The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Open Hand, Slapped
Published on January 1, 2010

A friend as troubled as I am at President Obama’s mounting misadventures in foreign and security policy said, “I hope he knows what he’s doing.” I hope he doesn’t.

I hope he doesn’t because I prefer the alternative explanation: that he has spent nearly a year getting it wrong out of inexperience, naivety, the distraction of an aggressive domestic agenda and an inflated sense that he can charm our adversaries into submission. If this is how we are to understand the President’s Plan A—ill-conceived approaches toward the Middle East, the Americas, our European allies, nuclear proliferation and strategy, Iran, Russia and human rights—there is some hope that eventually reality will intrude and he will move to a very different Plan B.

After all, even Jimmy Carter, whom Barack Obama increasingly resembles, discovered after three years as President that he had failed to grasp the reality of the dictators in Moscow and Tehran. And while Carter’s loss of innocence came too late for the Afghan victims of Soviet aggression or our embassy staff in Tehran, he did, in his last year, careen toward a Plan B that included an armed rescue attempt and at least arrested a sharp decline in defense spending.

Unlike the hapless Carter, Obama after only a year in office has enough runway in front of him to take off in a new direction. He would have help. Hillary Clinton is much tougher than Cyrus Vance, whose abhorrence of force, and faith in diplomacy, led him to resign over the plan to rescue American hostages. James L. Jones could manage a turnaround far better than Zbigniew Brzezinski, who surely knew better but, having little in common with his President, was largely ineffective. Robert Gates would not lament a burst of realism in defense affairs, and I suspect Richard Holbrooke would be thrilled.

Obama would certainly enjoy public support for more robust policies. Opinion surveys show that the American people are uncomfortable with his dithering and his incessant apologizing, and growing weary of the high ratio of talk to action. The Nobel Peace Prize highlighted the paucity of results from Obama’s first year, causing many to reflect on what he has actually accomplished. And while the left wing of the Democratic Party would likely resent any shift toward a policy that mainstream America would welcome, Obama’s sharply declining approval among moderates and independents will sober all but the Party’s lunatic fringe.

But what if Plan A is not the product of inexperience and naivety (with a dash of incompetence)? What if we are witnessing the deliberate, measured implementation of a deeply entrenched ideology reflecting such influences as the scarcely acknowledged Bill Ayers and the once inconveniently visible Reverend Jeremiah Wright? What if they shaped Obama’s worldview in the years when they were ministering to and counseling a young, charismatic politician? Americans have never been tempted to elect a “blame America first” President, and they did not think they were doing so last November. Indeed, 17 percent of Obama voters said they considered him a “conservative.” Now they are not so sure.

The key elements of Obama’s foreign and defense policy are the belief that we must “engage” our adversaries and cultivate our allies (after a cathartic admission of what he sees as America’s shortcomings and misdeeds). Now, there is nothing unusual about the idea of engaging adversaries. Every American President has done so. The most fruitful and effective engagements have been those in which diplomacy was conducted from a position of strength and clear purpose: Think of Ronald Reagan and the four Soviet leaders he dealt with. Nor is it unusual to cultivate allies; indeed, it would be unusual not to.

But Obama’s approach to engaging adversaries has none of the signs of operating from strength. On the contrary, he appears as an anxious supplicant. Consider his “engagement” with Iran and Russia. In the case of Iran, the Administration has been practically begging the Iranians to talk while appeasing them with near indifference to the theft of an election, brutality against the regime’s opponents and continuing support for terrorism. In the case of Russia, the absurd “reset” button hoopla must have astonished the Kremlin leaders—but not nearly so much as the abrupt decision to scrap missile defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic, alarming both governments with an unmistakable message: Moscow once again has a say in the policies of two sovereign states, both allies of the United States and members of NATO.

Obama’s approach to Moscow smacks of appeasement, an eagerness to accommodate unreasonable Russian positions made worse by an exaggerated focus on refurbishing the antique arms control arrangements of the Cold War while embracing a utopian vision of a world without nuclear weapons. The predictable results are already emerging: Moscow gleefully accepted the abandonment of the Polish missile defense deployment and shortly thereafter conducted an in-your-face military exercise in which Russia “invaded” Poland. The exercise included the use of nuclear-capable aircraft.

Obama’s Russian agenda is, but should not be, the mirror image of Putin’s American agenda. That is why it is missing any hint of a strategy to oppose Russian intimidation of its former but now independent republics or its erstwhile “allies.” While we are busy engaging Moscow in arms control negotiations, Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and others are increasingly apprehensive that an American President is oblivious to the danger a resurgent Russia poses to their freedom and independence.

As for working with allies, Obama seems to think that his popularity with Europeans is not just the beginning, but the end of the story. He has managed in his first year to humiliate Gordon Brown, annoy Nicolas Sarkozy, offend Silvio Berlusconi, and leave Angela Merkel lukewarm, at best. He seems not to grasp that popularity does not count for much when working on hard issues like getting help from our allies in Afghanistan or closing Guantánamo. Obama’s idea, trumpeted during the campaign, that he would abandon his predecessor’s “unilateralism”, retrieve America’s standing, and go on to elicit the allied cooperation that eluded George W. Bush, was naive. Moreover, it wrongly assumed that Bush actually preferred unilateral action. In fact, Bush acted without the support of allies only when allied policies left him no choice. As Obama is in the process of discovering, allied support sometimes requires either abandoning or diluting American security interests. There will be times when the price of that support is prohibitive.

The President’s conceit—that he can charm adversaries and mobilize allies—has so far proven empty. His belief that an open hand will be seen as an expression of good will to be reciprocated is simply wrong. Unless it is part of a larger strategy, an outstretched hand runs the risk of conveying weakness. Take Venezuela as a case in point. Obama was all smiles with Hugo Chávez, even as Chávez presented him with—and Obama accepted with thanks—the “gift” of an anti-American diatribe. This was followed by a number of taunting moves from Chávez—from Castro, Putin and Ahmadinejad, too—all of which demonstrated that the outstretched hand had earned not good will, but contempt.

If, as I hope, Obama simply did not understand how to use American power to achieve American objectives, there is hope that his dismal first year will see the scrapping of Plan A and the adoption of a better Plan B. But if he believes against all evidence in Plan A and sticks with it, we—and many who depend on us—will almost certainly come to regret it.

Richard Perle, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration (1981–87).