I had a rare opportunity to watch the weekend political talk shows yesterday, and was particularly interested in the talk about President Obama’s trip to China, on which there was general agreement that he had obtained… nothing.
Back during the campaign, Charles Krauthammer observed correctly that President Obama is an academic. It’s not that he’s so deeply involved in academia, but it’s that his approach to the world is theoretical and ideological rather than pragmatic and practical. We’ve noticed this in his approach to remaking the US along neo-Marxist lines; it’s clear that he’s spent a lot of time, decades of time, ruminating and plotting and planning how he might remake American society if he ever obtained enough political power to execute his plans. That’s why, for example, he’s been attempting to make changes at lightning speed, which is a tactic. He’s been thinking about this for a long, long time. His first steps were planned to the hilt. He may be operating entirely out of a pre-envisioned playbook for the remainder of his first term. Whatever one may say about Mr. Obama’s administrative competence — and there are reasons to question it — he has a theoretical agenda borne out of years of rumination, and he knows how to execute it.
Obama’s domestic policies have not entirely met the challenge of practical politics yet. It’s one thing to get one’s people into place and declare several industries nationalized; it’s another actually to assess the results in the real world. Though the fiscal disaster is predictable, President Obama can still advise patience with some credibility (albeit shrinking credibility with the public.)
The same cannot be said about foreign policy. In foreign policy, Obama’s theories have already met realpolitik, and they’re not looking so very good.
The China trip is instructive. It was the Chinese who invited Obama to visit. Then, the Chinese team refused cooperation on every front; no help on Iran, no cooperation on restraining carbon production, no progress on human rights. Oh, and no questions permitted at the press conference. So, why did they invite him? Pretty simple: they invited him in order to snub him. They watched the Russians take a huge bite of him and decided to get a bite themselves. It was symbolic: we have power over him, he has no power over us.
The liberals on the Sunday shows all noted that the result is hardly a surprise given the times. After all, they temporized, China is holding all the cards just now. We need them to buy our debt. They don’t really need our help with anything, except for access to our markets — which they have. What none of these liberals admitted was that the reason the Chinese are holding all the cards has a great deal to do with Obama quadrupling our annual deficit during his first month in office, producing a deficit of $1.4 trillion or so for his first full year in office, and the US now projecting a total of a $12 trillion national debt. The issue is not that China is buying our bonds, it’s that they fear we can only repay in inflated dollars, and they might just stop buying altogether. In fact, that’s already happening — and the Chinese probably did not offer the President any hope on that front, either.
Of course, China is only the most recent in a series of international embarrassments, embarrassments with President Obama’s full cooperation. Russia gladly accepted our withdrawal of a missile shield for Poland and the Czech Republic, then immediately dismissed any possibility of sanctions against Iran. Obama offered Japan’s Emporer a bow that said “I acknowledge your great superiority,” then badly bumbled a question regarding the US’ use of atomic weapons in WWII. His Secretary of State failed to obtain a freeze on settlements by the Israelis, and consequently Palestinians will not cooperate with Obama’s attempts at a two-state solution in the middle east. Obama and Sec of State Clinton almost literally begged the UK not to release the Libyan terrorist of Lockerbie bombing fame, and lobbied Libya not to hold a public celebration for his return — and failed miserably. The Obama administration failed to convince a single nation to step up to help us house the detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay, for which reason President Obama will not close the base as promised. And of course there was the Olympics Committee debacle; apparently President Obama still has not learned to have the outcomes of trips planned before he takes them. I cannot recall a more unrelenting string of foreign policy failures in my entire adult life. But he did get the Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama replies to all this that his approach is deliberate, and that he has “restored America’s standing in the world.” He seems to base this on polls that show that people in the streets in Europe and elsewhere now believe America will “do the right thing in world affairs” where they did not under the Bush administration.
Of course, this raises a question regarding what is the goal of American foreign policy. I always thought the goal was the projection of American interests on the world stage; by this measure, Obama’s first year is a failure greater than any I can recall. Obama seems pleased that a lot of ordinary folks think we’re going to “do the right thing,” without any clear notion regarding what “the right thing” is and without any actual performance. This strikes me as choosing the approval of the crowd over the firm application of moral principle, something unsurprising for the narcissistic Mr. O but also something of which we should be ashamed. What do we care of the opinion of the entire world if what we’re pursuing is the liberty of enslaved individuals, the defeat of tyrants, and the prosperity of the poor? This is foreign popular opinion, and most likely reflects the philosophical disconnect between American core virtues and the vague, amoral socialism that infests much of the rest of the world. The notion that we “lost standing” under Bush is nothing but the assertion that we should let the prejudices of socialists around the world dictate American foreign policy. Of course we “lost standing”: Bush effectively prevented socialism from dominating the world for eight years.
Meanwhile, world leaders seem eager to allow President Obama to grovel before them while they feed him scraps. I would be, too, if I were one of them. But I would not give him anything for all his groveling, and neither will they. I’m sure world leaders will say as loudly as they can that they are glad to be dealing with the Cooperative Mr. Obama rather than the Uncooperative Cowboy Mr. Bush. I would, too, if I were one of them… but it would be a terrible mistake to take that as an “improvement of our standing in the world.” It’s not that; it’s glee at the deliberate self-crippling of a powerful adversary. They’re eating our lunch, they’re drinking our milkshake, and they will continue to do so. Of course they’re going to tell us they like dealing with President Obama.
President Obama’s academic ruminations seem to have convinced him that the reason foreign leaders resist our good intentions is that we’re arrogant with them, and by apologizing around the world, he can win their trust and cooperation. Moreover, he seems to think this will occur because of the force of his personality and their pleasure over his gracious presence. He could not be more wrong. Foreign leaders resist our efforts because our interests do not mate well with theirs. The assertion of American power according to American interests is not, and never has been, “arrogance;” it’s ordinary self-interest, and world leaders understand this, no matter what they may say publicly. The belief, on the other hand, that nations will fall in line simply because of the glowing aura of Obama’s personality, is arrogance too great to be believed, and narcissism too pathetic to permit to have any part in a real foreign policy. The man is a disgrace, and is deeply dangerous.
Meanwhile, because of the flaccid irrelevance of the US on the world stage, nations like Brazil are flocking to make nice to our enemies, while Iran feels comfortable enough to renege on agreements that might limit its nuclear capability. And whatever the man-in-the-European-street says to Pew Research, der Spiegel sounds positively nostalgic for a little of the ol’ Bush stubbornness. They seem to think it was strength.