With Obama, Europeans may have got more than they bargained for.
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Last summer, with several other Americans, I went to a garden reception attended by some French barristers, generals, and assorted professionals in Versailles. Most of them, conservatives and liberals alike, were quite ecstatic about the prospect of Barack Obama as the next American president — except one. He glanced around and then quietly whispered to me, “There is only room for one Obama — and, you remember, we already are the Obama.”
I think we are beginning to understand something of what he meant.
Europe went gaga over the campaign of Barack Obama — especially his serial references to multilateralism, vows to leave Iraq, eco-utopianism, and the soothing way in which he trumped Europe’s own disgust with the Bush administration.
Promises of nationalized health care, higher taxes, Kyoto redux, and more government cheered Europeans, leading them to believe that Obama would steer America on a path closer to their own. (That the French, German, and Italian governments may be slightly to the right of Obama was never mentioned — nor was the fact that in their lethargy Europeans occasionally like to come over here for a swig of old-fashioned rip-roaring America.)
Yet after the first seven weeks of the Obama administration some in Europe may be reminded of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Take unilateralism. After the invasion of Iraq, Europe mostly lambasted Bush as a go-it-alone cowboy who ridiculed “Old Europe.” They forgot about American attempts to lead a joint effort to stop nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, beat back al Qaeda, and ensure European autonomy in the face of an ascendant Russia. Tell a European that the U.S. military killed some pretty awful Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Iraq — terrorists who liked Europeans no better than us — and he was likely to play-act that we had created such creepy killers.
But now President Obama seems to be taking Europe at its multiculturalist, multilateralist word. He asks for more European troops in Afghanistan, and yet before they even arrive he wants to open dialogue with the “moderate” elements of the Taliban — sort of like searching out reasonable Nazis around 1942, or looking for circumspect Japanese after Iwo Jima. (Apparently, he thinks the Taliban haven’t heard of his $1.7-trillion deficit and his trashing of the cowboy Bush, or read his sympathetic press rebranding the once “good” Afghan war as the “quagmire.”)
Meanwhile Obama is playing Jacques Chirac in the Middle East, seeking talks with both Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. His Al Arabiya interview put him squarely to the left of the old European colonialists. (It was not for nothing that he sent back the bust of Winston Churchill and offered the visiting British pith helmets some fire-sale DVDs as presidential presents.)
Recently, in a letter to Russian leaders, Obama tried his hand at Kissingerianquid pro quo, apparently offering to give up Eastern European missile defense (had the Poles and Czechs heard about that?) if Russia would help stop the nuclear program it had helped jumpstart in Iran. That would be like asking Dr. A. Q. Khan, strangely released last month from house arrest, if he might talk sense to North Korea’s rogue nuclear scientists. In any case, those missiles were expensive in times of dearth, and how can you press the reset button with Putin if those pesky Eastern Europeans insist on chest-thumping to their former overlords?
Unlike the strutting but committed free-trader Bush, Obama is far more likely to arrange some quiet protection for American industries from subsidized foreign competition. So he may well back off from open markets and free-trade leagues, just as he promised in the campaign — and just as jittery E.U. functionaries worry in their pro forma praises of America’s commitment to globalization. And if European technocrats come over here to bitch about new trade realities, they will surely get a dose of mellifluous “Hope and Change” and elegant denials that will shame them into never suggesting that we had become Buchanan-like protectionists.
Europeans once loved to ridicule Bush as a laissez-faire capitalist as they racked up trade surpluses with the United States. Now a far more sympathetic Obama may well make it harder for Europeans to send in goods without encountering some sort of tariff. And if Europeans and everyone else once looked to a wide-open, low-tax, risk-it-all United States to jumpstart the world economy and help spread globalization, well, from now on, we will be consulting with Europe for joint government initiatives on convincing the Indians and Chinese to shut down their coal plants — as we ask the lattermost to lend us more cash.
It was easy to ridicule straw-in-the-mouth Bush for cracking down on Islamic terrorists. Now Obama may well send some of them back from Guantanamo to face European postmodern justice. It was also easy for Euros to slur the Patriot Act and “extraordinary rendition” as signs of the new American fascism, even as their own judiciaries, immigration services, and investigative units quietly did things that we haven’t dreamed of since the Civil War.
But now the Europeans are confused — is Obama to the left of them in the war on terror (does the war on terror even exist any more?) or is he Bush without the twang? Can we Americans at last lecture our allies about the absence of habeas corpus in some European countries, or their illiberal practice of preventive detention?
What is going on here?
Europeans got what their hearts wanted, but forgot what their heads told them. For 50 years, they have caricatured America as it served as the dumping ground for the export economies of the world. It (often clumsily) defended Europe at no cost, and got snickers and triangulation as its thanks. America’s belching cars and smokestack industries were the object of disdain by the supposedly green Euros, who in fact never met any of the Kyoto guidelines that they preached to everyone else.
Europe talked a great multicultural game, as the antithesis to America’s dirty role as the world’s cop that had to do nasty things like get Saddam out of Kuwait and then Iraq itself, rid the world of Milosevic, and chase the Taliban from Afghanistan.
Europeans gave Nobel Prizes to Jimmy Carter and Al Gore with the idea of poking in the eye the conservative American establishment — not as proof that in their wildest dreams they would wish to see once again Carter’s 1977–80 governance or enact Al Gore’s ideas for shutting down the West’s industrial infrastructure within a decade. (French nuclear plants and Eastern European coal-based production have no place in the Goreist wind-and-solar global paradise.)
Suddenly America has flipped, and Europe is bewildered and afraid that we may be the new, but more powerful and influential, Europe — and thus Europe will be left alone, with no foil. Its intellectuals talk of post-colonialism and post-imperialism, as they brag of their new multicultural fides. Quietly they worry about unassimilated minorities in their cities with names like Hussein. And while they accept that a Barack Obama would never make it to a major European ministry, they cannot accept that he knows that all too well himself — and should have little problem from time to time reminding the world of it as well.
What will soon scare London and Paris and Berlin is that when the Russians “haggle,” or squeeze Ukraine, or play games with gas exports, Americans will be right behind them in referring all such crises to the United Nations for multipolar talks. We may slice our deficit by cutting a carrier group or three, content to suggest that the Charles de Gaulle dock off Darfur to do a little air recon, or visit Georgia to reassure the people of Western support.
In the Middle East, we will worry about the sorry legacy of colonialism, as our multicultural president opens new initiatives with some pretty rough customers. (Europe, not the U.S., will be in range of the new Iranian missiles.) Europe can’t even get its old rise out of us by bashing Israel, not when we are giving Hamas-controlled Gaza $1 billion in aid, and when the administration wanted Samantha Power and Charles Freeman as our regional experts.
Re-empowered unions, Democratic protectionism, high taxes, big government, astronomical deficits, idealistic 1930s isolationism — not the globalization and free-market trade once demanded by the now moribund masters of the universe on Wall Street — are America’s new creed. Who knows? Soon our elite may be thinking of emigrating to the Netherlands or Denmark to avoid America’s high taxes and its new redistributive government regulations. Who knows? Soon a European eccentric may have to come over here, Churchill-like, to warn us about the storm clouds on the global horizons.
In short, we are going to Europeanize Europe in a manner far beyond what they ever dreamed of doing to us.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson