The Wise People of American foreign policy — Madeleine Albright, General Jack Keane, Henry Kissinger, General James Mattis, George Shultz, and others — recently testified before Congress. Their candid and insightful collective message dovetailed with the worries of many former Obama-administration officials, such as one-time defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, as well as a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Their consensus is that the U.S. is drifting, and with it the world at large: The Obama administration has not formulated a consistent strategy to cope with the advance of second-generation Islamic terrorism. It is confused by the state upheavals in the Middle East. It is surprised by the aggression of Putin’s Russia and the ascendance of an autocratic China. Our allies in Europe, much of democratic Asia, and Israel all worry that the U.S. is rudderless, as it slashes its military budget and withdraws from prior commitments.
While I think the symptomology of an ailing, herky-jerky United States is correct, the cause of such malaise is left unspoken. The Obama team — with its foreign policy formulated by President Obama himself, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, White House consigliere Valerie Jarrett, Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and present Secretary of State John Kerry — is not in fact befuddled by the existing world. Instead, it is intent on changing it into something quite different from what it is.
1. Readjustments in the global order are long overdue.
The exceptional postwar influence of the United States did not result in a fair and just world and is thus in need of major recalibration. The use of military force abroad in recent decades has almost always been mistaken, proving a waste of lives and money, as it either has promoted the status quo rather than aiding the deserving and needy, or has promoted only the interests of those who mouth U.S. platitudes and falsely claim they are legitimate. The role of an all-powerful United States is not always beneficial, as it sets global norms according to our privileged tastes. For America to quietly recede and give other nations a chance to direct their own affairs and become global actors would be far more equitable, leading to a world that far better represents heretofore unrepresented billions of people. Such transformation is always messy; occasional violence and unrest are the price of equitable readjustments. Change is always misinterpreted and mischaracterized by reactionaries whose interests abroad are imperiled by any progress that leads to greater equality and fairness and to the end of unwarranted hierarchy and privilege.
Human nature is not tragic but is better understood from a therapeutic perspective. Most nations, in fact, interpret outreach as magnanimity leading to reciprocity, not as weakness deserving of contempt. Evil is not inherent in the world because of human failings such as timeless envy, jealousy, narcissism, greed, and vanity. Rather, to the degree that evil is absolute and not a relative construct, it is a transient condition and a curable symptom of poverty and absence of education. Leaders caricatured and demonized as a Cuban Stalinist, an Iranian theocrat, a Russian former KGB agent, and a plutocratic Chinese apparatchik in fact think no differently from us. But they have too often not been accorded a voice because the U.S. sought to bully them rather than reason with them. Polarizing and out-of-date labeling such as calling ISIS or the Taliban “terrorists” or “Islamists,” or reducing Bowe Bergdahl to a “traitor,” serve no purpose other than to simplify complex issues in ways that caricature those with whom we differ.
Instead, if we reduce our military profile and show other nations that what we are really interested in is fundamentally transforming U.S. society into a more equitable and fair place, our erstwhile enemies will begin to appreciate that we too are human and thus share their common aspirations. Ideals, persuasion, feelings, and intent are now the stuff of foreign policy, not archaic and polarizing rules of deterrence, balance of power, military readiness, and alliances.
3. Do abroad as we try to do at home.
The legacy of Barack Obama will be found mostly in foreign policy and especially in his forging of new ties with formerly ostracized regimes. Obamacare, the doubling of U.S. debt, the anemic recovery over the last six years, the near destruction of the Democratic Party at the state level and in Congress, the alphabet soup of scandals — GSA, IRS, NSA, VA — are not the stuff of a successful presidency, whatever the efforts of the solicitous media. Accordingly, Nobel Laureate Obama logically sees that history’s positive verdict on his tenure must come from abroad. He will normalize relations with Castro’s Cuba and let others worry whether there is any reciprocity on issues of longstanding disagreement. History will record the fact of normalization, not transient details concerning human rights. Obama will bring Iran into the fold of nations — its nuclear-weapons program soon accorded the status of Pakistan’s. He will work with Islamic radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, acknowledging their legitimate grievances and helping them to forge a new generation of Middle Eastern leaders. He has not given up on Erdogan’s Turkey as a logical bridge between Islamic and Western nations. He has tried to reset relations with Putin and will try again, as he stealthily promised President Medvedev before the 2012 elections. Israel will be accorded the status of Switzerland or Belgium, a minor entity deserving of normal U.S. relations, but not of extraordinary American commitments.
There are two pragmatic foreign-policy themes here: First, there is nothing newsworthy in working with our same old, same old allies like the Europeans, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and Canada, and reassuring them through our tired advocacy of the boring mantras of free-market capitalism, constitutional government, and a global order characterized by Western notions of rule of law and freedom of the seas, trade, and communications. In contrast, assuaging rogue regimes earns legacy headlines in the fashion of Kissingerian détente or Nixon’s going to China. Second, the world at large and the Left in particular will acknowledge and appreciate that Obama sought to flip the U.S. from being the bulwark of the established global order to being a protester with the masses at the barricades. If the power and influence of the United States is put on the side of global hope and change, we will see fundamental transformation in the world abroad as we have seen it at home. Contrary to popular opinion, the Obama legacy will not be found at home but abroad, in reordering the global role of the U.S. from an establishment power to a revolutionary force for change.
4. Don’t sweat the details.
Obama himself is a prophet, not a bureaucrat. The details of his grand vision will be left to younger, fresher functionaries who can sort out the confusions of implementation — why terrorism and Islamism are taboo words, or why trading terrorists for the deserter Bowe Bergdahl was a wise idea, or why nothing really happened at Benghazi, or why pulling all our troops out of Iraq had no effect on the creation of ISIS, or why setting timetables for withdrawal from Afghanistan does not encourage the Taliban, which is not a terrorist organization, and so on. Sometimes these inexperienced idealists will fumble and will be embarrassed publicly, but Obama himself will not intervene to correct the minutiae of inconsistencies in the implementation of his vision. Once-in-a-lifetime emissaries of change do not stoop to that. Who would have asked Mandela what was his position on NATO? Who wonders about Gandhi’s attitude toward Israel? Prophets are not like us and have no responsibility to articulate details or insist on logical consistency, much less to worry about how others of less talent implement their grand visions.
* * *
Keep these themes in mind, and the last six years will make better sense. The Middle East is not a mess, but a place in a needed stage of transition as it frees itself from Western domination and a new order slowly emerges. To the degree that we need a large military, it is preferable to envision it as an executive agency for enacting social change without the clumsy impediment of Congress, especially in terms of race, women’s issues, and gender preferences. It can do the best work for stability abroad by shrinking itself. Terrorism is in the eye of the beholder and always a relative concept that Westerners pathologically insist is absolute. As far as the world abroad goes, China is a more authentic enterprise than Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which are the products of U.S. Cold War nation-building in our own image, not of indigenous revolutionary self-creation. U.S. Cold War culpability — in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, South America, Cuba — is a burden that must be addressed through various means. The rules of nuclear proliferation are a Western construct. Israel is an abnormality, a Western outpost of capitalism and privilege where it has never really belonged, an irritant that should be treated like any other country as much as politically possible. Latin American grass-roots socialism is not Stalinism, but rather an extension of what Obama is trying to do at home.
I think the world now seems a chaotic place only if you assume that the Obama administration wished to be like its predecessors.