Last week, former Obama national security advisor Susan Rice — she of the infamously shifting Benghazi explanations — published an op-ed in the New York Times dedicated to the proposition that Trump’s “America first” foreign policy has “relinquish[ed] the nation’s moral authority in these difficult times.” According to Rice, Trump has shifted away from seizing “opportunities to expand prosperity, freedom and security” around the globe.
Yet when confronted with protests in Iran, it was Trump, not Obama, who took the hard-line approach in support of freedom.
In the past few days, thousands of Iranians have marched against the terrorist regime in Tehran. As of this writing, twelve of these Iranians have been murdered by the country’s Revolutionary Guard. Trump has tweeted his support for the protesters, spoken out in their favor, and made clear that he’d love to see them topple the regime itself.
Contrast Trump’s behavior with that of the Obama administration, which deliberately ignored anti-regime protests in 2009, choosing instead to cozy favor with the regime and maximize Tehran’s regional power. The administration even went so far as to give Tehran a legal pathway to a nuclear weapon. Obama stated that while he was “troubled” by violence against the protesters, it was “up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be,” and he hoped “to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.”
The administration would go on to allegedly leak Israeli plans to kill the commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, to the Iranians, lie to the American public about contact with the “moderate” Iranian regime regarding a nuclear deal, and then ship pallets of cash to the greatest state sponsor of terror on the planet.
So what do members of the Obama administration have to say about the newest Iranian protests? They present a solid combination of willful dissembling and shocking historical revisionism. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former national-security guru, tweeted: “The Iranian people are rightfully demanding dignity, less corruption, more opportunity, and greater control over their lives. In look at US twitter, it seems lost on too many that this is about what Iranians want for Iran, not about us.” He seems to have missed the part of history where he personally strengthened the regime the Iranian people are protesting. Rice sounded off in the pages of the New York Times once again, this time to tell Trump to “be quiet” — because being quiet last time was so successful that the Iranian regime publicly shot dissenters in the streets with no serious blowback.
This, then, is the irony of Trump’s foreign policy in contrast with Obama’s: Obama jabbered endlessly about American leadership while simultaneously “leading from behind.” Trump actually pursues American leadership while simultaneously claiming the isolationist mantle of “America first.”
Obama jabbered endlessly about American leadership while simultaneously ‘leading from behind.’ Trump actually pursues American leadership while simultaneously claiming the isolationist mantle of ‘America first.’
All of which prompts a question: What does it mean to exercise American leadership? Does it mean pursuing coalition-building above all, or does it mean going it alone? Does it mean taking hard-line stances that advance America’s interests or subsuming those interests to the greater global good?
Maybe American leadership doesn’t really exist at all. Is it possible that nations don’t follow America out of allegiance to our priorities, but out of their own political calculations? Is it possible that we’re the biggest dog in the room, and that nations calculate whether or not to follow us at their own peril? Is it possible that one way of controlling America’s foreign policy is redefining “universal principles” like liberty until they are unrecognizable, and then convincing American leaders to accept such perversions as the defining goals of American policy?
That was the seduction to which the Obama administration fell prey. Obama and his acolytes are moral relativists to the core, but they preached moral universalism in foreign policy. How, then, did they define those universals? With reference to the European consensus. We were to be tools of a European-defined morality. To buck that morality would be to buck the new international consensus.
The result was entirely predictable: Corpses piled up on the streets of Tehran, Mosul, Raqqa, Beirut, and Jerusalem, even as the Obama administration preached its own moral excellence.
George Washington warned of just this phenomenon. He predicted a time when America would lead the world in might. The danger, he said, would be getting sucked into the game of “international leadership” and into the notion that European-defined “universal principles” ought to govern our foreign policy rather than our own interests. Our own interests, Washington thought, would often serve those universal principles abroad, but not always. And allowing other nations to redefine liberty itself before making it a central pillar of our foreign policy pillar would be disastrous. That’s why Washington warned in his farewell address that the United States ought not “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice.”
American leadership doesn’t mean alliance-building or going it alone, per se. It means pursuing our own interests, which will be more moral than those of other nations because we are a nation founded on a moral creed.
The Trump administration seems to have come to this correct conclusion from the wrong direction. Trump campaigned along isolationist lines, imitating the worst excesses of the Ron Paul crowd. But because he perceives himself to be a moral actor in the world, his foreign policy has followed the basic belief system Washington laid forth: Make alliances where possible, but pursue America’s interests above all. That’s why Iranian protesters now have an ally rather than an enemy in the White House. And that’s why America’s foreign policy is more moral under Trump than it was under Obama.