In 1983, Barack Obama was a senior at Columbia University. He was not well known. He lived off-campus, had a few close friends, and spent a lot of time reading. He went to some meetings of the Black Students Association, but no one remembers seeing him there. He majored in political science, with a concentration in international relations, and classmates and professors say he was an attentive and intelligent student.
But he was not an active participant in student life. He was not a student radical. He did not go on a hunger strike. He did not storm any administration buildings. One friend, in an interview with biographer David Maraniss, likened Obama to the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer: a passive observer.
As graduation approached, Obama took up his pen. Looking for work as a community organizer, he needed something to add to his thin résumé. He was interested in the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, which he was studying in a senior seminar on American diplomacy. “The class analyzed decision-making and the perils of ‘groupthink,’ the ways that disastrous policies, like the escalation of the Vietnam War, develop,” writes biographer David Remnick.
The seminar had just eight students. In class, Obama had a tendency to relate U.S. foreign policy to his upbringing. “He talked about his father being from Kenya so much,” Maraniss writes, “that at least one student assumed Obama himself was from Kenya.” Obama’s final paper for the seminar was on nuclear disarmament. He got an A.
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.
The trendy idea at the time was support for the “nuclear freeze.” The production of intercontinental ballistic missiles would be halted. NATO wouldn’t deploy missiles in Europe. Nuclear arsenals would be reduced. It was a utopian ambition: Advocates of the freeze proposed no verification system and flirted with unilateral disarmament. The security repercussions were irrelevant to these nuclear dreamers. “The freeze is not a plan,” Charles Krauthammer wrote in the New Republic in the spring of 1982. “It is a sentiment.” And it was widely shared.
Author Jonathan Schell published The Fate of the Earth, the bible of nuclear disarmament, also in 1982. The following March, Reagan delivered his famous “Evil Empire” speech, which horrified the left, just as the Sundial was publishing Obama’s article. In June, one million people marched in New York City in support of the freeze. The fear-mongering reached its peak on November 20 when The Day After, a television movie that dramatized the aftermath of a nuclear war, aired on ABC. It is still the most-watched TV movie ever.
Few people remember either The Day After or the nuclear freeze campaign. But that does not mean they had no lasting effect. Indeed, when one examines President Obama’s foreign policy in light of his article in the Sundial, one is struck by how he continues, to this day, to fight “the war mentality.” How he continues to struggle against “the twisted logic” of the Cold War. How he continues to associate organization, negotiation, and moral suasion with “our better instincts.” No matter the results.
The Cold War of the early 1980s is more than the backdrop to President Obama’s dealings with Vladimir Putin. It is the backdrop to his dealings with the world. Obama is determined not to repeat what he sees as mistaken Cold War policies. He wants to move beyond the weapons and walls of his young adulthood to an era of friendship and peace. “You know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama told Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential debates. “Our approach as the United States is not to see this as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” he said earlier this year.
Tell that to Vladimir Putin. “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality,” Obama admitted to Jay Leno in 2013. Times? For Russia’s president, the fall of the Soviet empire was “a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” Putin has occupied Georgia, supported the Iranian nuclear program, propped up Bashar al-Assad, hosted Edward Snowden, sent Bear bombers to the Pacific Coast of the United States, annexed Crimea, financed, armed, trained, and directed Ukrainian insurgents, provided them the means to shoot down a passenger airliner, and organized a global campaign of anti-American propaganda. But one has the impression that President Obama is more interested in rejecting the “Cold War mentality” than he is in standing up to the Russian dictator. Indeed, he was against the “Cold War mentality” when the Cold War was going on.
Last March, in a speech to a group of European young people, Obama said, “This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into.” Ukraine, he said, “does not have easy answers or a military solution.” Suggest as much—advocate the use of American airpower in Syria or Iraq, military aid to the Syrian rebels and the Ukrainian government, more defense spending, full-throated support for liberal democratic movements, crippling sanctions on Iran, and possible military strikes against its nuclear facilities—and the Obama administration and its allies dismiss your arguments as symptoms of the “war mentality.” You are for another Vietnam, another Black Hawk Down, and another Iraq.
It’s often thought that President Obama defines his foreign policy in opposition to President Bush’s. Bush launched the Iraq war, and Obama ended it. Bush treated terrorists like enemy combatants, and Obama treats them—the ones he doesn’t drone—like criminals. The ties between the United States and Russia frayed under Bush, so Obama proposes a “reset” with Russia. Bush was said to have neglected our allies in the Pacific, while Obama “pivots” to East Asia. Bush opened the prison in Guantánamo Bay, and Obama is trying to close it.
But that interpretation of Obama’s foreign policy may be too narrow. Maybe Obama has defined himself not only against the foreign policy of George W. Bush, but also against the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan and other cold warriors. Maybe it is not the mentality of the Cold War in itself that Obama opposes, but the mentality of Cold War hawks.
“For most of our history, our crises have come from using force when we shouldn’t, not by failing to use force,” Obama told journalist James Traub in 2007. “Since World War II,” Obama said at West Point in June, “some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” Not since 9/11. “Since World War II.”
When Obama studies postwar American history, he sees only the costs of action. He sees only Vietnam, Somalia, and Iraq, meddling in Third World nations, and needlessly antagonizing great powers. What he misses are the costs of inaction: the consequences of not stopping Hitler earlier, of dithering as Yugoslavia came apart, of turning a blind eye to the slaughter in Rwanda, of treating al Qaeda as a band of criminals in the 1990s.
In his writings, rhetoric, initiatives, and personnel, Obama is also informed by and beholden to a mentality: the mentality of a Cold War dove.
It’s easy to forget, but Obama devotes most of the chapter on foreign policy in The Audacity of Hope, his 2006 campaign book, to a survey of U.S. history. The chapter begins with a long description of growing up in Indonesia. Then Obama cites the most overworked quotations in public discourse: George Washington’s warning, in his Farewell Address, against “entangling alliances” and John Quincy Adams’s declaration, in his 1821 Independence Day speech, that the United States does not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Manifest Destiny, American imperialism, World War I, the Fourteen Points, interwar isolationism, World War II, and the beginnings of the United Nations all have a place in Obama’s story.
He spends most of his time on the Cold War. Obama’s method is telling. He writes one sentence praising the cold warriors, and then devotes four pages to criticizing them. What Harry Truman, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson created in the aftermath of World War II is “a remarkable achievement,” he says, “perhaps the Greatest Generation’s greatest gift to us after the victory over fascism.” But don’t get carried away: America’s Cold War foreign policy, he says, “had its flaws and contradictions; it could fall victim to the distortions of politics, the sins of hubris, the corrupting effects of fear.”
Obama elaborates at length on these flaws and contradictions. Opposition to communism, Obama writes, led policymakers “to view nationalist movements, ethnic struggles, reform efforts, or left-leaning policies anywhere in the world” as “potential threats.” America collaborated with horrible dictators. “For decades we would tolerate and even aid thieves like Mobutu, thugs like Noriega, so long as they opposed communism.” U.S. intelligence agencies organ-ized black operations and coups in Third World countries, removing “democratically elected rulers in countries like Iran—with seismic repercussions that haunt us to this day.”
We spent too much money. “Over time, the ‘iron triangle’ of the Pentagon, defense contractors, and congressmen with large defense expenditures in their districts amassed great power in shaping U.S. foreign policy.” The military was in command. Diplomats were shut out. Foreign policy became a partisan battleground. There was “not enough deliberation and domestic consensus building.” Politicians attacked their opponents for being soft on communism. The missile gap, red baiting, Joe McCarthy—it’s all here.
The further you go into Obama’s history of the Cold War, the more liberal shibboleths you encounter. It occurs to you that Obama is not studying anticommunism. He is engaging in anti-anticommunism. The main subject of his criticism isn’t the Communists, it’s the hardliners who fought them. He is paraphrasing, in milder language, the critique of U.S. foreign policy leveled by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Gore Vidal.
Why was America in Vietnam? “Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson would all find their judgment clouded by fear that they would be tagged as ‘soft on communism.’ ” The clandestine tools of the intelligence community? They were turned on the American people. “The Cold War techniques of secrecy, snooping, and misinformation, used against foreign governments and foreign populations, became tools of domestic politics, a means to harass critics, build support for questionable policies, or cover up blunders.” Sure, the Soviet Union and Red China had their problems. But Cold War America wasn’t a paragon of virtue, either. “The very ideals that we had promised to export overseas were being betrayed at home.”
Vietnam, Obama says, is where “all these trends came to a head.” He spends a paragraph recapitulating the case against the war, lamenting how it turned foreign policy into a debate between “caricatures, promoted by activists and political consultants.” An older dove might have spent more time on Vietnam. But Obama, who was a teenager when Saigon fell, is more interested in the Cold War’s finale.
“I personally came of age during the Reagan presidency,” he says. And though Obama gives Ronald Reagan credit for championing freedom and humbling the Soviet Union, his attack on the fortieth president is passionate. “Like many Democrats in those days,” he writes, “I bemoaned the effect of Reagan’s policies toward the Third World: his administration’s support for the apartheid regime of South Africa, the funding of El Salvador’s death squads, the invasion of tiny, hapless Grenada.”
The subject of nuclear weapons comes up. “The more I studied nuclear arms policy,” he writes, “the more I found Star Wars to be ill-conceived; the chasm between Reagan’s soaring rhetoric and the tawdry Iran-contra deal left me speechless.”
Obama’s indictment of Reagan for not living up to his idealism is revealing. It’s a classic trope of Cold War doves: Critics of American foreign policy, from the Cold War to the war on terror, hold the United States to a standard it cannot possibly reach, while ignoring or excusing the crimes and faults of the Soviet Union, its successor states, rogue regimes, and other “nationalist movements, ethnic struggles, reform efforts, or left-leaning policies anywhere in the world.”
You see this single-minded fixation on America throughout dovish literature. According to the doves, America is always active on the international stage, never reactive. America is always the cause of trouble, never the first responder to aggression and chaos. The threat the Soviet Union posed to international order and individual liberty is hardly ever mentioned. Obama notes Reagan’s “invasion of tiny, hapless Grenada.” But he ignores the causes of American intervention: a bloody Marxist coup, engineered by the USSR and Cuba, on a Caribbean island. He doesn’t say that the rise of the People’s Revolutionary Army did not justify war. He doesn’t note that the brief U.S. intervention led to the restoration of constitutional government. He just dodges the argument altogether.
Something similar happens in his presidential speeches. Obama often refers to the fall of the Berlin Wall. What he does not talk about is the building of the wall: who built it, why, and at what cost in lives and misery. It’s as though the wall appeared out of thin air. And only the indomitable human will to freedom—not a 50-year-long, costly global struggle led by the United States—brought it down.
Another trope of the Cold War doves is to impugn American involvement in the Third World. The double standard applies here as well. Support for anti-Communist dictators, aid to anti-Soviet guerrillas, and covert and direct intervention besmirched the United States, while Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Kremlin’s support for left-wing terrorism, Communist-engineered famines in Russia, China, and Ethiopia, Chinese repression of religious and ethnic minorities, the Khmer Rouge’s slaughter, and the boat people are downplayed.
“Our record is mixed,” Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, “not just in Indonesia but across the globe.” In his 2009 Cairo speech, marketed as “a new beginning” between the United States and “Muslims around the world,” Obama said that tension between Islam and the West “has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.” In both the Cairo speech and his 2013 address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama attributed Iranian suspicion of America partly to our “role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War.” To a Cold War dove, Islamic radicalism is not just an ideology. It’s blowback.
Obama’s foreign policy attempts to move on from the Cold War while repairing its excesses. Even as he looks to the future, the president cannot escape his own particular Cold War mentality. One of Obama’s criticisms of the Bush administration in The Audacity of Hope is that it “resuscitated a brand of politics not seen since the end of the Cold War.” He says military spending ought to be reduced, because “a defense budget and force structure built principally around the prospect of World War III makes little strategic sense.” He says America will have to sway public opinion in the Muslim world, just as it promoted democracy during the Cold War.
Obama looks at nonproliferation through a Cold War lens. For him, nonproliferation doesn’t mean the interdiction, prevention, and preemption of nuclear armament by rogue regimes. It means negotiations with nuclear states to gradually reduce stockpiles.
In 2005, when Obama reached the U.S. Senate, he partnered with then-Indiana Republican senator Richard Lugar to secure Russia’s nuclear ordnance. Under a program Lugar and Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn created in the 1990s, the United States gave money to former Soviet republics to help these weak governments safely maintain their aging and dilapidated warheads. “Although the program caused some consternation to those accustomed to Cold War thinking,” Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, “it has proven to be one of the most important investments we could have made to protect ourselves from catastrophe.”
In the summer of 2005, Obama and Lugar traveled to Russia and Ukraine to see how things were going. The senators ate a lunch of borscht and fish Jell-O in Saratov. They examined vials of anthrax and plague at a laboratory in Kiev. They were detained on an airport tarmac for three hours in Perm.
During the visit, while driving on Russian and Ukrainian streets, Obama caught glimpses of Western products and commercial franchises. Calvin Klein, Maserati, SUVs, iPods, and low-ride jeans—the sight of these brands “underscored the seemingly irreversible process of economic, if not political, integration between East and West.”
Emphasis on “seemingly.” In hindsight, Obama’s own storytelling hints at the difficulty of joining Russia to the West. During one of the stops on the tour, when Obama visited a dank, unkempt laboratory, he asked about an odd poster hanging on a wall. The poster illustrated how to put bombs into children’s toys.
“It was a relic of the Afghan war, we were told,” Obama writes. The aging poster was “a testament, I thought, to the madness of men.” It was “a record of how empires destroy themselves.” Rereading this passage the other day, I couldn’t help noticing where Obama’s encounter with fallen empires took place: Donetsk.
As I write, Donetsk, Ukraine, is a battleground between the Ukrainian Army and pro-Russian separatists, who declared it an independent “People’s Republic” in April. It is the central front in a conflict that exemplifies the consequences of Obama’s Cold War mentality. For the separatists are puppets of the Kremlin, which has been at war with Ukraine since last February, when the Euromaidan movement forced pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych from power. Russia’s proxy war has driven relations with the United States to a low not seen in decades. The chances of miscalculation and escalation are great.
How did we get here? When he became president, Barack Obama put into practice the ideas he had carried with him through college and into adulthood. Like many doves, he saw Russia, whether Soviet or oligarchic, as a paranoid and defensive power. To get Russia to cooperate, in this view, you have to demonstrate to the Kremlin that it has nothing to fear. You have to let Russia operate within its sphere of influence. You have to boost the Russian ego through bilateral diplomacy.
You have to stop treating Russia as an adversary. “At the beginning of Obama’s term,” James Mann writes in The Obamians, a study of the president’s foreign policy, deputy national security adviser Tom Donilon “said the administration’s relationship with Russia ‘shouldn’t feel like 1974.’ ” If Donilon had been more specific, he would have said the relationship shouldn’t feel as if Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were in charge of foreign policy. In fact, President Obama’s handling of Russia has been more redolent of the Cold War than his immediate predecessor’s. He has elevated the Kremlin to a status it no longer deserves.
First came the “reset.” The policy assumed—just as one would expect a Cold War dove to assume—that tension between Washington and Moscow was the result of Washington’s behavior, not Moscow’s. The Russian occupation of Georgia was treated as a fait accompli. The centerpiece of the reset was the New START Treaty, a throwback to Cold War arms control. In exchange for Russian cooperation on New Start, for their help in Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, the United States halted deployment of missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The cooperation was not forthcoming. But that did not change the Obama administration’s approach. The president implemented other ideas of the Cold War left: defense cuts, reductions in America’s nuclear arsenal, withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, easing of the Cuba embargo, refraining from interference in the fraudulent Iranian election of 2009. Obama promised Putin “more flexibility” on nukes after his reelection, despite Russia’s violations of the INF Treaty. In December 2012, when Obama signed the Magnitsky Act levying sanctions on Russians involved in human rights abuses, Putin retaliated by banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children. The White House protested, but took no action.
Conciliatory rhetoric and good-faith negotiations did not mollify Vladimir Putin. They emboldened him. When Edward Snowden compromised American national security, Putin offered him safe harbor. When Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people, Putin manipulated Obama into becoming, in effect, Assad’s partner. As President Obama expressed his desire for “nation-building here at home,” Putin beefed up defense spending.
By the time Putin annexed Crimea on March 21, 2014, all but the most diehard Obama supporters could see that the president’s approach had failed. U.S.-Russia relations were tense not because of George W. Bush, not because of a “war mentality,” but because Russia is ruled by an anti-Western ideologue who wants to recreate the Soviet empire under the nationalist banner of Novorossiya.
In recent days, Obama seems to have recognized that the major obstacle to global stability isn’t the United States. The obstacle is Russia. He won’t say so explicitly in public. But that is nonetheless the message of the sanctions Obama has imposed on Putin’s inner circle, and of his reevaluation of current policy. “President Obama and his national security team are looking beyond the immediate conflict to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment,” reports Peter Baker of the New York Times.
The irony is rich. Whether it is his desire for a world without nuclear weapons, the “reset,” defense cuts, withdrawal, nonintervention, his choice of secretaries of defense and state who see the world in terms of their combat in Vietnam, or his habit of reminding the public of America’s dirty hands, Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been exactly what you would expect from an opponent of anti-Communist hardliners. He has brought to power a view of the world forged in the debates over the nuclear freeze and the Reagan Doctrine—a view shared by many on the left and on the noninterventionist right.
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.
Matthew Continetti is editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.