A Pessimist Recoils from the Glare of Brilliance

“When it comes to foreign policy, Obama’s accomplishment has been less tangible but hardly less significant: He has put America on a new footing with the rest of the world. In a series of foreign trips and speeches, which critics deride as trips and speeches, he replaced George W. Bush’s unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory. Obama has already significantly reoriented policy toward Iran, China, Russia, Iraq, Israel, and the Islamic world. Next week, after a much-disparaged period of review, he will announce a new strategy in Afghanistan. No, the results do not yet merit his Nobel Peace Prize. But not since Reagan has a new president so swiftly and determinedly remodeled America’s global role.” (Jacob Weisberg, Slate)

I don’t usually write about international affairs, because my interests lie largely in the domestic arena, but I cannot resist commenting on Jacob Weisberg’s hilarious weekend column in Slate. Let’s do a close reading of the passage quoted above from the Weisberg essay. You might be surprised to learn that I agree with almost every word of it—yes to “significant” in describing the president’s mark on US foreign policy; yes to a “new footing” for America in the world; yes, yes, yes to “reoriented policy toward Iran, China, Russia.”

Item: Iran’s government has approved plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants, according to state media. The government told the Iranian nuclear agency to begin work on five sites, with five more to be located over the next two months. It comes days after the UN nuclear watchdog rebuked Iran for covering up a uranium enrichment plant. (BBC)

Item: On topics like Iran ([China President] Hu [Jintao] did not publicly discuss the possibility of sanctions), China’s currency (he made no nod toward changing its value) and human rights (a joint statement bluntly acknowledged that the two countries “have differences”), China held firm against most American demands. With China’s micro-management of Mr. Obama’s appearances in the country, the trip did more to showcase China’s ability to push back against outside pressure than it did to advance the main issues on Mr. Obama’s agenda, analysts said. (New York Times)

Item: Poland and the Czech Republic had based much of their future security policy on getting the missile defenses from the United States. The countries share deep concerns of a future military threat from the east — namely, Russia — and may now look for other defense assurances from their NATO allies. “At the NATO summit in April, we adopted a resolution focusing on building a defense system against real, existing threats, i.e. short-range and medium-range missiles,” Fischer said. “We expect that the United States will continue cooperating with the Czech Republic on concluding the relevant agreements on our mutual (research and development) and military collaboration, including the financing of specific projects.” By contrast, Russia may view the move as a diplomatic victory after complaining about the program consistently for years. (CNN)

And just one more:

Item: President Barack Obama has met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House as the US struggles to revive the Middle East peace process. The talks in Washington came amid heightened tension over Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to freeze settlement building in the West Bank and Jerusalem. (BBC)

So, indeed, the facts as reported by the BBC, the New York Times, and CNN support Weisberg’s description of the president’s take on foreign policy as “multinational,” but then again that’s kind of a tautology, isn’t it? The facts would also support “conciliatory,” if what Weisberg means is that the president is amiable in his acquiescence to putting America’s interests second.

But “pragmatic”? In what way, Mr. Weisberg, can presidential policies and pronouncements that have been ignored, scorned, or both by foe and friend alike be construed as “pragmatic”? If I were a pessimist I would conclude that the only pragmatism evidenced here is that of a defeatist who has assumed his country’s interests have already been vanquished on the international stage. If I were a pessimist I would agree with you, Mr. Weisberg, that “not since Reagan has a new president so swiftly and determinedly remodeled America’s global role.” If I were a pessimist—and I am—I would see that new role as devoid of the inner light that has made the United States a shining star, a beacon of freedom and opportunity for all people. I would consider that new role one of a second-billed player on the global stage.

As pessimists are wont to do, I look backward from time to time in yearning for the good old days, when American foreign policy was one of “unilateral, moralistic militarism.” For I do believe that heads of state should put the safety, well-being, and liberty of their country’s citizen first, and if that means unilateral thinking, so be it. I would like to think that I am a citizen of a nation that is moralistic, that uses its founding principles of justice and equality to guide its policies, domestic and foreign, rather than the here-today-gone-tomorrow make-it-up-as-you-go shibboleths of pragmatism. I would like to take comfort in knowing that my country’s allies and enemies know where my country stands and more importantly what it stands for. And as a pessimist I’ll take my chances with the big stick of militarism—better to have it than not, and in place of a robust defense simply hope for the best.

If you have read this far, you might be asking yourself—I hope you are asking yourself—just what is so hilarious about Weisberg’s column. Why, its title, of course: “Obama’s Brilliant First Year.”

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