July 25 2014
President Passive: What's Behind the Calm?
Quote of the Day:
Remember when, at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Obama tried to construct for Putin “an off-ramp” from Crimea? Absurd as this idea was, I think Obama was sincere. He actually imagined that he’d be saving Putin from himself, that Crimea could only redound against Russia in the long run.
If you (like virtually everybody else on the planet) are perplexed by President Obama’s strange impassivity in the face of a world erupting in crises, there are two excellent articles this morning that get behind the Obama imperturbability.
The first is from Charles Krauthammer, who sums up our current predicament this way: “The world in aflame and the leader is on the fourteenth green.” Some people, notes Krauthammer, who was a psychiatrist before becoming a commentator, see the president’s inaction as rooted in psychology:
Perhaps. But I’d propose an alternate theory that gives him more credit: Obama’s passivity stems from an idea. When Obama says Putin has placed himself on the wrong side of history in Ukraine, he actually believes it. He disdains realpolitik because he believes that, in the end, such primitive 19th-century notions as conquest are self-defeating. History sees to their defeat.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is one of Obama’s favorite sayings. Ultimately, injustice and aggression don’t pay. The Soviets saw their 20th-century empire dissolve. More proximally, U.S. gains in Iraq and Afghanistan were, in time, liquidated. Ozymandias lies forever buried and forgotten in desert sands. …
So President Obama doesn’t have to do much—he just has to stand there and history will do his job for him. History will, in this view, likely say very nasty things about Mr. Putin, who, by the way, is hopelessly behind the times. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help us much right now.
President Obama’s view of history as almost an animated force in itself contrasts with Peggy Noonan’s column this morning. She writes about three leaders who were partially or wholly undone by history. Noonan says that history is human—it is composed of human acts. President Obama’s contrasting view of history has a nineteenth century pedigree. Thomas Lifson, who also comments on Krauthammer this morning, traces it to Hegel and Marx. I hope that I can say that without meaning anything other than that the president has a progressive view of history.
The second piece that seeks to explain President Obama’s inaction in the world is by Matthew Continetti, who traces the president’s impassivity to ideas he absorbed while a student at Columbia, when the nuclear freeze movement was at its height. Indeed, the thesis of the Continetti article is that President Obama’s thinking is stuck in the Cold War era.
Continetti takes note of an article the future president wrote in 1983 that sets forth his thinking (and also reveals his smug sense of superiority):
In March 1983, Obama published an article in a student magazine called the Sundial. His piece, titled “Breaking the War Mentality,” drew on the themes of the senior seminar. “Most students at Columbia do not have firsthand knowledge of war,” Obama writes. Though “the most sensitive among us struggle to extrapolate experiences of war from our everyday experience,” it is impossible to know the true costs of war from afar. “Bringing such experiences down into our hearts, and taking continual, tangible steps to prevent war, becomes a difficult task.”
But the task is not impossible. There are goodhearted men and women, Obama writes, volunteers who, despite not knowing what war is really like, “foster awareness and practical action necessary to counter the growing threat of war.” Far-left student groups such as Arms Race Alternatives (ARA) and Students Against Militarism (SAM), Obama says, “are throwing their weight into shifting America off the dead-end track.”
Obama’s sympathies are clear. “The article,” Remnick says, “makes plain Obama’s revulsion at what he saw as Cold War militarism and his positive feelings about the nuclear-freeze movement.” Obama quotes reggae singer and activist Peter Tosh. He recounts a visit to a meeting of Students Against Militarism. “With its solid turnout and enthusiasm,” he writes, “one might be persuaded that the manifestations of our better instincts can at least match the bad ones.”
Obama’s criticism of the antinuke activists is that their focus is too narrow. They aren’t radical enough. “One is forced to wonder whether disarmament or arms control issues, severed from economic and political issues, might be another instance of focusing on the symptoms of a problem instead of the disease itself,” he writes. What “the disease” is, Obama does not say.
In the end, though, Obama says the peace activists have noble motives and worthy aims. “What the members of the ARA and SAM try to do,” he concludes, “is infuse what they have learned about the current situation, bring the words of that formidable roster on the face of Butler Library, names like Thoreau, Jefferson, and Whitman, to bear on the twisted logic of which we are today a part.”
The essay not only reveals Obama’s position on nuclear disarmament. It also offers a glimpse of the milieu in which a president came of age. Most of us form our political identities in young adulthood. Our attitudes, judgments, and preferences are shaped by political circumstances when we are 18 to 25 years old. Obama is no exception. As he reached maturity, the Cold War approached its climax. The most divisive issue in American politics was Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The belief that Reagan was a warmonger was deeply held by many people on the left. Obama was one of them.
President Obama repeatedly has said that the Cold War is over, though of course he admits that Putin sometimes “slips back” into that mentality. Ironically, according to Continetti’s article, it is the president who remains mired in that era. In his writings and policy, President Obama remains committed to “the mentality of a Cold War dove.” This mentality informs all President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, according to the article, from negotiations with Iran to his reset with Russia. Continetti concludes:
And yet Obama cannot escape the facts on the ground that have made Vladimir Putin’s Russia, like the old Soviet Union, the world headquarters of illiberalism, of anti-Americanism, of international disorder. Nor can he escape the categories of thought and language he adopted as a senior at Columbia, when he assumed the mentality of a Cold War dove. His view of the world is frozen in time.
It would be sad and tragic if President Oama were undone by history, as the three leaders in the Noonan column were.
It will be sadder and more tragic if the United States is undone by President Obama's view of history.