Commentary Magazine


Barack Obama’s Learning Curve

Much of the initial reaction to the announcement that President Obama will cancel his planned meeting with Vladimir Putin has cast the move as an acknowledgement by the president that his beloved “reset” had failed. That may or may not be the case; even leftists long ago stopped pretending the reset existed, so it’s more likely that Obama waited until Putin danced in the end zone to finally respond publicly.

“There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” the president told Jay Leno last night, referring to the Russian government. This is the stock insult from Obama. If you take a tough line against Russia, you’re stuck in a “Cold War mind warp.” If Russia takes a tough line, they are stuck in a “Cold War mentality.” Pity the president, who has spent so much time and effort mocking the idea that the Cold War has any relevance to modern international relations and now can’t stop uttering the phrase.

But it’s also encouraging, for the same reason. The left’s insistence on ignoring the lessons of the Cold War was always a dangerous mentality for the president to embrace. It’s one thing for the professional left, who were so wrong so often during the ideological conflict, to pretend the entire second half of the 20th century never happened. But what the president says actually matters. Adopting historical amnesia as his foreign policy doctrine has resulted in fairly predictable confusion about America’s role in the world.

This disinterest in Cold War history is characteristic of the intellectual milieu from which the president emerged. You would think that in an age of yet another global ideological conflict–the Arab Spring has done for pan-Islamism what Nasser could never do for pan-Arabism–understanding how the West won the last one would be useful. But there is evident impatience for it on the left.

The New York Times is a good example. In 2009, the paper reviewed David Priestland’s The Red Flag: A History of Communism, and the reviewer complained that the book is mostly “a stolid and largely by-the-numbers recitation of communism’s rise and its spread, in various manifestations, across the globe.” Historians, he said, have “pounded what’s left of our interest in communism to tatters in recent years.” In 2012, when Max Frankel reviewed Anne Applebaum’s The Iron Curtain for the Times, he was strikingly dismissive because, Frankel said, “the heart of her story is hardly news.” He added, sighing: “It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror. Still, why should we be consuming such a mass of detail more than half a century later?”

This mentality, that history has nothing to offer but superficial slogans, is a way for the left to avoid discussion of the 45 years they spent floundering in error. Steeped in this way of thinking, Obama took his time to wake up to reality. But though his decision to cancel the meeting with Putin seems minor, it has symbolic value. It is not the end of the reset–if that reset ever actually began, it ended in failure almost immediately. Rather, it may be the beginning of a real reset. And the mainstream journalists who have spent so much time ignoring Putin’s malevolence have woken up as well: Putin has insulted Obama, and the scales have finally fallen from their eyes.

Awake to the injustices perpetrated by the Putin regime, the media has begun calling attention to the anti-gay laws pushed through by Putin and his allies. The Times reports on the growing concern about the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Not only do human rights activists want to raise public outrage over Russia’s state-backed anti-gay policies, but the Olympic athletes themselves have to watch what they do. The Times explains:

Just as Russia now prohibits “propaganda” in support of “nontraditional” sexual orientation, the Olympic charter prohibits athletes from making political gestures during the Winter and Summer Games.

So it is entirely possible that any bobsledder or skier wearing a pin, patch or T-shirt in support of gay rights could be sent home from Sochi, not by Russian authorities, but by another group that suppresses expression: the International Olympic Committee.

Would the I.O.C. inflict such a public-relations disaster on itself? Perhaps not. But Olympic officials worldwide, including those in the United States, along with NBC and corporate sponsors, have put themselves and athletes in an awkward position by only tepidly opposing the Russian law that bans “homosexual propaganda.”

The Olympics is a business. NBC can gain viewership, and thus revenue, by loudly proclaiming Republicans to be anti-gay bigots. They can lose revenue by doing the same to an authoritarian anti-gay leader whose country is hosting the Olympics. It isn’t rocket science to figure out when supposed bedrock principles get air time and when they don’t.

As for Obama, there has always been a disconnect between the president’s pro-gay rights speechmaking and his unwillingness to take any action in support of vulnerable gay men and women abroad. Our Abe Greenwald summed it up in his 2012 post: “Pro-Gay WH Ensures Anti-Gay Haven,” referring to the Middle East. Russia is another example, but perhaps this really is the beginning of a new reset, and Obama will find the courage of his convictions and “evolve,” as his defenders like to call his waffling and flip-flopping, on this too. Either way, the education of Barack Obama continues apace.

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