Dr. Jekyll and Mr. President

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

In matters of foreign policy during the president’s first 100 days, we have seen two Barack Obamas.

Consider “Obama I.” After taking office, the president gave his first interview to the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV station, and listed various sins of America while praising the Saudi king as courageous.

On trips abroad since then, Obama I has continued to apologize for the U.S. being arrogant and dismissive of Europe. He thinks we have been inconsiderate to Mexico. And, judging by a speech he gave in Prague, we apparently carry a special burden to eliminate nuclear weapons since we ended World War II by using them.

Obama I seems far kinder to our rivals than to the prior Bush administration when he assures various South American thugs and Iranian and Russian strongmen that he represents a sharp break from a recent, unfortunate American past.

Obama I sat quietly for nearly an hour while Nicaragua’s thuggish leader, Daniel Ortega, trashed the U.S. at the recent Summit of the Americas. Instead of defending his country, the president, in his call to move forward, replied that he was only three months old at the time of our alleged misdeeds in Cuba — and therefore not responsible for them.

Most maddening, Obama I released classified memos about past enhanced interrogation techniques — over the objections of former CIA directors from both parties.

But there has been another Obama as well. This more centrist “Obama II” kept Bush appointee Robert Gates as secretary of Defense. He named no-nonsense Gen. James Jones national security adviser.

Most of the campaign rhetoric about leaving Iraq on a strict timetable has been scrapped. Instead, the Bush-Petraeus plan of withdrawal based on conditions on the ground continues.

Obama sent more combat troops to Afghanistan, while trying in vain to get the Europeans to fulfill their NATO obligations by doing the same. Despite the hostile anti-Bush rhetoric, Obama has kept intact many of his predecessor’s homeland security measures. There has been little change with the Patriot Act, wiretap and e-mail intercepts of suspected terrorist communications, and renditions of overseas suspects.

Obama II gave the green light to execute suspected Somali pirates who were holding an American hostage. And in the case of our continued Predator drone attacks in Pakistan, such bombings are a little more extreme than waterboarding known terrorists.

There could be several explanations for our split-personality president.

One, Barack Obama has never before had to make tough decisions as an executive. He may be struggling to pacify both radicals in his base who detest past Bush policies and realists who warn him that al Qaeda is still trying to repeat 9/11.

Or, two, Obama may be sincerely trying to move the country far to the left. His serial apologies may reveal a true post-national Obama. Once he consolidates power in the coming year, we may see the president’s moderate fig leaf blow away.

Or, three, Obama may be a Clinton-style realist, as his selection of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of State would suggest. He may be deliberately saying one thing abroad while pursuing quite another -— in the manner of his calibrated campaign flip-flops on everything from campaign financing to NAFTA trade agreements.

This more Machiavellian Obama in theory could advance roughly the same bipartisan foreign agenda as previous Presidents Clinton and Bush. Both sought to spread capitalism and democracy abroad to lessen the chances of regional conflicts, and were not so averse to using force to remove genocidal tyrants like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

In this scenario, Obama apologizes abroad and trumpets his nontraditional background and Islamic familiarities as clever ways to preempt and nullify third-world cheap shots taken against the U.S. Given his popularity with the global masses, the new more effective Messenger Obama could send America’s largely unchanged message directly to the people.

So which Obama persona is the real president — Obama I, more radical than Jimmy Carter, or Obama II, a smoother centrist than Bill Clinton? I don’t think Obama himself quite knows — and that’s quite scary, as we don’t know either what to expect next.

©2009 Tribune Media Services

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