In the Arena

Decline is a Choice…That Hasn’t Been Chosen

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Charles Krauthammer has disgorged a magnum opussy sort of rant on the cover of the week’s Weekly Standard, based on a lecture he gave to the Manhattan Institute, a neoconservative think tank that has actually done some creative thinking about urban issues over the years. Nothing creative about Krauthammer’s thinking, though, which stands as an anti-Nobel exegesis, blaming Barack Obama for choosing a foreign policy that will lead, inexorably, to American decline. It’s actually the same old ‘hammer hegemonizing–unipolar, unilateral, unidimensional, uninflected and unsubtle.

There are one or two sort of true sentences in it. The most important is this one:

[T]he ultimate purpose of [the New Liberalism’s] foreign policy is to make America less hegemonic, less arrogant, less dominant.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Barack Obama would probably argue–as would most foreign policy centrists–that the goal of his foreign policy would be to make the United States dominant in a more effective way: at the center of multilateral efforts to bring international miscreants under control. This can happen militarily, as it is being done on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It can also happen through a US-led international sanctions regime, as has been very effective in sending a tough message to North Korea (with the strong support from China and Russia)–which may well bear fruit before long. Or it can happen through US-led efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and a strong multilateral deterrence posture, including many regional players, to counteract Iran’s possible nuclear ambitions.

You don’t achieve this sort of dominance by marching into Baghdad in three weeks. It takes patience, a pattern of good faith behavior, the acknowledgment that the U.S. hasn’t always acted in good faith in the past. Indeed, part of the reason why Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize seems so foolish is that diplomatic success can’t be judged in nine months–those of us who believe that Obama is trying to do the right things overseas have no idea if he’s any good at it yet (as Nixon and Kissinger were in their long-gestating opening to China).

Krauthammer’s take–and that’s all it is, a journalistic take puffed into doctrinal pretense–is based on several demonstrably wrong premises: The first is that George W. Bush’s foreign policy was a success.  (It was, in some ways–like fighting AIDs in Africa–but Krauthammer doesn’t care so much about that sort of stuff.) The second is that by going around the world, acknowledging that the U.S. has not always behaved well in the past–while always, always, taking our friends and enemies to task for their failures in the same paragraphs–Obama is somehow damaging America’s moral standing or “exceptionalism,” as Krauthammer would have it:

In Strasbourg, President Obama was asked about American exceptionalism. His answer? “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Interesting response. Because if everyone is exceptional, no one is.

Well, that’s one limited, literal way of looking at it. Another way is this: Great countries don’t have to go around proclaiming their greatness. An American President who pronounced America’s “exceptionalism” would be obnoxious. An American President who admits our imperfections–while proclaiming our enormous strengths as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-racial bastion of freedom and equality–is demonstrating our “exceptionalism” in a far more sophisticated and effective way. We are a country willing to admit mistakes. That’s pretty exceptional.

Krauthammer loves inflammatory, We’re-Number-One!!! sort of locutions. He loves the word “hegemon,” mostly because moderates and liberals find it muscle-bound. But his sentiment here in his most prescriptive paragraph is, I believe, unimpeachable:

First, accept our role as hegemon. And reject those who deny its essential benignity. There is a reason that we are the only hegemon in modern history to have not immediately catalyzed the creation of a massive counter-hegemonic alliance–as occurred, for example, against Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany. There is a reason so many countries of the Pacific Rim and the Middle East and Eastern Europe and Latin America welcome our presence as balancer of power and guarantor of their freedom.

And that reason is simple: We are as benign a hegemon as the world has ever seen.

That is true mostly because three of the four Presidents since we achieved our undeniable pre-eminence with the collapse of the Soviet Union–George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama–thoroughly rejected the sort of bullying that Krauthammer advocates.  The disastrous exception was George W. Bush. Our reputation in the world, now being regained after the Bush debacle, is a result of the fact that we’ve always been half-hearted imperialists, pathetic in our occasional attempts at oppression–and, more often, from the Bosnian accord to the Indonesian p0st-Tsunami airlift, willing to act selflessly to benefit humanity. All you need to do is compare the Russians’ utter brutality in Afghanistan with our real, if ineffective so far, attempts to bring education and economic development to the people so that we can leave a more stable country. (General McChrystal’s refusal to continue offensive aerial strikes, which caused some terrible civilian casualties, is an example of our continuing efforts to do as little damage as possible.)

In the end, the real problem with Krauthammer’s rant is this: he really doesn’t want us to be exceptional. He wants us to be more brutal, more like other historically powerful countries, more like the Russians in Afghanistan or the British in Mesopotamia. His position on Iraq tips his hand, as he excoriates Obama for having

…almost no interest in garnering the fruits of a very costly and very bloody success–namely, using our Strategic Framework Agreement to turn the new Iraq into a strategic partner and anchor for U.S. influence in the most volatile area of the world. Iraq is a prize–we can debate endlessly whether it was worth the cost–of great strategic significance that the administration seems to have no intention of exploiting in its determination to execute a full and final exit.

A prize! Sounds sort of like Churchill in his most demented colonial moments: India, the jewel in the crown! (The fact that a duly elected Iraqi government wants us to leave is ignored.)

Krauthammer’s sort of imperialism–a brutal and patronizing neo-colonialism–has never sat well with the American people. And it doesn’t work in the world. It was, in fact, the cause of the marked decline in American moral authority and power over the past eight years–including the near-destruction of our Army–that people like Krauthammer refuse to acknowledge. That disaster is being rectified now, from Robert Gates’s various decisions to scuttle unnecessary weapons systems and use those resources to bolster our troops in the field, to Hillary Clinton’s efforts to transform our hidebound and ineffective foreign aid disbursements, to Barack Obama’s more judicious decision-making about when to use force, when to sanction, when to negotiate. Those decisions may not prove wise in every instance, but they are being made with an intelligence and consideration that never attended the sledgehammer fecklessness of the last President, whose policies Krauthammer so admired.

On A Related Matter: Glenn Greenwald recently suggested that I proposed Bush for a Nobel Peace Prize because of this 2005 column. Those who actually read the column–which was about the dangerous naivete of Bush’s “Freedom” Agenda–will see that my suggestion was ironic in the extreme (and the editor who slapped that silly headline on the piece should have understood that, too). It is interesting that the irony-deprived Pete Wehner also used this column as an example of me praising Bush. The fact is, as I’ve written more than once, Bush’s support for premature Palestinian elections brought on the Hamas disaster in Gaza.