By Barry Rubin
“If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse….
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.”
–“The World Turned Upside Down,” English ballad, 1643
I think I’ve made a breakthrough in understanding President Barack Obama’s foreign policy of punishing friends, rewarding enemies, and taking risks toward empowering enemies by bashing friends. It isn’t that Obama is a Muslim or a Marxist; it’s that…
He is America’s first (and hopefully last) 1960s’ New Left president.
Think of how the American left looked at the Cold War. For them, the phrase “Free World” was a joke. America’s allies were often repressive dictators. In Europe, even democratic states like Britain and France were, or until recently were, colonial powers.
Vietnam: America supported South Vietnam (boo) and fought North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front (LBJ, how many kids have you killed today; Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win).
Latin America: In Chile, America supported the army (boo!) and fought President Salvador Allende and the Communists (yeah!). Not to mention those military dictatorships who murdered peasants in South America and killed Che Guevara. And how about those Sandinistas. They wanted land reform and to help the poor and the United States plundered them for United Fruit and other greedy capitalists.
Great Britain: America supported Britain and thought Winston Churchill was a hero but what about colonialism (Get his bust out of the White House!)? Say, in a country like Kenya? Mau-maus (possibly Obama’s grandfather) who were called “terrorists,” good guys; British, bad guys.
Middle East: America supported the bad guys (Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) against the good guys (PLO, Egypt, Syria, Iraq).
The Communists: had their shortcomings but at least they wanted to help people, right? And if the USSR was old-fashioned and degenerated at least there were a lot of cool new revolutionaries.
Africa: Obama’s own father opposed a generally U.S.-backed Kenyan regime. In theory, he was a leftist and a man of the people. In reality, he was a womanizing, alcoholic and corrupt politician, just the kind of “progressive” Third World politician who pretends to represent the voice of the masses.
And so on.
So the leftist view has been that American allies were bad guys. And since America was also the bad guy, American allies were doubly bad guys.
In contrast, those opposing U.S. policy or allies—notably, Latin American guerrillas; Fidel Castro, the Viet Cong (or National Liberation Front if you wish); Mao Zedong; Che Guevara (remember that Che Guevara poster in the Obama election headquarters in Arizona, was it?); Patrice Lumumba; and so on and so forth were heroes.
Pakistan has it both ways. On one hand, it is an American “ally” but since it just takes money, hides al-Qaida leaders, and sponsors cross-border terrorism against India, it is enough of an enemy to receive favored treatment.
So, the bad guys to America were the good guys and the good guys to America were the bad guys.
I’m putting this in slangy language but I’m very serious.
And for someone raised personally and politically the way Obama was (hat-tip, Stanley Kurtz and Dinesh D’Souza) this was taken for granted.
Thus, be it England or Egypt or Israel or Colombia, if you are partnered with the United States it proves you are bad. And for Venezuela, Syria, or the Palestinian Authority, the more hostile you are to America the better you are.
Hence, the business of American policy should be to win over the heroic guerrillas who fight on behalf of the wretched of the earth (reference: Che Guevara, Franz Fanon, The Communist “Internationale”), these are the people who—as they say in Hollywood—we’d like to be in business with.
Consider Obama’s profound disrespect for realpolitik as evidenced in his State Department speech:
“For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.”
He says that the United States will continue to do these things. But listen to the subtle differences in that list:
“We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them. We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda’s brutal attacks. We believe people everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut-off in energy supplies. As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.”
For decades, the United States wanted mainly to keep hostile countries from getting nuclear weapons, while Obama’s policy is to put the priority on eliminating nuclear weapons (including those of the United States) entirely. “Countering terrorism” becomes stopping al-Qaeda! How about stopping Hamas and Hizballah or the Muslim Brotherhood? Nope. Not part of the policy. “Standing up for Israel’s security” becomes the generic “we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.”
Tolerate aggression across borders? But the Obama Administration does tolerate Syrian aggression against Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq; and Iranian aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and against Israel. Soon it will be tolerating Egyptian aggression against Israel.
Perhaps he is referring here to Israel’s holding on to part of the West Bank captured in 1967 as aggression across borders? He certainly has—in contrast to the other cases—tried to do something about that!
Talking about “standing up for Israel’s security” is reserved for speeches.to AIPAC.
In addition, however:
“We must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense. Given that this mistrust runs both ways –- as Americans have been seared by hostage-taking and violent rhetoric and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens -– a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.”
Yes, the old U.S. policy conducted under lots of presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, were focused on U.S. interests. Now, however, Obama defines this as “narrow.” The United States must show itself in favor of “the broader aspirations of ordinary people.”
And in the twenty-first century who could be cooler than Facebook Kids, those liberty-loving rascals rebelling against an American-backed dictatorship. Don’t we want to be on their side? We cares about national interests? What could possibly go wrong? The clerical-reactionaries (not that there’s anything wrong with that) couldn’t possibly win against the progressive (Progressive?) forces of history. Power to the people!
This, however, raises two questions:
First, which aspirations?
Second, as expressed by whom?
Suppose the aspirations of the people are against U.S. interests? Example, in the early Cold War the United States covertly intervened in French and Italian politics to make sure Communist parties didn’t win. Did that thwart the aspirations of the people? Quite possibly. Should it have been done: You bet!
The United States has believed that it has no interest in promoting the anti-American aspirations of people. What if the aspirations are to have radical Islamism? What if the majority wants to persecute Christians? What if the majority wants to expel U.S. influence from the region? What if the majority wants to wipe Israel off the map and commit genocide on the Jews?
So no, U.S. policy often needs to oppose the aspirations of the people or certain people. When possible, it does so because it believes that by doing so they will be better able to fill their stomachs (example: Communism as a system failed to do so) and speak their minds (ditto).
But ultimately its goal is not to promote the aspirations of other people. Its main priority should be to promote the aspirations of the American people. Yet if America is not an exceptional, better country, but often a worse one; national identity is out of date, and promoting your own country’s interests is a form of racism; if America is rich and greedy, taking more than its share of resources and causing global warming because its living standards are too high, then the aspirations of Egyptians or Venezuelans are equally or more important than those of the American people.
What other wordview could imagine something like “Cap and Trade” in which the U.S. taxpayers paid other countries for the right to use their own air? This is a transfer of wealth from America to others, in no way in the American interest or the interests of Americans.
Remember, Obama is desperate to be popular abroad. And he views popularity as giving the people abroad what they want, whether or not that’s in U.S. interests. If, for example, the “people” of the Middle East don’t want the United States to support Israel, then according to his worldview it shouldn’t.
Let’s face it: If not for the State Department’s desperate intervention, Obama would be campaigning for the overthrow of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments. And at the same time, fighting against seeking the overthrow of the Iranian and Syrian governments.
It’s not just Israel, though that country is first on the list. If you are a U.S. ally there must be something wrong with you. And if you are a U.S. enemy there must be something right with you. Or, perhaps I should say, “left” with you.
“I believed then -– and I believe now -– that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.”
So Obama is on the side of the “masses,” whatever the masses ”want.” But conservatives and liberals in power during past presidencies generally understood that authoritarian regimes and totalitarian movements pretended to represent the masses and through good organizing and rigid discipline pushed themselves to the head of the line.
Those who remember Nazism and Fascism and Communism, not to mention the dozens of Third World dictators who pretended to be the voice of the masses, know this. Such experiences and education did not shape Obama. Perhaps Bill Ayers could explain to him how front groups and revolutionary vanguards and the dictatorship of the proletariat work.
Didn’t the Communists, Nazis, Fascists, Japanese militarists, Ba’thists, Nasserists, Fidelistas, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, Tupamaros, Sandinistas, and all those other groups represent their people’s aspirations? We could deny it but certainly at the time that seemed to be true.
So why isn’t it true for Hamas, Fatah, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator in Venezuela and the one in Syria?
Well, we know that this money and self-sacrifice to help the masses of people abroad usually just puts money into the Swiss bank accounts of the dictators and their supporters, the already fat elite. What percentage of U.S. aid money to the Palestinians actually benefited “ordinary” Palestinians? How much will the destruction of American oil-drilling and sending money to Brazil so they can produce oil going to benefit the “ordinary” Brazilian? It certainly won’t benefit the ordinary American.
But to return to my main theme, for Obama the world is upside-down from the historic American political mainstream. Again, I stress, both liberal and conservative. For him, the friends of America are bad; the enemies of America are good. He must win over the enemies of America—and “the people” in other countries—by showing him that he appreciates that idea.
From this ideology, rather than some conspiracy or secret identity, he does much harm. And no matter how much experience he accumulates Obama isn’t going to learn any better.
In this world, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is a “reformer” while elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a reactionary who doesn’t want peace.
To him, America has been on the wrong side. Now it will be on the “right” side. And, unfortunately, that side is the enemy side. The enemy of America and, ultimately, of the people it claims to represent.
This is not some minor mistake. It is his worldview.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/ His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org. His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com