Serious people feel an obligation to listen whenever Barack Obama speaks. They furrow their brow and hold their chin and parse every word. They assume that most everything a president says is significant, which is true. They assume that what’s significant must also be well-informed. Not necessarily.
I’ve been thinking about this as it becomes clear that, even at an elementary level, Mr. Obama often doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It isn’t so much his analysis of global events that’s wrong, though it is. The deeper problem is the foundation of knowledge on which that analysis is built.
Here, for instance, is Mr. Obama answering a question posed in August by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who wanted the president’s thoughts on the new global disorder.
“You can’t generalize across the globe,” the president replied. “Because there are a bunch of places where good news keeps on coming. Asia continues to grow . . . and not only is it growing but you’re starting to see democracies in places like Indonesia solidifying.”
“The trend lines in Latin America are good,” he added. “Overall, there’s still cause for optimism.”
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Here, now, is reality: In Japan, the economy is contracting. China’s real-estate market is a bubble waiting to burst. Indonesia’s democracy may be solidifying, but so is Islamism and the persecution of religious minorities. Democracy has been overthrown in Thailand. The march toward freedom in Burma—supposedly one of Mr. Obama’s (and Hillary Clinton’s ) signature diplomatic victories—has stalled. India may do better than before under its new prime minister, Narendra Modi, but gone are the days when serious people think of India as a future superpower. The government of Pakistan is, as ever, on the verge of collapse.
As for Latin America, Argentina just defaulted for the second time in 13 years. Brazil is in recession. Venezuela is a brutal dictatorship. Ecuador is well on its way to becoming one.
I begin with these examples not because there aren’t bright spots in Asia (South Korea is one) or Latin America (Colombia is another) but because it’s so typically Obama. Warn against generalization—and then generalize. Cite an example—but one that isn’t representative. Talk about a trend line—but get the direction of the trend wrong.
Next example: Turkey. In 2009 Mr. Obama decided to elevate Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as his core partner in the Middle East. “On issue after issue we share common goals,” he told the Turkish parliament in April 2009. In 2012 he said that he and Mr. Erdogan had developed “bonds of trust.”
Yet in 2009 it was already clear that Mr. Erdogan was orchestrating huge show trials against his political opponents based on outlandish charges. By 2010 it was clear that he was an avowed supporter of Hamas, not to mention a vocal anti-Semite. In 2012 the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that Turkey had more journalists in prison than China and Iran put together.
Now turn to Yemen. In 2012, after the Arab Spring, the president singled out Yemen as a model for a prospective political transition in Syria. Mr. Obama was at it again just two weeks ago, citing the fight against al Qaeda in Yemen as the model for the war he intends to wage against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Whoops. “Over the weekend,” noted McClatchy’s Adam Baron on Monday, “the growing gap between administration rhetoric and reality came to a head, as the acerbically anti-American Houthi rebels—who American diplomats allege have close financial and military ties with Iran—took control of many areas of the capital, Sanaa, with minimal resistance from the U.S.-supplied Yemeni armed forces.”
Keep going around the world. He declared victory over al Qaeda and dismissed groups such as ISIS as “the jayvee team” at the very moment that al Qaeda was roaring back. He mocked the notion of Russia being our enemy—remember the line about the 1980s wanting “its foreign policy back”?—just as Russia was again becoming our enemy.
He predicted in 2012 that “Assad’s days are numbered” just as the Syrian dictator was turning the tide of war in his favor. He defended last November’s nuclear deal with Tehran, saying “it’s not going to be hard for us to turn the dials back or strengthen sanctions even further” in the event that diplomacy failed. In reality, as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies notes, “burgeoning trade ties with Turkey, increased oil sales to China, and reports of multibillion-dollar Russian-Iranian trade deals, not yet consummated but in the offing, are giving [Iran] a ‘Plan B’ escape hatch.”
Every administration tries to spin events its way; every president gets things wrong. Mr. Obama is not exceptional in those respects. Where he stands apart is in his combination of ideological rigidity and fathomless ignorance. What does the president know? The simple answer, and maybe the truest, is: not a lot.