It has finally occurred to me why President Obama’s vision of the world is so skewed. He is cross-eyed, though not in the physical sense. That is to say, his I’s are crossed and so his world view is distorted.
There is a long and honorable tradition in American history of debating the proper role of the United States in the greater world. Bret Stephens, in his recent book “America in Retreat,” spells out the debate with keen insight. This debate began in Washington’s time and extends until today, and has in different eras spanned both or either major party. In short hand, the two contrasting approaches are those of the Interventionists and the Isolationists.
Isolationists believe that the United States should keep to itself, safely ensconced behind two oceans and only involve itself in global affairs when the homeland or its interests are directly threatened. The US should avoid “entangling alliances” and, in modern lexicon, should not endeavor to be the world’s policeman. (Of course, as Stephens points out, no one wants to live in a neighborhood where there are no policemen.)
Interventionists do not hesitate to project American strength and especially values whenever and wherever it seems appropriate. Freedom, liberty, democracy and respect for individual rights seem to them admirable objectives and countries that embrace these values do not wage war against each other and generally make the world a better place. Interventionists also believe – deep down but often manifestly apparent – that the US is an exceptional society and, notwithstanding its occasional missteps, seeks a stable, prosperous and peaceful world instead of creating an American empire.
Certainly, since World War II, the United States has dominated world affairs, provided a bulwark against the expansion of Communism and even presided over its demise. It has intervened in a number of wars and skirmishes across the globe – usually with some American interest at hand, but often a very loose or fluid definition of an American “interest” – and even more frequently with humanitarian assistance in a case of a natural or political disaster afflicting some country, although not always.
Both Isolationists and Interventionists recognize the world is a very dangerous place and America cannot really hide behind its ocean borders anymore. This is not only because ICBM’s mock borders but also because the global economy is closely linked, and America’s own prosperity would suffer if it shut itself off from other countries. Of course, Isolationists have a much higher threshold to warrant American military involvement overseas.
These are necessarily simple definitions but over the decades and centuries the debate in the US has roughly followed these lines. At various times, Democrats were Interventionists (FDR, Scoop Jackson) and Republicans were Isolationists (Arthur Vandenberg, until World War II; Pat Buchanan). Although there are some outliers today as well, most Democrats tend towards isolationism and most Republicans tend towards Interventionism. All would agree that President Obama was elected in large part because, in 2008, Americans had tired of overseas military operations and favored retrenchment.
These are not just two distinct political philosophies but are also two disparate elements of the American psyche that are often in conflict and sometimes even in the same person. Americans hate injustice and especially genocide (as do all normal people) but differ as to whether there must be an American role in halting either repugnance. Thus, many Americans were horrified by the massacres in Darfur but many of them also felt there was no role for the American military and merely preferred to salve their consciences by “raising awareness” of the genocide but without actually doing much to stop it. “Raising awareness” is a noble venture but disconnected from a plan for action doesn’t save any innocent lives. Lamenting tragedies that can be avoided or minimized is certainly better than being indifferent to them, but not by much. And you can’t have it both ways – you cannot decry Interventionism and at the same time lament the inevitable effects of Isolationism. That, literally, is “dancing between two opinions” (I Kings 18:21).
No one has yet been able to repeal this truism: the only way to stop a man with a gun (or machete) is with other men having more guns. That simple bit of logic does not always permeate the natural do-gooder who has an aversion to war. Darfur is Iraq is Syria is Libya is Srebrenica is Rwanda is Cambodia is the Holocaust, etc. There are too many people who cry “never again” and when “again” happens again will again cry “never again” in a doleful refrain of helplessness and pity.
Obama is a reluctant warrior, to be sure, but here is where his I’s are crossed. He is an Interventionist where he should be an Isolationist, and he is an Isolationist where it would behoove him to be an Interventionist. Cross I’s!
When it comes to Israel, Obama is a brazen Interventionist, attempting to dictate solutions to a long conflict and threatening dire consequences if his will is not heeded. He revokes prior commitments, pays lips service to Israel’s right of self-defense, exaggerates the plight of the Arabs of the land of Israel and even makes excuses for their brutality and mendacity. It’s a classic bully tactic, but made especially insufferable because he gives a free pass to real dictators and thugs. If Obama has made a virtue of “leading from behind,” why can’t he employ that same virtue when it comes to Israel? The number of Arab dead in last summer’s Gaza War amounted to fewer casualties than in an off week in Syria, so why the obsession over the former and the disregard of the latter?
Conversely, Obama has exacerbated the suffering of millions across the globe by embracing a neo-Isolationism when American Intervention could make a difference. That American reticence has earned him admiration and respect but primarily from dictators throughout the world. Evil people want nothing more than to be left alone to carry out their acts of evil. The realignments taking place across Europe and the Middle East are rooted in the recognition that Pax Americana is over and America’s role in guiding world affairs to some sense of order – or at least a minimum of disorder – is on hiatus.
Blaming Bush – natural instinct in Obama’s White House – for the current collapse of Iraq is like blaming divorce on the fact that the couple married in the first place. (True; marriage is the leading cause of divorce. People who do not marry by definition never divorce.) Yes, but there are more proximate causes of divorce that need to be explored, and here as well. Bush the Iraq Interventionist was followed by Obama the Iraq Isolationist. There was no continuity in policy and in fact, the exact opposite – a reversal of policy. Hence the current chaos. In all the failed Arab states – Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – and in Russia’s expansionist ambitions, the hand of Obama Isolationism, of “America in Retreat,” is visible.
It is why Europe’s leaders deride Obama as a “follower, not a leader” and criticize his weakness, and why France, irony of ironies, has taken the leading role in trying to limit US concessions to Iran.
And those are the other set of I’s that are crossed – Iran and Israel. Obama has begun treating Israel like a pariah state, a threat to world order and security and a nation deserving of sanctions and reprobation because it is obstinately trying to cling to its divinely bestowed homeland while simultaneously attempting to create a model Jewish society and bring some good to the world. And for that – Israel is treated like Iran should be treated, with threats, recriminations and public humiliation of its leaders. If Obama could muster even a smidgeon of the deference to PM Netanyahu that he shows when referring to Iran’s Ayatollah – unabashedly – as “Supreme Leader,” then, well, he would be a different person.
At this point, Israel could benefit from a little American Isolationism, and the rest of the world could benefit from a little more American Interventionism. Obama could benefit from uncrossing his I’s and perceiving Israel as the friend and ally of the United States and Iran as America’s enemy. So could we – and so could truth and honor. Something is very wrong when Iran’s Khamanei joins a mob in chanting “Death to America” (just last week) without any discernible reaction from the American President, and pandemonium breaks out and vicious opprobrium are unleashed when Israel’s Prime Minister calls on his supporters to flock to the polls because Arabs are voting in large numbers.
Something is quite wrong – even ugly – in the differing responses to the two events. It is enough to make one’s head spin, another consequence of seeing the world with crossed eyes.