Obama’s Unexceptional Nation

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security.


America has had presidents who were realists and idealists and realistic, even cynical, about the world yet idealistic about America’s mission in the world, but Barack Obama is unique among this fraternity. For arguably the first time in 220 years, we have a president who is idealistic about the world but cynical about America’s role in it. Obama’s recent flurry of nuclear diplomacy and declarations is just the latest example.

First, his administration carried out a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that, among other things, pledges that the United States:

  • “will not conduct nuclear testing, and will seek ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,”
  • “will not develop new nuclear warheads,” and
  • “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.”

Obama’s NPR also removes the protection afforded by what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls “calculated ambiguity.” “If a non-nuclear-weapon state is in compliance with the nonproliferation treaty and its obligations,” Gates explains, “the U.S. pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against it.” Instead, such an enemy “would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response”—even if that enemy “were to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies or partners.”

“Calculated ambiguity” has kept America’s enemies on notice and off balance for decades—and, not coincidentally, kept America and American forces safe from nuclear, biological or chemical attack. Recall Secretary of State James Baker’s implied threat to his Iraqi counterpart regarding how the U.S. would respond to Iraq’s use of chemical or biological weapons. Or consider Eisenhower’s counsel:

“One of America’s great tacticians, Stonewall Jackson, said ‘Always surprise, mystify and mislead the enemy.’”

Ike had quite a surprise in store for North Korea’s patron and protector in China. As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote years after Ike’s presidency, “Eisenhower began by invoking the nuclear threat to end the fighting in Korea,” letting the Chinese know that, in Eisenhower’s own words, he “would not be constrained about crossing the Yalu or using nuclear weapons.”

Fifty-seven years later, we have a president eager to constrain American power—and willing to surrender the strategic deterrent advantage of ambiguity—in hopes that thugs, dictators and outlaws can be reasoned with.

And yet there appear to be no constraints on the bad guys. North Korea, for instance, tested a nuclear weapon and long-range missiles during Obama’s first year in office, just as it had during the Bush administration. Likewise, when evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear-fuel manufacturing plant came to light in September 2009, there was no punishment or sanction. French president Nicolas Sarkozy was so furious that he detailed for the UN Security Council everything the UN Security Council has allowed Iran to get away with:

“Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions…An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009…What did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing. More enriched uranium, more centrifuges.”

Finally, after signing a deal with Russia to cut America’s arsenal of nuclear warheads by 30 percent—thankfully in exchange for reciprocal cuts on Moscow’s part—Obama convened a summit in Washington “dedicated to nuclear security and the threat of nuclear terrorism,” in the words of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Obama’s goal is “to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years.”

That’s a worthwhile objective. Of course, two of the gravest nuclear threats we face—Iran and North Korea—were not at Obama’s nuclear summit. In fact, they weren’t invited. Given that both are known terrorist states, given that Iran is racing to build a nuke, and given that North Korea already has nukes, it seems likely that this shameless pair would be prime candidates for nuclear terrorism.

But perhaps it’s good that they weren’t at Obama’s conference. After all, international summits and conferences are only as dependable as the parties participating in them. Again, Ike’s words are instructive. Always dubious of what he called “the conference method” to foreign policy, he noted that

“We have had a lot of talks and some of them have produced very disappointing results…The pact of Munich was a more fell blow to humanity than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.”

It is doubtful that Obama—the product of a postmodern, relativistic era that views American power as something to constrain and America’s role in the world as something to apologize for—would agree with that.

In this regard, it pays to recall that Obama himself concedes, with a shrug, “I believe in American exceptionalism…just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, every nation is exceptional, which means no nation is exceptional.

Now, contrast that with Woodrow Wilson’s idealism and liberal internationalism. Sure, Wilson envisioned a gauzy, global federalism that made—and still makes—American nationalists uncomfortable. But Wilson’s idealism was couched in a strong belief in American exceptionalism. It was America’s duty, Wilson argued, to make the world “safe for democracy…to vindicate the principles of peace and justice.”

Our current president simply doesn’t believe that. As Johns Hopkins scholar Foaud Ajami has observed, there is an “ambivalence at the heart of the Obama diplomacy about freedom.”

And there is a sad relativism about America’s place and purpose in the world at the heart of this president’s foreign policy. It pays to recall that under the Obama administration, for the first time ever, the United States will conduct a human rights review of itself, hand it over to the UN Human Rights Council, and then “submit itself to a process in which America’s record might be judged by some of the world’s worst human rights abusers,” as Foreign Policy magazine reports.

In a similar vein, the United States is edging closer to the International Criminal Court. “That we are not a signatory,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said of the ICC, “is a great regret.” UN Ambassador Susan Rice has called the ICC “an important and credible instrument.”

By the way, among those currently under indictment and/or investigation by the ICC are warlords in Uganda, genocidal generals in Sudan, and, apparently, U.S. troops trying to rebuild Afghanistan: According to a Wall Street Journal report, the ICC is conducting a “preliminary examination into whether NATO troops, including American soldiers, fighting the Taliban may have to be put in the dock.”

That’s the inevitable destination of a foreign policy that is idealistic about the world but cynical about America’s role in it.

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.

  • bellez

    I truely believe we need to abolish the UN if it isn't too late. I can't believe either people still support Hillary Clinton.

  • http://www.myspace.com/komombo Hammer

    Obama was given a simple task by his Global Elitist masters- destroy the United States forever within 4 years. EVERYthing he has done, said, or proposed has been to further that goal. As the sheeple bleat and the tea partiers laud their patriotism while waving flags made in China, the beat goes on.

  • Kanwi

    What can you expect from someone who is not American born and who has allegiances to another toxic belief system.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/GaryRumain Gary Rumain

    There can be no doubt. O'Bummer is no end a fool.

  • Ze-ev ben Yehudah

    Just the other day there was a public demand that Mr Barack Hussein Obama
    shows his birth certificate wich will clearly prove that he was born in the U.S.A
    Personaly!! I hope his birth was elswhere and not in the U.S.A..
    The greatest danger at the moment of a free America is his president.

    • Jim C.

      You are an extremely silly person, but as someone who thinks Obama's doing a very fine job so far, I certainly do hope there is great hue and cry over Obama's citizenship.

      • Fiddler

        Very fine job?
        - Unemployment at near 10% after over a year in office (it was still under 6% when Bush left office)
        - TOTALLY ignoring jobs for his health care bill which he cajoled and bribed the Legislature to pass.
        - TOTALLY ignoring the historic Massachusettes election of a Republican and pushing for healthcare anyway
        - Is insensed when he is criticicized (heaven forbid!)
        - Add to that his Marxist upbringing and relationships
        - and a GUARDED history in which personal documents and transcripts are off limits!
        - We weren't allowed to view these documents with out penetrating a small army of lawyers (hmmmm) and Congress had to PASS a bill to find out what was in it.

        The apples don't fall far from the tree.

        It's time for a "House" cleaning (and Senate).

  • Paul P

    “One of America’s great tacticians, Stonewall Jackson, said ‘Always surprise, mystify and mislead the enemy.’”

    Barack Obama is following Jackson's advice to the letter. Unfortunately, only as it applies to the American people.

  • BS1977

    Work hard to get NEW conservative candidates elected in 2010 and 2012…in Governor's races, in the Senate and House. Stop the trillion dollar spending binge of the Nanny state Liberals….and get the USA back on track!! Couch potatoes will not be effective…gotta get up and get out the VOTE!!!!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Stephen_Brady Stephen_Brady

      Exactly. I shudder to think what the future may be, if we don't rid our nation of these people …

      … but I am prepared …

  • Bnix

    Nothing this man does or says in relation to making a mockery of this nation is a surprise.

    • Jim C.

      I suppose if you view everything as "America vs. The World" that would make sense.

      However, if you actually value America's prestige and standing in the world and understand why that is important in terms of business and diplomacy, you'd come to a different conclusion: that Obama is restoring our standing internationally and conducting a mature foreign policy which projects strength but not arrogance. Sure, you're entitled to an emotion-based opinion, but facts matter.

      • Fiddler

        The "world" displays an erosion of human liberty. Obama hates individualism and liberty. He has a god-complex where he as an elitist has to make decisions for the masses. His world view has no place for individualism. His methods will erode the economy because he is systematically destroying incentive. Doctors are leaving practices, and the "evil rich" will do what anyone does to protect what is theirs: pull up stakes and move on. Obama naively things that people will stupidly continue to behave as they have while slavishly paying more out of "duty" to the government. OR, he is hoping they give up as discouraged and just tacitly accept in inevitable, "you can't fight city hall". That is what he really hopes.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/ExLefty ExLefty

        What are the facts supporting your opinion that "Obama is restoring our standing internationally . . . and conducting a mature foreign policy which projects strength but not arrogance."? Can you site instances of alleged strength aside from his administration’s bullying attempts to force Israel to submit to yet another suicidal "peace" process?

        Did you observe any strength in this administration's supposed efforts to dissuade the fascist leadership of Iran from its efforts to develop nuclear weapons? And what's all the bowing about? Why should any leader of any country bow to any other leader of a nation, whether a legitimate leader or dictatorial thug?

        As for your “arrogance” remark –allow me a wild guess – aimed at George W. Bush and his administration: perhaps you unemotionally label taking military action against the Baathist dictatorship in Iraq to protect the lives of U. S. citizens (not to mention billions of citizens of other nations) as arrogance. It’s easy to do once one ignores the months of non-stop U.S. diplomatic work to convince some supposed U.S. allies and the U.N. to show some backbone by making a serious effort to Enforce their own pile of “Resolutions”, kiss off the kickbacks from the corrupt “Oil For Food” program and forego additional weapons sales to Iraq.

        BTW, for your own amusement do some serious online searching on the expression “the world’s sole remaining Super Power” (and near variations thereon) during the Clinton-Gore terms versus the Bush-Cheney terms. The C-G crowd make the B-C crowd look like wimps. Talk is cheap. In foreign affairs, however, hollow talk, silence in the face of oppressed peoples’ plights, inaction and, worse, hamstringing this nation’s perceived ability to project strength (Obama’s apparent policy) will exacerbate dangers in this very dangerous world.

  • ajnn

    The International Criminal Court ? This is really bad.

    American soldiers will be indicted under manufactured evidence and judged by people who hate the United States.

    • JS

      Why should American troops be under the command of the UN? Why should an INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT have the right to try our troops? It is a sure bet those American troops would be found guilty of every atrociety known to mankind!
      We had never before let our forces be under the command of any but our OWN Commanders, until we put them under the UN Commanders! And as we all know, the members of the UN HATE AMERICA!
      We should first withdraw from this useless organization, get everyone of our troops out of UN units and bring them home, then…kick the UN OFF AMERICAN SOIL!
      Does it make sense to continue to let these nations use OUR land, OUR building, let America pay the major part of that building’s upkeep and utilities, and have those nations’ representatives sit there and APPLAUD while monsters such as AHMADINEJAD and HUGO CHAVEZ spew their hate-filled rhetoric against the USA?? NO!
      So the sane thing to do is get rid of that cancer NOW, before it grows any larger!

  • T IN TEXAS

    Either Obama is incompetant or deliberately trying to destroy the US. Since he is destroying us so fast and on all fronts, I believe it is deliberate. There is no evidence from his past that he felt like he belonged to any group, certainly not to (supposedly ) his own country. He is probably laughing himself silly at how gullible so many people are that support him – people who call themselves Americans support him, and he doesn't love nor even like or understand the country.

  • Jim C.

    Most of those companies are paying back, or have paid back those loans.

    American car companies have had a banner year.

    Jobs are coming back (yes, even after only "a year in office" (LOL).

    Health care reform is coming. You'll claim costs are going to go up–they already were; that's why we desperately needed reform. Granted, this is weak reform, but we'll get real health care reform some day.

    Foreign policy wise Obama has completely stumped you. He has not run out of Iraq and Afghanistan but he has not committed troops indefinitely to these two massive efforts which are not related to our national security. And he is busy restoring America's prestige, which will help us do more business.

    I'm loving it!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Stephen_Brady Stephen_Brady

      "Real health care reform …"

      Of course, you mean the US National Health Service, right?

      If you believe the things you've said in your post, I suggest you're living on a different planet than the rest of us, or that you're a rich liberal (and therefore think that everything is rosy).

      • Jim C.

        And I suggest that anyone who thinks Obama is the biggest danger to America right now is insane.

        The good news, Stephen, is that in a few years we'll be able to look at our country and say "Are we better off than we were four years ago?" And we'll be able to look at actual metrics and answer that question.

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/Stephen_Brady Stephen_Brady

          So, anyone who opposes Obama's policies is mentally deficient, in some way? Is that what you're saying?

          As to the second paragraph in your post, I remember saying much the same thing in January of 1969, concerning another president. Jim, we're not better off 1.5 years into Obama's term. What makes you think we'll be better off in 2013.

          By the way, I never use the metric system, except on the rifle range …

  • jws

    New Prez and Congess in 2 -4 years! Sorry, It will be to little to late by then. This is all prophetic. so say your prayers. That is the only way really.

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  • BS1977

    why not post this post now?