Foreign Exchange: Dropping the big stick for the soft apology
October 24, 2012
Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, American policy has been summarized by the catchphrase “Peace through strength.” The phrase goes back to the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who said that he sought “peace through strength, or failing that peace through threat.” Teddy Roosevelt said it another way: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
Similarly, Machiavelli thought it was preferable for the prince to be both loved and feared; if this is difficult, however, and one has to be dispensed with, it “is much safer to be feared than loved.”
President Barack Obama has ignored this advice, preferring to be loved or, at least, liked. This is his persona projected as the foreign policy of the United States. As a result, America is increasingly distrusted, disliked, and dismissed in an increasing dangerous world.
Challenger Mitt Romney would follow the advice. He believes in American exceptionalism and that the United States should be in a leadership position on the world stage, not just one country of many.
In his desire to be the anti-Bush, Obama, as a candidate and early in his presidency, tried to characterize Bush as an overreacting unilateralist, with the “swagger of a freedom-agenda cowboy combined with a gift for gaffe,” as New York Times columnist Bill Keller recently put it. Obama was going to be different. This gave rise to a nebulous, sometimes self-contradictory, concept known as the Obama Doctrine.
When Obama was a candidate, he introduced the doctrine saying “the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems.” This has evolved to an emphasis on avoiding conflicts. When action is necessary, it should be multilateral action based on shared values, with America as an equal among nations, not a senior partner.
Two recent columns by Hudson Institute senior fellows Douglas Feith and Seth Cropsey provide insight into the Obama Doctrine and Obama’s motivations in two different contexts.
Obama’s initial response to Benghazi, they wrote in The Wall Street Journal, was to blame America first — something typical of his ideology. Obama refuses to accept that the terrorism threat is part of a larger problem of Islamist extremism. He believes terrorism is spawned not by religious fanaticism but by grievances about social, economic, and other problems for which America bears fault.
“Thus the way to defeat the terrorists, according to President Obama, isn’t to counter extremist Islamist ideology but to focus on how the United States, through its actions and delinquencies — its supposed excessive support for Israel, for example, and failure to provide more economic aid — is to blame for the hatred that spawns terrorism,” Feith and Cropsey write.
In a policy paper on the failure of the Russian “reset,” Feith and Cropsey relate how Obama and his national security team argue that America’s problems in the world were “the bitter fruit of America’s history of bullying, selfishness, and militarism, especially during the George W. Bush administration.” America should be humble, out of a due sense of shame, and should adopt a “doctrine of mea culpa.” Thus, Obama announced that great powers do “not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries.”
“Maintaining solidarity with allies that look to America as the leader of the free world,” Feith and Cropsey write, “has never been an Obama administration priority.” This is a major difference in Obama’s and Romney’s approach to foreign policy.
The multilateral Obama Doctrine assigns high importance to the legitimacy the UN Security Council supposedly bestows on American actions in the world. By ceding sovereign power, this grants adversaries like Russia and China, as permanent members of the Security Council, veto power over aspects of United States foreign policy. Iran and Syria are but two examples.
I hoped the final Obama-Romney debate would be about the effects of the Obama Doctrine and how the candidates would address foreign policy and national security problems that might arise in the next four years. I was disappointed with the redirection of the debate toward domestic issues, already discussed in the prior two debates.
I saw little light between the foreign policy positions of the candidates, with the difference coming from approach. Obama advocated negotiations and multilateralism, while Romney emphasized leadership through strength.
Romney was more detailed on his agenda, which led to this riposte to Obama: “attacking me is not talking about an agenda.”
Romney also had the debate’s most inspirational line. Sounding like Ronald Reagan, he said, “Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”
There was a third person on the stage, George W. Bush. No matter how the candidates shaded it, they were articulating Bush’s “freedom agenda.”
Obama’s declaration that “we would go after those who killed Americans” in Libya and “bring them to justice” is right out of the Bush playbook on Iraq and Afghanistan. How would he propose doing that without stumbling over his criticism of Bush?
The scariest statement made about foreign policy was not made last night, but seven months ago when, in an open mic gaffe, Obama said to then Russian president Medvedev, “After my election I have more flexibility.” I wonder what he meant by that?