Aug 02 2009

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Visionless Foreign Policy

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Foundation of Greatness

 Barack Obama is taking a wrecking ball to “American Exceptionalism.”

230 years in the making, the concept of the US as an “exceptional” country is grounded in the narrative of a nation that rose from 13 semi-autonomous and agrarian states to a colossus more powerful than any nation in recorded history. Its ascent to greatness in so short a period of time has no historical parallel, but can be attributed, in no small part, to a system of governance that has freed the human spirit to dynamically fulfill its potential like none before or since.

That exceptionalism is rooted in a US Constitution, radical by intention, designed to restrain the power of government and maximize personal liberty.

It is found in the humility of the Founders who did not claim perfection, but rather started from imperfection; “to create a more perfect union…” It is this evolving redemptive idealism- a belief in the power of renewal – that righted the ugly stain of slavery in our history and ultimately laid the foundation for the first African American President.

Abroad, American principle and idealism led to the sustained commitment of blood and treasure to oppose autocracy in WWI, totalitarianism in WWII and Soviet communism in the Cold War.

Wilson’s 14 Points and the original charter for the Unites Nations are a testament to America’s genuine commitment to freedom, liberty and self-determination, not as a foreign ideology to be imposed, but as principles designed  to set people free to pursue their own, unique destiny.

And while American military power has tipped the scales in the conflicts of consequence, it has been the power of American ideals that have made the nation a magnet for people from around the world looking for opportunity and set the standard for new, emerging nations.  It is one of history’s ironies that upon declaring independence in 1945, Ho Chi Minh recited the preamble to our Declaration of Independence.

In sum, America is the only country in the history whose central identity is tied not to blood or ethnicity, but to an idea.

That is American Exceptionalism.

But that is not Barack Obama’s America.

During the presidential campaign, Team Obama ran against the perceived unilateralism of the Bush administration and its unabashed “freedom” agenda that chose sides, supported friends and named enemies, to the utter dismay of the chattering classes. Instead, Obama promised a grounded engagement, multilateralism, humility and respect.

But in practice, Obama has done so much more.

Instead of simply modulating US policy, Obama has sought to re-write the narrative for America as well.

You can see it first in his official statements, delivered to foreign audiences, where Obama has used unusually personal language to repudiate the policies of his predecessor.

Consider that one rarely hears Sarkozy repudiating Chirac, or Merkle repudiating Shroeder before foreign audiences, no matter how different their policies may be. New American administrations moving in a different direction normally defend changes on their own merits. Reagan did not defend his foreign policy through a critique of Carter, nor did George W. Bush upbraid Clinton internationally for changes he made in foreign policy.

In contrast, the validation of Obama’s new foreign policy is deeply rooted in the vitiation of Bush policies, making the exercise reminiscent not so much of a change in Administrations as a change in regimes. It diminishes our country and the Office of the President to make domestic arguments of a settled political campaign a key justification for a new direction.

It is also unseemly.

This effort has been accompanied by a wholesale change in language of American diplomacy.

Instead of leading by example, Obama seeks to nudge by common interest and collectivism. Obama talks at length about mutual responsibility and mutual respect.

Part of that respect is embedded in a new humility which itself seeks to re-frame the “historical sins” in American foreign policy through self-analysis. This exercise in “cherry picked” internationalist relativism casts a wary and disapproving eye American power, which the President seems keen to catalogue.

For instance, the President saw fit to obliquely question the morality of American use of nuclear weapons in WWII during a speech in Prague in April.

Further, speaking in Cairo, the President characterized Muslim allies of the US during the Cold War as nothing more than “proxies.”  However, in the same speech, Obama failed to note that it was the United States and NATO that came to the military aid of Bosnian Muslims in their fight against the Serbs in the 1990s, tangible proof of positive Western intentions one would think.

But then again, how could he? The Bosnian conflict was a war of choice, unsanctioned by the UN, to bring an end to human rights abuses and restore popular sovereignty. To have raised American help to Muslims in Bosnia would have compromised Obama’s intended applause line for contemporary ethicists that Iraq was a war of choice, implicitly a wrong choice that Obama would not have made, notwithstanding the benefits to the Iraqi people with the end of the Saddam regime.

In sum, the President has seemingly cast away the unique and vibrant American narrative  in favor of a view that makes the US no different from any other nation on the UN rolls by selectively trumpeting our sins and apologizing accordingly. This enables a dramatic departure from the past and presumably sets the table for the engagement Team Obama so craves.

As a matter of practical policy, however, this approach, which lacks of an over arching principle or ideal beyond “not being Bush” has “balkanized” Obama’s foreign policy into serial acts of proactive pragmatism, which themselves have demonstrated little result to date. This has only been complicated by the score of country or region specific-Tsars that have been named, creating personal policy fiefdoms and complicating coherence.

In Europe, the coming of Obama was hailed as the end of Bush, but it was hardly the end of smug European obstruction.  Despite his charm offensive, Obama failed to get the Euros to agree to take detainees from Gitmo, a facility that is regularly denounced in Euro government talking points as an offensive disruption to trans-Atlantic ties.

In addition, despite the American plan to remove combat troops from Iraq – another sticking point – legitimate Obama requests for aid and troops for Afghanistan go unfulfilled.  All we have from the Euros are their best wishes.  For all of our effort, we are on our own. Having made Euro clucking at Bush policies a reason to support Obama, what have we received in return now that the Euros have what they want?

Or consider Russia. Obama has poured a good deal of effort and energy into “resetting” the relationship with Russia as if the challenges he inherited were simply a matter of misunderstanding. Moreover, the efforts to confer consequential “great power” status on Russia stands in contrast to the surprisingly accurate, if embarrassing analysis by the Vice President, that Russia is a declining power.  Where is the priority and why?

On Iran, the Obama administration seems determined to negotiate with the discredited and increasingly isolated Iranian theocracy, blindly providing the Iranian regime with desperately needed legitimacy at a most sensitive and delicate time. The spontaneous uprising to the stolen presidential election seems to have done nothing as much as irritated Team Obama by complicating the time line for nuclear talks. Administration officials speak to a September deadline for talks as if the issue is occurring in a vacuum. This is no way to support freedom, self-determination and liberty.

Engagement in North Korea has only lead to nuclear detonations and missile tests as the North Koreans walked away from the Six-Party talks. American condemnations are ignored. At one point, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pleaded on the radio that she was willing to talk to the North Koreans at any time. This is no way to demonstrate resolve and principle.

Syria, which has served as a transit point to Hezbollah, an ally to Iran and until the Israelis destroyed the facility, a hopeful nuclear power, is now eligible, under a presidential waiver for  new US technology and spare parts. What has the US received in return for this largess?

Indeed, Obama has seemed pleased to mug for the cameras as he greeted Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, an avowed American foe, and we now find ourselves supporting Chavez in the ongoing leadership crisis in Honduras.

The only country that Obama has taken on directly is a steadfast ally, Israel. Ironically, here he has the best chance of success, given the symbiotic relationship between the two, but more importantly because Israel is a democracy accountable to its people.

But it is the premise of success with Israel that undermines Obama’s larger engagement gambit.

It is Democratic gospel that the world would be a better place if only we engaged it without preconditions. But six months of Obama engagement, particularly with totalitarian regimes, has demonstrated the vacuousness of that argument.

These countries are more interested in securing domestic power than they are in negotiating American goals, and the American bogeyman is an crucial element to build leadership credibility and distract the populous from domestic leadership failures.

Stripped of all uniting principle except the necessity of engagement, and diminished by our own leadership to promote the appearance of reasonableness, we find ourselves potentially adrift and without a uniting vision in foreign policy.

Which brings us back to American Exceptionalism.

The American Left believes Exceptionalism is jingoism, which is an obvious misnomer.

Over the span of history, American Exceptionalism is not only America’s story, it is a story about enduring ideals that have freed peoples, transformed countries, created wealth and knowledge, and advanced culture and science unequaled in the human experience.

We didn’t have a misunderstanding with the Kaiser, Nazism or Communism, or for that matter, radical Islam. There were/are profound values at stake; a right and a wrong.

But when we abandon the narrative, when we settle to be like everyone else, when we deny our uniqueness and focus on our errors, we diminish America.

When we believe that conflict is no more than miscommunication, when all values and ideals are granted equivalence under the rubric of mutual respect, freedom and liberty become nuanced and devalued.

Our greatness as a nation is no sin. Our strength as country is no threat. Our willingness to engage tyrants is no virtue. While the necessity to speak for freedom is no vice.

The grand traditions and proud history of our nation in support of freedom will endure.

Whether the Administration will find the wellsprings of that voice, or continue to default to the lowest common denominator of craven relativists may be the key to the President’s success in foreign policy over the next three years.

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