The Principled Obama
Nobody had any use for Harry Truman either while he was in office. He was President as a fluke; he got reelected for circumstantial reasons; and he fumbled issues both domestic and international. Now he is cited by both Republicans and Democrats as a heroic President who did what had to be done however unpopular it was at the time. He may not have had the authority to draft the steel workers, but his doing so, even though vacated by the courts, got the job done of getting them back to work. He took the tough decisions to drop the A-Bomb, to go to war in Korea, to fire General MacArthur, the second two frowned upon by leading pundits but vindicated by history. His personal traits of being feisty and not formally educated were used against him so as to make him seem ridiculous, just as Obamaís very different traits of balancing off advantages and disadvantages in his discussion of policy and his being very well educated are also turned against him.
Obama does straightforward things, lays out clearly why he wants to take limited military action in Syria, and his critics claim he is fumbling and contradictory. Why is it contradictory to say action is essential yet also can be limited? Such is the disdain for Obama as a supposedly weak and vacillating President that the Bush hawks donít have to look at the giant mote in each of their own eyes nor at the very sensible rationale for the Obama policy: Obama is a reluctant warrior but the use of chemical weapons with impunity is big enough an issue to make him suspend his policy of staying out of wars. People who a few weeks ago were saying he was weak because he wouldnít go to war are now saying he is weak because he does not threaten a gigantic war.
I am reminded of what George Schultz said to a Congressional committee in praise of one of his predecessors, Henry Kissinger. According to Schultz, Kissinger had managed American foreign policy with smoke and mirrors at a time when the movement of an army unit would have been conceived as a try by Nixon to retain power and sidestep Watergate. Obama is doing somewhat the same thing. At a time when the country is war weary, he is still pushing ahead to do what he thinks has to be done and has dared Congress not to support him in doing so and may have intimidated the Russians and the Syrians enough so that they step back and negotiate a deal for the chemical disarmament of Syria even though Obama has the country against him.
Boy, that takes nerve as well as a very careful hand on the tiller as one steers toward that outcome, balancing some kind of Congressional resolution with Presidential bluster and moving events quickly and then slowing them down so as to keep up the pressure. If Richard Nixon had done the same, as he did do, when he had the confidence of the American people, he would have been praised for his poker playing and even for acting a little crazy so as to leave his enemies unsettled, which is exactly how Nixon characterized the right way to conduct foreign policy.
Obama cites Clinton for his regretting that he did not stop the genocide in Rwanda. Obama does so as a way to show that stopping gas warfare in Syria is morally necessary. But why, then, can the United States not morally intimidate Europe into supporting our intervention in Syria? Why canít Obama convince the American people or the American Congress that this is a necessary move so as to set a line for the Iranians and the North Koreans as well?
I think the answer is the same as the one that might be offered for why there was no groundswell of support for doing something about Rwanda, even as there was support for doing something much more difficult with regard to Milosevicís setting up concentration camps in Bosnia Herzegovina. The images of the Second World War were easily recalled and the phrase invoked was that genocide should not occur again within Europe. That says it all. Europe is to be a genocide and atrocity free zone. Deaths in Japan from a nuclear accident count. But there is no sense that the same rule applies in Africa, whether or not it would have been difficult to get the military on the ground in a country far from an ocean where American naval power can operate as both a source of supply and military action. The Africans have not risen high enough on the world scale of civilized countries that we think of them as worth risking serious costs. It is like when Clark Gable, plying a merchant ship in the South China Sea, claims to have never lost a white man to a typhoon. Genocides and atrocities are ranked by where they occur. The Holocaust was so awful, in part, because it was the civilized Germans who did it.
That same argument applies to Syria. Everyone says that the Arab world does not care what the West thinks of it. That means that they are against us even if we assist them. They think of America as solving their problems even if they have contempt for us whether we intervene or donít intervene. The United States and Europe are the only ones who matter to them. They are still caught up in a colonialist mentality that curses the hand it kisses. The resentment reaches back to the time some four hundred years ago when the Muslim world could no longer hold its own with the West either in education, invention, prosperity, power. That is very different from the situation in Asia where the defeat of China in the Opium Wars was a shock that led it to want to emulate the West, as was also the case in Japan, which decided to Westernize after no more of a threat than the arrival of Western ships on their shores. Resentment rather than reassertion is the Arab response to Western power.
That, however, is to neglect the other side of the mirror, which is that the Western world by and large also holds the Arab world in particular and the Muslim world in general in contempt, despite the appeals of good liberals to apply a Western idea of religious toleration to all religions, to find some sweet spot which is shared by all world religions: everyone prays so as to attend to and try to be their better selves, right? Well, not so right. Some people pray for revenge against others rather than for forgiveness of their own sins.
The truth is that there is no love lost between the Muslim world and the West. The Muslim world breeds wars between its various populations (though they have hardly outdone the Europeans, who were until recently in a civil war that lasted at least five hundred years). The Muslim world is the place from which attacks are regularly launched against the United States and Europe and the Muslim world supplies the financing for the groups engaged in such attacks. Let them gas one another.
But there is a principle here about what the West, even if not Middle Eastern states, regards as legitimate practices even in times of war. There are not many principles of international relations worth upholding as more than rhetorical devices, but perhaps this is one of them. Whether the nation will disregard Obamaís sense of principle is yet to be seen but what is already clear is that Obama is willing to go out on a limb for what he considers the right thing to do, just as he did when he pushed hard for gun control legislation and was defeated, though think of how much worse it would have been if he had never made the fight. He showed, then and now, that not all of Washington is operated by the mean spirited who want to deprive the poor of money and their votes and by others who just want to bring down the President and go back to their business of giving money away to already rich people.