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Zuckerman vs. Cohen: What Does Obama Intend?

Even when critiquing, indeed indicting, Obama’s serial foreign-policy debacles, many critics feel compelled to attribute fine motives to the president. Mort Zuckerman recently wrote:

Obama clearly wishes to do good and means well. But he is one of those people who believe that the world was born with the word and exists by means of persuasion, such that there is no person or country that you cannot, by means of logical and moral argument, bring around to your side. He speaks as a teacher, as someone imparting values and generalities appropriate for a Sunday morning sermon, not as a tough-minded leader. He urges that things “must be done” and “should be done” and that “it is time” to do them. As the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Les Gelb, put it, there is “the impression that Obama might confuse speeches with policy.” Another journalist put it differently when he described Obama as an “NPR [National Public Radio] president who gives wonderful speeches.” In other words, he talks the talk but doesn’t know how to walk the walk. The Obama presidency has so far been characterized by a well-intentioned but excessive belief in the power of rhetoric with too little appreciation of reality and loyalty.

Perhaps he’s just being polite or trying to draw into the debate those who are disposed to like Obama. Perhaps it is wishful thinking – we’d certainly like to believe our president is pursuing good. But we’ve now reached a point where not only conservatives are suggesting that it may be unwarranted to grant him the benefit of the doubt. Richard Cohen, not exactly a fiery conservative, writes:

[I]t’s not clear that Obama is appalled by China’s appalling human rights record. He seems hardly stirred about continued repression in Russia. He treats the Israelis and their various enemies as pests of equal moral standing. The president seems to stand foursquare for nothing much. …

Foreign policy is the realm where a president comes closest to ruling by diktat. By command decision, the war in Afghanistan has been escalated, yet it seems to lack an urgent moral component. It has an apparent end date even though girls may not yet be able to attend school and the Taliban may rule again. In some respects, I agree — the earlier out of Afghanistan, the better — but if we are to stay even for a while, it has to be for reasons that have to do with principle. Somewhat the same thing applies to China. It’s okay to trade with China. It’s okay to hate it, too.

Pragmatism is fine — as long as it is complicated by regret. But that indispensable wince is precisely what Obama doesn’t show. It is not essential that he get angry or cry. It is essential, though, that he show us who he is. As of now, we haven’t a clue.

So for Cohen, at best the jury is out on Obama’s motives, and at worst the president seems to be hostile to human rights and democracy. Cohen has a lot of support for the latter assumption on the right, certainly.

As for Obama’s intentions, judging from his actions and public speeches, it certainly is more believable that he would prefer dealing with despots than messy popular uprisings, that he is not simpatico or even patient with Israel, and that he is more than willing to throw human rights and democracy under the bus for the sake of conflict avoidance. He intends, the evidence indicates, not to draw lines with Iran or Russia or the UN. He intends, from his public pronouncements we gather, not to risk war over a nuclear-armed Iran.

Is he then “well-intentioned”? It depends what ends you favor. At some point, one must conclude that it is not simply that Obama lacks the ability to express his passion for democracy, his fondness for the special relationship with the Brits, his devotion to human rights, and his commitment to a warm U.S.-Israel relationship; it is that these are not ends he intends to pursue. He intends to do other things — accommodate the UN, ingratiate himself with despotic Muslim rulers,  and appease Russia, to name a few. To many of us, that certainly doesn’t qualify as wishing to “do good” or “meaning well.”



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