President Barack Obama’s foreign policy reflects a curious dichotomy. On the one hand, it is idealistic about the motives of other governments, conveying a sense that everyone generally agrees on the overall goals, if not on how to get there. We are, after all, “fellow citizens of the world,” as he puts it. Hence, we should work through the UN, dialogue with anyone, de-fund and shelve missile defense, neuter the CIA and shutter the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
On the other hand, the president’s foreign policy sometimes reflects a kind of postmodern relativism about America’s place in the world and pessimism about what American power can achieve in the world. As Johns Hopkins scholar Foaud Ajami has pointed out, there is an “ambivalence at the heart of the Obama diplomacy about freedom.” 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.
Perhaps this strange dichotomy is to be expected, given that Obama has sought to be the opposite of his predecessor. George W. Bush was idealistic about America and about what American power could achieve but usually dubious regarding the designs of other nations (his comments about Vladimir Putin’s soul notwithstanding).
Sometimes to his credit, sometimes to his detriment, Bush saw the world in unequivocal terms. “Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong,” he said. “I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities.” So he consigned Baathist Iraq, jihadist Iran, Stalinist North Korea and “their terrorist allies” to an “axis of evil,” described “the advance of freedom” as “the calling of our country,” and reminded the American people that “after defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments.”
In a similar manner, Ronald Reagan saw America as a shining city on a hill and declared, “America is freedom.” He famously called the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” warned his Soviet counterparts he would “trust but verify,” and labeled the gangster regimes and terrorists of his day “the strangest collection of misfits, Looney Tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich.”
Likewise, Harry Truman believed American power was the linchpin of freedom and peace, as Niall Ferguson describes in Colossus: “The only way to ‘save the world from totalitarianism,’ Truman argued, was for ‘the whole world [to] adopt the American system.’”
Although some presidents have been idealistic about what American power can achieve and about how the world will respond—Woodrow Wilson comes to mind—few, if any, have been pessimistic about American power but idealistic about the rest of the world. Even Jimmy Carter abandoned that flawed worldview after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (before returning to it upon leaving the White House).
Yet eight-plus months into his presidency, Obama still seems to cling to a poli-sci professor’s caricature of American power as ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst in an otherwise-idyllic global village.
We have caught glimpses of this combustible combination in his promise of “a new beginning” with Iran, “direct talks” with North Korea and a Russian “reset.” The implication is that the burden is on America to correct its mistakes and atone for its sins. Never mind that Iran is arming elements in Iraq and Afghanistan that kill Americans, while birthing a nuclear-weapons program; or that North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear arsenal are destabilizing the Pacific; or that Russia has been waging a proxy war against the U.S. by invading Georgia, launching cyber-attacks against Estonia and pulling strings in Central Asia.
To be fair, Obama concedes that even in his post-Bush, postmodern world, “Some countries will break the rules.” But his solution is more poli-sci nonsense: “That’s why we need a structure in place that ensures when any nation does [break the rules], they will face consequences.”
Of course, when Iran, North Korea and other international outliers and scofflaws break the rules, they face no consequences from the structures that are already in place—namely, the UN, which Obama has praised for its “capability to keep the peace, resolve disputes, monitor disarmament and support good governance around the world.” At worst, they face warnings about consequences. But most of the time, it appears the Obama Doctrine will reward them with photo-ops and face-to-face talks.
“What have these proposals for dialogue produced for the international community?” asks the hard-nosed Nicolas Sarkozy of France. “Nothing but more enriched uranium and more centrifuges.”
But Obama won’t be confused or deterred by the facts. He believes that along with the UN and greater dialogue, new treaties will protect us, especially from nuclear war. With words lifted from a bygone era, he promises arms reduction treaties, test ban treaties and “a world without nuclear weapons.”
It’s a noble goal, to be sure. It’s also naïve. Obama fails to recognize, like so many others who genuflect at the altar of disarmament, that treaties are only as good as the parties that sign them; and that nuclear weapons are not the enemy. Nuclear-armed rogues and madmen are the enemy. In fact, it was nuclear weapons that deterred our enemies. As Churchill said in the first decade of the Cold War, “But for American nuclear superiority, Europe would already have been reduced to satellite status and the Iron Curtain would have reached the Atlantic and the Channel.”
Obama has a different reading of history. From his perspective, Europe is “peaceful, united and free” today not because of American vigilance and resolve, not because America put itself at risk for the security and freedom of Western Europe, not because America invested trillions of dollars and thousands of lives holding back the Iron Curtain, but “because ordinary people believed that divisions could be bridged, even when their leaders did not. They believed that walls could come down; that peace could prevail.” When the Berlin Wall crumbled, according to Obama, “history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.”
In reality, the Berlin Wall came down because the world did not stand as one. Half of the world—the half led by America—refused to be imprisoned by the other half and instead engaged in a “long, twilight struggle.”
That brings us to the other side of this dichotomy: Obama’s pessimism about what American power can achieve overseas.
There were early signs of this during his campaign. For instance, he argued that the surge of American forces into Iraq would not only fail but would worsen the situation. The very opposite was true.
Once in office, Obama has never missed an opportunity to point out America’s flaws. “My responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people,” he declared at the UN, “and I will never apologize for defending those interests.” But that hasn’t stopped him from apologizing for the way his predecessors defended those interests. Hence, he confesses that “America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy,” that the United States, the CIA, and the previous administration have all made mistakes, that 9⁄11 “led us to act contrary to our ideals.”
While in Cairo, Obama made a gratuitous statement of the obvious—before an Arab audience—that “Iraq was a war of choice.” Of course, he failed to add that owing to America’s geographic position and geopolitical power, arguably every American war, with the exception of World War II and the War of 1812, has been a war of choice.
In addition, his Cairo speech featured the promise of “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” but failed to remind his hosts that in the past 18 years America has defended Muslim Saudi Arabia, liberated Muslim Kuwait, rescued Muslim Kurdistan, fed Muslim Somalia, ended the bludgeoning of Muslim Bosnia, protected Muslim Kosovo, liberated Muslim Afghanistan and Muslim Iraq, and assisted Muslim Indonesia and Muslim Pakistan after natural disasters of biblical proportion.
Then there was Obama’s cold, calculating response to the twitter-charged stirrings of revolution in Iran. The sad irony of Obama’s realpolitik in Iran was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his supporters would never have imagined. “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during his rock-concert speech in Berlin. Now we know the answer.
To add insult to the irony, his administration—virtually mute as the mullahs bloodied Tehran to defend a farce election—publicly scolded Honduras after its courts, legislature and military followed constitutional procedures to remove a president attempting to import the Chavez model of piecemeal dictatorship.
Finally, the Obama administration has made a concerted effort to expunge the “war on terrorism” phraseology from official pronouncements, ordering the Executive branch to use the banal, bland and bureaucratic “overseas contingency operations” instead. Obama’s secretary of homeland security even went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.
As the Politico found in an analysis of Obama’s speeches from Inauguration Day to mid-August, “He has spoken the words ‘health’ and ‘economy’ each more often than the words ‘Iraq,’ ‘Iran,’ ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘terrorism’ combined.”
The reason? It could be to underscore that the president is focusing on domestic challenges, as Obama’s defenders claim. But it more likely is caused by his discomfort with what waging war means, as underscored by the dithering over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s urgent troop request.
War doesn’t fit into Obama’s postmodern world. In war, words and feelings don’t matter; actions and results matter. War forces us to take sides and draw distinctions. War deals in absolutes, not dreams or hopes. And one of those absolutes is that war leads to defeat or victory.
I ran a keyword search for “victory” on the White House website. There were mentions of victories by sports teams, political and legislative victories, a reference to victory during World War II and other historical victories, Camp Victory in Baghdad, and “a big victory” over the F-22 program. But there was nothing referring to victory in Iraq or Afghanistan, or victory over al Qaeda. The only thing that came close was Vice President Joe Biden’s reference to a time “when these wars are finished” and “we’re victorious.”
The V word’s absence from Obama’s lexicon is sad but unsurprising. “I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory,’” Obama—a self-described “student of history”—recently said of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. “It invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.”
Of course, Hirohito didn’t surrender to MacArthur. Nor did the world “stand as one” to free Germany’s eastern half. Nor did the walls of Soviet communism magically “come down” because people came together. Nor has the UN ever been able to “keep the peace.” Nor is there a need for “a new beginning” between the United States and the Muslim world. Nor did Bush’s hard line make the world’s rogues more defiant. Nor will Obama’s “grip and grin” foreign policy make them more compliant.
Let’s hope the commander-in-chief figures this out sooner rather than later.