The incoming hope-and-change Obama administration advanced the narrative that at home and abroad it cared far more for people than profits. Its “reset” diplomacy (all in the past “bad,” all in the future “good”) was supposed to be about multilateral consensus instead of Bush-era unilateral hubris. But after almost 30 months, it is now clear that in our dealings abroad values like human rights, constitutional government, free-market liberal economics, and transparency do not matter much to the Obama administration.
In all the acrimony over the Israeli-Palestinian open sore — forget disputed lands, past history, even the matter of an ally versus an entity that is in league with our enemies — no one in the Obama administration has once reminded the American people that Israel is a liberal democracy that respects the rights of minorities, women, homosexuals, and the “other” in a manner that is still impossible on the West Bank or in Gaza. That Israel is prosperous and wealthy without natural resources in a way that most of its neighbors are not means little — and why that is so means nothing at all.
When President Obama voted present on the Iranian uprising and Secretary Clinton described the monstrous Assad as a “reformer,” completely absent was any awareness that both countries are repressive, cruel, and intolerant of dissent — in a fashion that even our past dictatorial and autocratic partners like the odious Mubarak or Ben Ali did not. I am not suggesting that the latter should have escaped condemnation, only that repulsion for the former two regimes should have been even more pronounced. And, again, it simply was not.
Whatever the respect that must be accorded to Putin’s Russia — given that it is vast, nuclear, rich with oil, and still a strategic player — it is hardly a society analogous to the new democracies of Eastern Europe such as Poland or the Czech Republic. But in all discussions about the thorny issues of missile defense, that fundamental fact was lost. It was almost as if Russia’s past anger at the U.S., and Eastern Europe’s support for the Bush administration, earned the one respect from the Obama administration, and the other suspicion, if not disdain. It seems too surreal to even suggest the following, but it is nevertheless likely: The degree to which a nation opposed the United States between 2001 and 2009 now wins it exemption from judgment; the degree to which it once supported us earns it present distrust.
I could go on in analyzing the administration’s outreach to Cuba and Venezuela, and its relative lack of interest in their more liberal neighbors, but the general charge that the Obama administration does not seem to give Westernized constitutional government and open societies much weight in its diplomatic calculus is true enough. Talk of promoting democracy or supporting reformers in the Middle East was belated and opportunistic. And it was so compromised by the confused, on-again/off-again nature of our advocacy as to be rendered irrelevant — who exactly are the Libyan rebels, why the confused intervention in Libya but not Syria, what exactly is happening in Egypt, is the Muslim Brotherhood really “secular,” why the suspicion of the Iraqi democratic government, and why the exemption extended to the Gulf monarchies in a way it was not to other autocracies?
What explains this paradox of self-described liberal thinkers not appreciating classical liberalism abroad? It is not old-fashioned right-wing realpolitik that calibrates Obama’s foreign policy — at least not on consistent criteria such as shared self-interests, national security, or access to resources, since the status of American alliances, our forward military profile, and a reductive commitment to help friends and punish enemies have never been more problematic.
Instead, American foreign policy is now becoming an extension not of classically liberal values, but of progressive suspicions of constitutional government, capitalism, and the historical role of the United States in particular and the West in general. The bowing to foreign potentates, the sad historical fabrications in the Cairo speech, the self-serving nonsense that arose in the first Al-Arabiya interview, and the so-called “apology tour” were simply superficial manifestations of a deeper ambiguity about America and its past and present values and world role.