Obama's Democracy Problem
The Obama Doctrine is finally coming into focus.
It's been hard to glean its form because for so long it seemed the president's most obvious guiding principle was "not Bush," particularly when it came to the Iraq War. Indeed, his anti-Bush stance has led him to stubbornly refuse to say the war has been won or to admit that he was wrong to oppose the surge. In the past, this unthinking reflex has caused Obama to take some truly repugnant positions. In July 2007, Obama said that he would order U.S. forces out of Iraq as quickly as possible, even if he knew it would lead to an Iraqi genocide. This makes Obama the first president in modern memory to have suggested that causing a genocide would be in America's national interest.
Obama himself insists that he's guided by nothing other than a cool-headed pragmatism. Indeed, Obama has a grating habit of describing any position not his own as "ideological," as if his is the only sober, practical understanding of the problems we face. Just days before he was inaugurated, he gave a speech in Baltimore in which he proclaimed, "What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives - from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry - an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels."
So ideologues - i.e. millions of Americans who disagree with his policies on principle - belong in a list along with bigots and dim bulbs. At home, this attitude has allowed him to dismiss opponents of socialized medicine and the government takeover of various industries as "ideologues," and critics of trillions in debt-fueled spending as small-minded cranks.
Joshua Muravchik, a scholar at Johns Hopkins University and a leading advocate of democracy promotion around the globe, demonstrates in the current issue of Commentary that Obama has a similar attitude toward those who say America should advance the cause of liberty and democracy worldwide. Again and again, the administration has made it clear that spreading freedom is so much ideological foolishness. Before the inauguration, he told the Washington Post that he was concerned with "actually delivering a better life for people on the ground and less obsessed with form, more concerned with substance." There's merit to this view in principle, though Obama seems to be thinking about "economic justice" more than a free society. But in practice, when American presidents say they don't care about democracy, tyrants rejoice.
In April, at a news conference following a meeting of the Organization of American States, Obama proclaimed, "What we showed here is that we can make progress when we're willing to break free from some of the stale debates and old ideologies that have dominated and distorted the debate in this hemisphere for far too long." Hillary Clinton was more pithy: "Let's put ideology aside," the secretary of state said. "That is so yesterday." It's worth recalling that those old ideological debates often involved America championing democracy against those who pushed for socialism. One wonders which ideological stance Obama thinks is stale.
Obama supporter and Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne writes that the Obama Doctrine involves restoring America's alliances and working with the international community so we can all do great things together. That's why Obama and Hillary Clinton have been so eager to apologize for America around the globe. One problem with such an approach is that it - so far at least - buys us nothing save the appearance of weakness. Another problem is that quite often, the international community is wrong.
Hence, according to the Obama administration, it's foolishly ideological to resist the U.N.'s accommodation of tyrants and fanatics, while it is "pragmatic" to placate human-rights abusers. It is ideological to show disdain for Venezuela's would-be dictator Hugo Chávez; it is "pragmatic" to stamp as "democratic" his effort to overthrow term limits. It is ideological to sustain sanctions against Burma and Sudan; it's pragmatic to revisit them, even if it disheartens human-rights activists across the ideological spectrum. American exceptionalism is ideological, while seeing America as just another nation is realistic.
The past four weeks show how ideological Obama's un-ideological view really is. In response to the revolutionary protests in Iran, Obama initially favored stability and preserving the fantasy of negotiations with the Iranian clerical junta. Not "meddling" was his top priority. Over time, the rhetoric improved, but the policy remained just as cynical.
Then, events in Honduras revealed that Obama really has no problem with meddling when a left-wing agenda is advanced. Manuel Zelaya, the president of Honduras and a Hugo Chávez wannabe, illegally defied the Honduran Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution in an attempt to repeal term limits (which help sustain democracy in Central America by preventing presidents-for-life). The Supreme Court ordered the military to remove Zelaya from office and expel him from the country. A member of Zelaya's own party replaced him, and elections were announced. But suddenly, Obama - taking much the same position as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez - thought America should join the coalition of the meddlers demanding Zelaya's return to power. In Iran, Obama was terrified to do anything that might lead to a coup to bring about democracy. In Honduras, Obama was unwilling to let stand a coup that preserved democracy.
It sure seems like Obama has an ideological problem with democracy.