Think Again: Giving idealism a bad name

"Obama’s instinctive tendencies tilt toward precisely the sort of idealism that his favorite thinker, Reinhold Niebuhr, scorned."

US President Barack Obama at the Rose Garden of the White House (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)
US President Barack Obama at the Rose Garden of the White House
The excitement that conservative columnist David Brooks felt upon first meeting US President Barack Obama was not just on account of the sharpness of the crease in his pants. He was no less thrilled to discover that Obama was a “reader,” whose favorite philosopher was the mid-20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
Any resemblance of Obama to his favorite thinker, however, is coincidental. Niebuhr was most famous as a staunch, anti-Communist liberal. His greatest scorn was generally reserved for Christian idealists who believed that it is forbidden to sully one’s hands with immoral means, including the use of force and power, and that love alone must carry the day. He ardently supported the use of American military and economic power to counter the Soviet Union in the post-World War II era.
Obama’s instinctive tendencies, however, tilt toward precisely the sort of idealism that Niebuhr scorned. He is fond of citing Martin Luther King’s words, “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.” For him, as for Marxists, history is a quasi-deity that will eventually bring about the desired outcome, while meanwhile justifying passivity in the present, never mind the human toll until “history” works its magic.
Thus in his September 28 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Obama taunted the Russians for having flouted international norms and eschewed diplomacy by invading Ukraine.
Russia, he suggested, could have done much better had it worked diplomatically with Ukraine and the “international community” to protect its interests, rather than defying the arc of history and resorting to old-fashioned military power.
Well, perhaps. But if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s purpose was to make clear that any nation on the Russian periphery that seeks closer ties with Western Europe will pay a heavy price as a consequence, diplomacy might not have been as effective as an invasion. (David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy and a former Clinton administration official, offered the following savage summary of the speech: “Good morning. Cupcakes. Unicorns. Rainbows. Putin is mean. Thank you very much.”)
Similarly, Obama lectured Iran’s leaders that if they cut out all the “Death to America” business and stopped deploying violent proxies to advance its interests, they would create more good jobs for the Iranian people. It does not occur to him that the “good life” of the Iranian people is not the highest priority of Supreme Leader Ali Khameini.
THE LEAD agent of the history in Obama’s mind is the mythical “community of nations.” Asked on 60 Minutes who would eventually defeat Islamic State, he responded, “the community of nations.”
And he praised the UN in his General Assembly speech for having built “an international system that imposes a cost on those who choose conflict over cooperation, an order that recognizes the dignity and equal worth of all people.”
Oh, please. Has the president never noticed that the UN Human Rights Council is dominated by dictatorships, or that the citizens of the majority of nations of the General Assembly do not enjoy basic human rights, or that Russia and China hold Security Council vetoes? Adam Garfinkle, editor of American Interest, rightly terms the belief that “the UN is a positive and independent international actor” as one of the five whoppers subscribed to by idealists. Another of those whoppers is: Force must always be conceived of as a last resort. Does that sound like Obama? In the president’s world, enemies are merely apparitions seen by warmongers, and perceived conflicts are mere misunderstandings.
Thus at the UN, he ridiculed his political opposition in America – just as he ridiculed Mitt Romney in the 2008 debates for wanting to call back the 1980s – for defining strength by “opposition to old enemies, perceived adversaries, a rising China, or a resurgent Russia, a revolutionary Iran, or an Islam that is incompatible with peace.” Well, is Iran revolutionary or not? Is there a stream of Islam incompatible with peace? Are both Russia and China pursuing aggressive foreign policies based on shows of military strength or not? The ugly flip side of Obama’s idealism is the need to portray all who disagree as moral troglodytes.
On 60 Minutes, he characterized critics of his foreign policy as viewing the only measure of strength as “sending back several hundred thousand troops to the Middle East.” The choice is always, in Obama’s world, between his course of nonaction and several hundred thousand American troops on the ground.
And at the UN, he pilloried European critics of mass immigration of refugees fleeing the Middle East as appealing “to a glorious past before the body politic was infected by those who look different, or worship God differently.” Has he ever considered that Europeans might legitimately be worried about the destruction of cultures developed over thousands of years by those who come from very different cultures with different mores?
PERHAPS THE greatest difference between the idealists and Niebuhr lies in the moral weight given to good intentions versus good results. Obama was an early and fierce opponent of the “immoral” second war in Iraq. His moral calculus made no room for the 60,000 to 70,000 Iraqi children dying annually of malnutrition under Saddam Hussein, as the latter siphoned off oil revenues to build more palaces, or all those dropped alive into meat grinders by Saddam’s sadistic sons, the tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs gassed by Saddam, or the extensive state security apparatus that ensured no Iraqi citizen would ever speak freely with another human being for fear of being informed upon.
Nor did that “moral” calculus take into account that the Iraq War (whatever its other failures) paved the way for independence for the Kurds, a historical people with their own language, with far more right to self-determination than Palestinians.
Similarly, in Syria, the deaths of over 300,000 people and displacement of millions more from their homes have not shaken Obama’s judgment that doing next to nothing is both “the smart and moral policy.” Fred Hiatt, The Washington Post’s editorial page editor, writes that Obama’s single achievement in Syria has been to “soothe the American people into feeling no responsibility for [a] tragedy... of epochal proportions.”
NOW, IT is not sufficient to point to terrible things happening abroad to indict American foreign policy. Even America lacks the resources to stop every slaughter of innocents around the globe. No democratic citizenry will long tolerate a leader who places no higher value on the lives of citizens of his or her country than on those in faraway places.
Not every slaughter has a remedy. If intervening to stop the murder of 700,000 Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda were to result only in a comparable butchery by Tutsis against Hutus, nothing would be gained. (I’m not suggesting that would have been the case or trying to absolve president Bill Clinton for his inaction.) But in Syria, besides the moral imperative to save hundreds of thousands of lives, America also had important national security concerns.
And neither the humanitarian concerns nor the national security interests required placing hundreds of thousands of soldiers in harm’s way. Creating no-fly zones and a safe haven by the Turkish border for refugees would have prevented Assad from bombing his own people in the tens of thousands.
At the beginning of the civil war, America had an important reason to hope for Assad’s fall. The loss of Syria would have represented a huge setback for Iranian plans to establish Shi’ite hegemony over the entire crescent from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon.
The second American interest was that Assad not be replaced by radical Sunni Islamists. And that is why Obama’s entire national security cabinet recommended by 2013 that we arm and train the moderate opposition. We didn’t and got Islamic State and al-Qaida instead.
Rather than seeking to deal Iran a major setback, Obama refused to act against Assad and thereby risk angering the Iranians and endangering a nuclear deal. Assad hanging from a rope might have had a sobering effect on the Iranians and made them more malleable in nuclear negotiations, just as the sight of Saddam on the gallows led Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi to abandon his nuclear program. But Obama had a better idea: Give them everything they demand.
And that “deal” Obama hailed at the UN as resulting in “a lasting, comprehensive deal that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while allowing it to access peaceful energy.” A 10-year deal that ensures Iran will gain nuclear weapons would be a more accurate description. Energy-rich Iran, incidentally, has as much need for peaceful nuclear energy as a peaceful nuclear program has for the type of ICBMs Iran tested recently in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
And as a final irony, an administration that made nuclear nonproliferation the centerpiece of its foreign policy has likely succeeded only in triggering a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region.
It’s enough to give idealism a bad name.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.