Posted by Curt on 27 December, 2016 at 11:48 am. 2 comments already!



For the last eight years, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Susan Rice have sought to rewrite the traditional approach to foreign policy. In various ways, they have warned us about the dangers that a reactionary Trump presidency would pose, on the assumption that their new world order now operates more along the lines of an Ivy League conference than according to the machinations and self-interests of the dog-eat-dog Manhattan real-estate cosmos.

It would be nice if the international order had safe spaces, prohibitions against micro-aggressions, and trigger warnings that warn of hurtful speech, but is the world really one big Harvard or Stanford that runs on loud assertions of sensitivity, guilt, apologies, or even the cynical progressive pieties found in WikiLeaks?

The tempo abroad in the last eight years would suggest that the answer is no: half a million dead in Syria, over a million young Muslim men flooding into Europe, an Iraq in ruins (though Biden once bragged it would be the Obama administration’s “greatest achievement”), the Benghazi catastrophe, North Africa a wasteland and terrorist incubator, Israel and the Gulf states estranged from America, Iran empowered and soon to be nuclear, Russia hell-bent on humiliating the U.S., China quietly forming its own updated Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, an impoverished Cuba and much of Latin America gnawing the limp wrist of U.S. outreach, and the European Union gradually imploding.

Obama’s lead-from-behind foreign policy has becoming something like the seduction of an old house. Its wiring, plumbing, and foundation are shot, but the majestic structure, when given a thin coat of new paint by the seller, proudly goes on the market as “restored” — at least until the new buyer discovers that the Potemkin façade is about to collapse from lax maintenance and deliberate indifference. In other words, Obama’s periodic declamations, Nobel Prize, and adulation from a toady press are all veneers of shiny paint; the Middle East, Russia, China, Iran, and ISIS terrorism are the insidious frayed wiring, corroded pipes, and termites that are about to take down the entire structure from the inside out. Note that the unrepentant seller is always loudly petulant that the new owner, as he makes endless vital repairs, did not appreciate the paint job he inherited.

It was not always so. Ancient American foreign policy that got us from the ruin of World War II to the most prosperous age in the history of civilization was once guided by an appreciation of human nature’s constancy across time and space. Diplomacy hinged on seeing foreign leaders as roughly predictable — guided as much by Thucydidean emotions such as honor, fear, and perceived self-interest as by cold reason. In other words, sometimes nations did things that seemed to be stupid; in retrospect their actions looked irrational, but at the time, they served the needs of national honor or assuaged fears.

Vladimir Putin, for example, in his effort to restore Russian power and regional hegemony, is guided by his desire to recapture the glories of the Soviet Union, not just its Stalinist authoritarianism or geographical expanse. He also seeks to restore the respect that long ago greeted Russian diplomats, generals, and leaders when sent abroad as proud emissaries of a world-class power.

In that context, talking down to a Putin serves no purpose other than to humiliate a proud leader whose guiding principle is that he will never allow himself to be publicly shamed. But Obama did exactly that when he scolded Putin to “cut it out” with the cyber attacks (as if, presto, Putin would follow his orders), and when he suggested that Putin’s tough-guy antics were sort of a macho shtick intended only to please Russians, and when he mocked a sullen Putin as a veritable class cut-up at photo-ops (as if the magisterial Obama had to discipline an unruly adolescent).

Worse still, when such gratuitous humiliations are not backed by the presence of overwhelming power, deft statecraft, and national will, opportunists such as Putin are only emboldened to become irritants to the U.S. and its former so-called global order. We should not discount the idea that leaders become hostile as much out of spite as out of conflicting national interests.

Throughout history, it has not gone well for powerful leaders when they have been perceived as being both loudly sanctimonious and weak (read Demosthenes on Athenian reactions to Philip II), as if the nation’s strength enervates the leader rather than empowers his diplomacy. Worse still is when a leader aims to loudly project strength through rhetoric while quietly fearing to do so through ships and soldiers.

Think again of Neville Chamberlain at Munich, who gave Hitler everything — including lectures on proper international behavior. Anthony Eden remarked at the time that British statesmen thought Hitler and Mussolini were like typical British elites with whom they could do business; the British diplomats mistakenly believed they could appeal to the dictators’ reason and common interests, and thus they were bound to be sorely disappointed. A man does not reach the pinnacle of Russian power only to nod agreeably when ordered to “cut it out.” And a thug such as Bashar al-Assad does not give up his lucrative family crime syndicate for the gallows because Obama flippantly announces to the world that “Assad must go.” The worst thing about Obama’s red-line threat to Syria was not just that Obama ignored it when it was crossed, but that he then denied he’d ever issued the threat in the first place.

Putin ignored the gift of the plastic “reset” button, the cancellation of missile defense with the Czechs and the Poles, Obama’s trash-talking of George W. Bush, the open-mic promises to be flexible, and all the other assorted appeasing gestures. Instead he kept focused on Obama’s insults, and he grew enraged that a strong U.S. acted both weakly and insolently. Therefore, partly out of emotion, partly from rational calculation, Putin tried his luck from Ukraine to Syria — and perhaps beyond.

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