Transitions: America at the Crossroads

Donald Trump’s success in securing the Republican nomination and the ensuing controversies generated by his campaign underscore the foreign policy challenges confronting the United States. Next January, the next president will face a series of critical problems and in dealing with them will transform America’s role in the world – or not.

Foreign relations have become considerably more complex and some issues, such as the Middle East, are almost intractable. Solutions proposed by Mr. Trump, such as banning Muslims from entering the United States, are not only ludicrous but are evidence of a simple and intellectually challenged mind.

Certainly, eight years of an Obama White House has clearly demonstrated the liabilities of an inexperienced president. Mr. Obama meant well and had wonderfully lofty ideals, but his administration has been a foreign policy failure. Today, Mr. Obama looks and sounds presidential, with considerable skill, but it is his last year. The President Obama of the past eight years was indecisive, hesitant, and showed a clear lack of international relations.

Mr. Obama believed that he was the “great reconciliator.” He thought that by reaching out to the Republicans he would forge a good working relationship. Stupidly, they refused to collaborate and wasted eight years fighting and blocking every initiative brought forth by the Obama White House. The price they are paying is the spectacle of Trump as the leader of the Republican Party. Their intransigence and hatred of Mr. Obama encouraged the extremists on the fringes to become the mainstream of the GOP.

Yet, on foreign policy, Mr. Obama was like a deer in headlights.

Under his watch, the EU’s financial and refugee crises are threatening to destroy the European experiment. The refugee crisis – perhaps the greatest humanitarian disaster in the twenty-first century – is unfolding and the absence of the United States is evident in finding a solution. Indeed, Mr. Obama is standing by helplessly as the EU deals with Turkey through a Munich type capitulation.

The Ankara regime has exploited the refugee crisis and terrorism for its own ends. Yet, the Obama Administration has almost remained silent. Turkey is, after all, a member of NATO, and thus obliged to maintain the security of the member organizations. Instead, it has directly and indirectly aided ISIS, as has Saudi Arabia.

The reaction of the Obama White House has been to have the president travel to Riyadh and kowtow to the Saudi monarchy. Remarkably, these are the states that have contributed to the expansion of the extreme Wahhabi Islam and the radicalization of thousands of Muslims around the world.

This process, conducted by the Saudi religious establishment, funded with billions from the Saudi royal family, has created the present day jihadist movement. Yet, Mr. Obama treats them like reliable and trustworthy allies, despite that some Saudi citizens have financially contributed to al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The Obama Administration misjudged the Arab Spring and attempted to promote democracy in Egypt only to see the Muslim Brotherhood get elected. After the Egyptian military intervention eliminated the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Obama was at a loss, at first condemning the coup, and subsequently has been supporting a much more repressive military regime than that of the deposed Hosni Mubarak.

During the course of the Syrian crisis, Mr. Obama failed to appreciate the context of the opposition to the Assad regime as well as how the nearby terrorist organizations exploited circumstances to insert themselves as freedom fighters. At first, the president refused to support a liberal, secular, and legitimate opposition. When Mr. Obama did decide to act, the US actually ended up training and arming terrorists under the guise of the Syrian opposition.

Perhaps, the Libyan crisis is the testament to the pitfalls and shortsightedness of the Obama White House with respect to foreign policy. On this occasion it was Hilary Clinton, the wife of an equally failed Democratic regime, who foisted the Libyan crisis on the list of Obama failures.

Most likely, Ms. Clinton was thinking of the 2016 campaign and needed a foreign policy success – until then she had accomplished little as Secretary of State since Mr. Obama’s timid policies provided little room for initiative. She took on Libya because it offered victory in war and peace, but it proved to be an illusion. Will she do better as president? Consider the Benghazi fiasco that led to the tragic deaths of an American Ambassador and his bodyguards. Ms. Clinton will continue to make mistakes but American liberals will feel better about it.

Yet, in contrast to Mr. Trump and Bernie Sanders, she stands head and shoulders above two potential fumbling presidents, which is a sad commentary on America’s political leadership. Indeed, George W. Bush did accomplish the dumbing down of America.

Mr. Trump is a reality TV host and will run the White House like reality TV. He has almost no skills and has certainly proven to be crass as well as downright mean. The Middle East will be beyond his ability to comprehend and he will talk a lot about it, threaten, but ultimately do very little. Like all bullies, he is a coward and will be too scared to use force.

Bernie Sanders is a typical armchair socialist. He will bring in greater political correctness to the White House and attempt to do so in foreign relations. Yet, Mr. Sanders will not even see the plight of women in the Middle East; thankfully he will not win the presidency.

America needs and deserves competent and inspiring leaders who will also lead the world. Tragically, it will not happen this round. It is a tribute to mediocrity that the best hope is Hilary Clinton, who, in contrast to Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, is a political midget.


André Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.