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The calendar says Pres. Barack Obama took office in 2009, although that’s only a technicality. In his own mind, Obama ascended in Year Zero, a time of ritualistic cleansing in preparation for the relaunching of an America free from its past sins.
Has an American president ever appeared less vested in his nation’s history than Barack Obama? He shrugged off a rancid attack on the United States by Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega at the Summit of the Americas, including a rant on the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961, by saying he’d only been 3 months old at the time. Nothing to do with me.
It’s Obama’s own personal novus ordo seclorum. Or as an Obama official put it, “His expectation is that these debates of the past can remain that, debates of the past.”
Obama’s theory is that “if we are practicing what we preach and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand.” This is an old strand in America foreign policy, associated with what the historian Walter Russell Mead calls “the Jeffersonian tradition.” It is characterized, Mead writes, by the belief that the U.S. can best serve “the cause of universal democracy by setting an example rather than imposing a model,” and by a diplomacy of “speak softly, and carry the smallest possible stick.”
But Obama has been speaking softly to the point of national self-abasement. It’s as if we elected not so much a president as a University of Chicago law professor who — holding his country at a critical distance — analyzes its strengths and weaknesses in a boffo traveling lecture series. In Obama’s serial apologies — for America’s arrogance, for its mistreatment of the Indians, for Hiroshima, and so on — can be detected muted versions of the multiculturalist orthodoxies of academe and of the themes of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In the first sermon Obama heard from Wright, the pastor inveighed against Hiroshima and against how “white folks’ greed runs a world in need.” Hugo Chavez needn’t have bothered needling Obama by giving him the anti-American tract Open Veins of Latin America when, if he could have found the collected works of Jeremiah Wright, he could have scored many of the same ideological points through Obama’s erstwhile mentor.
President Obama’s overseas performance sheds light on Michelle Obama’s infamous formulation during last year’s primary campaign — that the rising tide of hope in the Democratic primaries made her proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. Listening to Obama’s dreary depiction of American faults, one wonders what she could possibly have found to be proud of prior to her husband’s rise.
Obama hopes that throwing America’s past under the bus will win him diplomatic chits abroad, as we “break free” from “stale debates and old ideologies.” What he doesn’t realize is that for enemies like Iran and Venezuela, the debates aren’t stale and the ideologies aren’t old. For these players, Obama’s rhetorical concessions are not ways to move beyond the debates but to make advances within them.
Obama seems to take active pleasure in saying that there are no senior or junior partners on the international stage. The danger is that foreign governments will actually believe him. Obama may think he’s being magnanimous and admirably humble about his own country, but adversaries could be forgiven for detecting weakness.
The nightmare scenario is that, while soaking up all the applause, Obama has had a Kennedy-Khrushchev moment. In 1961 the young, well-intentioned American president got pushed around by the Soviet premier in summit meetings in Vienna. After taking Kennedy’s measure and finding him lacking, Khrushchev embarked on a campaign of international assertion that eventually led to the Cuban missile crisis. This is the risk in Obama’s showy pliability and detachment from his country circa 1776–2008.
No president can be an island unto himself. It’s not Year Zero. History is still in full flower, for better or worse.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.
© 2009 by King Features Syndicate