in a “quarantine” to protect the world against the spreading “epidemic of world lawlessness.” He issued this warning:
The peace, the freedom and the security of ninety percent of the population of the world is being jeopardized by the remaining 10 percent who are threatening a breakdown of all international order and law…It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of disease.
Isolationists in both parties called it war mongering, but FDR never explained what he meant, even when pressed by reporters. He quickly dropped the matter. A year later, Hitler annexed Austria and began the Nazi absorption of Czechoslovakia, setting the stage for his blitzkrieg in Europe.
Franklin Roosevelt, in fact, was perfectly in sync with America’s isolationist mood in the 1930s. As he put it in his 1936 campaign re-election speech: “We shun political commitments which might entangle us in foreign wars…We are not isolationists except in so far as we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war.” When Neville Chamberlain returned to London in 1938 waving a “peace agreement” with Hitler that violated the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia, FDR endorsed the doctrine of appeasement with a two-word telegram: “good man.”
Barack Obama, too, ran as the anti-war candidate in the 2008 election. He promised to draw down American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He vowed to confront international crises with diplomacy, not with American hard power. He would not, under any circumstances, send U.S. troops into another conflict in the Middle East.
President Obama has mostly kept these promises, but in doing so he has projected American weakness across the globe. He committed himself to a narrative of diplomatic triumphalism: a belief that a scaled-down U.S. military presence, combined with clever diplomacy, would ineluctably produce a more secure and peaceful world. Instead, his devotion to a narrative of negotiation has contributed to the debacles in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Perhaps most tellingly, Mr. Obama’s mental outlook has blind-sided him to the potency and savagery of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). What the president once dismissed as the “JV” (junior varsity) version of Al Qaeda has emerged as the most successful, genocidal jihadist organization in modern times. ISIS has seized strategic resources, cities, and thousands of square miles of territory in Syria and Iraq. Its methods include beheadings, crucifixions, rape, and mass murder.
If the recent downing of a Russian airliner — killing all 224 people on board — was indeed the work of ISIS, it marks the most lethal terrorist plot involving a commercial airliner since the 9/11 attacks. The stunning attacks in Paris on November 13th that killed over 120 people are yet another demonstration of the failure of Obama’s conceptual approach to this threat. Claiming responsibility, ISIS calls the assault “the first of the storm.”
If ISIS does not qualify as radical evil, as a threat to civilization itself, then nothing does. Yet, Mr. Obama has failed to fully confront this reality, particularly its religious roots. His military response — the creation of an anemic “coalition” of nations unwilling to put boots on the ground — is aimed only at containing this new malevolence.
Barack Obama’s entrenched posture of denial finds a pedigree in FDR’s political posturing in 1940: the year Hitler gained mastery over most of Europe, attacked Great Britain, and threatened the survival of Western Civilization. Despite these Nazi successes in Europe, despite Hitler’s stated ambitions to create a new global order, despite fascism’s genocidal aims — despite all this, Mr. Roosevelt assured the nation that the United States would remain “un-entangled and free.”
It was, of course, another presidential election year. FDR told a Boston audience on October 30th, 1940: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Likewise during a speech in Brooklyn on November 1st, he said: “I am fighting to keep our people out of foreign wars. And I will keep on fighting.” The day after, on November 2nd, he promised voters in Buffalo: “Your President says this country is not going to war.” And on November 3rd, in Cleveland, he stated: “The first purpose of our foreign policy is to keep our country out of war.”
All of this represented either dissembling or self-delusion. In his book, From Colony to Superpower, historian George Herring concludes that on vital issues of national security, Franklin Roosevelt “could seem maddeningly timid” and “not acting until events imposed decisions upon him.” Thus, throughout the 1930s, Western democracies, including the United States, appeared impotent and degenerate in the eyes of their enemies. It was, in the words of W.H. Auden, “a low, dishonest decade.”
Given the global ascendance of lawless aggression, terrorism, and barbarism on his watch — given the fearsome breakdown of social order and the mounting catalogue of human suffering — it is hard to see how Barack Obama will escape a similarly bitter judgment upon his own presidency.