President Obama has ignored the recent history of U.S. foreign policy, faithfully repeating failed strategies and turning his back on successes. The pattern is so strange and striking, we can almost hear it trying to tell us something. The something is this: You cannot be a nationalist and a globalist simultaneously; not if you take either of those ideologies seriously. The president takes them very seriously, and has made it clear that he is not a nationalist but a globalist.
Globalists believe that nations should act together. Globalists denigrate or dismiss such ideas as national interests, traditional alliances, and traditional enmities. They believe in the interests of ethnic communities or peoples and of the world as a whole, not of old-fashioned nations. They recoil from traditional alliances, which fracture the seamless world community into small-scale liaisons. Because they reject national interests, they reject traditional enmities. And naturally globalists believe in international organizations, and the inevitability, in the long term, of the whole world’s uniting. They see Europe as the world’s most sophisticated place by far, and the EU as the obvious model and advance guard for world unity.
There’s nothing wrong with being a globalist. But if you are a serious globalist, obviously you cannot be a serious nationalist too: You cannot also believe that “my country’s interests always come first,” that our goal in world politics must be to promote our national interests first and mankind’s second. A morally serious nationalist will tend to believe that his country’s interests and mankind’s often coincide. But that doesn’t mean that his nation’s interests are usually the same as other nations’, or that his national interests are necessarily the same as mankind’s.
The president’s deafness to history is one of his defining traits. It can hardly shock us. In many cases it goes no deeper than the fact that history is not the president’s strong suit; he’s not interested. He has told us so himself over the years, in richly revealing campaign slips. But a president’s repeating policies that have failed in the recent past, his ignoring historical precedents that his aides will obviously have told him about, can be crucial in understanding his worldview. When he takes the trouble to ignore precedent, to repeat something that has been tried and has failed, he’s putting stickers all over the policies he is repeating. They say, Look at This! This Is Important! Pay Attention! You might believe that history tells us that this is a bad idea. But I think it’s such a good idea that I’m doing it anyway.
Obama’s foreign policy tells us something crucial about the man and the Democrats that, on the whole, we’d rather not know. But we have a duty to know it.
Consider one of his most important and characteristic acts (a true Obamanation). He removed American troops from Iraq as abruptly as a child snatching away a cloth from a set table to show us that nothing moves. Someone should have told the president that this trick never works. But Obama had promised during the campaign to “end the war in Iraq.”
Of course George W. Bush had already ended it, by winning. The surge and first-rate leadership on the ground had left al Qaeda with no important Iraqi territory under its thumb, with its leader (Zarqawi) dead and its leadership rejected by the Sunnis who were supposed to be its powerbase. So “ending the Iraq war” didn’t mean ending the war; to Obama, it meant removing every last American.
Now, our Iraqi victory had not come cheap. It was a costly, precious accomplishment that should have been laid down and treasured like fine wine awaiting maturity. Instead, Obama tossed it casually at the nearest garbage can and missed.
Saddam Hussein’s murderous, totalitarian Iraq had been smashed to pieces and then glued carefully back together in the shape of a sane, democratic nation. But the glue needed time to set. The State Department and Pentagon had settled on 10,000 as the minimum number of U.S. troops to stay behind while the new Iraq stabilized. The major Iraqi political parties had agreed. But Obama was restless. No doubt he had looked forward for the longest time to ending a war. His administration proceeded to undercut its own decision, and the Iraqis who had agreed to it, by waffling on the number of Americans to remain behind. Obama reveled in the subsequent collapse of status-of-forces talks with Iraq, pulled every last man out, and celebrated the “end of the war.” Two and a half years later, American troops are back, facing not a sane, reconstructed nation but a simmering catastrophe.
Even before we glance at history, we can see a crucial piece of Obamic philosophy through the loose weave of events. The Iraq war had been won—a great gain that had come at great cost; Obama’s only duty was not to screw it up. Why would he risk failure at this tremendously simple and important assignment?
Because for Obama, our victory in Iraq was not the kind of victory that counts. It was a mere victory for America. What matters for Obama is not America’s victories over her enemies but Democratic victories over Republicans. Those are real victories. And I am not accusing the president of mere small-mindedness. His views emerge from deep beliefs that conservatives would rather ignore, and the left would rather have them ignore.
The Democratic left is increasingly a globalist party. The left is frankly tired of the whole nation-state bit. Obamiacs see themselves as citizens of the world. The globalist urge is evident in Europe, but you see it on display in America too in its early stages, announced clearly by our leading universities—as ever, the heart of the establishment. It’s not just a matter of what our fanciest universities think and teach but what they do. They are passionately anxious to go global and are opening new campuses all over to prove it—in Asia and the Middle East especially. The sooner they become truly global, the sooner they can stop being American.
As for the president, it is obvious that American interests don’t move him. He is protected only by our natural reluctance to say so, or even think so. Yet how could he be any plainer? He wants to open our borders and blur the line between citizen and inhabitant, harmonize our health care with Europe’s, fulminate about the quintessential globalist issue—man-made climate change—and, in foreign affairs, act like one more low-key, stylish European nation. Our ambassador to Libya was murdered in Benghazi. To kill an ambassador, who stands for us and speaks for us, for the whole nation, is a crimeagainst the whole nation and was intended to be. No self-respecting state could conceive of leaving such a crime unpunished. Yet Obama reacted as if this assault on America were a low-grade political nuisance for the Democratic presidential campaign. Did he feel it as an American? The answer is obvious.
Michael Doran recently argued, in Mosaic, that détente with Iran has always been the hidden center of Obama’s foreign policy. He is convincing; I agree with him. But one can be convinced by Doran and still search deeper, for the reason behind Obama’s flagrantly outrageous reaction to Benghazi and other striking decisions that go beyond Iran.
How much more clearly can he spell it out? Obama doesn’t care about “American interests.” He hasmoved beyond them to higher and more important things—to the welfare of the whole world, not just America. The very idea of America strikes him as antiquated, primitive, embarrassing. And, naturally, the road to globalism runs straight through the Democratic party.
New York’s ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani made big headlines last week by accusing the president of not loving America; of lacking patriotism. Giuliani ought to have known that one can’t make such accusations without evidence. And even if the evidence is forthcoming, the accusation will be treated unenthusiastically (to say the least) by an establishment that dislikes and disapproves of patriotism. It doesn’t yet feel entitled to say so, but that doesn’t change the facts.
The view of Obama I outline here is related to Giuliani’s, but I’m not accusing the president of anything. I merely note that, given the conflicting ideologies of patriotism or nationalism versus globalism, the president obviously prefers globalism. My goal is to understand the assumption that connects many seemingly unrelated Obama policies—and (equally important) the ways in which these assumptions are shared by many other Democrats.
At the same time, Giuliani’s statements struck a chord (or a nerve) everywhere. They were ill-considered, indiscreet. But many people have been thinking along the same lines as they watch the administration’s increasingly reckless and bizarre reaction to jihadist terrorism.
Obama wants jihadist terror to be like street crime. Mere street criminals can’t dismember a city. Globalism would be likewise untouched by random terrorism that affects every nation equally. But jihadist terrorism makes a lie of globalism. It proclaims (just as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Imperial Japan proclaimed) that “our interests and the rest of the world’s are irreconcilable, and our interests must dominate everyone else’s.”
It is likewise natural that, in Iraq, the president should have exchanged an American victory over al Qaeda for a Democratic victory over Republicans. In the long run, American victories are unimportant. But party victories for the Democrats point to the beautiful globalist future.
The same thing has happened before—albeit in different circumstances. In Vietnam, as in Iraq, we had got ourselves into deep trouble before a radical shift in strategy turned the war around. In June 1968, Creighton Abrams replaced William Westmoreland as American commander. Abrams focused the U.S. war effort on making South Vietnam safe, village by village, instead of using enemy body counts as the decisive measure of success. The U.S. public was satisfied: The 1972 presidential election became a referendum on the war. “Come home, America!” exhorted George McGovern, a proto-Obama—as he lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide.
But the cultural revolution—the decisive event in American history between the Second World War and today—had turned the establishment against the war. And then came Watergate, Nixon’s bizarrely elaborate and prolonged Götterdämmerung. Gerald Ford became president. When North Vietnam violated the ’73 cease-fire agreement by invading the South (again), President Ford desperately sought emergency funds from Congress to support South Vietnam. Congress refused. Saigon fell. The congressional Democrats had won a great victory—against the Republicans.
“Let’s pull every last man out of Iraq; to hell with the consequences.” Not so different from “Let’s pull every last man out of Vietnam; to hell with the consequences.” Of course in Vietnam, the results were no catastrophe—except for the untold thousands who were driven out to sea in rowboats, shot to death, or slowly murdered in reeducation camps. The main thing was, the Republicans were trounced. It took eight years of Reagan to rebuild American capability and confidence, to recover from the left-Democratic 1970s.
It’s probably not fair to say that the post-Watergate Congress was indifferent to America in the modern globalist sense. Then, the Democratic left clearly disliked America—but the “global economy,” the EU, and the Internet had yet to present the obvious globalist alternative. Still, Obama’s affinity for the anti-Vietnam war Democrats is as clear as his affinity for Jimmy Carter.
Many of Obama’s foreign policy disasters go back to Jimmy Carter and the shah of Iran. The fall of the shah was a complicated story. He was a friend of the West—yet he and his secret police had ruled brutally. But towards the end of his reign (and his life) he wanted to compromise. Carter’s government was split: National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and his pro-shah hardliners versus Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his gentleman leftists. For a long time, Carter went with Brzezinski. Then he switched to Vance. The shah had appointed a moderate government whose head (Bakhtiar) decided the shah himself must get out. The shah, tired and dying, looked to Washington to decide. After much pondering and throat-clearing, Carter agreed with Bakhtiar. The shah left. Catastrophe followed.
For Carter this was truly a hard problem, way over his head. Obama might have profited from Carter’s mistakes, but chose to replicate them instead. When brave Iranians swarmed the streets of Tehran protesting tyranny in the summer of 2009, Obama blew them off. Not even Carter combined so successfully the twin policies of toadying to the mullahs and getting them to hate you at the same time.
Obama instinctively prefers America’s enemies to its allies: The logic of globalism suggests that America should neutralize its unfair advantage by favoring enemies—not just Iran but Russia and China—and cold-shouldering friends, such as Israel and Canada. Carter’s instincts were the same. But Carter was honest enough to admit, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that he had completely misjudged Moscow. Putin’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine gave Obama the same opportunity to correct himself under the cover of events—which he brushed off.
Obama tacitly supported the Iranian mullahcracy, but would not support Mubarak in Egypt. He shrugged off Mubarak’s long history of standing with Washington—and let him be knocked off. Although Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi had made the dramatic gesture of laying his nuclear arms at our feet, Obama helped knock over Qaddafi too—again, with no apparent thought about what was to follow. Obama carefully postponed support for the rebels in Syria until the situation there was out of control.
George W. Bush had a useful doctrine that Obama has also made a point of ignoring. It was a supremely sane and important doctrine, although Bush never “enunciated” it; it was common sense and he took it for granted. The rule in a rough neighborhood is, hit me once and I’ll hit you twice, hard. This is how you deal with young thugs who are old enough to hit but not think. The world at large saw our reaction to 9/11 in simple terms. We smashed the Afghan government and then we smashed the Iraqi government. We had good reasons to go into Iraq, but in larger terms we could have accomplished the same thing by destroying the governments of Syria or Libya. Our message said don’t mess with us, loud and clear.
We know the Bush policy worked because the terrorists failed to capitalize on the momentum of 9/11 by murdering more Americans. We know it worked by Qaddafi’s voluntarily surrendering his nuclear weapons in 2004, to get on our good side—suddenly it mattered whether you were on our good side.
We must be far more careful, in the future, to ask our presidential candidates a delicate, embarrassing, but crucial question. How much do you care about the United States of America? About this nation versus the world at large? Where do you stand on nationalism (on Americanism) versus globalism? Of course it won’t be easy to get straight answers where they actually count.
Not to care much about America doesn’t make you mean or bad—you might care deeply about the welfare of the poor, about the lives of women or religious minorities or the elderly or wild animals or domestic animals, about international trade or space exploration or world peace. You might be a fine candidate for sainthood. But you are a rotten candidate for president. Think carefully about Obama and his record—please!—before you turn the page.
David Genernter a professor of computer science at Yale, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. His new book Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness will be published by Norton this year.
© 2015 Weekly Standard LLC. Reprinted with permission.