Lots of questions arise about the muddled foreign policy of the Obama administration. Critics suggest that America’s friends have now become enemies, and enemies friends. Others cite incompetence and naïveté rather than deliberate agendas as the cause of American decline, and of growing global chaos from Libya to Ukraine.
But, in fact, there is a predictable pattern to Obama’s foreign policy. The president has an adolescent, romantic view of professed revolutionary societies and anti-Western poseurs — and of his own ability uniquely to reach out and win them over. In the most superficial sense, Obama demonstrates his empathy for supposedly revolutionary figures of the non-Western world through gratuitous, often silly remarks about Christianity and Western colonial excesses, past and present. He apologizes with talk of our “own dark periods” and warns of past U.S. “dictating”; he contextualizes; he ankle-bites the very culture he grew up and thrived in, as if he can unapologetically and without guilt enjoy the West’s largesse only by deriding its history and values.
In lieu of reading or speaking a foreign language, or knowing much about geography (Austrians speak Austrian, the death camps were Polish, the Indian Ocean Maldives are the politically correct name of the Falklands, cities along the U.S. Atlantic Coast are Gulf ports, etc.), Obama adopts, in the manner of a with-it English professor, hokey accentuation to suggest an in-the-know fides anytime he refers to the Taliban, Pakistan, or Teheran. Reminiscent of college naïfs with dorm-room posters of Che Guevara, Obama mythologizes about the underappreciated multicultural “Other” that did everything from fuel the Western Renaissance and Enlightenment to critique Christian excesses during the Inquisition. In truth, what he delivers is only a smoother and more refined version of Al Sharpton’s incoherent historical riff on “astrology” and “Greek homos.” Obama refuses to concede that Islam can become a catalyst for radical killers and terrorists, and he has a starry-eyed crush on those who strike anti-Western poses and have turned their societies upside down on behalf of the proverbial people.
Keep that in mind, and it makes sense that, during the Egyptian turmoil, Obama was intent on ousting the pro-Western kleptocrat Hosni Mubarak and investing in the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the dark anti-democratic history of Mohamed Morsi and the Brothers and their agenda of Islamicizing the most populous country in the Arab world. For Obama, such zealotry is evidence of their legitimacy and the justice of their efforts to overturn the established hierarchies of old Egypt.
Moammar Qaddafi was a monster and a thug. But in fear both of radical Islamists and of the implications for Libya of the Western military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and eager to have Western knowhow rehabilitate his ailing oil and gas industry, he had reached out to the West and ceased his support for international terrorists. But ridding Libya of the cartoonish and geriatric Qaddafi and allowing it to be overrun by stern revolutionary Islamists was again in tune with Obama’s rose-colored view of the Middle East.
One of the many reasons why Obama pulled all U.S. troops out of a stable and secure Iraq at the end of 2011 was that its democracy was, in his eyes, tainted by its American birthing and its associations with George W. Bush. Such a hazy belief that Western influence and power are undeserved and inordinate made it initially impossible for Obama to condemn ISIS as growing and dangerous rather than dismiss it as “jayvees.”
Putin perhaps should study Iran’s PR effort and its aggression in Lebanon and Yemen. If he would only cut out the guns, tigers, and “macho shtick,” and instead mouth shibboleths about the oppressed minorities in Crimea and Ukraine and the need for revolutionary fairness, he might be reset yet again. His crimes were not so much naked invasions of his neighbors, as aggression in the most un-Iranian fashion of a right-wing kleptocrat and thug. Again, nothing Putin has done is all that different from what Iran did in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
No one could quite figure out why Obama bragged of his “special relationship” with Turkey’s prime minister Recep Erdogan. Erdogan, after all, is systematically destroying free expression in Turkey. He has bragged that he got off the bus of democracy when he no longer found any utility in it — and he has openly romanticized the Ottoman imperialists. A once-staunch NATO ally, Turkey has turned into a virulently anti-Israeli and anti-American society that has spiked tensions in the eastern Mediterranean with Cyprus, Greece, and Israel. But, again, the redeeming virtue was that Erdogan was taking Turkey in a new and revolutionary direction, trying to massage the Arab Revolution as its spiritual mentor, and becoming point nation in hatred of Israel. In other words, Turkey was churning and evolving, and, for Obama, that apparently was a good thing.
Without asking anything in return from Cuba — such as releasing political prisoners or allowing free expression — Obama by executive order is normalizing relations with the Castro brothers, who are allied with fascist Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. He keeps saying that 50 years of containment have “failed,” as if successfully curbing Cuba’s revolutionary aspirations abroad was a bad thing, and siding with dissidents in its gulags was counterproductive. For Obama, the Castros are authentic anti-colonialists. They perhaps may have broken a few too many eggs to make their egalitarian omelets, but their regime is certainly preferable to what is envisioned by loud Cuban exiles in America or troublemakers like imprisoned Cuban refuseniks.
When the aging Nicaraguan Communist Daniel Ortega — of $3,000 Manhattan sunglasses fame — dressed Obama down in a 50-minute rant about Yanqui imperialism and neo-colonialism, Obama offered a lame, “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.” Note the message: The problem was not Ortega’s conspiracist diatribe, or his scapegoating the United States for his own self-inflicted pathologies. Ortega’s error was instead having the audacity to suggest that Obama, an American, was guilty by association. Obama thus corrected him only in the sense that the current American president was too young to have abetted American sin, not that America was not sinful. A more savvy Raul Castro, who unleashed another rambling rant reminiscent of Ortega’s, at least made it a point to exempt Obama from association with all his usual anti-American targets.
Keep in mind this juvenile view of the revolutionary non-West, and there is a clarity of sorts in American foreign policy. Honduran leftist president Manuel Zelaya, when he tried to overturn the constitution and earned the wrath of the Honduran Supreme Court, the military, and the National Congress, nonetheless won the support of the Obama administration.
For Obama, in the struggle between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, Israel is a Westernized colonial construct and a proponent of Western neo-liberal capitalism. The PA and Hamas, in contrast, are seen both as the downtrodden in need of community-organizing help and as authentic peoples whose miseries are not self-induced and the wages of tribalism, statism, autocracy, fundamentalism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism, but rather the results of Israeli occupation, colonialism, and imperialism. Obama may not articulate this publicly, but these are the assumptions that explain his periodic blasts against Netanyahu and his silence about the autocratic Palestinian Authority and the murderous Hamas.
In such a landscape, the current Iranian talks make perfect sense. Obama was in no mood in the spring of 2009 to vocally support a million, pro-Western Iranian dissidents who took to the streets in anger over the theocracy’s rigged elections, calling for transparency and human rights. He snubbed them as if they were neoconservative democracy zealots. In his eyes, their false consciousness did not allow them to fully appreciate their own suffering at the hands of past American imperialists. In Obama’s worldview, the Iranian mullahs came to power through revolution and were thus far more authentic anti-Western radicals, with whom only someone like Obama — prepped by the Harvard Law Review, Chicago organizing, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s pulpit, and the most liberal voting record during a brief stint in the U.S. Senate — could empathize and negotiate. Why would Iranian idealists and democrats be foolish enough to spoil Obama’s unique diplomatic gymnastics?
Traditional analyses deconstruct the Obama administration’s negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and are aghast at the naïveté — no stop to ongoing uranium enrichment, no open or surprise inspections, no conditions to be met before sanctions are scaled back, no prohibitions against the marriage of nuclear-weapon technology and intercontinental-missile development.
But that is to misunderstand the Obama worldview. He is less worried about a nuclear Iran and what it will do to a mostly pro-Western Gulf or Israel, or to other traditional U.S. interests, than about the difficulties he faces in bringing Iran back into the family of nations as an authentic revolutionary force that will school the West on regional justice. (“There’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody.”) Iran will assume its natural revolutionary role as regional power broker in the Middle East; and, almost alone, it is not beholden to any Western power.
In some sense, Obama views the rest of the world in the same way as he views America: a rigged order in which the oppressed who speak truth to power are systematically mischaracterized and alienated — and in need of an empathetic voice on the side of overdue revolutionary accounting.
The chief danger in Obama’s romantic view of revolutionary societies is that nothing in their histories suggests that these regimes will ever cease aggression or adopt internal reforms. Cuba will still stir up revolution in Latin America and ally itself with anti-American regimes. Iran will still subsidize Hezbollah and Hamas — and, soon, in the fashion of a nuclear power. Turkey will still try to carve out Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influence at someone else’s expense and destroy secular traditions. And one-election, one-time Islamic movements will still attempt to set up theocracies the moment they snatch power. And at no point does Obama ever empathize with thousands of dissidents rotting in Cuban and Palestinian jails, or homosexuals and feminists persecuted in Iran or journalists in Turkey.
The only distinction between these illiberal movements and the unromantic Putin’s Russia is their more wily professions of revolutionary fervor, which apparently have fooled or captivated the Obama administration.