President Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize with a speech about American exceptionalism, the existence of evil in the world, and the necessity of using force. At times it seemed as if he were channeling George W. Bush. But then he would suddenly morph into George McGovern, as when he attributed the prevention of World War III and the Berlin Wall’s collapse to the “architecture of peace,” which he defined as “the Marshall Plan and the United Nations.” He went on to explain that a just peace in the future could be secured by “agreements among nations. Strong [international] institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development.” Somehow, military deterrence didn’t quite make the cut.
As always, Obama’s words have received considerable attention and praise. But to truly understand his foreign policy, we would do better to look at his recent actions on the international stage. If you’re a national leader somewhere trying to figure out how to chart a course for your country in the Age of Obama, there seems to be one ironclad rule: You are better off being America’s adversary than her friend. The reason? You are likely to be treated better. If you don’t believe me, just ask political leaders in Israel, Central Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
The president has pushed our ally Israel to unilaterally freeze all new settlements in exchange for vague promises from Arab states. Obama simply asked that the Palestinians and Arabs agree to talk in return for Israel giving up its one bargaining chip.
In Central Europe, allies such as Poland have seen the Obama administration cancel America’s promised missile-defense shield. Never mind that Poland went all out supporting the plan. Or that Poland has soldiers dying in Afghanistan. (Indeed, Poland is sending 600 more troops to Afghanistan next year.) Obama pulled the reversal to appease Russia, which has long opposed the shield. Obama also softened American opposition to a Russian energy plan that would make Europe more dependent on Moscow. And how has Russia responded? By failing to support a harder line on Iran’s nuclear program, and by conducting military exercises that included a war-gamed nuclear attack on Poland.
On his recent visit to Asia, President Obama snubbed the Dalai Lama and seemed bent on appeasing China at every turn. He did not press Beijing for the opportunity to address the Chinese people directly, and he agreed to speak only before groups that were hand-picked by the Chinese government. He also went along with Chinese demands not to take questions during the joint presidential press conference.
When it comes to Iran, which has thumbed its nose at the world over its nuclear program, Obama’s policy has been all carrot and no stick. (At best, he has offered a twig.) When Obama presented the idea of Iran’s being allowed to send most of its uranium abroad to be turned into medical research chips, the mullahs rejected it. What was Obama’s backup plan? Nothing.
These are not simply missteps: They represent Barack Obama’s true views of the world. The Obama administration came into office claiming that America’s foreign-policy problems were all of our own making — indeed, that they were the results of the Bush administration’s arrogance, and could only be corrected with Obama’s multilateralism. But in reality, Obama’s multilateralism is nothing but mushiness. He uses the term “partner” to describe everyone: Russia, our European allies, China, Israel. This sort of moral confusion sends terrible signals to both friends and foes. Friends under threat, such as Israel and Poland, openly question America’s commitment to them. Our adversaries see Obama’s ambiguity, not as evidence of reason, but as evidence of weakness.
None other than Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior official in the Carter administration, has said that Obama demonstrates “a disturbing amateurishness in managing America’s power.” As Gelb points out, Obama’s foreign travels represent a dramatic break from American diplomatic traditions. Most (if not all) presidents used foreign visits as an opportunity to finalize a deal or sign a treaty. But rather than use his own trips to achieve concrete results, Obama instead uses them as an apology tour. Former presidents Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, and either of the Bushes would never have weakened presidential prestige and authority by traveling overseas simply to issue a national mea culpa.
President Obama’s recent speech on Afghanistan — which essentially amounted to splitting the difference by giving U.S. commanders part of what they wanted — reflected the same sort of moral mushiness. Wasn’t this the same leader who during the 2008 presidential campaign proclaimed that Afghanistan represented “central front” in the war on terror?
Obama’s softer touch has yielded nothing in the way of increased allied unity. Indeed, our Western allies seem as divided as ever over how to deal with Iran, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. Our Western European allies, in contrast with allies such as Poland, appear to have little interest in making a sustained commitment to Afghanistan. For our adversaries, Obama’s softer touch has simply served to encourage their worst instincts. Obama shows a profound naïveté when it comes to understanding the problems in this world. He needs to understand, before it’s too late, that soft words and sweet reason will accomplish nothing with leaders who harbor destructive attitudes.
President Obama invoked the name of President Kennedy during his Nobel speech. According to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, JFK’s favorite quote was from Dante’s “Inferno.” “The hottest places in hell,” it reads, “are reserved for those who in a time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” Moral neutrality is never good foreign policy — whether during the height of the Cold War or today.
– Former congressman Bob McEwen is the chairman of Renewing American Leadership. Rick Tyler is the organization’s founding director.