Obama Is Weakening America

The president's new nuclear weapons policy is just the latest (should we call it “Jimmy-Cartesian”?) indication that he is determined to hasten the country’s decline, writes Tunku Varadarajan.

04.06.10 10:43 PM ET

Consider me unimpressed. Barack Obama’s ballyhooed “Nuclear Posture Review” has turned out, in truth, to be more “posture” than “review.”

As has been pointed out by a prominent parser of all things nuclear, the new policy actually changes very little: We weren’t going to nuke Brazil before the review and we’re still asserting the right to nuke North Korea if we need to. And even my nuclear-layman’s eye detects the thrust of platitude in the president’s assertion that, henceforward, the U.S. would “only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” Does the president mean to tell us that his predecessors were free to consider the use of nukes in humdrum circumstances to defend trivial interests?

Other countries have their own particular interests, and will sell nuclear reactors to Iran and arms to Venezuela, no matter how compelling Obama’s family history is.

I jest here, of course, but I despair, too. I despair of this latest episode of gestural theater designed to make the U.S. look exquisitely reasonable (should we call it “Jimmy-Cartesian”?), but which in truth results in the U.S. looking flaccid, or worse, complacent. After all, who gains from a presidential posture that has, in effect, stigmatized our most potent deterrent?

In terms of foreign policy—or, better put, foreign clout—the U.S. is going through a startling period of auto-emasculation. Barack Obama has discarded his predecessor’s big stick—the wielding of which should have confirmed the flaws not of big sticks but of his predecessor—and replaced it with a mission of almost messianic outreach to our foes and most adamant competitors (while, at the same time, snubbing allies like Britain, Israel and India; Robert Kagan has a doughty essay on this in The Washington Post.)

Michael Levi: Obama’s Nuke Plan Doesn’t Go Far EnoughObserving Obama’s foreign policy, one comes away with the impression that he is profoundly embarrassed by American exceptionalism: We are a country like any other, and let no one tell us otherwise. He also views America’s international decline as irreversible: His instinctive response is to accommodate the U.S. to the forces that have led to this decline, since to resist them would not merely be futile, but an affront to the multi-polar sensibilities of all those who, in foreign chanceries and international institutions, watch America closely for any trace of unilateralist recidivism. (Of course, it is OK to be unilateralist in the formal renunciation of strategic options, as happens with any nuclear self-denial; otherwise, multinational solidarity is always to be preferred, even when it leads to the backing of anti-American forces, as has happened in Honduras.)

Stephen L. Carter: Obama, Don’t Stop Building Nukes In the Obama narrative, America has been a reckless source of trouble for the world because of its arrogant interventionism. Obama’s solution, in the words of Charles Hill, a professor at Yale, is the following: “Close out the wars, disengage, and distance ourselves in order to carry out the real objective: the achievement of a European-style welfare state. Just as Reagan downsized government by starving it through budget cuts, Obama will downsize the military-industrial complex by directing so much money into health care, environ-o-care, etc., that we, like the Europeans, will have no funds available to maintain world power. This will gain the confidence of those regimes adversarial to us as they recognize we will no longer be a threat to them and that we will acquiesce in their maintenance of power over their people.” All will be well with the world.

Obama’s foreign policy has two pillars: conciliation as a tool for peace (defined as lending a close ear to every recalcitrant nation, while abjuring any American right to be censorious); and an avowed preference for pragmatism over any values-based evangelism (in effect, the elevation of pragmatism to the status of directive principle). Commentators have observed that there is an element of Bush repudiation in Obama’s foreign policy. I would go further: Bush repudiation is not “an” element. It is “the” element.

To be fair, this is exactly the way George W. Bush viewed, and repudiated, Bill Clinton—and did so with a mulish refusal to entertain policies that were at odds with the neocon vision of Pax Americana. Recall that Bush, at first, spoke contemptuously of humanitarian intervention and said that he’d only pursue the most “vital” national interests abroad (ironic, since that is the gist of Obama’s repudiation of Bush). But Bush went on to overturn Clinton on every issue: He termed China a “strategic competitor” while Clinton viewed it through the lens of commercial diplomacy; he jettisoned all the emphasis on “globalization,” with its opportunities and threats (disease, global warming, etc.), and exchanged geo-economics for geopolitics; he turned his back on the U.N., while Clinton was usually working with it; he ditched, entirely, the Middle East “peace process,” which Clinton was addicted to; and finally, the most tectonic shift of all: He intervened militarily in countries where he saw threats to the U.S., whereas Clinton had merely Cruise-missiled empty tents and aspirin factories.

As Bush did to Clinton, so Obama has done to Bush. But the visceral displacement is not working, mostly because the other side—to wit, the rest of the world—is determined to have a say in international relations too, especially when faced with a complaisant Washington. Obama can profess his multilateralism till he’s azure in the face, but—as Kagan and others have pointed out—other countries have their own particular interests, and will sell nuclear reactors to Iran and arms to Venezuela, no matter how compelling Obama’s family history is.

There is also an unseemly side to the pragmatism that is Obama’s international leitmotif. Paradoxically for a man who incarnates the progress of civil liberties in his own country, the president has literally banished human rights (that quintessentially liberal and Democratic concern) from U.S. foreign policy—just because Bush took up the cause. Of rights in China, Egypt, and elsewhere, the Obama administration has spoken only with an excessive, and dispiriting, circumspection.

So one wonders—as Putin embraces Chavez and Karzai plays host to Ahmadinejad; as Russia asserts the right to repudiate any nuclear-arms reduction treaty and China gives us the bird on the yuan; as the alliance with India languishes and the one with Britain experiences unprecedented atrophy; as Israel expresses acrid disagreement with us and Japan seeks to rip pages out of its postwar rulebook—what all the pragmatism has really, truly accomplished…

…other than give our delighted adversaries a free pass and our friends a very rude wakeup call.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)