Obama is standing traditional foreign policy thinking on its head, but why?

I wrote here and here about how President Obama tilted American policy in South Asia away from our natural ally, India, and towards Pakistan, a country with whom we have little natural affinity and whose role in Afghanistan has remained ambiguous at best. Obama’s approach to South Asia is consistent with his approach to foreign policy general. In the Middle East, he tilted away from our long-time ally, Israel. In Eastern Europe, he tilted towards an increasingly hostile Russia and away from Poland and the Czech Republic.

The pattern seems unmistakable.

Like most species, though perhaps not to the same extent, humans have an innate ability to distinguish between those who wish them well and those who don’t, and to act accordingly. Since the beginning of recorded history, peoples (whether in tribes, nation states, or some other grouping) have used this ability in dealing with other peoples. Hostility has been answered with hostility. So has ambivalence, though to a lesser degree.

A tribe or nation might ally with a one-time enemy, or even a potential future one, to defeat a current enemy. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and all that. But a tribe or nation would only do so if it were sure that the would-be “friend” actually is the dedicated enemy of the tribe or nation’s enemy (which Pakistan is not). And in the absence of a common enemy, a powerful nation would favor its friends over its non-friends.

Why, then, is Obama’s default position to distance the U.S. from traditional friends and allies who generally share our values, and to cozy up to traditionally hostile entities who don’t?

I believe one or both of two things may be going on. The first is the quest for sophistication. Any old foreign policy analyst can follow the standard approach of treating friends better than non-friends and enemies. It takes a special, advanced thinker of a foreign policy analyst to reject this age-old wisdom as outdated or mythical. And many a baby-boomer analyst wants nothing more than to be an advanced thinker. In pop psychology terms, this rejection of the age-old wisdom may have something to do with the desire to surpass the father, a normal impulse but one that shouldn’t lead to the embrace of aburdities.

The second possibility goes beyond the quest for sophistication into a deeper emotional realm. What if the “tribe” we were born into is defective to the point that its enemies should be viewed in a favorable, or at least a neutral, light? Then, the “tribe’s” friends may not merit special consideration; if anything they may merit contempt. And even if we are ambivalent about our “tribe,” not downright disgusted with it, the traditional notion of how to treat the tribe’s friends and enemies may tend to unravel. In pop psychological terms, we’re no longer talking about the desire to surpass the father; generally speaking (though not in Obama’s particular case, to the extent his approach to foreign policy stems from ambivalence about America), we’re talking about trying to kill him.

Whatever the drivers, Obama’s moves towards abandoning the traditional way of approaching foreign friends and enemies is as radical as anything else he is attempting or seriously contemplating. In some ways, they resemble abandoning thousands of years of thought about what constitutes marriage, but with greater risk, I would argue, to our security, and without any sensible countervailing humanitarian or egalitarian argument.

That is why, while public opinion seems to be moving in favor of gay marriage, it continues to have little apparent sympathy for the mistreatment of traditional allies and the coddling of traditional adversaries.

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