Signature foreign policies often define presidencies. For Ronald Reagan, it was standing up to communism and advocating “peace through strength.” For Bill Clinton, it was sponsoring humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia. For George W. Bush, it was promoting global freedom and using pre-emptive force and other tough measures to prosecute the war on terrorism.
President Obama has not proclaimed any doctrine yet, but you can see some very definite characteristics in how he conducts foreign policy. Read closely, they reveal a lot about where he’s taking the country.
First there are the apologies. It is sometimes assumed that they focus exclusively on repudiating Mr. Bush’s policies, but they have been far more sweeping than that. They included apologizing to Turks for Americas “darker periods” and even lamenting the dropping of the atomic bomb in World War II — things for which Mr. Bush was hardly responsible.
Mr. Obama apparently believes that a collective American mea culpa will encourage enemies and rivals to think better of their anti-Americanism. It hasn’t worked out that way. The Iranians have redoubled their efforts to get a nuclear weapon. And even though Mr. Obama’s personal popularity is high abroad, his apologies have done nothing to get friends and allies to pony up more for Afghanistan and support other administration initiatives.
How could it have worked out differently? Iran wants a nuclear weapon to be a regional superpower, not because it is offended that America dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Russia wants to deny America missile defenses not because they are put off by our “darker periods” of history, but because it wants to be a global power. If Mr. Obama had apologized for something he had actually done — and not for something the rest of us Americans supposedly did — then maybe the world could have taken it seriously.
Second, there is the habit of pushing against allies while “engaging” enemies and rivals. Again, the pattern is well known (from getting tough with Israel and abandoning the Czechs and Poles on missile defense to extending a hand to Iran). Part of the rationale appears to be that Mr. Obama thinks that backing our friends too energetically will provoke our enemies. Thus snubbing our friends becomes yet another way to “engage” our enemies. If we show Iran and Russia that we really don’t care that much about Israel or Poland, the thinking goes, maybe they’ll back off.
Fat chance. Iran and Russia don’t vigorously press us because we are too close to Israel or Poland. Iran wants to dominate the Persian Gulf region, and Russia wants a sphere of influence on its borders. We could drop on our knees in tearful self-flagellation and it wouldn’t make a difference.
The third signature characteristic is the grand head fake — using big government reports and staging elaborate summits to distract from the real problem at hand. The Washington Nuclear Summit was celebrated for its lofty goal of keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists. But all it accomplished were inconsequential promises from Chile, Canada and other non-threatening countries to give up their enriched uranium. Likewise, the New START treaty with Russia and the Nuclear Posture Review were tied up in a melodramatic package to rid the world of all nuclear weapons.
Amid all these distractions, nothing gets done about the big gorilla in the room — Iran’s nuclear program. Even Mr. Obama’s secretary of defense believes we do not have a coherent policy toward Iran. Nor do we have an adequate missile defense plan to deal with the possibility that Iran could strike the U.S. with a nuclear missile by 2015. Despite the fanfare, these summits and treaty signings are supremely beside the point. The real threat is Iran, and the administration doesn’t have a clue what to do about it.
Fourth (and last), Mr. Obama apparently believes he must prepare America for its inevitable decline. He reportedly was impressed by Fareed Zakaria’s argument in “The Post-American World” that Americas days as the dominant world power were ending. When Mr. Obama says he sees no difference between American or Greek “exceptionalism,” hes actually saying no one nation is exceptional at all — not even the U.S.
But if that is true, then we’d best drop all that pesky talk about freedom and democracy and get busy cutting back on our military. Oh wait, he’s done that already.
Most Americans are not ready to ride off into the sunset. Mr. Obama’s view of America’s world destiny is profoundly pessimistic — and wrong. As my colleague Ted Bromund suggests, we should not be hunkering down for a new dark age of realism in which U.S. leaders, not unlike Prince Metternich, scorn freedom and democracy to preserve some tired, old international order.
Instead, we must remind them that America as the “indispensable” country depends directly on America the “exceptional” nation. Our better days are not over. The world still needs us not because we are like Greeks, but because we are like, well, Americans.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.