Obama the enigma

WhiteHouse.gov/Pete Souza

President Obama discusses Ukraine during a meeting with members of his national security staff in the Oval Office, Feb. 28, 2014.

Even to his most ardent admirers, Barack Obama is an enigma. What principles drive him? What ideology is at the heart of his policymaking? In the case of Ukraine, admirers have rushed to commend the president’s “realistic” appreciation of the limits of American power. For the rest, Obama appears weak in the face of Russian resolve, whipsawed by reality, bereft of options as a result of previous policy blunders.

At the end of the day, we do not know what drives this president. But no leader can rest unlabeled by the intelligentsia, and the growing assessment of liberals and isolationists alike is that the president comes of that fine Washington bloodline, the realist. Like Henry Kissinger, Charles DeGaulle and their intellectual progenitors, the storyline goes, Obama knows America doesn’t have friends, only interests. And after all, what are America’s interests in the 21st century? The fate of an ingrate nation in Iraq? That of a feckless leader in Afghanistan? The moral ravings of intemperate internationalists about Syria? Crimea? Surely not. America’s interests are in America.

This is the vision that lies at the intersection of Ayn Rand and Saul Alinsky, a vision of the nation and its place in the world that is first and foremost characterized by selfishness. For both, “nation building here at home” could have been watchwords, perhaps with some frisson of disagreement over the role of government. But I digress.

Admirers note the president’s clear-eyed willingness to scuttle from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the prospect of a messy engagement in Syria. They point to a lack of effective options for Ukraine and credit his unwillingness to bite off more than he can chew. Some note the importance of allowing Iran leeway in its support for terrorism and oppression of its own people; these are core values for Iran. Focus instead on its nuclear program, because that’s where the wiggle room is. What?

Finally, however, the notion of Obama as a realist is as ridiculous as it sounds. A realist surely understands that allowing al Qaeda to grow and metastasize throughout the Middle East is not in the best interests of the United States, pace a willingness to screw our allies. Nor indeed, is it entirely, er, realistic to believe that the wholesale implosion of Syria and that war’s spillover into Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon will not somehow embroil even the most reticent of America’s presidents. Is it “hard-nosed” to allow Russia to use its military to force the break-up of Ukraine? Does it truly show “good judgment” to turn the other cheek as China renders the South China Sea its personal maritime fiefdom?

Let’s forget all that moralistic cant that characterized the Bush—and even Clinton—administrations, and look at cold, hard interests. Will a world in crisis continue to buy American? Invest in American markets? Allow the free transit of American goods? And what of all that twaddle from candidate Obama about the cost of loss of respect for America in the Bush years? Has that respect grown because Iraq is now again under threat from al Qaeda, or because there are 130,000 Syrians dead? Are these catastrophes the price of realism? Or is Obama driven not by a “quite shrewd” vision, but by simple insularity, selfishness and willful ignorance of history?

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