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Obama’s muddled thinking on foreign policy will walk him into the same pitfalls as his predecessor

It’s not uncommon for inauguration speeches to be packed with grandiloquent foreign policy fluff. In his own address, Coolidge claimed, “We have never any wish to interfere in the political conditions of other countries,” but every president since (sans Ford, of course) has made opportunity of the occasion to give a majestic call to action based on American exceptionalism and the divine power of freedom.

For nearly a century, from Hoover’s muted charge that America will “do its full share as a nation toward the advancement of civilization” to the rhetorical heights of George W. Bush’s second inaugural, American presidents have unanimously preached the virtue of internationalism. The public, one must conclude, are gluttons for it; Kennedy’s commitment to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty” is still regarded as stirring, even after the experience of Vietnam showed how costly and undesirable that commitment really was.

By this standard, President Obama’s speech on January 20th was reserved, even conciliatory. His predecessor, four years earlier, was unequivocal in his demand for freedom:

“All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors… America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.”

In contrast, President Obama was content to merely note that tyrants “are on the wrong side of history” and leave it at that. The implication was clear: no need for messy nation building and democratization—the inexorable march of time will uproot despots without our aid.

Despite his very clear disdain for W’s brand of crusading adventurism, the newly minted president couldn’t help but honor inaugural tradition and sing a little paean to American idealism:

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals… Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

A heartening thought, this notion that no compromise is necessary between our national interests and our ideological commitments. But is it really true?

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that the number one threat to America’s safety is nuclear proliferation and our most important ideal is the inviolability of human rights. To curb nuclear proliferation, we are induced to build coalitions against Iran and North Korea and diplomatically pressure them to forsake their weapons programs. But a renewed commitment to human rights would put us at loggerheads with many of the countries that are needed in our non-proliferation coalitions — we cannot simultaneously censure China for its human rights abuses and expect it to deliver us North Korean cooperation; we cannot pillory our Arab allies while urging resistance to Iran.

If we drew up a list of our safety concerns and ideals and played mix and match, we’d find the same sorts of trade-offs occurring no matter what the pairing. The axiomatic truth that Obama has chosen to ignore is that he cannot have his cake and eat it too.

It’s easy to dismiss Obama’s address as unfelt optimism — that is, after all, what inaugurals are for — except that Obama wasn’t any more forthcoming during the campaign either. All he ever assured us of was that Iraq-style nation building was over — a meaningless assurance given the mood of the country. Absent amidst all his talk of “tough diplomacy” was the much needed identification and prioritization of America’s goals and interests.

Some would argue that it doesn’t matter, that Obama’s lack of a definite policy direction will be more than offset by the goodwill his election has engendered around the world. He is, if nothing else, popular. The cheering throngs of foreigners that greeted him during his “fact finding” trip last summer have made this abundantly clear.

The degree to which the world is enamored with Obama goes so far that one German reporter, Judith Bonesky, in a truly sickening, gushingly saccharine article, claimed that Obama could bicep curl a fantastical 70lbs in one hand. She ended her piece with the exclamation “WHAT A MAN!” presumably to counter the obvious conclusion, drawn by any gym rat with a picture of the president’s arms, that Obama must actually be Superman himself.

With the hearts and minds (“minds” being a generous use of the term in Ms. Bonesky’s case) of the world so securely in his pocket, surely Obama will overcome all obstacles, right?

Probably not. It is useful to remember that after September 11th, George Bush had the sympathy of much of the world behind him. Then, without a clear conception of the foreign policy goals being served (Non-proliferation? Counter-terrorism? Democratization?), the U.S. found itself in Iraq and the honeymoon was over as quickly as it had begun.

Only one week in, the administration’s foreign policy is already exhibiting the unique form of schizophrenia that occurs when the commander-in-chief doesn’t know what he wants. With one hand, Obama decided to close Guantanamo Bay and end the abuse of detainees, and with the other he endorsed CIA airstrikes against targets inside Pakistan.

What sort of legal exegesis does it take to conclude that the detention of “enemy combatants” is illegal, but the willful violation of another nation’s sovereignty is not? What sort of moral calculation does it take to conclude that causing the suffering of prisoners in the name of the national interest is wrong, but causing the suffering of children in the name of the national interest is right?

The toll of the latest airstrike is three children, according to Pakistani news reports, with much more collateral damage to follow should the strikes become a regular occurrence under the Obama administration. At such a rate, it won’t be long before Obama has squandered the world’s good will just as Bush did.

Before this goes any further, Obama needs to sit down and do a little self-discovery. Am I an idealist or a realist? Do I care more about the means or the ends? Do I care more about adherence to American moral principles or concrete national interests? What should be our moral principles? What are our national interests? How many children am I willing to kill to get Osama bin Laden?

What Obama has derided as a false choice is in truth the biggest choice he can make as president. A change of tactics is not enough — until the president calibrates his thinking on these matters and comes up with a coherent vision of the United States’ goals for the 21st century, little progress is going to be made in putting the Bush years behind us.