Ever since President Obama’s took the oath of office twice last January, he’s been compared by pundits to every previous Chief Executive since Millard Fillmore or at least Chester Alan Arthur. For the last week the Nixon comparisons have flown hot and heavy; next week it may be time for “the new FDR” to have another go-round. A few hours ago, writing at the Atlantic’s site, former Congressman Mickey Edwards, a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation who made waves last year by supporting Obama’s election, has, wonder of wonders, managed to compare Obama to someone not a President. (Though an implicit comparison to a previous President’s foreign policy is made.) He argues that:
The thing about the presidency, though, is that one invariably finds issues more complicated than they might have appeared from the campaign trail. Here, while one’s heart may echo Jefferson, one’s responsibilities make Washington’s sense of caution more appealing. Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, is known as the most prominent modern proponent of a “realpolitik” approach toward foreign policy in which, in the end, the most important factor in deciding a national approach to other nations is quite simple: “What is in America’s interest”?
That alone is a difficult question. It was once thought to be in America’s “interest” to ally itself with some of the worst dictators on the planet: we not only allied ourselves with, but embraced, the Batistas, the Somozas, the Shahs, the Noriegas, and while those short-term alliances may have been of some use in dealing with Soviet expansionism (a real threat at the time), we have clearly paid a long-term price for such narrowness of purpose. But the world is not easy. One wishes for more democracy, more freedom, more protection from abuse in all the places where these rights are in short supply. But there are other considerations and they necessarily impinge on the decisionmaking process. In that intra-cranial showdown, it now appears that it is the “hard” side, the perceived necessity of setting aside one’s empathies, that has captured Barack Obama’s thinking.
Well….this discussion of the President’s “inner Kissinger” (as the post is titled) might come as news to the Nobel Peace Prize committee, which, when defending its surprising choice of Obama as this year’s laureate, seemed to think that his handling of foreign policy suggested a Wilsonian idealism far removed from what it evidently viewed as the unspeakable savagery of his predecessor. (Whereas President Bush’s reasons for leading a war to bring democrary to Iraq, and by extension to the Mideast, were thoroughly Wilsonian, predicated on a belief that ordinary Iraqis deserved the right to self-determination.)
Edwards cites, to prove his argument, such incidents as the President’s disinclination to meet with the Dalai Lama during the latter’s visit to Washington this month, and his efforts to engage with the government of Sudan over the Darfur issue. But for every such case, there can be found one that contradicts the idea that Obama’s foreign policy is always focused, in a hard-nosed way, on America’s best interests.
It would seem, for one thing, that our best interests do not involve strengthening Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarist” regime in Venezuela, with its habit of seeking to destabilize its neighbors. But in the last few months the State Department and the White House have sought to penalize Honduras after that nation removed its president, a Chavez ally seeking to override his nation’s constitution and serve an additional term in defiance of the country’s supreme court. This disregard of a new, pro-American government hardly suggests Realpolitik in action.
The Obama administration’s decision to remove missile defense installations from Poland and Czechoslovakia, which the Nobel committee cited as a reason to give Obama the prize for Peace (a reason heartily seconded by Russian officials), also does not conform to realpolitik in the classic tradition. When President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger made the historic move to bring the People’s Republic of China out of its isolation, they also maintained America’s defense agreements with Taiwan. The Nixon/Kissinger approach to realpolitik was to reach out to nations which had been in conflict with the United States, in order to make a world in which American interests were strengthened, while taking care to maintain productive ties to America’s allies. So far, Obama’s foreign-policy approach has produced no similar strengthening of American interests and some of our allies feel threatened and less secure as a result of the White House’s actions.