When I was a young kid living in South Carolina, you would still sometimes see mule-drawn wagons on country roads. You also saw advertisements for Burma Shave: typically a series of six to eight small road signs at short intervals with a rhymed message of some kind. “Don’t go passing up a slope/Unless you have a periscope.” “Don’t stick your elbow out too far/It might go home in another car.” My favorite: “This shall never come to pass/A backseat driver out of gas.”
I’ve been thinking about that slogan this week as I’ve noticed how many of my blog entries turn out to be backseat driver interventions in President Obama’s foreign policy. Gassy backseat drivers are deservedly unpopular; I’ll try to keep that under control as I blog.
And one thing to keep in mind, whether reading my criticisms or anybody else’s: governing is hard and criticism is cheap. To govern is to err; that’s just the way things are. Presidents and their staffs are always making decisions without all the information they need, without all the time they need to reflect, and without all the freedom they need to choose the best course rather than the politically viable one. Often the chief purpose of criticism is to make its readers see just how much smarter the book critic, the film critic or the political critic is than the poor blundering boob who wrote the book, directed the movie or won the election and shaped the foreign policy.
I hope to do something different: not to make readers think about how stupid Obama or Bush or whoever is, or even how smart Mead is – but to help readers think more clearly about what good policy looks like, how hard it is to make it, and how they might handle themselves if in the fullness of time they are called to that kind of responsibility.
But all that said, I’m going to post one more time about where American foreign policy seems a bit wobbly right now – and then, I promise, it will be on to something else for a while.
President Obama’s decision to go in person to Copenhagen to lobby the IOC to award the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago rather than its leading rival – Rio de Janeiro – is a mistake. It’s not the worst mistake anybody ever made; it’s the kind of mistake presidents, especially newbies, make all the time. But it’s an interesting mistake – it’s the wrong choice on three different levels.
First, it’s wrong because the benefits aren’t worth the risk. If the president succeeds and the IOC gives the games to Chicago, Obama wins – but not big. On the other hand, if he uses all the power and prestige of his office and his celebrity appeal to get the games and he fails – it’s a big fat public fiasco that his eroding prestige at home and abroad doesn’t need.
Second, it’s the wrong move because it’s the wrong policy for the United States. Brazil has never been more important to the US than it is now, and having the games in Rio is a lot more important to Brazil than having them in Chicago is to us. The US has hosted the Olympics 8 times since the modern games began in 1896; Brazil has yet to have them once.
Currently, Brazilian President Lula is the biggest ‘swing vote’ in a Latin America increasingly polarized between responsible democratic modernizers and atavistic, anti-democratic and anti-American regimes. A man with longtime center left credentials who cares passionately about the poor, President Lula understands some things that people like Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez can’t quite seem to get: that markets, for example, can help the poor and that the poor need good government, stable institutions and democratic freedoms as much or even more than the rich. More than any other figure on the continent, President Lula can put limits on the efforts of so-called “Bolivarian revolutionaries” to force corrupt, ineffective and radical policies on Latin American countries today.
President Obama, so busy making nice with his enemies, could more usefully spend his time and political capital building relations with true potential partners like Brazil. Graciously helping President Lula land the big O would have been a smart move. Getting in his face is a blunder.
In going to Copenhagen, President Obama is actually repeating one of his predecessor’s damaging mistakes. President George W. Bush failed to get a Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement in large part because his administration couldn’t get past parochial interests like Florida sugar and orange growers to make Brazil a good offer on trade. By putting Chicago politics ahead of the national interest, President Obama is traveling down the same road.
Third, going to Copenhagen undercuts the message that President Obama most wants to send to the rest of the world. One of President Obama’s themes going back to the campaign is that the United States needs to project a new and friendlier image to the world. We should not be trying to dominate every forum, constantly thumping our chests and boasting about what a super-duper superpower we are; this needlessly offends others and makes their cooperation harder to get.
This is an important message to deliver, but in policy terms it is difficult to accomplish. The United States has global interests that it cannot ignore; we often need to use our power to shape situations around the world. How can we project power and shape events while curbing perceptions that the US is arrogant and unheeding?
The deliberations of the International Olympic Committee are a heaven sent opportunity to do exactly that. Most countries have never hosted the Olympic Games and for these countries, getting the Olympics is a dream come true. The United States can afford to be generous about the Games – and we should be.
A president of the United States needs to be magnanimous and openhanded – without looking weak or giving away the store. Conspicuous opportunities to do that are few and far between. This week in Copenhagen, President Obama is throwing something precious away and nothing he gains in Copenhagen will outweigh the lost goodwill in Brazil and elsewhere that he could have gained, cheaply, by just staying home.
Win or lose at the IOC, President Obama comes home from Copenhagen looking smaller and less inspiring.
That didn’t have to happen.
Strangely enough, the White House had this exactly right at one point. No politician can ignore his hometown or his home team. The Obama White House could not stand aside from Chicago’s Olympic bid. Sending the First Lady – the original White House plan – sent exactly the right message. It showed support for the home team, but Obama’s prestige would not be affected by a loss. And Brazil and the other contestants would not be offended by Michelle Obama’s appearance before the committee. That’s a legitimate and moderate use of her star power. Sending in the Big Dog, though, is a bit over the top.
Why the White House made this change I don’t know. Perhaps they had information that Chicago had definitely won and so they saw this as the chance for the president to get some momentum and some positive news. Perhaps they heard that the contest was up for grabs, and the Chicago loyalties of folks like Rahm Emmanuel overrode all other considerations. Perhaps the Obamas just wanted some family time and the long plane ride gave them that chance.
Whatever it was, here’s one backseat driver who wishes they had quit while they were ahead.
Note: Walter Russell Mead will be appearing on “The Kudlow Report” tonight (October 2) to discuss the topic of this post–Obama’s (now failed) trip to Copenhagen, and what it means about both his, and America’s, standing in the world. Tune into CNBC tonight at 7 P.M. ET.