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The Innocents Abroad
From the September 19, 2011, issue of NR


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John Bolton

Barack Obama’s badly flawed worldview and the incoherent foreign policy flowing from it have now disintegrated. Within the past few months, his media acolytes notwithstanding, the evidence has become conclusive: Obama’s presidency is gravely wounding America and its friends. His response to virtually every significant threat or crisis has either complicated or worsened the problem, or, at best, left it essentially no closer to resolution.

Obama has repeatedly highlighted his propensity to apologize for America’s past transgressions (as he defines them), and his disinclination to be assertive on our behalf. Indeed, so radically different is Obama from any prior American president that many observers have concluded that he has a comprehensive plan, and that somewhere in all that mess there must be a doctrine. Others look not for a plan, but for a plot; pop psychology and conspiracy theories abound as to why Obama is so comfortable, even enthusiastic, about American decline.

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But it is folly to look for rhyme and reason when there is neither.

For better or worse, there is no single dispositive flaw in Obama’s doctrine, since there is little that resembles a doctrine. His saunter through world affairs is unstructured. Instead, the explanation for his policy’s failure, and its well-deserved collapse now unfolding before us, lies in a jumbled mix of philosophy, political priorities, and personal inadequacy. Like Obama’s presidency generally, his national-security flaws combine ideology, naïveté, weakness, lack of leadership, intellectual laziness, and a near-religious faith in negotiation for its own sake.

Perhaps most significantly, Obama is simply not interested in foreign and defense policy. To state such a proposition about a U.S. president seems counterintuitive or even shocking, but Obama is different from all of his predecessors, Republican or Democrat, since Franklin Roosevelt. His first thought on awakening each morning is not about threats to America, its global interests, and its friends and allies, but about his efforts to radically restructure our economy and society. That is where his intellect and his heart are focused, and his lack of attention to the rest of the world is palpable. When Obama has no other choice but to concentrate on international affairs — such as during the Afghanistan surge or the killing of Osama bin Laden — he will do so, but only for as long as is necessary to address the immediate problem before him.

In those few national-security areas where Obama does his homework, a second characteristic predominates: He simply does not see much occurring internationally that threatens American interests. Such a benign view of a chaotic world may be even more shocking than his general lack of interest, but it is yet another reflection of his underlying intellectual laziness. He is most politely described as credulous and inexperienced, especially for someone who lived overseas as a child. During both the 2008 campaign and his presidency, for example, Obama has downplayed the very concept of a “global war on terror,” treated nuclear proliferation as a side issue, and ignored the enormous strategic threats posed by a rising China and a belligerent Russia. American decline, most recently reflected in S&P’s downgrade of America’s sovereign debt to below France’s level, is untroubling and even natural to him.

In days gone by, Americans with such attitudes were classified as isolationists. But the president is no advocate of insularity, instead choosing multilateralism and expressing it in rhetoric that could have come straight from its source, Woodrow Wilson. It was Wilson, after all, and not our first community-organizer president, who insisted that “there must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.” Here is the ideology of negotiation and global governance in its fullest flower.


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