One of President Obama’s most disagreeable attributes is his presumption (and, I would submit, certitude) that much of the conventional wisdom is wrong. In fairness, some conventional wisdom will always be wrong. And Obama, or at least his operatives, have demonstrated the error of some standard views of American politics.
But this isn’t an enormous accomplishment. Modern U.S. politicking is a work in progress. Most successful presidential campaigns contribute breakthroughs in figuring out how to win elections.
Foreign policy is another matter. Nations have been clashing, and populations rebelling, for many centuries. Lessons learned should not lightly be cast aside.
One such lesson is that friends are to be rewarded and enemies punished. Obama has disregarded this lesson almost since day one of his presidency. Indeed, we have wondered whether, by ideological bent, Obama regards America’s friends with some loathing by reason of their friendship.
Egypt is a good example. As David Pryce-Jones observes, “When President Obama made it plain that he preferred the Muslim Brothers to Mubarak, he was rewarding natural enemies and dumping allies.” He thus “overturned [Henry] Kissinger’s achievement” of “proving to President Anwar Sadat of Egypt that more was to be gained from friendship with the United States than from hostility.”
No good was likely to come from Obama’s certitude that he could ignore conventional wisdom. And so it has turned out. Pryce-Jones assesses the damage:
The more Obama speechifies about “inclusion” and “democracy,” the more he encourages the Muslim Brothers to act with impunity, and the more he puts on the spot General Abdul Fattah Sisi, Egypt’s new rais, or leader. So the stakes rise. . . .Throngs of Egyptians who a couple of months ago were pro-America now demonstrate shouting, “Death to America.”
Obama’s stance is in the process of convincing former friends of the United States to put in place a different balance of power. The Saudi prince responsible for high policy has even rushed to Moscow, as Egyptian president Nasser would have done in bad old days. The presumption has to be that the United States now has no strategic or economic interest in the Middle East, and is willing to let the Muslim Brothers do their worst.
How does Obama view these developments? I suspect he believes (or maybe rationalizes) that the importance of American influence is, like most other conventional wisdom, vastly overrated. Perhaps he feels that if he can’t influence the world by pushing it in a more radical direction, he would rather not influence it all.
It all reminds me of this passage from Ulysses:
History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?