Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Thoughts On The First 16 Days: An Open Thread

A good friend and reader asked me to start an open thread on the first 2 and 1/2 weeks of the Obama presidency. Normally, a new president is given 100 days before any kind of judgment is passed, and while 16 days isn't hardly sufficient time to make a serious assessment, I figured "Why not?"

My very early impressions are of someone who doesn't quite understand the burden and responsibilities of being president. Now, maybe noone can possibly anticipate and understand the burden and responsibilities of being president until actually becoming president. But, as I mentioned during the campaign, Candidate Obama was making promises that President Obama would be very unlikely to keep, such as rapidly withdrawing the troops from Iraq. Without doubt, the troops will come home, but they will do so on a schedule much closer to the one drawn up by President Bush in the Status of Forces Agreement than to the one promised by Obama. A prime example of that was Obama's prohibition on lobbyists serving in his administration; a prohibition that was dropped at the first sign of conflict. Obama granted a waiver to his new rule so that William Lynn, a former vice president of and lobbyist for Raytheon, one of the largest defense contractors in DC, could be named Deputy Secretary of Defense. While it is concerning having a lobbyist placed so highly in the DoD, what is more concerning is the fact that Obama was willing to break a campaign promise and newly-installed rule so quickly. This gives me the sense that Obama doesn't quite get the connection between what the president says and what the president does, or the magnitude of each and every word that comes out of his mouth.

Similarly, Obama's retreat from the "Buy America" language contained in the stimulus legislation sends the same message. Obama told the Fox Network that ""I think it would be a mistake ... at a time when worldwide trade is declining for us to start sending a message that somehow we're just looking after ourselves and not concerned with world trade." Wasn't world-wide trade declining when Obama started discussing re-opening NAFTA? And if sending a strong free-trade message is a priority, why did Obama reduce the prioritization given to trade and nominate someone with no experience in trade to be his trade representative? Again, I get the sense that Obama thinks that the things he says don't matter to the degree that they do.

His interview to Al Arabiya televsion pretty much confirms this sense. In it, Obama said that:

My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.
Do the American people see the Muslim world as their enemy? Do the American people not already realize that the Muslim world is filled with people who want to live better lives? If that's the case, why have the American people expended their blood and treasure to protect and liberate Muslims from tyranny and oppression in places that often had little strategic value to the US, such as Somalia and Kosovo, not to mention in Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq?

And Obama's grasp of history seems to be a bit shaky as well. Were things really better between the US and the Muslim world "20 or 30 years ago"? As Jeff Jacoby writes in today's Boston Globe:

Twenty years ago, American hostages were being tortured by their Hezbollah captors in Beirut and hundreds of grief-stricken families were in mourning for their loved ones, murdered by Libyan terrorists as they flew home for Christmas on Pan Am Flight 103. Thirty years ago, the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, proclaimed America "the Great Satan," and inspired his acolytes to storm the US embassy and hold scores of Americans hostage. Meanwhile, Islamist mobs were destroying US embassies in Pakistan and Libya, and staging anti-American riots in other countries. Radical Islam's hatred of the United States is not a recent phenomenon, it has nothing to do with "respect," and it isn't going to be extinguished by sweet words - not even those of so sweet a speaker as our new president.

I know that US foreign policy towards the Muslim world isn't often conducted solely for the benefit of the Muslim people, and certainly there have been disastrously bad decisions made in the past (the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh comes to mind). And certainly, the US can and should be more critical of Israel and push Israel to make greater concessions in the West Bank to advance whatever is left of the peace process. But to act as if the US has done nothing in recent years to help the Muslim world, to ignore the sacrifices that this country has made for the Muslim world, and to insinuate that the hatred Islam feel for the US is caused by problems of "respect," is beneath the president of the United States. Obama seemed to feel the need to appear humble in this interview, and that's understandable. But, he went too far. As Charles Krauthammer writes, "In these 20 years, this nation has done more for suffering and oppressed Muslims than any nation, Muslim or non-Muslim, anywhere on Earth. Why are we apologizing?"

Again, it's far too early to pass any kind of judgment. It's certainly possible that Obama will grow into the job, and I expect that he will. But these early "returns" confirm my fear that Obama is too inexperienced for this job; that he doesn't understand the difficult choices that come with the most powerful job on the planet; that he believes in himself to such a degree that he is willing to break major campaign promises just days into his administration; and that he doesn't get the gravity with which his words are heard by others. Time will tell if he comes to understand these things.

Feel free to comment on your own impressions on the newborn Obama presidency.


dave said...

It was not my intent that you should judge the president based on the first week or two, rather that I was interested in hearing your impressions. There have been plenty of news in foreign affairs since Obama took office. You get into generalizations, and I think it’s a bit early to get into those since we don’t have much history to go on. Still, my gut tells me you’re right about a lot of stuff. In many things, it doesn’t seem like he’s entirely aware of what’s going on. And I don’t think any of us really understands what exactly it is we got in this new president, as he doesn’t seem to be bound by his campaign promises. In some sense that’s a relief as frankly, I disagree with him on a great many things. On the other hand, it’s unnerving because it doesn’t inspire confidence.

Specifically, Obama’s tone in speaking to the Arab media is concerning. I want our enemies to be pissing their pants, and our allies high-fiving. More Ronald Reagan and less Jimmy Carter. The response from Iran and North Korea indicated they were emboldened, not cautious. I may not be in the majority on this point, but I wonder Seth if you detected a shift in posture from North Korea and Iran based on those comments.

I will say this, the tone was consistent with what he said when he was campaigning in Berlin.

rob said...

i agree. when Iran starts demanding apologies from the United States, something is going wrong in our foreign policy.

Bill Reidway said...

Hey Seth - sorry about the Starbuck thing.

I have one small quibble with your post, regarding the reaction to Obama's al Arabiya interview. Americans didn't spend blood and treasure to liberate Iraqis from tyranny, they did it to avoid another 9/11 attack, because that's what we thought was possible. I think what Obama was trying to do was to draw a distinction between his administration and the Bush era, not himself and all of recent American history, and I think that's a worthy goal. For eight years what we've primarily been told about the Muslim world is that it's filled with two kinds of people - those who want us dead and those who need to be rescued by us. And based on conversations I've had in recent years with a lot of perfectly decent and educated Americans, a lack of mutual respect wouldn't be an inaccurate way to describe the average American attitude toward the Muslim world.

Our foreign policy needs to be tough, and it needs to be smart. And as you've noted, it's not going to shift dramatically as far as ongoing operations and initiatives. What can change is the PR cover we use to to conduct that foreign policy. You can look at this as an overcompensation, perhaps, but some deliberate shift from the era of "axis of evil" wasn't the worst idea in the world.

Just my two pennies.

Seth Weinberger said...

Sorry Bill, but I can't agree with you on this. Of course the US didn't invade Iraq for the purpose of liberating Iraq from the dictatorship of Hussein, but that was the end result. But Obama's "history" isn't just a PR spin. It's a disgraceful and embarrassing discounting of years and years of US foreign policy. If Obama wanted to break with Bush, he could have been much more specific. But the "20 or 30 year" time frame simply ignores political reality. This isn't just an overcompensation; it's an unnecessary debasement of US foreign policy to some of the most brutal, authoritarian, and intolerant regimes in the world today. That's not to say the US should be cooperating with or negotiating with these regimes (although Obama's "break" with Bush's policy towards Iran has been grossly exaggerated. See for more on this), but the US definitely shouldn't be apologizing to them.

Bill Reidway said...

No apologies necessary, Seth. And I don't want to get into a debate about the value of American policy to the Muslim world - my suspicion is that we more or less agree on that. But the interview was an act of rhetoric, diplomacy, presentation of attitude; and the Bush years required a course correction on that score, for our foreign policy to be effective. I didn't detect an apology anywhere in what he said - what I detected was an admission of fallibility. It just wasn't that bad.

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