Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Case for Bravado: A Critique of Obama's Performance at the UN

Since the 1960s, liberals have lost the American peoples' faith in their capacity to wage successful foreign policy. Look at John Kerry - who had his patriotism successfully challenged in 2004 by a man who didn't even serve in the military. Kerry lost that battle because he did not deign to fight it, and Barack Obama is in danger of repeating this mistake.

The Democratic party before Vietnam was very different from the Democratic party of 2009. The party of Roosevelt, of Truman, of Kennedy, and Johnson was the party of an aggressive anti-communism. There were isolationists in the party as well, but no more than there were Old Guard conservative isolationists in the Republican party.

The Democrats lost their appetite for war after Vietnam, and by doing so, they created neo-conservatism, whose ranks were filled by old liberals who voted for Franklin Roosevelt, as Ronald Reagan did, but who refused to stay with a party that they believed had turned pacifist. And so it has become a post-1960s electoral rule in American politics that Democrats are strong(er) on domestic policy issues, and Republicans are strong(er) on foreign policy. Put another way, the median American voter stands to the Left of the Republican party on domestic issues, and to the Right of the Democratic party on foreign policy. Durable governing coalitions in our time are determined by the ability of either party to break this stereotype.

Enter President Barack Obama, who clearly has an ambitious agenda to remake the Democratic party and to build a durable governing coalition for years to come. But last week, he went to the UN and reinscribed every conservative and Republican stereotype of the weak and morally relativistic liberal Democratic stance on foreign policy.

Obama must really believe that what he is doing is morally right, and the best way forward for both America and the world (and UN), because he has gained no politial points by speaking with a soft voice to Iran and its nuclear ambitions. If Obama was not even trying to break the old stereotype that liberals are weak on rogue nations, then at best to his moral credit but not to his political credit, he was a principled ideologue at the UN last week.

Contrast this to President George W. Bush, who aggressively tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to break the stereotype that conservatives are uncompassionate and weak on domestic issues. He made a serious effort to take on social security reform, and he even managed to declare that no child should be left behind and signed into law a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Karl Rove had dutifully informed his boss that to build a winning coalition, the Republican party could not afford to accept extant partisan stereotypes and concede the argument that the Republican party can only be strong on guns but weak on butter. So the Bush administration aggressively took on signature Democratic terrain to try to break the Democratic monopoly over them. Bush failed, but not for lack of trying!

But Barack Obama doesn't seem to be doing anything to break the stereotype that liberals love butter but hate guns. He has been quite happy to work on churning out more butter (in the form of economic stimulus bills and health-care coverage), but he has also been reinforcing the stereotype that liberals just don't get it in terms of foreign policy.

Obama doesn't even need to carry a big stick, but to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, he could gain so many political points simply by speaking in a louder voice against the likes of Ahmadinejad, Qaddafi, and Hugo Chávez. Granted that he is mired in an impossible situation of considering troop increases in Afghanistan - either way he goes someone will be unhappy - but he would have only gained and lost little had he simply adopted a harsher tone towards the universally disdained pariahs of the world. Indeed, a louder voice against Ahmadinejad would have given him at least temporary cover for using a softer stick in terms of (desisting the request for)possible troop increases in Afghanistan.

Liberals should try exhibiting some chest-thumping bravado sometimes. If John Kerry had deigned to wear his patriotism (or, for that matter, his religion) on his sleeve, he may have had a stint in the White House. If partisan stereotypes are merely symbolic realities, then they can be subverted, at a relatively low cost, by symbolic acts.


Anonymous said...

Would you suggest, then, that Obama hold more symbolic, foreign rallies as a president (I'm thinking of his Berlin rally during the campaign)?

Also, when you refer to speaking in a louder voice against Ahmedinejad or Chávez, do you mean "stronger" as in tone, or literally louder (which, of course, reminds me of Chávez's famous "The Devil was just here" speech).

Finally, don't you think the Democratic party has good reason to be reticent towards war and aggressive foreign policy given the outcome of such policies? I would actually suggest that perhaps public opinion is shifting towards a more nuanced view of foreign policy, a view championed by Barack Obama during the campaign, which stresses direct diplomacy before war. While this view was criticized, one could argue that this could be the new face of American foreign policy.

Elvin Lim said...

For starters, I think Obama could have at least matched (even) PM Gordon Brown's level of indignation at their joint press conference - knowing well that if the UN fails to act (impose harsh sanctions), he could at least then blame, say, Russia's intransigence, and stake a claim that he had made a good faith (and publicized) effort to more strongly repudiate the Iran. By all means try diplomacy behind the scenes, but part of the reason why diplomacy works is precisely because it is done behind closed doors. Public pronoucements and private negotiations are (can be) different things - and leaders, even Ahmadinejad, know that - so not much is jeopardized in presenting (should Obama so choose) one face in public (for the domestic audience) and another in private (in constructive furtherance of bi-lateral ties.)

Just to be clear, I mean tone, not volume.