Politics & Policy

Ten Commandments for Our Next President

President Obama in the Oval Office (Pete Souza/White House/Flickr)
A good rule of thumb is to look at what Obama has done, and then do the opposite.

1. Do not deflect blame onto others. Take personal responsibility when foreign policies implode — and at least a few will. Read Churchill’s speech after the fall of Tobruk. Presidents do not scapegoat Congress, the opposite political party, the secretary of state, the last president, cable news, obscure video-makers — or the American people — for an intervention gone badly. Telling the truth is far easier and simpler than inventing a web of Sunday-morning-television talking points, excuses, lies, and pretexts.

2. Share credit for success with Congress and Allied leaders, rather than chest-thumping and spiking the ball over supposedly unilateral presidential achievements where the real work was often done by unsung military heroes or intelligence operatives. A good way to start is by curbing the presidential use of “I,” “me,” “mine,”and “my.” Avoid especially the narcissistic monotony of “my team,” “my staff,”and “my advisers.” The public knows well enough that the president of the United States runs the country and influences the world without hearing ad nauseam from him that he is the center of the universe. The president is supposed to be larger, not smaller, than the rest of us.

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3. Do not utter threats: no red lines, step-over lines, or deadlines. Failing to enforce an ultimatum only weakens U.S. credibility, while dutifully carrying out a loud warning becomes anticlimactic and merely dutiful. Teddy Roosevelt’s century-old advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick” still remains wiser than backing brutes into a corner — only to let them worm out — or trading insults with thugs. When a president is forced to say, “I don’t bluff,” we know that he does.

4. By the same token, do not publicly insult foreign leaders — whether enemies or friends. Avoid ridiculing Russian president Vladimir Putin as some sort of class cut-up, or Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an insensitive ideologue, or France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy as a showboater, or British prime minister David Cameron as ineffectual. Even presidents and prime ministers are creatures of emotion. Enemy strongmen, once insulted, are more likely to cause gratuitous problems. Friendly leaders will keep their distance if they feel the president of the United States is an adolescent name-caller. Inspiration demands elevation; the commonplace earns contempt.

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5. Praise soft power, but put little faith in it. Until the nature of man changes, hard power will matter more than all the noble appeals to shared aspirations and similar economic and cultural interests. Soaring rhetoric about global ecumenicalism has a shelf life of about two speeches; after that, audiences can fill in the blanks and snooze no matter how eloquent the cadences. The amoral Chinese and Russians will win over our allies, if the latter feel they are safer and more secure joining with dictators than remaining friends with the United States. Deterrence is won or lost not just by force or the lack of it, but by either the likelihood or the impossibility that it could at any moment be used.

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6. Do not expect to make a lasting bargain, break-through treaty, or new friendship with a thug. Democratic leaders lie far less and can be trusted far more than dictators, who have misleading and cheating imprinted in their DNA. Age-old vocabulary like “allies,” “enemies,” and “neutrals” has not suddenly become invalid. The Castros in Cuba, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, theocratic Iran, Bashar Assad in Syria, and Kim Jong-un in North Korea have long been renegades for a reason: If they were not the brutes that they are, they would not have power. The ancient Athenian playwright Aeschylus was right when he warned, “It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.”

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7. Do not trust periodic bursts of hysteria from politicians, celebrities, media figures, or pundits. Most members of those categories in the Boston–New York–Washington corridor have no real ideology; they simply align for a while with perceived success or distance themselves from assumed failure. If a bombing or a rescue operation goes badly, there will be few who will admit that they once demanded such action. If an intervention goes well, even its opponents will claim parentage. Obsequious reporters and politicians have a moth-to-flame addiction to the flicker of power; they are not especially fond of, or loyal to, the person who happens for the moment to wield it.

8. Accept that some problems are for the present intractable. They won’t go away until larger geostrategic conditions change — or current leaders lose power. There is a reason why most Palestinians do not and will not accept Israel, and why Israel cannot be willing to grant concessions until they do. To believe that a president of the United States can by force of personality, charisma, ego, or skill cut the Middle Eastern Gordian Knot is sheer narcissism — and dangerous.

#related#9. Speak nicely of, but never rely on, the leadership of the United Nations. Its resolutions were of no value in Libya. It did nothing to stop genocide in Syria. It is run by a majority vote of its members — and the majority of the members of the General Assembly are crudely non-democratic, and many of them are themselves targets of the U.N.’s sanctions. If multilateral action becomes necessary, only the United States can assemble and lead the necessary coalition. Multilateralism is neither better nor worse than unilateralism. (The greatest multilateral force in history was the varied and huge contingent of 500,000 soldiers from Hitler’s allies who joined the 3.5-million-man Wehrmacht to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941.) The mission, not the breadth of the coalition, determines the morality.

10. Listen to Winston Churchill’s advice and never criticize or apologize for the United States while abroad. Plenty of foreigners will trash America without the president of the United States joining in the rebuke while on foreign shores. The job description of the president is not that of the secretary general of the United Nations or of a campus activist. If a president does not believe that, then he should not be president.

Victor Davis Hanson — Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. You can reach him by e-mailing authorvdh@gmail.com. © 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.