Obama’s First Months as Commander in Chief and On the World Stage: A Retrospective As We Assess Trump’s Early Foreign Policy

Obama

As we assess Trump’s early foreign policy moves and first international tour, it helps to look back upon Obama’s. Here, then, are passages from A Perilous Path: The Misguided Foreign Policy of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Chapter 2: “Change Comes to American Foreign Policy.” [Dotted Lines indicate that passages are being skipped.] They point to the Obama administration’s rejection of the idea of universal, God-given rights and of the American foreign policy tradition of emphasizing the distinction between governments that respect and governments that deny those rights.

“The world was, by all accounts, on a trajectory toward more political and economic freedom when Obama and Clinton took over. In addition, the world’s worst human rights violators were under the spotlight and under pressure.”

President Obama enacted historic ideological and tactical change, and sought policy advisors and State Department appointees who believed in his ideas and his goals—whose opinion of America’s hitherto role in the world was low, and whose desire to impose their own worldview upon the American system was high. The new president sought the advice of and/or included in his foreign policy team such individuals as Valerie Jarrett, Anthony Lake, Charles Freeman, Robert Malley, Samantha Power, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Leon Panetta, and, of course, Hillary Clinton. To varying degrees, all believed and stated that the United States had recently, and often in history, overstepped its reach, placed too much emphasis on its own democratic principles and way of life, failed to appreciate and accommodate other cultures and political systems, poured too much money and effort into military alliances and defense, failed to recognize the benefits of engagement with our adversaries as well as our friends, and been “arrogant” in the use of power.

[Pierce then discusses the documented worldview of these appointees.]

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In appointing Charles Freeman head of the National Intelligence Council (an appointment ultimately overturned by Congress), Obama touted the “new perspective” Freeman would bring to this important and powerful position. Indeed, his perspective would have been “new” for, as observers from Frank Gaffney to Alan Dershowitz to Bret Stephens pointed out, Freeman is a man with “strong and profoundly troubling views.” While in the Foreign Service, Freeman forged close ties with governments and interests hostile to the United States and demonstrated sympathy to their views. He was an apologist for the Saudi, Iranian, and Chinese regimes, and Hamas. He fawned over Mao Zedong, one of the most murderous dictators in history, who forced young and old alike into communist indoctrination programs, and terrorized the Chinese people. His financial ties with the Saudi Arabia and China lobbies were one of the main obstacles to his confirmation.

Secretary of State Clinton, while not embracing change as radical as Freeman or President Obama himself, and while more willing to pay occasional homage to American-democratic achievements, nevertheless indicated in both her presidential campaign and in her early initiatives as leader of the Obama foreign policy team that she too believed in dramatic change. In an article praising her new approach, Washington Post columnist David Rothkopf saw Clinton “overseeing what may be the most profound changes in U.S. foreign policy in two decades—a transformation that may render the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush mere side notes in a long transition to a meaningful post–Cold War worldview.” He elaborated, “The secretary has been quietly rethinking the very nature of diplomacy and translating that vision into a revitalized State Department, one that approaches U.S. allies and rivals in ways that challenge long-held traditions.”

Indeed, President Obama and Secretary Clinton stressed the imperative of finding “common interests” with our adversaries, and advocated generally overlooking their internal practices to do so. Obama implied that we weren’t much better than the regimes we traditionally tried to reform. Too often “unilateralist” and too often unwilling to find common ground with our opponents, we exuded the exaggerated pride of place so often found in very powerful nations. The United States, according to him, placed too much emphasis on power itself, pouring too much money into military defense, military alliances, and nuclear weapons; a country as powerful as ours had the luxury of taking the unilateral lead in disarmament. Obama and Clinton laid out a vision for a “smarter” foreign policy that would see the United States as but one power among many, that would tone down America’s ambitions, and that would rely more on international institutions for direction and on diplomacy as the best way to deal with hostile regimes.

(In a candid exposition of just what smart power meant in her dealings with adversaries such as Iran, Clinton would say in Georgetown on December 3, 2014, “This is what we call smart power—using every possible tool and partner to advance peace and security, leaving no one on the sidelines, showing respect, even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.”)

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The new president often downplayed the differences between the United States and other nations, even brutal regimes, and often brought attention to American mistakes. In statements and speeches to domestic and foreign audiences alike, he sought to level the playing field between the United States and other countries and regions, seeing this as requisite for the creation of the (ever-elusive) “international community.” In describing the American past in terms of American mistakes, he went a long way toward rejecting the idea of the “shining city on a hill” and replacing it with something much less inspiring.

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President Obama’s Cairo speech delivered “to the Muslim world” on June 4, 2009, was seminal. Never before had an American president defined America’s place in history in such negative terms to a foreign audience. Obama declared, “The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.”As Georgetown professor Robert Lieber points out, Obama “suggested Western sources for the region’s problems and downplayed local causes such as authoritarianism, corruption and internal obstacles to social and economic progress.”

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Strangely for a president who wanted to improve rather than diminish America’s reputation in the Muslim world, Obama seemed to create moral equivalence between the United States of America and the repressive Islamic Republic of Iran, stating, “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.”

Handing Iran not only a propaganda coup but words that it would use as weapons against the United States, he offered his “understanding” of those who protest that some countries have nuclear weapons while others do not. He asserted that “any nation—including Iran—should have the ‘right’ to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” In the Czech Republic, in April 2009, Obama had declared Iran’s “right to peaceful nuclear technology,” and had reemphasized his position in a BBC interview. From then on, the cruel and mendacious president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would refer to Iran’s “right” to “peaceful” nuclear technology while brazenly accelerating a non-peaceful program designed to humble and hurt enemy “infidels” America and Israel.

Of major note, given America’s historic relationship with Israel, is the fact that Obama went on in the Cairo speech to defend the Idea of a Palestinian homeland while asserting, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” Almost as an aside after this, Obama asked the Palestinians “to recognize Israel’s legitimacy.” He then repeated the call for a Palestinian state. Thus, in advance of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, for which Obama and Secretary of State Clinton hand-picked brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as intermediary, the president preemptively gave away every bargaining tool Israel could hold. He asked nothing in return other than recognition of the long-established democratic state of Israel’s right to exist!

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Behind the scenes, too, President Obama and the Clinton State Department cast doubt upon the American tradition and upon their predecessors. After Obama’s meeting with the president of Kazakhstan, Mike McFaul of the National Security Council reported that Obama “explained” to the leader of the oppressive country that we too were working on perfecting our democracy. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner reported that in discussions with China about human rights, the US side brought up Arizona’s immigration law “early and often.” Obama and Clinton quickly overturned the Bush policy of bypassing the UN Human Rights Council (with Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China and Russia in its ranks) as hopelessly corrupt and antithetical to genuine human rights purposes… Stating the desire to create “a more perfect union in a more perfect world,” the White House even voluntarily prepared and submitted a critical report on our own domestic laws and policies to the Human Rights Council in 2010… The submission of the report marked the first time the US subjected its laws to international review and censor.

With statements and gestures such as these, and with policies designed to support these statements, the Obama administration put the idea of American exceptionalism under pressure. When asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism, Obama famously replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

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It should come as little surprise, then, that Obama and Clinton took the transnational movement toward more political freedom and reversed it, denouncing not only the means to regime change (perhaps understandable, given the Iraq War), but also the objective. And this at a time when democratization was an ascendant principle and goal in the Middle East and elsewhere (as we shall see in the next chapters). This is not to deny that there were strong countervailing forces in the Middle East that wanted Sharia law and/or advocated militant Islam, and that hoped to subvert democracy movements for their own purposes. It is simply to point out that, given the strength of the democracy movements, and given the suffering of the people under repressive and corrupt regimes, [this stance] was unprincipled and unwise…and only made it easier for Islamist opportunists.

The reputation of democracy had not suffered so severe a blow from the Bush administration as we were led to believe. To the contrary: Pro-democracy resistance movements had strengthened, not weakened, during the Bush years, in Syria, Iran, China, Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Georgia’s Rose Revolution occurred in 2004 and 2005, well after the United States invaded Iraq. (Large crowds greeted Bush on his 2005 trip to Tbilisi, in which he proclaimed Georgia a “beacon of liberty.”) By the end of Bush’s second term, Turkey had embraced some market and political reforms and was increasingly cooperative on strategic matters. With the moral and political support of the United States and France, Lebanon was emerging from Syria’s grasp. Across the African, Asian, Eastern European, and Arab worlds, discontent with repressive government and disenchantment with centralized/socialist policies was growing like never before.

The world was, by all accounts, on a trajectory toward more political and economic freedom when Obama and Clinton took over. In addition, the world’s worst human rights violators were under the spotlight and under pressure.

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Instead of nourishing this promising environment, in which democracy movements were simmering everywhere, and in which the worst regimes lived in mortal fear of these movements, Obama and Clinton announced that they wanted to negotiate with the likes of Iran, Syria, and North Korea without preconditions. Obama quickly indicated his willingness to meet with the Iranian president, sent him deferential messages addressing him as “Supreme Leader,” and made it crystal clear that Iranian regime change was not a US goal. Secretary Clinton indicated that the United States would focus on economic issues rather than human rights in discussions with China and on weapons issues rather than human rights in discussions with North Korea. In addition, Obama and Clinton signaled their unwillingness to label Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards terrorist organizations. They embraced a new policy of working with “moderate” elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In a major shift of policy, Clinton announced that the US would send two envoys to Syria for “preliminary conversations” and reopened our embassy there. And, in a move that is simply inexplicable, even in the light of the trends I’ve highlighted, the administration picked Syria’s brutal Bashar al-Assad as key mediator in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Inexplicably as well, Obama cancelled funding for democracy programs in Iran that had begun in 2004 and that went toward programs such as Persian broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

It has been said by others, and my research for this book convinces me that it is true: President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s words and actions frequently rewarded our enemies and punished our friends. They degraded our alliances, diminished and insulted our allies, and catered to and ingratiated those who have no respect for our way of life and/or would like nothing better than to do us harm. At the least, they had as their aim a leveling of the playing field, for the first step toward a one-world vision is, in Nietzsche’s words, moving “beyond good and evil.”

This article was originally published at Providence on June 5, 2017. Read the full article here.

Photo Credit: President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009. In his speech, President Obama called for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims”, declaring that “this cycle of suspicion and discord must end”. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)