Barack Obama is changing the premise of American foreign policy. The policy that kept us safe, that won the Cold War, that spread more democracy on its watch than any nation's policy in history, is being shelved. And in its place is a set of beliefs that has chilled many Americans and is making foreign allies wonder, "Can we depend on them the way we used to?"
If our current policy of weakness continues, allies and neutrals can hardly be encouraged to align themselves with the United States. Osama bin Laden's comment about the Arab world is actually a comment on human nature - people will follow the strong horse rather than the weak one.
How confident can the democracy fighters in Iran feel when the president has given them his marked indifference?
How confident can the entire Middle East feel when they know they will be confronted by a nuclear Iran, with Washington doing nothing but protesting, or coming up with occasional, ineffective "sanctions"?
The consequences will have an impact at home as well. Our defense budgets are about to be slashed. How enthusiastic will our best young people be to enlist in the armed forces when the military is being reduced and our foreign policy is seen as defensive and even apologetic? What will be the morale of soldiers in a military whose commander-in-chief lacks the will to win?
There is an old line used by comedy writers: "You buy the premise, you buy the bit;" if you accept the premise of something, you usually accept what follows from it.
It is very much the same in public policy. There is a premise behind a policy, and real consequences flow from it. For decades Americans accepted the premise of American foreign policy. Yes, there was dissent, especially in the turbulent years of the late sixties. But, by and large, there was, from 1945 to the end of the Cold War, a remarkable level of unity and purpose in believing that America was fundamentally good, that spreading democracy was a noble cause, and that we were required to remain militarily strong and internationally committed to avoid the weakness and blindness that led to World War II. Madeleine Albright, the last Democratic secretary of state before the Obama administration, properly called the United States "the indispensable nation." It was upon this country that the safety of freedom chiefly depended. We weren't a perfect country, we knew, but we were the best available, and we believed in our mission.
But now, Barack Obama is giving us change that many of us can't believe in.
There is a remarkable difference between the kind of change that previous presidents have introduced into foreign policy, and what we're being served now. Harry Truman took the unprecedented step of resisting aggression in Korea under the flag of the United Nations, something never done earlier; Ronald Reagan challenged the very idea that the Soviet Union and the United States would forever be locked in cold war, and moved toward a clear Western victory.
But Truman and Reagan strengthened the nation, believed her noble and good, and extended her influence. Barack Obama, to his critics, weakens the nation by endless apologies for past actions, believes her suspect, and is contracting her influence. He represents a kind of artfully expressed isolationism of the left wing of the Democratic Party. He understands that, to maintain public support, he must move cautiously in that direction. But George McGovern's cry of "Come home America!" seems to govern the thinking of his political base.
"We are unwise, selfish and sometimes crude, this base - with its headquarters in faculty lounges and newsrooms," he seems to be saying, "and we must atone." In this assessment, democracies are no better than dictatorships. Other cultures have equal "validity." Each has its own respectable "narrative." We must "engage" rather than resist. Allies, many of which have checkered histories, are no more deserving of respect than enemies, who may have "legitimate grievances." And the use of our military has drained important resources from domestic projects and does more harm than good. After all, how loved are we?
Most important, we must, according to this mindset, reject the notion of American exceptionalism. When asked directly whether he believed in that exceptionalism, Barack Obama gave a telling answer that goes to the heart of his feelings about his own country; he said that he "believe[d] in American exceptionalism, just as I imagine that Greeks believe in Greek
exceptionalism and the British believe in British exceptionalism." As Michael Barone noted, that meant not at all -- as in the old admonition: "If everybody is somebody, then nobody is anybody."
The president maintained the American commitment in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has been a curious form of continuity, as Mr. Obama has openly stated his deadlines for the start of American withdrawal from both countries. Imagine if America, after Pearl Harbor, had announced to the Japanese, "We will fight for two years and then draw down." What an odd way to go to battle, giving an opponent a timetable.
The strategy becomes even more curious when the administration refuses to name the enemy. Consider Franklin Roosevelt refusing to denounce Nazism in World War II for fear of offending the German people. Consider President Ronald Reagan declining to name Soviet Communism as our major enemy. Yet, just days ago, the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, refused to utter the term "Islamic extremism" when asked at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee what common link could be found in the recent terror attacks in the United States.
Holder's reluctance comes directly from the Obama playbook, and is part of the changed premise of American foreign policy: We have no enemies tied together by a common ideology; we have only isolated individuals and a few groups here and there, none of them related to large movements. To say otherwise would be to "offend" Islam. Part of our new policy holds that giving offense is the gravest of crimes.
When President Obama signed a bill supporting press freedom, in the presence of the family of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, he spoke of the regrettable "loss" of Pearl. But Daniel Pearl hadn't been lost, as Mark Steyn points out. He'd been murdered, and murdered by jihadists. You would never know it from Mr. Obama's comments.
What has been the result of this shift in the premise of American foreign policy, some sixteen months after it was begun with the inauguration of Barack Obama?
In terms of concrete, positive results, we can point to very little. No major problem has been solved, or is on its way to solution because of the change in the premise of our policy. Our relations with our enemies - if we are permitted to call them enemies - has not improved at all. On the contrary, Russia has hardened several of its positions still further, and is making mischief with our attempt to impose crippling sanctions on Iran, and with Obama's drive toward nuclear disarmament. North Korea continues defiant. Iran has not given an inch on its nuclear program. Even in Latin America, where one might have expected some greater warmth toward Obama than toward the hated George W. Bush, there has been no visible change. If anything, both Venezuela and Brazil have inched closer to Iran.
It has been noted that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of attempted terrorist attacks in the United States, including the successful attack at Fort Hood, Texas, leaving 13 dead.
Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced to the world the precise number of nuclear weapons possessed by the United States. Please note that no enemy nation responded by releasing any information on its own arsenal. Another ringing success.
With allies, the picture is somewhat different, but depressing. The Obama administration has gone out of its way to portray our closest friends - Britain and Israel in particular - as acquaintances, no more worthy of respect than any other non-hostile powers. Yes, it is true that, in recent weeks -- and apparently recognizing the extent of its errors -- the administration has done handstands to prove our warmth toward Israel, toward the government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, and toward the new administration of David Cameron in Britain. But one must ask whether domestic political concerns - an American midterm election only five months away - is a critical factor in the Obaman charm offensive.
The real concern must be the future. If our current policy continues, with the change in premise that Mr. Obama has brought, what are the likely results?
One result is already apparent: a belief on the part of our allies that they will not necessarily have America's support if they vigorously defend themselves. Recently, a South Korean warship was sunk under circumstances that clearly point to an attack by North Korea. But what options does South Korean President Lee Myung-bak have in responding? Jillian Melchior, writing at Contentions, makes this point:
"Mr. Lee's tough stance is further undermined by Obama's consistently soft foreign policy and by his trend of pandering to enemies instead of our allies. South Korea can hardly be confident of Washington's support, regardless of how justified its cause may be. So Mr. Lee can't be blamed for wondering whether singlehandedly staring down a nuclear-armed, irrational aggressor is really the prudent course for South Korea to take."
Indeed. How much confidence can Poland or the Czech Republic feel in the United States, after President Obama pulled the political rug out from under them and canceled our missile defense plans for their countries, the better to appease Russia?
How confident can Israel feel after the drubbing delivered to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, even taking into account the current smiles?
Some years ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an article called "Defining Deviancy Down" in which he argued that a population that is given low standards will get used to them, and accept them over time as normal. The same effect can be seen in the public's reaction to foreign policy. Over time, the American people may get used to a foreign policy that is weak and defensive, and lacking in aggressiveness. They may get used to it to the point that any sense of urgency melts away, and we develop the same kind of indifference that marked America's attitude toward foreign crises in the time between World Wars I and II. We avoided that attitude during the Cold War with policies that were, for the most part, active and assertive.
We can only wonder what our national mentality will be ten years from now, when the World War II generation has faded away, and we are left with a foreign policy in which the word "victory" is banned as dangerous and offensive.