The Obama reset foreign policy has, in an unintended way, brought clarity to America’s traditional role in the world. After 2004, “blame Bush” proved an easy way for Europeans and American liberals to delude themselves into thinking the world’s problems neither predated nor transcended George W. Bush: Tensions arose, America was at fault, Bush was the culprit, presto! Remove Bush, elect his antithesis, and a natural state of calm would return.
But suddenly Barack Obama’s brief tenure has reminded us that, in fact, almost all the world’s crises arose before the Bush presidency and continued during and after it. Examine current American foreign policy toward every region, and one of three general patterns emerges: Either things are no better since the end of 2008, or they are much worse, or the Obama administration has reverted to the Bush way of doing things — despite constant assurances to the world that Bush was at fault, American foreign policy was now reset, and global animosity arose out of past misunderstanding, insensitivity, and American hubris.
Take first our most vocal and overt enemies. Fidel Castro, after a few mixed messages, is still recycling his 1960s anti-American boilerplate. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is cementing relations with Iran and Hezbollah, and doing nothing to help matters either in Iraq or in the Mideast generally, despite being assured by Obama that he can do business with someone who is not “smoke ’em out” George Bush.
North Korea’s unhinged rhetoric and occasional missile or torpedo shots escalate. Hugo Chávez is becoming more authoritarian and more anti-American the more he need no longer call Bush a devil. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the world at the United Nations that the United States might well have planned to kill the 3,000 of its own citizens who died on Sept. 11, 2001; apparently the tired American apologies for the removal of Mossadeq nearly sixty years ago still do not register.
Note that in each of these instances, appeasement — failing to support the Iranian freedom protestors, ignoring the abuses of the Cuban and Syrian totalitarian regimes, and keeping silent about the destruction of democracy in Venezuela — has resulted in even more animus, just as appeasement of the unhinged and dictatorial always does. One might almost conclude that dictatorships hate American freedom, the global stature and power of the United States, and our propensity to oppose aggrandizement, and that they do not much care who happens in any given year to be in the White House.
Then there are the big four. China is more confident today in confronting the Japanese and its other neighbors in the Pacific. It sees no obstacle to being the new ascendant power, flexing its growing muscles as Japan did in the 1920s, and imperial Germany at the turn of the 20th century (and we know how all that ended up). Turkey wishes to become the new Ottoman Empire, and it sees the United States as largely indifferent to its ambitions, and perhaps even quietly sympathetic. Relations with India are no better than they were under Bush, and perhaps less friendly. Russia, in contrast, seems to be quite fond of the Obama administration — to the degree it is given concessions in return for empty promises. It weighs the downside of having a nuclear Islamic Iran in its neighborhood against the upside of having such a rogue state, which, at least in the short term, is more a problem for America than for Russia. Chaos in the Middle East, Putin knows well, is always good for the oil business.
Pressuring Israel did not bring any Middle Eastern breakthrough. To the extent that there has not been another intifada, it is largely a result of a mini economic boom on the West Bank, which continues despite, rather than because of, American negotiating.
Are our other allies — like Japan, South Korea, and Europe — suddenly much more friendly owing to Obama’s hope-and-change proclamations? Not really. All, for the first time in 60 years, have some suspicion that just maybe the sort of liberal American administration that they have so longed for might not be as ready as past administrations to come to their aid in the next crisis. Certainly, we have spent far more effort in winning over Putin than emphasizing our old alliances with Germany, France, and Britain. Japan and South Korea are starting to sense that their respective Communist rivals, China and North Korea, will soon become more their own problems than ours.
The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are now simply evolutions of the policies that George Bush had established when he left office. The “bad” war in Iraq that Obama campaigned against has become a better war than the “good” one in Afghanistan that he had hoped was over by virtue of NATO and U.N. approval.
Despite Obama’s interview with Al Arabiya, his Cairo speech, and his editorializing about the Ground Zero mosque, there has been no letup in radical Islamists’ efforts to kill us at home, as we saw in the cases of Major Hasan, Abdulmutallab, and the would-be Times Square bomber. What good Obama has achieved by resonating more effectively with the Middle East’s tired and poor is offset perhaps by the impression, fair or not, among would-be terrorists that he would not quite be as unpredictable and dangerous as past presidents, should there be another 9/11-like attack. As far as Muslim sensitivities go, serially promising to close Guantanamo Bay seems no better than quietly keeping it open.
Why, then, is the Obama reset policy a positive development?
Obama’s efforts, and the global reactions to them, are reminding the world that global tensions still arise out of perceptions of self-interest, regardless of who is in the White House.
When nations act contrary to American interests, they can be finessed somewhat by empathetic American officials, but they remain largely unaffected by apologies, bowing, promulgations of pseudo-history, and therapeutic mythologizing. Leaders like Putin, Assad, and Ahmadinejad act in their own perceived self-interests, calibrating to what degree a constant desire to maximize influence, stature, and wealth at someone else’s expense is balanced by the risk of any confrontations that might ensue and the possibility that they might lose — all such calculations being more likely when the players are, like these three, autocratic in nature.
In the end, Obama’s Carteresque sermonizing over the past two years has achieved the opposite of its intended result. The preaching, confessionals, and outreach, from the ridiculous bowing to Saudi princes to the supposedly sublime Cairo mythmaking, have reminded the world that anti-Americanism transcends alike the unfair caricatures of George Bush and the hokey apotheosis of Barack Obama. If we can avoid the wages of this naïveté — and not suffer another annus horribilis in the fashion of 1979 — then Obama’s inadvertent primer on unchanging human nature will have been worth it.
— 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.