The High Cost of Social Distance

Walter Russell Mead recently argued that the Obama administration made five big miscalculations about the Middle East. It misread the political maturity of Islamist politicians. It misread the political situation in Egypt. It misread the impact of its strategy both on Israel and Saudi Arabia. It failed to grasp the new dynamics of terrorist movements. And it underestimated the costs of doing nothing in Syria. (Wall Street Journal, August 24-25, 2013).

To this list of five items I would add a sixth. In an era in which “foreign policy leadership” is almost an oxymoron, Obama misread the importance of cultivating allies. He misread the importance of cultivating allies not only abroad but at home. As a result, now, when he and his foreign policy team have finally decided they want to intervene in Syria – likely a limited strike – they stand alone. Conspicuously few abroad and conspicuously few at home are willing to stand in support of the administration.

In my last blog on this subject – “Leadership and Followership in Foreign Affairs” – I wrote the American foreign policy establishment does not get the necessity of deviating from previous conceptions of leadership in foreign affairs. “Leadership at the international level has little to do now either with power or authority. To the degree it can be exercised at all it is about influence – a different sort of skill set altogether.” (August 16th.) Even since then it became blindingly clear just how miserably the White House has failed this particular test. It has failed to understand that in order to accomplishing anything at all in the Middle East, without having to pay dearly politically, the U. S. must have the support of most if not all of these four constituencies: 1) its putative allies in the Middle East; 2) its putative allies elsewhere in the world; 3) the American Congress; and 4) the American people.

Ironically, Obama has replicated at the international level his failure at the national level. For all his intelligence and intermittent charm, he has failed to capture hearts and minds. He has failed to exercise influence. Or, more precisely, he has failed even to try to exercise influence, which with regard to Syria, he would have had to do years ago, when it became readily apparent it was a powder keg.

• In a region roiled in turmoil, the United States has few if any reliable allies (other than Israel), and none in open support of a military strike in Syria.
• In a world in which America’s allies are dwindling both in number and resolve, none of the usual suspects stands behind the American president. This week even British Prime Minister David Cameron was reduced by the House of Commons to saying that on the issue of a Syrian strike, he could do nothing to his great friend, Barack Obama.
• Members of Congress have lived up to their reputations. Most are critical of the American president and against his doing anything in Syria without congressional approval. But, at the same time, they show no signs of returning to Washington before their vacations are over to bestow on Obama their blessing or, for that matter, to withhold it.
• By an overwhelming majority – 80 percent – the American people do not want Barack Obama to lift a finger in Syria without Congressional approval.

What Obama will ultimately do in consequence of this mortifying lack of support for what he now wants and intends, is at this moment an open question. What is settled is his disinterest in making friends and influencing people – a trait that has cost him dearly.

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