Commentary Magazine


Topic: definitive solution

Words, Words, Words — Obama’s Foreign-Policy Obsession

Eliot Cohen gives Obama’s foreign policy the Dickensian title of “Bumble, Stumble, and Skid.” His review of the 2009 low-lights is, alas, not so funny:

It began with apologies to the Muslim world that went nowhere, a doomed attempt to beat Israel into line, utopian pleas to abolish nuclear weapons, unreciprocated concessions to Russia, and a curt note to the British to take back the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office. It continued with principled offers of serious negotiation to an Iranian regime too busy torturing, raping and killing demonstrators, and building new underground nuclear facilities, to take them up. Subsequently Beijing smothered domestic coverage of a presidential visit but did give the world the spectacle of the American commander in chief getting a talking-to about fiscal responsibility from a Communist chieftain.

As Cohen observes, some of this is traceable to novice foreign-policy practitioners, but much of it seems to flow directly from Obama’s worldview and own hubris. He came to office convinced that George W. Bush had been the biggest obstacle to more productive relations with the rest of the world, that differences between nations could be papered over in a blizzard of words, and that “smart diplomacy” required that we sublimate traditional American values and support for human rights and democracy. It is a view not uncommon in liberal-elite circles (which eschew hard power or even the threat of hard power). And it seems to flow directly from Obama’s historic illiteracy (e.g., FDR met with our enemies rather than defeating them in WWII, the Emperor of Japan surrendered on the USS Missouri, and the Cold War was won seemingly without a massive defense buildup by the U.S.), and his narcissistic personality. Cohen explains:

It was nonetheless a year of international displays of presidential ego, sometimes disguised as cosmic modesty (“I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war”), but mainly of one slip after another. The decision to reinforce our military in Afghanistan came after an excruciating dither that undermined the confidence of our allies. Mr. Obama’s loose talk of withdrawal beginning in 18 months then undid much of the good in his decision to send troops.

One senses that Obama uses speeches to get the critics off his back (as at Oslo and with his belated “the buck stops here” Christmas Day response, for example), while he never takes the substance of his critics’ objections very seriously. He is infatuated with words, generally his own. He assumes that they will persuade foes and hush critics. But both tend to look at what the president does. And when it comes to words, critics look to see whether those words (on human rights, for example) are addressed to adversaries when it matters or to rally allies to action when it is needed. Why didn’t Obama use his eloquence to explain to the world that Guantanamo is, as he concedes privately, a humane and professionally run facility? Why didn’t Obama use the revelation of the Qom site to rally eager allies and pivot away from a failing Iran engagement strategy?

Obama will have to do better than reactive addresses and empty platitudes if 2010 is to be a less harrowing year for his foreign-policy team. A dramatic change in perception and some deep soul-searching are always possible. They just aren’t likely, especially with a president as convinced of his own intellectual prowess as this one.

Eliot Cohen gives Obama’s foreign policy the Dickensian title of “Bumble, Stumble, and Skid.” His review of the 2009 low-lights is, alas, not so funny:

It began with apologies to the Muslim world that went nowhere, a doomed attempt to beat Israel into line, utopian pleas to abolish nuclear weapons, unreciprocated concessions to Russia, and a curt note to the British to take back the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office. It continued with principled offers of serious negotiation to an Iranian regime too busy torturing, raping and killing demonstrators, and building new underground nuclear facilities, to take them up. Subsequently Beijing smothered domestic coverage of a presidential visit but did give the world the spectacle of the American commander in chief getting a talking-to about fiscal responsibility from a Communist chieftain.

As Cohen observes, some of this is traceable to novice foreign-policy practitioners, but much of it seems to flow directly from Obama’s worldview and own hubris. He came to office convinced that George W. Bush had been the biggest obstacle to more productive relations with the rest of the world, that differences between nations could be papered over in a blizzard of words, and that “smart diplomacy” required that we sublimate traditional American values and support for human rights and democracy. It is a view not uncommon in liberal-elite circles (which eschew hard power or even the threat of hard power). And it seems to flow directly from Obama’s historic illiteracy (e.g., FDR met with our enemies rather than defeating them in WWII, the Emperor of Japan surrendered on the USS Missouri, and the Cold War was won seemingly without a massive defense buildup by the U.S.), and his narcissistic personality. Cohen explains:

It was nonetheless a year of international displays of presidential ego, sometimes disguised as cosmic modesty (“I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war”), but mainly of one slip after another. The decision to reinforce our military in Afghanistan came after an excruciating dither that undermined the confidence of our allies. Mr. Obama’s loose talk of withdrawal beginning in 18 months then undid much of the good in his decision to send troops.

One senses that Obama uses speeches to get the critics off his back (as at Oslo and with his belated “the buck stops here” Christmas Day response, for example), while he never takes the substance of his critics’ objections very seriously. He is infatuated with words, generally his own. He assumes that they will persuade foes and hush critics. But both tend to look at what the president does. And when it comes to words, critics look to see whether those words (on human rights, for example) are addressed to adversaries when it matters or to rally allies to action when it is needed. Why didn’t Obama use his eloquence to explain to the world that Guantanamo is, as he concedes privately, a humane and professionally run facility? Why didn’t Obama use the revelation of the Qom site to rally eager allies and pivot away from a failing Iran engagement strategy?

Obama will have to do better than reactive addresses and empty platitudes if 2010 is to be a less harrowing year for his foreign-policy team. A dramatic change in perception and some deep soul-searching are always possible. They just aren’t likely, especially with a president as convinced of his own intellectual prowess as this one.

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