Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

The Apology Policy

President Barack Obama strutted into the Oval Office utterly convinced of his moral rectitude. Unlike his predecessors, Obama would make policy based on an exquisitely calibrated conscience, sensitivity to constitutional norms, and a capacious vision of international unity. Among his first official acts was to sign Executive Order 13492, calling for the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities to be closed within one year. Terrorists would henceforth be handled “in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.” The New York Times swooned.

He spoke for most of the Democratic party — certainly for the Left. The late Howard Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States is still widely assigned in American high schools and colleges, saw the War on Terror as yet another opportunity for American aggression. “Terrorism has replaced Communism as the rationale for the militarization of the country, for military adventures abroad, and for the suppression of civil liberties at home,” he wrote. “It serves the same purpose, serving to create hysteria.”

A particular kind of blinkered moral preening characterizes the Left’s critique of America. Always on guard against domestic xenophobia — after 9/11, many rushed to decry an anti-Muslim backlash that never actually happened — it channels its moral energies into seeking forgiveness from foreign powers against which the U.S. has supposedly sinned.

While doctrinaire leftists are full of righteous wrath about Western imperialism, slavery, racism, and the rest, they studiously ignore the slavery, racism, and imperialism of other civilizations. Arab traders enslaved untold millions of Africans, Asians, and Europeans over the centuries. Japan’s wartime propaganda was steeped in racial superiority, and the yoke of Ottoman imperialism on non-Muslims could be harsh. The massacres of Greeks and Armenians at Turkish hands belong in the tragic annals of genocide.

The U.S., like every other nation, has many crimes in its history. But very few of them are recent, and no Democrat is proposing to return the American Southwest to Mexico as penance for an expansionist war. It’s precisely our recent history that the Left views astigmatically. John Kerry proclaims proudly that the U.S. will no longer “dictate” to others, as if the world had been living in fear of American aggression.

In fact, while the U.S. has committed its share of blunders in foreign policy, it has, since World War II, more or less consistently deployed its power to shield the weak from the strong. American power was arrayed to protect Western Europe, Greece, and Turkey from the Soviet Union; South Korea from North Korea; South Vietnam from North Vietnam; Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines from China and the USSR; and Israel from a host of enemies. Along the way, the U.S. extended support to democratic movements in the Philippines, Kurdistan, Africa, Latin America, and beyond. It has come to the rescue of Grenada, Kuwait, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Somalia.

That streak has been broken now. One of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first acts was to reassure China that human rights did not top the Obama administration’s list of concerns. “It is essential that the United States and China have a positive, cooperative relationship,” Clinton said. “Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these [human-rights] issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis, and the security crisis.”

Obama has “reset” relations with Russia, a nation that jails and murders opposition leaders, commits atrocities in Chechnya, seizes the Crimean Peninsula, assists separatists in lopping off chunks of Ukraine and shooting a commercial jetliner out of the sky, props up Bashar al-Assad in Syria, sells advanced anti-aircraft weapons to Iran, and scares Poland and the Baltic states out of their wits.

We, the “guilty” nation eager to make amends, now offer Castro’s Cuba business, diplomatic recognition, and hard cash. In exchange for this, the Cuban regime gives nothing and continues to brutally suppress democratic dissidents. About this, the Left is silent.

In the Middle East, the administration has taken to treating Israel and traditional American allies with contempt while wrapping its arms around Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Through their concordat with the Islamic Republic, the administration and the Democratic party also find themselves, in effect, on the side of Assad’s Syria, which receives crucial support from Iran. That, in turn, strengthens the hand of ISIS, which can claim to be the Sunni strong horse against the Syria–Iran–Russia alliance.

When not truckling to enemies outright, the Left’s foreign-policy thinkers rock gently in a dream world. They imagine that American interventionism is the original sin and are guided by the vacuous maxim “Don’t do stupid [stuff]” — the words with which White House officials are reported to have described Obama’s approach to world affairs. They fancy that wars can be “ended” regardless of whether the enemy shares this desire and believe that appeasement will soften the hardest adversary. The “tide of war is receding,” pronounced the deluded commander-in-chief as hundreds of thousands of Syrians were blasted by Iranian-supplied barrel bombs and millions of refugees spilled into neighboring states; as the Taliban recaptured Afghan cities America had liberated; as ISIS gained control of Iraqi oil fields, gibbeted children for breaking the Ramadan fast, and smashed ancient, irreplaceable treasures in Palmyra; as Christians and Yazidis were murdered for their beliefs, women forced into sex slavery, and hostages beheaded or burned alive before the entire world.

A modest United States, stooping under the weight of past offenses, has reduced its military to levels not seen since the 1930s. While technology has altered the calculus of naval power, numbers still matter. Last year, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, then chief of naval operations, testified that the Navy would need 450 ships to meet its worldwide missions; today, it has 289, half as many as it did in the last years of the Reagan administration. China, among other rivals, has noticed. It harasses the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam, and builds artificial islands in the South China Sea from which to take control of disputed territories. “It’s my sense that some nations view freedom of the seas as up for grabs,” observed Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. It doesn’t take long for the vultures to circle.

A diminished America has given rise to chaos and acute suffering. The “hands off” policy in Syria and total withdrawal of troops from Iraq have together created a human-rights cataclysm for the region and an immigration crisis of historic proportions for Europe. The flowering of ISIS in the ungoverned regions of Iraq and Syria is a horror flick come to life, while the nuclear deal’s aggrandizement of Iran plunges the world into a potential nightmare of proliferation or even nuclear war.

Doing penance for imaginary American crimes, the Democratic Left has inflicted real harm. As a geopolitical matter, the decline of American power has made the world a far more chaotic and dangerous place. And as a moral matter, American diffidence has spelled misery and death for hundreds of thousands of human beings, and may yet condemn millions more.

– Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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