With an election year fast approaching, the president delivered a speech that’s been overlooked by too many Americans and overshadowed by too many events. At a time when the burdens on America seem to be growing heavier by the day, it’s a speech all Americans should read and a message, one would think, all Americans could rally around.
“This is a very dangerous and uncertain world,” the president began. “We should realize what a burden and responsibility the people of the United States have borne for so many years…We put ourselves, by our own will and by necessity, into defensive alliances with countries all around the globe”—alliances that “would collapse overnight” were it not for American leadership. “Without the United States, there would be no NATO. And gradually Europe would drift into neutralism and indifference,” he added, almost as if to warn the isolationists on his right and utopians on his left of what their policies could spawn.
Conceding that Americans “would like to live as we once lived…uninterested in the struggles of the world,” he concluded that “history will not permit it.” Whether or not we seek a special role in the world, “We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom.”
It’s worth noting that the president who delivered this powerful message was not Barack Obama, but rather John F. Kennedy. At once inspiring and yet deflating, the words come from his last speech on foreign policy.
They inspire because they are just as true today as they were in 1963. They capture the essence of how Americans have thought of their role in the world, especially since World War II—a bipartisan, unifying consensus embracing American exceptionalism. Far more than patriotic pride, this exceptionalism has been proven by history itself. Across the decades and around the world, Americans really have been the keystone—and often the cornerstone, bricks and mortar as well—in the archway of freedom. Just glance at the cemeteries of yesterday’s wars, crowded with America’s fallen, or at the contours of today’s international system, a system that favors freedom, a system shaped by American ideas and buttressed by American power.
But almost 50 years later, the words are also deflating—not because history won’t permit us to return to some simpler time, but because the man who sits behind the same desk JFK once occupied doesn’t seem to share JFK’s view on America’s place and purpose in the world. Not even the takedown of Osama bin Laden—an achievement worthy of all the praise and plaudits the president received—changed this narrative. To be sure, the elimination of bin Laden was a victory for the president. But it’s separate and distinct from the president’s reticence about supporting freedom movements around the world.
We have seen glimpses of this trait from the beginning of the Obama presidency. In response to Iran’s Twitter Revolution in 2009, Obama sat silent. No one was calling on him to send in the 82nd Airborne to support the Iranian protestors. But freedom-loving people—and their enemies—look to America for signals. And Obama’s signals were loud and clear in the summer of 2009. The sad irony of Obama’s non-response to the stirrings of revolution 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. The Iranian people know the answer.
Obama pulled the rug out from under Poland and the Czech Republic in order to get an arms control treaty of questionable merit with Russia. He ditched the Dalai Lama in order to save a photo-op summit in Beijing; traveled to Egypt and Turkey, in a kind of grand genuflection, in order to convince the Muslim world that America cares, as if rescuing Muslims in Kuwait and Kurdistan, Somalia and Sumatra, Kosovo and Kandahar, didn’t do that; and has refused to use the bully pulpit to promote freedom, apparently in order to prove he is the anti-Bush.
But in doing so, he forgot that his predecessor was not the first president to make the spread of freedom an objective of American foreign policy.
“It must be the policy of the United States,” President Harry Truman declared as world war gave way to cold war, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” As Kennedy famously added, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Finally, the administration was slow to support the anti-authoritarian revolution in Egypt, where at least there was realpolitik excuse, and has been inexplicably anemic in Syria, where there’s no excuse. Indeed, from Iran and China in 2009 to Egypt, Syria and Libya in 2011, Obama has embraced a kind of agnosticism when it comes to supporting freedom movements. “When,” as Elliot Abrams wryly observed, “the Arab League is ahead of you in denouncing human rights violations, you are reacting a bit slowly.”
Indeed, as Obama hemmed and hawed, France called for Western intervention to rescue Benghazi, intervened to protect civilians, recognized Libya’s post-Gaddafi government, armed the rebels and volunteered to lead NATO’s risky intervention. By the time Obama finally caught up with the French, the EU and the Arab League, Libya’s rebels were jarringly chanting, “Bring Bush! Bomb the planes!” Many media outlets, shocked by the inchoate repudiation of Obama, editorialized that the rebels were referring to the elder Bush’s no-fly zone over Iraq, which was put in place in 1991. But it seems unlikely that young Libyans would hearken back to a U.S. policy carried out in another country—20 years ago. Whether they were invoking the elder or younger Bush is beside the point. Either way, they were loudly registering a no-confidence vote in Obama’s lead-from-behind foreign policy.
The Libyan rebels aren’t alone. In this context, it’s interesting that JFK made a point to emphasize the importance of U.S. leadership in NATO. What JFK understood implicitly, Obama still has yet to grasp: When the U.S. doesn’t lead, the NATO alliance doesn’t work, as we are seeing in Libya. A report in The Financial Times concludes, “Britain and France are straining to fill the gap left by Washington’s decision to pull back.” As French President Nicolas Sarkozy observes, “the bulk of the work” is not being shouldered by America. That’s a first—and not a welcome one for NATO or the Libyan rebels.
After four-plus months of leading NATO’s Libya intervention, France—unaccustomed to the burdens of leadership—is showing signs of wear and tear. French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet says it’s time for the rebels to sue for peace—and for NATO to come to grips with failure. “There will be a need to sit around a table,” Longuet says, conceding the possibility of allowing Gaddafi to remain as a figurehead: “He will be in another room in his palace with another title.”
With France starting to float trial balloons suggesting NATO could negotiate a deal with Gaddafi, the U.S. leadership vacuum is painfully obvious. Simple common sense—not to mention common decency—dictates that Gaddafi not be rewarded for his butchery or for flouting the will of the Libyan people and international community. “If he is here,” as one of Gaddafi’s former bodyguards observes, “we will never know peace. You cannot seriously believe he is going to live in a house by the sea as a retired man.”
In short, the record shows that without the U.S. in front, NATO not only struggles to oust an isolated, hated, weak dictator with a third-rate army of mercenaries, but limps into self-defeating deal-making. This is what happens when America doesn’t lead.
The U.S. accounted for about half the planes initially deployed in support of the Libya operation. But the U.S. contribution plummeted after switching to what Obama called “a supporting role.” In fact, when Washington grudgingly agreed to extend operations in early April, after an urgent request from NATO, a NATO official took pains to emphasize that the extension of U.S. air power “expires on Monday.” That’s a sobering contrast from promising to “bear any burden” and serving as the “keystone in the arch of freedom”—and a bruising metaphor for what passes as American leadership today.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.