New York Times columnist Gail Collins passed out a six-month report card to the Obama administration last week. Predictably, the President received high grades. Why? Because the United States is more popular everywhere in the world than it was during the days of the evil George W. Bush.
Popularity is an element of the "soft power" so trumpeted by sophisticated foreign policy experts during the dark days of the "cowboy president," George W. Bush. And certainly President Obama has pursued higher poll numbers on the international stage, as if he were running for President of the World.
That pursuit has included round-the-world apology tours, in which just about every problem faced any place visited by the President was attributed to some form of American wrongdoing. No group benefited from more such apologies than the Moslem world, as part of Obama's celebrated outreach to Muslims around the globe.
An August 6 speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, counter-terrorism czar John O. Brennan continues in that vein. In discussing extremist violence threatening America – virtually all of which is connected to one Moslem movement or another – Brennan refused to acknowledge a unifying element: the jihadist desire to spread Islamic law across the face of the earth. Instead he redefined jihad as "waging a holy struggle for a moral goal." What he left out was that knocking down the Twin Towers and suicide bombings against civilians around the world have been among the "moral" goals endorsed by various Islamist religious authorities.
While offering a lip service rejection of the notion that poverty causes violence and terrorism, Brennan went on to enumerate the various deformities of the Islamic world (though he did not provide that inconvenient religious designation): no jobs, no education, and a total disconnect from the modern world, and again apologized for "our [i.e., American] failure to address those conditions that play into the extremists' hands." The fanatical brand of Islam practiced in most Moslem countries was given a pass, though it, not American policy, explains the backwardness of these countries.
America can once again be counted upon to be a good citizen of the world, supporting the Kyoto Treaty on Carbon Emissions and eager to subordinate American power to the U.N., President Obama has proclaimed.
Flattery has also played a major role in the President's global popularity. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Western Europeans should feel good and flattered. From a push towards a state-controlled medical system to the quasi-nationalization of the auto industry, President Obama has clearly been pushing America towards the European model of highly regulated economies, even as the Europeans are beginning to realize that their welfare models are unsustainable and heading in the other direction. The heavily regulated European economies have been mired in stagnation and high unemployment for decades. Employers are reluctant to hire new employees because once hired it is almost impossible to fire them.
BUT AS ANY HALF-WAY successful parent could have told the President, seeking popularity is a good way to ensure long-range failure. Telling children what they want to hear, giving them everything they demand, offering them no vision of right and wrong, and eschewing the role of model is a pretty good recipe for producing spoiled, disrespectful, unproductive brats. Perhaps that is what the Jerusalem Post's Carolyn Glick meant when she described appeasement not as a strategy for the Obama administration but as the goal itself. Popularity has been turned into an end, not a means, with predictable results.
At the very least, Obama's popularity has not translated into the advancement of any national interest. Indeed it would be impossible to identify a single foreign policy success to date for the Obama administration besides shooting two Somali pirates plug between the eyes. And that success had little to do with American popularity abroad, and probably did little to increase it, at least not among Somali pirates.
The President's overseas trips have proven to be major hits with the locals everywhere. But foreign leaders have been demonstrably less impressed. To date, the President has been unable to persuade any Western European nation to contribute a single soldier to our efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan. And European heads of state and central bankers pointedly rejected every request from President Obama to stimulate their economies by increasing government deficits. (As it turned out they were right. The United States is one of only three Western countries whose economy is still contracting, along with Great Britain and Italy, and they were the three that engaged most heavily in Keynesian stimulation.)
While the President's evident admiration of the European take on the world has made him more congenial to European tastes than the Bush team, with its undiplomatic talk of "the old (read decrepit) Europe," it has not necessarily left European leaders inclined to trust his judgment or to follow his lead.
The only clear foreign policy "success" of the Obama administration has been to put air, lots of it, between the United States and Israel. That too has been a popular hit. The top quality dates in the Egyptian shuk today are called "Obama dates." But far less clear is what the series of hectoring judgments about various Israeli policies or decisions are "unacceptable" have done to advance Middle East peace. By convincing the Arabs that they must do nothing and can simply wait for American pressure to mount on Israel and Israelis that no American promise or undertaking can be relied upon, the Obama approach has pushed serious negotiations further into the future.
If popularity has not translated into foreign policy achievements with friends, it is not surprising that it has yielded even fewer fruits with enemies. North Korea had continued with underground testing of nuclear weapons and to test longer-range missiles. If it feels constrained by the possibility of an American response somewhere down the line, it has not shown it. Worse still, Iran continues to ramp up its enrichment of uranium for nuclear weapons and make dramatic improvements in its missile capacity, without a serious step towards Western sanctions having been taken. Indeed the administration has, on numerous occasions, seemed to accept Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons as a foregone conclusion and offered the protection of America's nuclear umbrella, which was neither sought nor needed, in the event of attack by Iran.
ON THE DOMESTIC FRONT, by contrast, the President has managed to squander the immense reservoirs of good will with which he entered office faster than any president in recent memory. The Rasmussen daily tracking polls now show his strong disapproval ratings over ten points higher than his strong approval ratings. The President and Democratic-controlled Congress's push for a medical care system in which the burden of decision-making would be dramatically shifted from consumers to government bureaucrats has triggered a popular backlash.
Contemplating the President's plummeting popularity and the indications of rising support for the Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, one White House counselor professed to be unfazed. Democratic presidents have done well in the past with a Republican-controlled Congress, he said. He probably had in mind Bill Clinton. After the defeat of healthcare reform early in the Clinton presidency led to the Republicans recapturing the Congress in 1994, Clinton's popularity once again began to rise and remained relatively high until the end of his presidency, even after his impeachment.
Yet with the important exception of welfare reform (a bipartisan cause if there ever was one), Clinton never again tried to do much of anything on the domestic front, after the defeat of health care reform. He remained a relatively popular and ineffectual president. If Congress similarly rejects Obama's health care proposals and his cap-and-trade design to reduce carbon emissions, it will thereby save the President from public rage and increase his chances of re-election. On the other hand, it will pretty much insure that he never again tries to substantially reshape the American economy or culture.
That might be a result devoutly to be wished for if only it did not leave Obama in charge of foreign policy for the next seven years. By that time, Iran would surely have acquired a bomb, and perhaps deployed it. As one wit has noted, domestic policy can cause great pain, but foreign policy can get you killed.
On the other hand, if the Democrats manage to push through the creation of a massive new federal health care bureaucracy (details to be furnished later by government regulators and Health Care Commissions) or a hugely costly tax on the American economy and taxpayer in the form of cap-and-trade, they will have ensured Republican control of Congress into the foreseeable future, once the American people – 86% of whom are happy with their current medical care – wake up to the monster than has been created.
But by then it will be too late. It's a lot easier to create a massive new bureaucracy than to get rid of it.