Commentary Magazine


He’s Got the World Wrong

There are competing, but not necessarily mutually-exclusive, theories to explain why the Obama approach to foreign policy and national security has been both ineffective and oddly inappropriate to the challenges we face. I have suggested that much of the problem stems from a fervent desire to turn inward and work on a radical domestic agenda. Part of the explanation I have also suggested is traceable to Obama’s temperamental shortcomings, ideological misconceptions about the nature the Islamic jiahdist enemy, and political priorities. Robert Kagan offers a compelling alternative theory — Obama is not the pragmatist he billed himself as, but an idealist who has read the world very wrong. He writes:

The fundamental assumption is that the great powers today share common interests. Relations among them, therefore, “must no longer be seen as a zero-sum game,” as President Obama argued in July 2009. The Obama Doctrine is about “Win-Win” and “getting to Yes.” The new “mission” of the United States, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is to be the great convener of nations, gathering the powers to further common interests and seek common solutions to the world’s problems. It is on this basis that the administration has sought to “reset” relations with Russia, to embark on a new policy of “strategic reassurance” with China, and in general to seek what Secretary Clinton called in a July 15, 2009 speech a “new era of engagement based on common interests, shared values, and mutual respect.” For an administration that prides itself on its pragmatism, there would seem to be a great deal of wishful thinking in this approach.

Conservatives have watched with a mix of awe and revulsion as Obama has again and again smeared his predecessor and crafted policies — often counterproductive, dangerous, and politically unwise — that seem calculated to merely demonstrate that he is “not Bush.” But the “not Bush” fixation also may be part of Obama’s worldview, as Kagan explains:

All that was required was an America wise enough to guide the world toward agreement on the important matters on which all the powers must naturally agree. According to the Obama administration’s narrative, George W. Bush then came along and destroyed this great opportunity with his belligerent and unilateralist policies. Now that Bush was gone, the world could resume its convergence under the inspirational direction of the new American President.

What we do know is that what Obama has been doing hasn’t been working. Kagan comes up with a partial list: “Iran’s refusal to accept the outstretched hand sincerely proffered by President Obama; the breakdown of the Middle East peace process, despite the administration’s strenuous efforts; the failure to gain any meaningful Chinese help in North Korea.” Meanwhile, Obama’s anti-terror policies (which are seemingly designed to downplay the very existence of a war against Islamic fundamentalists, persuade the world of our moral bona fides, and reduce, he imagines, the grievances against the West) are now coming under widespread criticism.

I remain less hopeful than some that Obama can do what is required, that is, “adjust and devise an approach more attuned to the world as it is.” Conservatives have grasped at this or that straw (e.g., reversing the decision to release the detainee abuse photos, the Oslo speech) as evidence that Obama was turning the corner. And certainly the deployment of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, despite the ill-conceived deadline and the ineffective West Point speech, is reason to cheer. But Obama is not a man whose views have been challenged or who has been forced to reconsider that much of what he “knows” simply isn’t so. He has lived within the cocoon of academic elites, liberal doves, and fawning fans, who reinforce his misconceptions about the world. For him to cast all of that aside and reconsider his fundamental assumptions about the world would take quite an act of intellectual courage and political daring. I just don’t see it happening. I hope I am wrong.

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