President Obama has ignored the recent history of U.S. foreign policy, faithfully repeating failed strategies and turning his back on successes. The pattern is so strange and striking, we can almost hear it trying to tell us something. The something is this: You cannot be a nationalist and a globalist simultaneously; not if you take either of those ideologies seriously. The president takes them very seriously, and has made it clear that he is not a nationalist but a globalist.
Globalists believe that nations should act together. Globalists denigrate or dismiss such ideas as national interests, traditional alliances, and traditional enmities. They believe in the interests of ethnic communities or peoples and of the world as a whole, not of old-fashioned nations. They recoil from traditional alliances, which fracture the seamless world community into small-scale liaisons. Because they reject national interests, they reject traditional enmities. And naturally globalists believe in international organizations, and the inevitability, in the long term, of the whole world’s uniting. They see Europe as the world’s most sophisticated place by far, and the EU as the obvious model and advance guard for world unity.
There’s nothing wrong with being a globalist. But if you are a serious globalist, obviously you cannot be a serious nationalist too: You cannot also believe that “my country’s interests always come first,” that our goal in world politics must be to promote our national interests first and mankind’s second. A morally serious nationalist will tend to believe that his country’s interests and mankind’s often coincide. But that doesn’t mean that his nation’s interests are usually the same as other nations’, or that his national interests are necessarily the same as mankind’s.
The president’s deafness to history is one of his defining traits. It can hardly shock us. In many cases it goes no deeper than the fact that history is not the president’s strong suit; he’s not interested. He has told us so himself over the years, in richly revealing campaign slips. But a president’s repeating policies that have failed in the recent past, his ignoring historical precedents that his aides will obviously have told him about, can be crucial in understanding his worldview. When he takes the trouble to ignore precedent, to repeat something that has been tried and has failed, he’s putting stickers all over the policies he is repeating. They say, Look at This! This Is Important! Pay Attention! You might believe that history tells us that this is a bad idea. But I think it’s such a good idea that I’m doing it anyway.
Obama’s foreign policy tells us something crucial about the man and the Democrats that, on the whole, we’d rather not know. But we have a duty to know it.
Consider one of his most important and characteristic acts (a true Obamanation). He removed American troops from Iraq as abruptly as a child snatching away a cloth from a set table to show us that nothing moves. Someone should have told the president that this trick never works. But Obama had promised during the campaign to “end the war in Iraq.”
Of course George W. Bush had already ended it, by winning. The surge and first-rate leadership on the ground had left al Qaeda with no important Iraqi territory under its thumb, with its leader (Zarqawi) dead and its leadership rejected by the Sunnis who were supposed to be its powerbase. So “ending the Iraq war” didn’t mean ending the war; to Obama, it meant removing every last American.
Now, our Iraqi victory had not come cheap. It was a costly, precious accomplishment that should have been laid down and treasured like fine wine awaiting maturity. Instead, Obama tossed it casually at the nearest garbage can and missed.
Saddam Hussein’s murderous, totalitarian Iraq had been smashed to pieces and then glued carefully back together in the shape of a sane, democratic nation. But the glue needed time to set. The State Department and Pentagon had settled on 10,000 as the minimum number of U.S. troops to stay behind while the new Iraq stabilized. The major Iraqi political parties had agreed. But Obama was restless. No doubt he had looked forward for the longest time to ending a war. His administration proceeded to undercut its own decision, and the Iraqis who had agreed to it, by waffling on the number of Americans to remain behind. Obama reveled in the subsequent collapse of status-of-forces talks with Iraq, pulled every last man out, and celebrated the “end of the war.” Two and a half years later, American troops are back, facing not a sane, reconstructed nation but a simmering catastrophe.