The Illusions of Obama's Idealism Abroad

The Illusions of Obama's Idealism Abroad

David Paul Kuhn - April 20, 2009

Candidate Barack Obama was dogged by charges of naiveté. President Obama has done little to disprove the accusation. He has been championed as a realist. But he has acted the ungrounded idealist.

It was a young John Kennedy who described himself as "an idealist without illusions." But Kennedy proved otherwise early on. The Bay of Pigs undercut US power nearly 48 years ago to the day.

Obama is more cautious than Kennedy. He is also more taken with illusions of the green diplomatic sort: that popularity wins policy or kindness woos kindness.

The damage has been limited to theatrics. But as Kennedy learned, weak theatrics can induce aggression. And Obama is accumulating some weak theatrics.

A North Dakota native was sentenced this weekend to eight years in prison for espionage. The conviction was by secret trial. It came a month after Obama committed himself to a new era of engagement with Iran that is "honest and grounded in mutual respect."

Meanwhile, Iran is undeterred in its effort to construct the ultimate deterrent. The White House continues to push for talks with Iran. Iran continues to master the nuclear fuel cycle. The West looks resigned to an Iranian bomb. It hopes to contain a rising regional power after it has nuclear weapons. Look how well that worked with Pakistan and North Korea.

Earlier this month Obama spoke of "a world without nuclear weapons." That same day nuclear North Korea test fired a ballistic missile. "I am not naïve," Obama responded to the atomic irony.

Obama subsequently doubled down on his naiveté. He spent political capital by assigning his U.N. ambassador to win a "resolution with some teeth." Obama came up all gums, as Kimtologists foretold. Russia and China were not suddenly moved to reverse policy and agree to seriously punish Pyongyang. The U.N. issued a statement. Tempered caution led North Korea to act most intemperate. Kim Jong Il left the six-nation disarmament talks and restarted his nation's nuclear weapons program.

This past weekend, as Iran convicted Roxana Saberi without even her attorney present, Obama was attending the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. The president entered the summit pledging to "listen and learn." He got an ear full.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega spent 45 minutes reciting the worst U.S. actions and allegations in the Americas. He decried "Yankee troop" invasions and called Obama "president of an empire." But Ortega added, "I want to believe" that Obama has "got the will" to change U.S. policy. How diplomatic.

Obama greeted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with a handshake and a smile. It was last month that Chavez called Obama an "ignoramus." So Chavez went about schooling Obama with an Uruguayan historian's book "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent."

The Venezuelan leader quickly posted photos of the handshake with Obama on his government website. The book "Open Veins" began the weekend at 54,295 on By Sunday night, it soared to No. 2. Propaganda achieved.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner heads a nation that once dreamed of empire and acted accordingly. No matter. She highlighted the failures of the U.S. drug war and its operations in the Americas.

But it's not personal for this president. Kirchner told Obama that this reproach against the United States was "in no way a reproach against you." It was just group therapy. "Simply an exercise to look back at what happened," in her words.

A U.S. president acts multilateral to critics of U.S. unilateralism. Critics greet Obama's olive branch with sanctimonious rants.

Obama responded with humor. "I'm grateful President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old."

To Chavez there was more bite. "Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States'," Obama said. "It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."

Obama's literally right. But the series of missteps sum to no joke. History beckons yellow lights where Obama has seen diplomatic green.

It's not easy to even win over allies. Obama proved popular in Europe earlier this month. But he won no substantial concessions from France and Germany on Afghanistan or stimulus spending. French President Nicolas Sarkozy later demeaned Obama as inexperienced.

Enemies are more difficult. There cannot always be the presumption of rational action. It's flirtation, not dance. No one leads the entire way. One cautious action awaits another. Obama is doing this with Cuba. He slightly eased the embargo. Raul Castro appears to desire the courtship. This same pragmatism is found in Obama's early approach to Afghanistan and Iraq.

But concessions do not always earn concessions. Russia rejected Obama's offer to withhold missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland if Russia helps contain Iran. Pledging diplomatic fresh starts without fresh action can embolden adversaries. North Korea and Iran persist with brinksmanship. Adversaries don't always want to "change" relations at the same time. One leader's peace is another's interpretation of weakness.

Last spring, President Bush ridiculed Obama's promise to negotiate with U.S. enemies. Obama rebutted that if Republicans have a problem with meeting with enemies then they "can explain why they [also] have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because that's what he did with Khrushchev."

The meeting of Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev offered the opposite lesson. Kennedy intellectually understood appeasement, as Obama does. JFK's magna cum lade Harvard thesis was on "Appeasement at Munich." By 1961, Kennedy rushed to meet bilaterally with Khrushchev all the same. Khrushchev pummeled Kennedy for U.S. "hypocrisy."

Kennedy said afterward that the Soviet premier "just beat the hell out of me." Khrushchev walked away from the meeting characterizing Kennedy as "too intelligent and too weak." He soon challenged Kennedy as he had not Dwight Eisenhower. The Berlin wall was built a few months later. Kennedy told aides "a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war." War almost came the following year with the Cuban missile crisis. 

The Bay of Pigs made America look feckless. But when Khrushchev met with Kennedy, the Soviet premier decided the president was feckless as well.

Kennedy once said, "let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Indeed. Absolute hawkishness offers only aggression to dissuade war. But as Kennedy learned with Khrushchev, premature dovishness can also undercut peace by inviting aggression.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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