Foreign policy is a bit like insurance. Most voters don’t think about it very much, and it doesn’t make the front page news, until something really bad happens. Foreign policy–in particular, foreign policy failures–have much to do with any president’s legacy. Upon assuming office, Bush had a real passion for tax cuts, legalizing Mexican illegal immigrants, and moving Medicare and Social Security towards privatization. Instead, after 9/11, he became a “war president,” and his deep unpopularity stemmed in large part from the long duration and indifferent results of the Iraq War.
Obama has never apparently thought much about foreign policy before becoming President. His passions were personal and domestic: a quest for identity through inner-city black power politics. To the extent he has expressed thoughts about foreign policy at all, he has been vaguely anti-imperialist, anti-military, and pro-Third-World. Such views dovetail nicely, after all, with his domestic politics. In addition, he fancied himself during the presidential campaign as the master of nuance, whose soft touch and appreciation for complexity stood in sharp contrast to Bush’s expressions of American exceptionalism.
How’s Obama doing? Well, perhaps still angry at his father’s treatment under British rule of Kenya, he recently, and without provocation, insulted the British Prime Minister, our long-standing ally in a great many wars and crises.
Now, in a story not widely reported, he’s formally committed to continuing American military support for Georgia, a nation run by the madman Saakashvili with whom we share few interests. This action’s only strategic importance is that our presence there is considered extremely provocative by its Russian neighbor. Everyone now pretty much acknowledges that Georgia started the war in South Ossetia last summer, that it is an indefensible country that must make peace with its large neighbor, and that any commitment thereto would further extend our thinly stretched military leading to a possible disastrous clash with the world’s second largest nuclear power. No change to believe in here.
On his centerpiece concern of Afghanistan, for no apparent reason, Obama has publicly insulted its Prime Minister, Hamid Karzai, apparently shifting the blame for our lackluster results in Afghanistan to this unlikely scapegoat. This kind of comment suggests someone unable to switch his tone from the variously permissive venues of academic hall, senior staff meeting, and public square. In other words, you don’t think out loud when talking about other nation’s leaders. Further, the content itself evidences willful ignorance, letting Pakistan’s occasionally disloyal intelligence operatives off the hook, and, to be fair, not grappling with our own mistaken strategy and tactics. Anyone genuinely concerned with U.S. counterinsurgency must notice that the U.S.’s extensive use of aerial bombs and penchant for heavy firepower routinely kills innocent rural Afghans and further alienates them from our goals and the Karzai government.
Finally, his economic policies have annoyed the Chinese, Germans, and French. Chicago politics did not require ideological choices rooted in principle, but rather chiefly consisted of payoffs to aggrieved ethnic constituencies. After leaving Chicago, as U.S. Senator, Obama focused on himself, the lunacy of the Iraq War, and uncontroversial projects like the Lead Free Toys Act. Now he must deal with genuine, principled, and likely irreconcilable conflicts regarding a complicated and worsening economic crisis. I predict many more stumbles, some with real consequences.
How could this all be? Even I’m a bit surprised. I would suggest that Obama is an example of what teenagers call “a legend in his own mind.” He never really considered these issues deeply. And his political life has been characterized by incubation in super-liberal Hyde Park, relatively liberal Illinois, nonideological Chicago ethnic politics, and a successful confrontation with an uninspiring GOP candidate in the general election. Obama’s always been introspective, race-obsessed, and self-obsessed as evidenced by the tortured prose of his first book, Dreams of My Father. But foreign policy requires more than brains and self-knowledge, but empathy, perspective, good sense, a deep store of knowledge, a good decision-making process, and a sense of limitations. For America, at this time, it calls above all for humility. Nothing in Obama’s policies or personal story exemplify much of this, nor does he have the personal failures, setbacks, and chastening confrontations with disaster that gave men like George Bush Sr., Harry Truman, and Richard Nixon a great deal of foreign policy horse sense.
Obama’s a conventional and very lucky politician, surrounded until recently by a sycophantic press corps. In his chosen arena, he has mostly faced opposition from weak and (with the exception of McCain) scandal-ridden competitors. Throughout his adult and political life he’s been coddled in one way or another by the high hopes and guilty fears of liberal whites. This is bad training and has bred in Obama an overinflated ego and sense of ability. This schtick won’t fly so much overseas, not least because, for the rest of the world, Obama’s simply the head of a very powerful nation with policies that many oppose for reasons of perceived interest rather than bad faith. His words won’t soothe foreign nations and foreign peoples, because they are much more focused upon the ways obscure U.S. policies may harm their interests. Worse still, a great number of foreigners want to see the U.S. fail because of lesser motives like pride and envy. Obama thinks that he can get a pass on this last piece because he too is one of the erstwhile oppressed, but I would suggest that it’s pretty hard to play that card when travelling by Air Force One and commanding the still mighty wealth and power of the United States.