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Our Place In the World

Barack Obama rode into office promising to “restore our place in the world.” Many thought this meant that Obama intended to elevate America’s profile, make us more popular and more effective, and soothe the feelings of hurt allies. But “our place in the world,” it has turned out, means a smaller place from which a less confident and assertive America simply “bears witness” as events swirl around us.

In a must-read piece, Fouad Ajami argues persuasively that Obama would rather we do less in the world and turn our attention to his quite radical plans for refashioning America. He writes of the Obama mindset:

We’re weary, the disillusioned liberalism maintains, and we’re broke, and there are those millions of Americans aching for health care and an economic lifeline. We can’t care for both Ohio and the Anbar, Peoria and Peshawar. It is either those embattled people in Iran or a rescue package for Chrysler.

The joke is on the enthralled crowds in Cairo, Ankara, Berlin and Oslo. The new American president they had fallen for had no genuine calling or attachments abroad. In their enthusiasm for Mr. Obama, and their eagerness to proclaim themselves at one with the postracial meaning of his election, they had missed his aloofness from the genuine struggles in the foreign world.

The catch in all this is that America’s retreat and equivocation neither keeps our enemies at bay nor frees the president to focus on the home front. To the contrary, our foes become emboldened and the dangers rage. As Ajami observes: “History and its furies have their logic, and they have not bent to Mr. Obama’s will. He had declared a unilateral end to the ‘war on terror,’ but the jihadists and their mentors are yet to call their war to a halt. From Yemen to Fort Hood and Detroit, the terror continues.” And while Obama is obsessed with half-a-loaf policies (e.g., surge in Afghanistan but with a deadline, sanctions in Iran but just little bitty ones) our adversaries in Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, North Korea, Syria, and elsewhere remain unimpressed, if not emboldened, by what appears to be irresolution, not “nuance,” and hesitancy, not “smart diplomacy.”

So after nearly a year, what has Obama accomplished? The world is no less dangerous, our allies (Britain, Israel, Honduras, Poland, and the Czech Republic, among others) are not cheered, and America has made it clear to human-rights activists and their oppressors that there is little this administration is willing to say (and even less it is willing to do) to advance democracy and freedom. The result? Ajami sums up: “We’re smaller for accepting that false choice between burdens at home and burdens abroad, and the world beyond our shores is more hazardous and cynical for our retrenchment and our self-flagellation.”

Anxious conservatives keep waiting for the “Ah ha!” moment when Obama will recognize the folly of his effort to turn away from the demands of a dangerous world, will instead embrace American exceptionalism, and unabashedly assert American values and interests. Yet he continues to nibble around the edges of an effective foreign policy. He drops the more ludicrous gambits (e.g., backing Hugo Chavez’s flunky in Honduras and demanding a unilateral settlement freeze by Israel) but has yet to match action with revised rhetoric. He continues to do the least possible when the most is required. His idea of America’s place in the world seems not so majestic as some had imagined. And the world, as a result, is more dangerous, and America is less enamored and respected. Alas, it is not at all what was promised.



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