Every American president eventually faces a defining question – whether to assuage his supporters by telling them what they want to hear or challenge them by telling them what they need to hear.
John Kennedy sought to educate the nation about civil rights, which won him no friends among his fellow Democrats in the South. Republican George H.W. Bush supported tax increases to help reduce spiraling budget deficits, angering his party’s hard-core supporters and contributing to his re-election defeat.
We look on those moments with admiration, for they speak to presidential leadership, to those inspiring times when the lonely man in the White House tries to serve his country no matter the political consequences.
Years from now, we will likely view President Obama’s Nobel speech the same way – the moment when a liberal president told a fawning international audience and his core Democratic supporters at home that – despite their hopes that he will reflexively choose peace over war, diplomacy over military action – he will confront the world as it is and act accordingly as America’s commander-in-chief.
The question now, of course, is how much Obama’s rhetoric presages a change in his foreign policy – from the Middle East, where Arab-Israeli negotiations are dormant; to Iran, where the radical regime moves ever closer to nuclear weaponry; to America’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a sense, the ground started shifting before Obama arrived in Oslo. The president committed 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, largely approving his top general’s request. Obama’s tough passages at Oslo about nuclear rogues Iran and North Korea may signal more broadly what Robert Kagan called “a tougher, less forgiving, more quintessentially American approach from a man who certainly gave the soft touch a try.”
The optics suggest as much. That Obama used this venue for this speech was striking, for presidents do not ruffle the feathers of their hosts without some forethought. The Nobel Committee tapped Obama based on the hope that he would produce more peace and less war. He responded by explaining that, often, it is only war now that can assure peace later, only military action that can stop evil.
Absent from Obama’s talk were expressions of regret for past U.S. behavior and attitude. The same president who previously told the world that America was sometimes “arrogant,” who dismissed notions of American “exceptionalism,” spoke proudly of what America had done through the ages to keep the peace and promote prosperity.
After reviewing America’s role in defeating the Axis powers, providing the Marshall Plan for a vanquished Europe, creating the United Nations, winning the Cold War, reducing poverty and boosting commerce, Obama said triumphantly, “We are the heirs of the fortitude and foresight of generations past, and it is a legacy for which my own country is rightfully proud.”
While praising the doctrinal non-violence of Gandhi and King, Obama made clear that they had limited relevance to today’s global challenges: “For make no mistake – evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.”
In essence, Obama was fundamentally judgmental in the best sense of the term. Whereas Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Reagan were unabashedly judgmental in trumpeting freedom over communism during the Cold War, Obama was equally so in promoting American values over those of the terrorists who claim Islam as their inspiration and governments who suppress their people.
That Obama hit a visionary high note was clear from the battle that has erupted among foreign policy thinkers of the left and right to claim the speech, if not the president himself, for their cause.
“Wow. What a boffo address,” the neoconservative thinker Max Boot swooned in his post at Commentary magazine’s blog hours after Obama spoke. “…he has never said anything as stirring or hard-headed.”
More specifically, the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Abe Greenwald wrote at National Review Online, Obama confirmed three neoconservative convictions: 1) the world will always have “bad actors” who can only be contained through force; 2) people living under despotic rule look to the United States for moral and material support, and the nation must respond in kind; and 3) America must, when necessary, use the overwhelming force at its disposal to win wars both short and long.
Not so fast, liberal thinker Michael Tomasky responded. Obama’s no neoconservative, nor did he say much new at Oslo. Instead, Tomasky wrote, Obama displayed his longstanding credentials as a liberal internationalist, one who subscribes to the centrist views of Cold War theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It was a camp in which columnist David Brooks, a conservative with a soft spot for Obama, also put him.
Obama himself might bristle at suggestions of neoconservatism or liberal internationalism, for he has praised the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, who is widely viewed as the quintessential “realist.”
But labels matter little compared to policy. So call it what you will, but the prose of Oslo and troop levels in Afghanistan suggest Obama’s evolving foreign policy will carry less carrot and more stick than his supporters had expected.