President Obama came into office billing himself as an international sophisticate. He knew the “Muslim world,” he could relate to the Europeans and he could work with other nations, unlike his predecessor. Or so he said. The reality is different; the irony is that the supposedly unworldly President George W. Bush was infinitely more engaged in the world around him and dedicated to helping the poor and repressed than is his successor.
Bush trumpeted the liberation of 40 million Muslims from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. He championed democracy throughout the Middle East and took up the cause of fighting AIDS in Africa. He and first lady Laura Bush focused on the plight of women in Afghanistan. Regardless of the varying success of his endeavors, he was no American Firster. As he often said, he was committed to the idea that the promise of freedom was not for America alone.
By contrast, aside from speechifying, Obama has told the world’s poor and subjugated that they are on their own.
Elliott Abrams, writing before the Syria debacle, observed that Obama doesn’t really give a darn about oppressed and poverty-stricken people in other countries:
On the human-rights side, administration policy has been marked by indifference. When the people of Iran flooded the streets to protest the theft of their presidential election in June 2009, President Obama was silent for 11 days. . . .
If “global citizenship” requires assisting people who are poor or sick, the key post for advancing it in Africa is that of assistant administrator for Africa at the Agency for International Development. Obama left that post vacant for more than three years. Similarly, the post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom was vacant for half of the president’s first term — another indication of his interests and priorities.
We’ve gone from President John F. Kennedy’s “bear any burden” to Obama’s “bear no inconvenience.” In 1995, President Bill Clinton ordered two weeks of bombing in the Bosnia war with a total of 12 American casualties. A fraction of that operational commitment is now unacceptable to Obama, who would rather grasp at an obviously phony deal with the Russians than respond to the mass murder of 100,000, including thousands by WMDs. It is quite stunning when you think about it.
Many Republicans have followed a similar path to isolationism. In a 1984 speech, Ronald Reagan declared:
Peace with freedom is our highest aspiration — a lasting peace anchored by courage, realism, and unity. . . . Only when our arms are certain beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be used. President John F. Kennedy spoke those words in 1961. Too many who admired him have forgotten that the price of peace is dear.
Reagan was the president who demanded freedom for Eastern Europe, backed freedom fighters in Africa and Central America and continually championed the cause of Soviet dissidents.
Now Republicans parrot the liberal adage that we must “nation-build at home,” as if they ever believed the key to domestic prosperity was government spending. Many declare we have no interest at all in places like Syria. And those who do favor internationalism rhetorically (e.g. Sen. Marco Rubio) have no interest in practicing it (e.g. in Syria) when the chips are down.
Americans, contrary to the left-wing myth, are not “imperialistic” and do not eagerly embrace war. No democracy does. But since World War II, both parties have more or less accepted the notion until recently that we had international responsibilities and that these, on occasion, required military action and sacrifice. In the aftermath of 9/11, we had thousands and thousands of young men and women volunteer for the military to do just that.
The easy explanation for the transformation is that Americans are “war-weary.” But in fact the vast majority of Americans suffered no personal loss or inconvenience from wars fought with a volunteer military. This is not Europe of the inter-war years that had lost a generation of young men.
Others would say that we are looking inward because economic times are hard. But although unemployment is historically high in the Obama “recovery,” we are nowhere near the depths of past recessions.
I would suggest several factors explain the complete aversion to international intervention.
First is widespread dismay, if not disgust, with the terror, repression and chaos throughout the Middle East. It is one thing to sacrifice for attainable ends, but rightly or wrongly Americans see our involvement as useless. If we accomplished something decisive and concrete, many Americans might see involvement as regrettable but necessary and effective.
Second is the naive belief that we can check out. As my colleague Jackson Diehl writes, “At the root of Obama’s foreign policy dysfunction is a refusal to accept that an American president must take on the history that erupts on his watch — whether it is the fall of the Berlin Wall, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the Arab revolutions — and use his unique power to shape it. It’s no use lamenting that this is not where he wants to spend his time or that the public isn’t interested.” The childlike belief that if we ignore chaos and violence it will go away — or not affect us — is heralded as an actual policy. (Obama “ends” wars and doesn’t start them, he says.) The desire to go back to 9/11 days is accompanied by a stony indifferent to the world’s agony.
Third is the unfortunate desire for politicians in a hyper-polarized electorate to attack the other party’s president, regardless of the merits of that person’s actions. Democrats and the media (I repeat myself) demonized George Bush for fighting wars that initially were overwhelmingly popular; many Republicans cherished the opportunity to deal a blow to Obama in the context of Syria, regardless of the international consequences. Fairly soon everyone is on record opposing some president who engaged in some military action. Appeals to support the president and the credibility of the nation fall on deaf ears.
And finally, we are in an era in which political leadership — the willingness to convey hard truths and rally public opinion to a cause greater than self-interest — is at a low ebb. Democrats won’t ask Americans to trim entitlements; Republicans falsely suggest to their constituents that if we just cut foreign aid our fiscal problems will evaporate. By playing the class-warfare game, liberals inculcate a brand of selfishness and suspicion. (The rich are ripping me off.) By practicing the politics of nihilism, the far right tells its voters that politics is about getting everything you want or blowing up the political system. The army of partisans in the media and in action groups encourages this behavior and vilifies those who understand politics is not about getting everything you want.
At critical times in our history, an FDR or a Reagan came along to pull Americans out of the doldrums and shake them from the isolationist temptation. They educated the public over a long period of time, appealed to the better angels of our nature, called for America to recapture its greatest (“a rendezvous with destiny” Reagan called it) and carved out means to meet our objectives. Do we have such leaders? And do we have an electorate willing to listen? We’ll find out in the next few years.