The globe is hearing a deeply pessimistic view of what America was and is.
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Given Obama’s performance on his recent trip, three developments were quite astounding.
First, despite this fresh climate of atonement, there was a complete absence of a single apology from any other foreign leader — odd for the new shared spirit of multi-polarity and reciprocity.
Not a word came from Britain about colonialism. Nothing from Germany on the Holocaust, or its trade with Iran. Not a peep from France about Algeria or Vietnam.
Turkey was mum on the Armenian killings and its own tough anti-Kurdish policies. Russia said nothing about the 30 million murdered by Stalin — or its present assassinations abroad, much less its leveling of Grozny or its destruction of Afghanistan. Nothing came from China about the 70 million who perished under Mao or its present role in subsidizing North Korean nukes — or its violation of global copyright laws. We won’t hear anything in the “New Asian Hemisphere” about Muslim Uighurs or Tibet.
Second, there was no other example of “He did it!” about supposedly inept predecessors. Mr. Medvedev said nothing about Putin’s brutish rule. Sarkozy and Merkel did not trash the shady Chirac or Gazprom’s bought lobbyist Schroeder, and their role in harming the Atlantic alliance. Gordon Brown was quiet about Tony Blair and Iraq. China did not mention a reset button. The new Berlusconi did not trash the old Berlusconi.
Third, we saw no concrete evidence of any help — or hope and change — from any foreign leader. Zilch. There were expectations of American concessions, but nothing new or helpful from anyone else.
Instead I think a number of astute foreign leaders — rivals, enemies, and friends alike — have already drawn the following conclusions.
I. An Obama visit
A vast entourage will descend on your capital in campaign mode. Most of your functionaries will wish to get a photo-op with the rock-star president. The American president at some point will request a “town-hall meeting,” press conference, or open-air handshake session with the crowd. All this is largely for domestic consumption back home, and is designed to offer an antidote for the concessions or apologies that follow. It is quite successful in generating temporary goodwill toward the new Obama administration.
II. “I’m sorry.”
Obama will apologize for almost anything one can imagine. First comes the generic lamentation about Bush, the need for a reset button, and America’s characteristic “arrogance.” Then there are the “we are at fault” lines on spec, tailor-made mea culpas for the country in question.
If you are Turkish and Islamic, you get a threefer: the morally equivalent reference to the American treatment of the Indians, the pledge that we are not at war with Islam (forget that no president ever said we were), and the reminder that we are not a Christian nation.
In Europe, you receive apologies for Bush, Iraq, and the financial meltdown. Each leader gets a unique version of Obama’s somewhat narcissistic “Them, not me” — either a strain of something like “Bush did it” or “Every American except me is arrogant.” We can console ourselves only that Obama has not contextualized or apologized to the Somali pirates — yet.
III. “You’re Right!”
Differences that your country has with the United States will be resolved in your favor. Foreign leaders already sense that Obama’s success hinges on his “hope and change” ecstasy back home — which cannot for long sustain stories of difficult diplomacy and public manifestations of international trouble and acrimony, of anything really that suggests he is not mesmerizing the world in the manner he did the American electorate.
Europe? Take your pick. No more combat troops to Afghanistan; an international financial “czar”; no additional financial deficit stimuli; no Guantanamo prisoners on European shores; American acknowledgment of culpability for the financial crisis; no mention of Europe’s own reckless lending, protectionism, or pre-September 2008 declining GDP. But goodwill aplenty.
China? It gets praise when it ridicules the dollar, but offers no help on North Korea. Nothing new about trade violations. Hope is expressed that they will still buy our growing debt.
Russia? Let us count the ways. No more missile defense for Eastern Europe; no mention of Russia’s human-rights violations or its policy of serial assassination abroad; de facto abandonment of advocacy for former Soviet republics’ autonomy; Russia’s energy blackmail is Russia’s business; no help with de-nuclearizing Iran.
Turkey? Yes, Europe must let you in the EU. The new Danish NATO supreme commander must apologize for defending free speech — and, as relish, hire some of your generals; continued American assurance that we are not a Christian nation.
The Islamic World is not to be inconvenienced by any mention of radical Islam, or 9/11, or of the endemic pathologies that nourished al-Qaedism in the first place — such as gender apartheid, religious intolerance, autocracy, statism, and tribalism. Instead there is plenty of Bush-bashing, courting of Iran and Syria, caricatures of the “war on terror,” and talk of Iraq as a “mistake.”
Then comes the “separation.” Obama makes it clear to any host or foreign leader that both he and his vision of America are strangely exempt from America’s past, from Bush, and from our innately arrogant nature. That is accomplished in a number of adroit ways. There is evocation of his once-taboo middle name “Hussein” to win affection in the Middle East, but also to suggest a more Third Worldish resonance such as “I am one of you too who has grievances against ‘them.’ ”
He is beginning to mention the novelty of his racial heritage a lot, usually in the context that we are now in a new world of Obama, and that his very presence is a rejection of the old and illiberal America.
That the veteran Colin Powell and Russian-speaking Condoleezza Rice ran American foreign policy the last eight years, in a way unthinkable in Europe, is never voiced. Suggesting that China would have an Uighur foreign minister, that Saudi Arabia would have a Christian foreign minister, that France would have an Algerian foreign minister, that Germany would have a Turkish foreign minister, or that Russia would have a Chechen foreign minister is as absurd as suggesting that a Powell or Rice was never a big deal.
So what Obama leaves out about America is telling. He touches on slavery, lack of voting rights for blacks in the South (although he conflates this issue and implies to foreigners that African Americans could not vote in the North as well), our past treatment of Native Americans, and the dropping of the bomb against Japan.
These transgressions are rarely put in any historical context, much less referenced as sins of mankind shared by all of his hosts (the pedigree of murder, exploitation, and rapine of his foreign interlocutors is quite stunning). We don’t hear many references to the American Revolution, or the great tradition of American ingenuity embodied by Bell, Edison, or the Wright brothers.
We hear nothing about our Gettysburg, or our entry into World War I. Iwo Jima and the Bulge are never alluded to. Drawing the line in Korea and forcing the end of the Soviet monstrosity are taboo subjects. That we pledged the life of New York for Berlin in the Cold War is unknown. Liberating Afghanistan and Iraq from the diabolical Taliban and Saddam Hussein is left unsaid. The Civil Rights movement, the Great Society, affirmative action, and present billion-dollar foreign-aid programs apparently never existed. Millions of Africans have been saved by George Bush’s efforts at extending life-saving medicines to AIDS patients — but again, this is never referenced.
V. What’s Next?
At present the world is watching, probing, and digesting the Obama presidency. But it has already concluded that Obama is nourished by applause and will work to maintain it — not merely for personal gratification, but because he realizes that loud public endorsement is essential to his perpetual candidacy, given its absence of experience and sagacity.
Those abroad are also reassured that the American media, so heavily invested in hope and change, will do almost anything to transmogrify American embarrassments into Obama successes. Meanwhile, the contours of the new world order are clear. Iraq’s democrats are snubbed; Iran’s cutthroats are courted. A Saudi royal receives a bow; the British queen, a presumptuous squeeze — while her prime minister receives unplayable DVDs.
Pakistan released Dr. Khan and wants us to idle our Predators. Iran is adding to its centrifuges. North Korea will ready ever-more missiles. Syria lectures on the putative peace it is begged to participate in. The former Soviet republics will fall back into line, closing American supply bases or bracing for the next Putin push. Israel gets a Charles Freeman nomination; Gaza a billion U.S. dollars in aid.
The odious governments of Cuba, Libya, and Syria quite logically have now expressed warmth of some sort for Obama and expect similar treatment in return. Russia fears little challenge to the reestablishment of its 19th-century influence. Pirates in Somalia, though slightly fewer in number today, likely have little to fear going forward.
Europe had better prepare for its own defense. So should Japan. They may get more expressions of outrage when crises loom, more calls for U.N. action, but not much more than that. Expect a world of more nukes, not fewer — in direct proportion to Obama’s calls for their entire elimination.
In short, we have a return of Jimmy Carter’s postnational idealism, but this time with the charismatic face of a Ronald Reagan. For 40 years we have had well-meaning moral equivalence, utopian pacifism, and multiculturalism taught in our schools, and we are now learning that all that was not just therapy, but has insidiously become our national gospel. The world is hearing a deeply pessimistic view of what America was and is — now offered in mellifluous cadences by a messianic president who not so long ago in more unguarded moments called for more oppression studies and reparations.
President Obama will get his much-needed praise and adulation abroad, and Americans will finally be somewhat admired for a while. And thereafter, there will be real hell to pay — either abject U.S. appeasement as the world heats up, or some sort of frantic eleventh-hour hyper-response to restore stability and lost deterrence.
Update: After this essays was written and published, President Sarkozy stated his impressions of Obama as a world leader: “Obama has a subtle mind, very clever and very charismatic,” the French President said, “But he was elected two months ago and had never run a ministry. There are a certain number of things on which he has no position. And he is not always up to standard on decision-making and efficiency.”
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson