What happens when you don’t care anymore

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Do you remember the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where Bob Ewell spits in Atticus Finch’s face? People generally admire Finch because he does not start a fight with Ewell. (To read about this confrontation, which occurs shortly after Tom Robinson’s trial, click here.) Finch is courageous and restrained, but he does recognize Bob Ewell as an enemy. When Ewell threatens to exact revenge on Atticus, you do not feel it’s a bluff.

It’s not clear whether the Obama administration recognizes Iran as an enemy, or even if it has skills or motivation to distinguish friends from enemies. That’s the troubling thing about U.S. policy toward Iran, as well as other countries involved in the current world war. It seems feckless and pusillanimous. We don’t seem to know what we want. The only goal appears to be, avoid more trouble.

Iran is a good case for analysis, as it plays such an outsize role in the large region that suffers from so many conflicts. Conventional reasoning is that if Iran is an enemy, we have to fight. To avoid a fight, we have to pretend Iran and its leaders are not enemies, or make friends with them. Since we concluded the so-called Iran deal on nuclear weapons, we seem to pretend Iran has come around, that we can have better relations with Tehran now. At least we won’t go to war, seems to be the spirit.

International relations, however, don’t exist on a binary plane. Enemies do not have to fight. Moreover, you do not have to become friends to avoid a fight. Without a doubt, the U.S. and Iran have conflicting interests. They cannot be friends while these serious conflicts exist. Yet the Obama-Kerry plan seems to take pretense as a serious principle of foreign policy. Khameini spits in our face regularly, and we act as if we’re still chummy. We have the deal, man. Let’s not undermine it.

I feel so sorry for John Kerry, who has not done one thing to be proud of since he took on leadership of the State Department in 2013. What will he tell his grandchildren? “I went around the world for the president, committing one amazing act of misguided, abject foreign policy after another. Nothing I did amounted to anything, except ridicule and failure. I wasn’t able to make anything better.” Kerry had such a distinguished record of public service before he took this job.

As we enter the last several months of the Obama-Kerry collaboration, I wonder if they recognize how poorly they have acquitted themselves. I do not say that as a partisan snipe. Republicans want to blame everything on the Democrats. They appear to think they handed Obama a great world situation in 2009, and Obama let it all go to hell. That is not the case. Republican stewardship of foreign affairs was worse. In the blunder they made when they started a war with Iraq, it was far worse.

Altogether, Obama has had foreign policy challenges in both of his terms that call for extraordinary skill, yet he does not seem to consider these issues important at all. He summarizes his policy as “Don’t do stupid stuff.” He refers to ISIS as the JV squad shortly before they take Mosul in 2014, a city the JV team still holds. He watches flat-footed as Putin takes Crimea, a move Putin made in part because Obama badly mishandled relations with Ukraine in the context of eastern Europe and Russian interests.

For one of his last mistakes, Obama relaunches U.S. participation in Libya’s civil war. Drone attacks continue everywhere, though the only rationale for them after fifteen years is still: “We have to get the terrorists over there, so they don’t come here.” Yes, we want to get their leaders, too, so they can’t fight anymore. He readily uses America’s ability to deliver ordnance from the air, but has no strategy to govern our military activities. He has no strategy, because he has no foreign policy goals he cares about. Do you remember anything he has had to say about American leadership overseas?

For someone whose foreign policy credo is “Don’t do stupid stuff,” Obama has a fair amount of stupid stuff to explain. You have the feeling, though, that he thinks he’s doing just fine. He has not involved us in any wars we can’t win. That’s his standard of success. He wants to avoid his predecessor’s mistakes, but he has no strategy of his own. He does not appear to care whether the United States is a leader in the world. He has focused his political energy on how to increase government’s power within America’s own borders.

For Iran, do not wait eagerly for Washington to adjust its policy in response to Tehran’s invective. Do not wonder what we’ll do to counter Tehran’s efforts to support its many clients in the Middle Eastern wars. When you have so many conflicts going on, the foreign policy amateurs in Washington seem to think, what’s the use anyway? Let them burn out. We can’t do anything about them. That’s not the policy of a healthy state, no matter how powerful that state might be. It’s what you expect from a state, and an administration, that is worn out. We have become weaker, and we don’t really care who knows it.

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