Most Americans still believe the nation is in recession, massive numbers say the United States is on what pollsters call “the wrong track,” and President Obama’s signature health care program is in what in polite company might be referred to as “disarray,” but compared to his foreign policy, he’s doing a smashingly good job here at home.
Russia is on the march, Iran continues to thumb its nose at the West, Syrians continue to die by the hundreds of thousands, the North Koreans are even crazier than usual, and China is trying to assert sovereignty over water and land belonging to her neighbors. Meanwhile, our traditional allies and those who have historically relied on us for comfort and protection are dismayed at policies that make little if any sense.
The problem is that the president and those advising him live in a theoretical rather than real world. They understand neither human nature nor the simple fact that nations — with perhaps the single exception of the United States — tend to act in their own rational self-interest. To Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, that may mean our adversaries act like we are living in the 19th rather than the 21st century, but human nature and national strategic interests tend to remain the same regardless of the century in which we find ourselves.
It has been clear since his inauguration that Mr. Obama rejects both what is loosely called “American Exceptionalism” and the role of this country as peacemaker and international umpire in a competitive, unruly and often ugly world. He seems convinced that it is we rather than the realities of that world or the actions of our adversaries and enemies that are the root cause of many of the problems we face. In this context, his first-term apology tour and refusal to support U.S. allies he doesn’t particularly like makes some sense.
The one former president Barack Obama shuns is Jimmy Carter, who might actually be able to provide the man with some advice. There are good reasons to avoid much of Mr. Carter’s advice, but it was he who looked at the world in an eerily similar manner. Mr. Obama could benefit from what happened when Mr. Carter was mugged by reality. In those days, the Russian Empire that Vladimir Putin is working so hard to reconstitute was run by Marxist-Leninists and was known as the Soviet Union. Its leaders posed an existential threat to the West that Mr. Carter thought would be ameliorated if we didn’t threaten the boys in the Kremlin. He found after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and launched a worldwide campaign to expand into Africa, Latin and South America that he’d been wrong and reversed course. It was too late, and he didn’t quite know what to do about the situation in which we found ourselves as a result of his earlier policies, but at least he admitted he’d misread his adversaries, experienced an epiphany and knew he would have to deal with reality rather than myth.
The world throws an endless number of curves to dreamers. Mr. Obama is being forced at long last to deal with a Russian leader intent upon expanding the power, prestige and influence of his country at the expense of his neighbors and the stability of world order — whether we like it or not. He’s doing it because he knows he can get away with it when his chief adversary’s leaders respond as Mr. Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry did recently by saying we “hope” Moscow will reverse course.
In the days following the World War II, the United States began dismantling its military as it had after previous conflicts. The American people after years of sacrifice began to turn isolationist, but the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe and the fall of China forced Americans of both parties to deal with the reality they faced. The result was the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Truman Doctrine and a bipartisan dedication to keeping the peace by maintaining a strong military and letting the world know that American resolve remained as strong as it had been after Pearl Harbor.
Today’s generation is as war-weary as those who suffered through World War II. They reject the foolish interventionism of those who advocate an American Crusade to remake the world in our image, but like generations before them, they know we live in a dangerous neighborhood and that weakness breeds war rather than peace. Political leaders of both parties have an obligation to understand what we can and cannot do to maintain our own interests, to stand by our friends, to deter our adversaries and to rally their fellow citizens behind a rational foreign and defense policy reflecting that understanding.
Even Sen. Rand Paul, who has been characterized by his critics as a dangerously naive isolationist, has a far better grasp of this obligation than does the group now in charge of our foreign policy. He knows we cannot afford to ignore Russian adventurism lest we be faced with a crisis we cannot ignore. He has been struggling with some success to balance his wish that the United States avoid foreign military commitments and ruinous attempts to police the world with the realization that we cannot ignore aggression or what goes on beyond our shores. It is possible to agree or disagree with him, but at least he realizes that one’s desires and dreams need to be tempered by the realities of human nature and the world in which we live.
It is just as clear that Mr. Paul, like others in the Republican Party and some Democrats, is motivated by a rational belief in “American Exceptionalism” wholly absent from the thinking of Mr. Obama and those around him.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.