Photo: Ibrahim Alaguri/AP
The President appears to be rethinking his stance on American interference abroad. Will he let the electorate know before the election?What exactly is the nature and intention of Barack Obama’s foreign policy? What has the net effect been of his emphasis on apology and reconciliation with the Muslim world? How does he now see America’s global role? Bizarrely enough, none of these questions was being discussed in the immediate aftermath of last week’s attack on the United States consulate in Libya, which resulted in the first killing of an American ambassador since 1979.
A spectacularly successful White House spin operation saw to it that the only topic for debate in the media was Mitt Romney’s Gaffe – a statement by the Republican presidential candidate that was diplomatically inept and mistimed, but trivial in comparison to the monumental issue of the President’s stance on America’s future relations with the Middle East.
As it happened, the Romney Gaffe – which appeared to exploit the tragedy for opportunistic political purposes – was almost immediately cancelled out by a much more serious Obama Gaffe, in which the President demoted Egypt from being an ally of the United States to the far more dubious status of being “not an enemy”. This utterance was so potentially explosive in its consequences that it had to be corrected within hours by a White House spokesman and the State Department. So the Gaffe score now being more or less at stalemate, perhaps we could discuss the substance of the matter?
The Obama pledge to transform America’s relationship with Muslim countries – the “new beginning” he promised in his Cairo speech back in June 2009 – which was a major plank of his anti-Bush political identity, is looking doomed. The rocket attack in Benghazi was almost certainly a pre-planned al‑Qaeda operation, but the rioting that followed in Egypt and a swath of other Islamic countries had the chaotic quality of truly spontaneous activity. It may have been a puerile five-minute video clip (taken from an idiotic film of fraudulent origins) that served as a pretext, but it was clear that anti-Americanism of the old-fashioned kind had just been waiting for its moment. That is not Obama’s fault: hatred of the Great Satan preceded him as indeed it preceded George Bush. But the question is whether the Obama answer to that problem – to try to conciliate (or, as the Republicans would have it, “appease”) the Muslim countries – is, or could ever have been, the answer.
The substance of the Romney Gaffe was to criticise the statement, or rather the series of tweets, issued by a US embassy official in Egypt in response to the film, condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims [and] the actions of those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others”. This was before the attack on the Libyan consulate, so the Egyptian embassy was still running on the old programme of abasement and contrition.
Romney’s argument was not simply that the tone of this communication was excessively craven, thus apparently justifying reprisals against the US, but that it seemed to imply that America should be prepared to compromise the constitutional right of free speech in deference to religious sensitivities. These were both grave, and well‑grounded, charges, as the White House clearly recognised because it rapidly distanced itself from the hapless embassy official who had been responsible – although, as is the way with these things, the controversy over whether the White House had, in fact, authorised the statement went muttering on for some time. But all the brilliantly orchestrated efforts to defuse the real issue by the Obama White House and its phenomenally helpful friends in the media will not make it go away.
The central questions remain, of how an Obama second term would affect America’s position in the world, and of how committed the President is to the basic principle that every American schoolchild is taught: that his country not only believes in freedom for its own citizens, but that it has a moral mission to support and defend those who seek liberty everywhere in the world. Its people are instructed by their own founding documents not to think of themselves merely as the fortunate residents of a lucky country but as the bearers of an eternal truth – the universal human rights to which all peoples can and should aspire.
The failure to understand the significance of this is one of the things that makes so much foreign commentary on US politics seem obtuse: idealism is not a romantic spasm of the American national psyche. It is central to the act of will that brought the country into being. Without that constantly renewed commitment to that fundamental principle, a belief in the “God‑given” rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the US would be nothing more than a bolthole for economic migrants.
During his first election campaign, and throughout much of his first term in office, Obama seemed to be going out of his way to make it clear that he did not adhere to the doctrine of American exceptionalism: the US could no longer be expected to carry the burden of protecting and encouraging all those who sought liberty wherever they were in the world. He told Eastern Europe that it should now be expected to look after itself, as he withdrew American missile cover. He retreated dramatically from confrontation in the Middle East: so much so that when the opportunity arose to remove the tyrant Gaddafi from power, he would offer only belated back-up to an Anglo-French initiative. (This did not, of course, prevent him taking credit, after the fact, for liberating the people of Libya from their oppression.)
But immediately after the terrible events in Benghazi, Obama was back on the campaign trail making a speech in which he made explicit reference to America’s constitutional commitment to the idea of “universal human rights”. And he did so again in his comments at the ceremony for the returning bodies of the four murdered Americans, implying that he – as much as any president – felt a responsibility to support the struggle for liberty wherever it arose. So is this now his position? Or does he just feel Jimmy Carter’s spectre hovering in the shadows to threaten his re‑election?
There are people both inside and outside the US who urgently need to know what the foreign policy of a second Obama term would be like. Could we please get beyond the party political game-playing and talk about it?
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