Politics & Policy

What Obama Thinks of Islamism, Communism — and America

(Jim Young/Reuters)
The 20th century through the eyes of Barack Obama.

There has been quite a debate recently about President Obama’s understanding of Islamism, and his refusal to use terms such as “Islamist terrorism.” But he has given us his view of another significant term: Communism.

In one of his apparently innumerable conversations with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama explained his view of Communism. To be fair, here is the full paragraph from Goldberg:

In one conversation, parts of which I’ve previously recounted, Obama talked about the decades-long confrontation between the U.S. and communism, and compared it to the current crisis. “You have some on the Republican side who will insist that what we need is the same moral clarity with respect to radical Islam” that Ronald Reagan had with communism, he said. “Except, of course, communism was not embedded in a whole bunch of cultures, communism wasn’t a millennium-old religion that was embraced by a whole host of good, decent, hard-working people who are our allies. Communism for the most part was a foreign, abstract ideology that had been adopted by some nationalist figures, or those who were concerned about poverty and inequality in their countries but wasn’t organic to these cultures.”

Wow. First of all, by 1991 it is fair to say that Communism was indeed embedded in a “whole bunch” of cultures, to use the president’s phony populist phrasing. I am currently reading Second-Hand Time, by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, which in its description of the Soviet collapse brings out the voices of lots of former Soviet citizens who were born and raised in a culture in which Communism had been embedded.

But that’s a minor point compared to the president’s assessment that Communism “was a foreign, abstract ideology that had been adopted by some nationalist figures, or those who were concerned about poverty and inequality in their countries.” The notion that the Communist nomenklatura in Russia or Communist China or anywhere else was composed of people whose main goal was to eliminate poverty is bizarre and hopelessly wrong. Stalin and Mao were not motivated by reducing poverty; they were concerned with seizing and keeping power. Mao put it pretty well: “Communism is not love. Communism is a hammer which we use to crush the enemy.”

Stalin and Mao were not motivated by reducing poverty; they were concerned with seizing and keeping power.

As to nationalism, it’s hard to argue that Russian national power was Lenin’s key goal. It was a stepping-stone to creating a multi-ethnic and multi-national empire, the USSR, and for the expansion of Communism to Europe and then the Third World. Just as Iranian nationalism was not the key value for Khomeini (Shia Islam was), neither was Communism essentially a form of nationalism — nor was it adopted by leaders whose goal was national power. Rather, it was adopted by those whose goal was personal power. Communism was a theory that justified and excused them in demanding totalitarian power — in crushing enemies and outlawing opposition. Orwell once called Communism a form of power worship, and he was right.

Is any of this a big deal? It is an interesting insight into how the president thinks about the 20th century. His apparent view that Communism was essentially a form of idealism, combining nationalism and the search for social improvement, is wrong. It makes one wonder about his view of the Cold War, the American role in defeating Communism, and, indeed, America’s global role yesterday and today. His Hiroshima speech began this way:

Seventy-one years ago, on a bright, cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.

Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not so distant past.

The problem with these words is their utter lack of context: There is no mention of Japanese militarism and fascism, no attack on Pearl Harbor, no Bataan Death March, no Rape of Nanking. It seems as though on one “bright, cloudless morning,” the United States decided to obliterate Hiroshima. This is another insight into how the president thinks about America and the 20th century: We were not the people who saved the world from fascism and Communism, we were the people who opposed nationalism and equality — and who dropped the atomic bomb.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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