It is obligatory to start this one out with the point that not everything on earth is Barack Obama’s fault. Not everything is even the fault of the ideology he embraces. The affairs of men are more complicated than that. Obama, like every U.S. president, has to respond to a number of things that didn’t necessarily happen because of his policies, just as he has to shoulder the responsibility for things that have happened because of his policies.
The complexity of human affairs means, moreover, that it is simplistic to view such concepts as negotiating or using force in a single, all-purpose framework. “Negotiating” isn’t always weak, nor is it always wise, benign, or the only “peaceful” course. “Using force” can be stupid or smart, depending. Sometimes it’s just the least atrocious option. Other times, it’s the most atrocious, and not using force is still atrocious. Life is like that. It can even be obvious what’s the “right” thing to do, without that course being appealing or politically acceptable.
So we can keep these caveats in mind as we go through this short (and by no means exhaustive) list of topics on which the current president is unrepresentative of how the American people have traditionally seen things.
1. Whom we negotiate with. A Daniel Henninger column was one among several communications which highlighted this past week – by implication, at least – that President Obama is apparently willing to negotiate with everyone on earth except John Boehner. The Iranian mullahs, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood – everyone, except the leader of the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
That form of intransigence is, actually, a standard feature of Bolshevism, as well as a banana-republic-type approach to domestic politics. It’s the opposite of what Americans expect from our chief executive.
Note that this criticism doesn’t mean we shouldn’t negotiate with anyone who opposes us. (Or, for that matter, that we should.) Sometimes negotiation can be a fruitful approach. I have considered negotiation to be a serious and preferable option from the beginning for the crisis in Syria, for example – if it’s handled properly. Likewise, I believe we could handle the Iran nuclear problem through negotiation – if the negotiation took a form different from, and more urgent and stringent than, the one we have been using over the last decade.
What we mustn’t lose sight of, however, is the incongruity of the Obama posture, which embraces negotiation with declared foreign enemies and anti-American radicals, but not with Obama’s duly elected, mainstream domestic political opposition. Let us refine that by pointing out that the Obama posture is incongruous in the context of consensual republicanism. In the context of Alinskyism or Bolshevism, it is perfectly in order.
2. How we treat our allies. Regrettably, how Obama proposes to treat Republicans in Congress is emblematic of how he has approached America’s formal allies and longtime friends abroad. Whether he is too exhausted to have a proper diplomatic event with the prime minister of Great Britain, long America’s closest ally; whether he is surprising a Polish ally who has gone out on a limb for us with a unilateral concession to Russia on ballistic-missile defense; whether his secretary of state is delivering heated ultimatums to Japan, one of our closest and most reliable allies and the linchpin of American security in the Far East; whether his representative in Honduras is rebuking and failing to back a longtime friend for following its own constitution to defend the Honduran republic against an anti-democratic power grab; whether his federal agencies are deliberately flooding our neighbor Mexico with small arms – without prior consultation with the Mexican government; or whether his administration is demanding unilateral security-policy concessions from Israel: in each case, he is doing something unrepresentative of how Americans assume we should treat our allies and friends.
3. How and why we respect “democratic” outcomes. Obama may not distinguish between sustainably consensual political arrangements and the “one man, one vote, one time” model of electoral despotism. But the American people do.
In Honduras, in 2009, we understood that Hondurans had not elected Mel Zelaya (in 2006) for the purpose of having their constitution trampled in an unconstitutional back-alley process. In Iran, in that same year, we recognized that the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who thronged the streets, at peril of their lives, had legitimate grievances about the premises and integrity of their national election.
In Egypt in 2013, we recognize that the millions of protesting Egyptians did not sign on, via the 2012 election, to the brutal and inhumane agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. An “election” is not a suicide pact. Governments and ruling coalitions must keep their end of the civil contract – and a government is not doing that when it encourages the burning of churches, silences the independent media, ignores the constitution, or stands by while the people’s livelihoods are mowed under in factional shoot-outs.
An election is not a magic wand that legitimizes despotism, nor do people knowingly vote for despotism in categorical or definitive numbers. Despots who get elected always do so through a combination of deceptive and underhanded tactics – and then labor to destroy their opposition, along with destroying political speech, and declining when necessary to submit to the voters again at all. Americans know that perfectly well, even if our president doesn’t operate from the same perspective.
4. Who is a radical, and should be treated as one. The Muslim Brotherhood is a radical organization, which seeks to impose Sunni Islamism across the globe. Since the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus has been on transforming Middle Eastern governments into ministries of sharia radicalism. Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations do not become moderate by incorporating as 501(c)(3)s or 501(c)(4)s in the United States.
Iran’s ruling “Islamic revolutionaries” began as and remain Shia radicals. Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has, likewise, his own form of radicalism (Sunni, in his case). The Taliban is a radical organization. So are al-Qaeda and all its affiliates. Hezbollah and Hamas are radical. None of these groups has moderation, consent, or the good of the people – as the people would see it – in mind.
The FMLN in El Salvador is a radical organization. It didn’t become moderate by gaining political power in an election, any more than Daniel Ortega or Evo Morales or the late Hugo Chavez did. It’s always a good indicator of radicalism, when a politician or faction proposes to keep power by demonizing and incarcerating the opposition, packing the courts, and rewriting the constitution.
The American people tend to dislike foreign aid programs anyway, but they especially reject the concept of sending aid to, or otherwise legitimating, foreign governments which have been taken over by radical – invariably anti-American – ideologues. Americans oppose “engaging with” these radicals on a basis of falsely conferred legitimacy. When the U.S. president does it, Americans are disgusted.
5. When we use military force. Americans do not universally agree that the only legitimate use of force involves a formal declaration of war. What they consistently agree on is that using force should be done only when there is a clear and tangible national-security interest at stake. (When reminded of it, Americans tend to give a big thumbs-up to the “Weinberger Doctrine” for the use of force, or, in its more recent incarnation, the “Powell Doctrine.”)
The use of force should then have a concrete relation to the national-security interest in question. It should have in view the achievement of a measurable goal: that is, an end-state, and not merely a set of conditions, in which the bad situation may continue, but Western niche constituencies can feel better about themselves. Americans will tolerate the pursuit of a goal they are dubious about (e.g., in Kosovo in 1998; in Iraq from 2003-2011) much better than they tolerate the absence from our force calculations of a rationally identifiable goal (e.g., in Lebanon from 1982-84; in Somalia in 1993).
From Afghanistan to Libya to Yemen, Uganda, and Syria, the sensibility displayed by Obama and his administration has basically been the opposite of this more traditional pattern of American thinking. It takes a lot for the people to lose faith in the president as our national-security leader. But because his pattern of using force and making other kinds of foreign policy has entailed just that “lot,” the people have lost faith in Obama – as evidenced by the extraordinarily negative recent polling on a Syria intervention.
The American people don’t think the world is stupid and recalcitrant for resisting the kind of “leadership” Obama offers. We’re not even sure, amongst ourselves, how to characterize that “leadership”: whether it’s deliberate radicalism, for example, or simple incompetence, or ideological purity untethered to reality.
Even the lower-information voters among us are increasingly sure, however, that Obama’s form of international “leadership” doesn’t represent American interests or the beliefs and preferences of the American people.