Bret Stephens writes The Meltdown in the September Commentary.
None of these fiascos— for brevity’s sake, I’m deliberately setting to one side the illusory pivot to Asia, the misbegotten Russian Reset, the mishandled Palestinian–Israeli talks, the stillborn Geneva conferences on Syria, the catastrophic interim agreement with Iran, the de facto death of the U.S. free-trade agenda, the overhyped opening to Burma, the orphaned victory in Libya, the poisoned relationship with Egypt, and the disastrous cuts to the Defense budget—can be explained away as a matter of tough geopolitical luck. Where, then, does the source of failure lie?
For those disposed to be ideologically sympathetic to the administration, it comes down to the personality of the president. He is, they say, too distant, not enough of a schmoozer, doesn’t forge the close personal relationships of the kind that Bush had with Tony Blair, or Clinton with Helmut Kohl, or Reagan with Margaret Thatcher. Also, he’s too professorial, too rational, too prudent: He thinks that foreign-policy success is a matter of hitting “singles and doubles,” as he put it on a recent visit to Asia, when what Americans want is for the president to hit home runs (or at least point toward the lights).
Alternatively, perhaps he’s too political: “The president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics,” recalled Vali Nasr, the academic who served as a State Department aide early in Obama’s first term. “Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play out on the nightly news.”