Nero “fiddled,” so they say, while Rome burned. Today, this epigram all too accurately describes President Obama’s approach to U.S. national security. For five years, he has resolutely consigned foreign and defense issues to the bottom of his policy agenda, resulting in increasing disarray both domestically and abroad. The United States needs strategic thinking internationally, and we are getting the opposite.
Mr. Obama’s personal Rome, the Affordable Care Act, is indeed self-immolating, and he responds by giving speeches (his version of playing Nero’s cithara) rather than taking command to save his eponymous program before the administration itself is consumed. Domestic troubles, however, in no way justify indifference to foreign affairs. If anything, political weakness at home only exposes a president to greater risks internationally, as adversaries take advantage of U.S. inattention, indecision and unpreparedness.
So detached is the Obama administration, however, that even those charged with national security are doing their own fiddling. Consider several media headlines from just last week. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has spent inordinate amounts of time in and around Israel banging away on the “Middle East peace process.” His headline from The Washington Post: “Israel-Palestinian peace deal still possible by spring, Kerry says.” The heavens responded by dropping two feet of snow on Jerusalem.
Mr. Kerry is following the widely held but erroneous view that resolving the Israel-Palestinian issue is the panacea for Middle Eastern peace and security. Under this view, creating a Palestinian state, almost regardless what kind of state it is, will materially assist in resolving the region’s many other seemingly intractable problems. Empirically, this view has little to recommend it, and years of bloody evidence to refute it. Nonetheless, Mr. Kerry (and, one assumes, his president) are uninterested in debating establishment theology. They are too busy lighting candles at its altar.
Spiraling crises elsewhere, however, are exposing another basic reality; namely, that diplomacy is not cost-free. Like all human activities, negotiations have costs as well as benefits. For a secretary of state, his top advisers and an administration as a whole, one of the most significant expenditures is what economists call the “opportunity cost” of focusing on one issue rather than another. Senior decision-makers must always allocate resources among competing priorities. Particularly in turbulent periods, they should allocate precious time, attention and resources to those issues most dramatically affecting American national security, not frittering them away on peripheral matters.
Inexplicably, fiddling is precisely what the Obama administration is doing. The vaunted Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is already collapsing. The president himself at the United Nations in September designated this issue, along with the Israel-Palestinian dispute, as his top international priorities. While Mr. Kerry waited for Ben Gurion Airport’s runways to be cleared of snow last week, the Associated Press headlined, “As ties warm, EU parliament delegation visits Iran,” and the Financial Times blared, “Iran thaw cheers French carmakers.” These news headlines are the visible manifestation of Iran’s massive psychological breakthrough in the Geneva talks, extending beyond the specifics regarding its nuclear program or the increasingly porous sanctions regimes. Iran has flipped international expectations to its advantage, while Mr. Kerry has worried about Israeli construction of apartment buildings near Jerusalem.
In Eastern Europe, The New York Times wrote, “Signs of Momentum Shifting to Protesters in Ukraine” — not that the Obama administration has done anything to affect the ongoing struggle and its implications for this large, strategic country. Make no mistake, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to re-establish Moscow’s hegemony over the space of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine today is the very paradigm flash point where armed intervention and conflict are not inconceivable. Mr. Putin will not watch quietly as Ukraine slips out of Moscow’s orbit to join the West, but Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry seem completely inattentive.
Writing on East Asia, the Times headlined that “American and Chinese Navy Ships Nearly Collided in South China Sea,” while The Washington Post wrote, “China-Japan rift silently grows” in the East China Sea. Rarely in world history does a shift in the balance of power occur quickly and visibly. That may well be happening in Asia, though, as America’s defense capabilities, particularly its once-dominant Navy, wane and Beijing takes advantage of the vacuum thus created. Traditional American allies in the region like Japan and South Korea are appalled, and China is emboldened.
Unfortunately, this is but a partial list of disturbing headlines from recent days: Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea and others could be added. Ultimately, perhaps nothing can pry Mr. Obama away from his domestic obsessions. Nonetheless, other American political leaders have a larger duty to alert their fellow citizens to international threats and to propose solutions before the threats become insoluble. Neither political party is meeting this responsibility, yet time is growing ever shorter. Ask Nero how it turns out.
John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.