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.
In the Obama way of thinking, adversaries can claim an indigenous authenticity by the degree to which they share the progressive suspicion of the United States. What an Ahmadinejad or Assad shouts about America is simply a crude and bombastic version of what is too often taught in university ethnic-studies or political-science classes. That is why the unhinged Dr. Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden loved to quote back at us everyone from a like-minded Noam Chomsky to a befuddled Jimmy Carter.
We did not “meddle” in Iran, because we were convinced that America was still culpable — a half-century later — for the Mossadegh mess. To support spontaneous democratic demonstrations of brave reformers might carry the smell of neoconservative democratic advocacy. And the protesters, nearly one million strong in the streets of Teheran, in turn were deemed less genuine by the very fact that they found something akin to our own system preferable to their home-grown theocratic nightmare.
The Arab League’s resolutions on Libya are honored while the U.S. Congress is not even consulted. The unelected members of the former are true representatives of the region, and their wisdom is thus legitimate; the elected representatives of the latter would only be guided by their Western prejudices and thus are suspect. Given the history of Yanquis in Latin America, we must consider extenuating circumstances that “locate” the oppression of a Castro, Chavez, or Ortega — while wondering why in the world a Chile, Colombia, or Honduras has at times emulated the United States. Questions of whether a Chilean is freer and more prosperous and has more legal protections than a Cuban or a Venezuelan are simply not part of the diplomatic equation.
Of course, there are ancillary motives for this bizarre foreign policy in addition to progressive suspicion of U.S. institutions and past behavior. The therapeutic notion of being liked is surely a driving force, inasmuch as the tragic notion of being respected or honored is seen as a 19th-century ossified concept with no relevance in a multilateral, multicultural global landscape. Unease with Europe and its Western heritage is an outgrowth of academic hectoring about its imperial and colonial past: A Nigerian is poorer than a Frenchman not because of an absence of transparent lawful government and property rights — both possible with sound indigenous leadership — but because of past and ongoing oppression by white interlopers.
Where does this new reset diplomacy lead?
Only to irony.
Because we cannot reassure our allies that we will meet our obligations, we will be less, not more liked for our deference and indecision. Leading from behind in Libya will not impress either our enemies or our friends in the Middle East. And if such lethargy was intended to embarrass Europe for its past nitpicking and present impotence, that message of Schadenfreude was sufficiently delivered on about day one of the Libyan bombing. Tilting toward Palestine at the expense of Israel will only remind radical Islamists that we are more afraid of their extremism than we are proud of our own tolerance.
In other words, what is forgotten in all these new ways of thinking about the world — which ultimately derive from half-century-old dogma about power, oppression, and the role of race, class, and gender in constructing norms — is that human nature is unchanging and trumps culture, race, and politics.
The most bloodthirsty Islamist, the loudest French Marxist, the most calculating Chinese realist — enemy, friend, or neutral — nonetheless will alike privately respect, or at least fear, those who live according to honor, consistent principles, and shared values, and take their word as their bond.
In other words, the more this administration tries to conduct its foreign policy in accordance with the values of most others abroad, the more most others abroad will dislike us for what we have become.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.