By Norman Birnbaum
In a Presidential election, the incumbent candidate has an advantage. USPresidents have greater powers of initiative in foreign than in domesticpolicy.
Obama’s trip to Kabul on the first anniversary of the killing ofbin Laden reduced his Republican adversaries, if temporarily, to silence.Their comments on the affair of the Chinese dissident Chen suggest thatthere, too, silence would have served them better.
The President has beenadept at seizing and exploiting the current national temper. The public hasbeen content to leave foreign policy in his hands, as long as it is notconfronted with intellectually difficult and economically costly choices.The Republicans, with Governor Romney repeating old slogans as if theywere brilliantinspirations, have been incapable of effective counter-attack.
The President seeks as much global hegemony as the world permits andaccepts its resistance as occasions for negotiation. The Republicans treatUS unilateralism as a sacred inheritance, interpret American deviationsfrom it as it as heresy, and foreign refusal of obedience as enmity. Thediplomats, intelligence and military officers in our permanent government,and the ambitious academics, journalists, politicians gathered inWashington, adapt their careers to reigning ideas of the nationalinterest---and often adjust the ideas to advance their careers.
There is aserious debate initiated by more independent spirits about the nation’srole in a world changing deeply, but it does not reach much of the public,and most politicians and many journalists lack the intellectual capacitiesto join it. The President is aware that too much thinking on his partwould not be an electoral asset.
US foreign policy is made neither by the serious reflection of historicalthinkers or the accumulated wisdom of experienced diplomats andpoliticians. The actual makers of policy face a public habituated to oversimplified interpretations of the national interest. More importantly, theyconfront, daily, a complex and contradictory set of demands and pressuresfrom economic, ideological, and political pressure groups .
These groupscommand entire blocs in the Congress, have agents in the governmentalapparatus, and obtain favorable depictions of their issues in the media.Of course, each group needs allies. The aging Cuban Americans, stillhoping for the extirpation of Communism, cooperate with the unconditionalsupporters of Israel. They in turn cultivate the FundamentalistProtestants, who think the existence of f Israel foretells the end oftime (and,unmentioned by the American Jewish leaders, the conversion ordisappearance of the Jews.) The Protestants are connected to the morerigid American Catholics, who dislike the moral pluralism of Americansecularism.
For both religious groups, the world’s major problems are notenvironmental degradation, global poverty, or ethnic and religiousconflict. They are, instead, the threats of abortion and homosexual rights.
Each of these groups defers to the proponents of American unilateralism,merging their causes with a generalized American intransigence. The morerefined advocates of civil and human rights think the company ofanti-Castro terrorists, apologists for the Israel occupation of Palestine,and Catholic and Protestant anti-feminists embarrassing---and anxiouslyseparate their support for Chinese dissidents from the geopoliticalimperialism opposed to China’s national resurgence.
Even we professorsfind the Washington cacophony hard on our hearing. Average citizens do notlisten. The financial, manufacturing and service industries, demanding deregulationand free trade are unrelenting. The arms industry and the securitycontractors are single minded in their insistence on increasing thePentagon budget. Led by military Keynesians who also denounce “biggovernment” the ideology of the modern American state is not a model ofintellectual consistency.
Consistency and coherence are not uppermost on the minds of the Americanpublic. It is convinced of the omnipresence of an Islamist threat ( owingto the government’s success in prosecuting plots initiated by the police.)However, the war in Afghanistan evokes no enthusiasm. Per contra, theexistence of an Iranian nuclear threat is widely believed. Despite profoundreservations in our foreign policy elite, Israel has successfully solditself as potential or actual victim.
Just as an undifferentiated andignorant anti-Communism dominated the public mind in the Cold War, asingular mixture of fear of terror and ignorant hatred of Islam iswidespread. China is often depicted as a potential adversary.
Withconsiderable skill and even more cynicism, as in his pact with themilitary leadership, Obama has learned to acknowledge these fears. He hastried to act as rationally as a limiting situation permits. His Republicanopponents have resorted to ever more vulgar formulations, and Romney haspromised total mobilization for total war. It remains to be seen if hewill be taken seriously..
What accounts for Obama’s relative success in minimizing opposition to hiscalculatedly ambiguous diplomacy? One element is clear. The Republicansare seen by many as loudmouths whose own policies have led to disasters. ThePresident will no doubt paint Romney as the heir to Bush.
That apart, thecitizenry is primarily concerned with the economic situation, and draws noimmediate connection between it and the world beyond our borders. The passivity of the public is evidence for realism. Ever since 1898, themaking of US foreign policy has been increasingly withdrawn it from publicscrutiny, has become an arcane craft practiced beneath the stadiums full ofexcited crowds.
Ordinary citizens respond with resignation. At Berkeleyand Princeton, the savants argue about US empire. Their fellow citizensthink of empire as a way of life, and see no reason to question it. Thatis why they allow Obama a relatively free hand. The US citizenry reservesmorality for itself, and expects the worst of other nations.In an idealworld, Obama would be more of a pedagogue .
Meanwhile, this exceedingly ifnot excessively sober young man takes advantage of a large deficit in ourdemocracy.
*This thoughtful and perceptive analysis, by the redoubtable Norman Birnbaum, appears in today's El País