Paul Rahe: Obama’s gestures, part 3

Hillsdale College Professor Paul Rahe writes to comment on the Obama administration’s announced abandoment last week of the so-called Third Site of missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Claremont Institute President Brian Kennedy addressed the subject in the Wall Street Journal Asia column “Obama’s strategic confusion.” Kennedy writes: “The cancellation of the Third Site demonstrates the Obama administration’s complete confusion over strategic defense.” Professor Rahe argues that it also suggests Obama’s peculiar animus against friends of the United States, if not the United States itself:

In the Week in Review section of this past Sunday’s New York Times, Robert Gates argues that the plan announced last Thursday by President Obama for shifting American policy regarding the defense of Europe against nuclear missile attacks will leave Europe in general and Eastern Europe in particular safer. I do not doubt that he believes what he says.
I do not, however, find this consoling. Back in June, in two separate posts on Power Line — here and here — I drew attention to our current president’s propensity for communicating different messages to different audiences by means of gestures of one kind or another. Here is what I then wrote:

Barack Obama has a history of belittling his adversaries in just such a fashion. In April, 2008, he was caught on tape during a debate with Hillary Clinton, rubbing his hand across the right side of his face and extending his middle finger in an obscene gesture that many in the audience could see it but she could not, and when this provoked laughter on the part of his supporters he responded with a knowing smile. Later, after accepting his party’s nomination, he did precisely the same thing during a debate with John McCain; and, after Sarah Palin remarked at the Republican National Convention that the only difference between a pit bull and a soccer mom was lipstick, he observed at a rally that a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Again, many in the audience caught the dig and they, too, were rewarded with a knowing smile.
Obama is, in fact, a master of the insulting gesture. There is no other construction that one can put on his conduct towards Gordon Brown when the British prime minister paid him a visit shortly after his inauguration. First, in an ostentatious manner, he returned to the British embassy a bust of Winston Churchill that had been loaned to his predecessor. Then, when Brown presented him with a pen made from timber used in a British ship once involved in putting down the slave trade, he gave him in return a stack of movies on DVD which could not be played on machines sold in Europe.
Were Obama a yokel, one might be able to explain this away. But a yokel he is not, and there are State Department protocol officers who are highly sensitive to the proprieties. It is no accident that, at about the same time, the White House press secretary intimated in the presence of members of the British press that there was no special relationship between the United States and Great Britain. Obama’s gesture was a calculated insult — meant to be understood only by those to whom it was directed.
If we are to comprehend what is going on, we must pay close attention not only to what Obama says but to what he conveys in other ways. His tone is nearly always moderate but what he hints at and what he intimates by way of body language often convey the opposite Witness his warm embrace of Hugo Chavez. Behind the thin veneer of politeness, there is, I suspect, something ugly lurking. In the first of the autobiographies that he claims to have written, Barack Obama frequently speaks of himself as being in the grips of rage. We would do well to take him at his word. If we are to stop him from doing great damage to this country and to our friends and allies, we must take every opportunity that comes our way to unmask the man.

We now know — thanks to events in the Honduras — the meaning of Obama’s gesture with respect to the Venezuelan dictator, and I would suggest that we must regard in a similar light the timing of Obama’s announcement of his administration’s shift in policy regarding missile-defense in Europe. For it can hardly be an accident that he chose the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland as the occasion.
We must keep in mind the fact that Obama is not a yokel and that the State Department is there to prevent an ill-informed president from unnecessarily stepping on toes. What happened last Thursday was a deliberate gesture. It was aimed at our allies in eastern Europe and at Russia, and it was recognized as such in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Russia. Vladimir Putin spoke of Obama’s decision as a courageous act. Our friends in eastern Europe would not have used that adjective. A signal has been given, and they know the meaning.
We are living in a dangerous time. It seems highly unlikely that Barack Obama will get his way in domestic affairs. The Democrats may control Congress, but they now fear a rout in 2010, and they are likely to tread with caution from now on. In foreign affairs, however, presidents have a relatively free hand, and this president has ample time to do damage to a country that, there is reason to suspect, he deeply hates.

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. He is the author, most recently, of Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic, published today, and of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect.

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