Prominent Military affairs writer Ralph Peters fretted
upon Obama's election that America's "international strategy" might not survive, along with some of our allies, because Obama seemed so willing to undermine American narratives at any opportunity.
Indeed, for these conservatives, it seems as if the goal of foreign policy in the post-Bush era is to avoid appearing weak -- humiliation avoidance. And lo' and behold, Obama seems to believe that self-humiliation is a central tenet of his efforts to make America right with the world and the world right with America. (Sean Hannity
: "It might do him good to remember that apologizing didn't get the allied forces anywhere in World War II.")
Obama derives his world view from a different metaphor -- one of "dignity promotion." (See this explanation
from Spencer Ackerman.) There is little room in this construct for a strictly Manichean division between Good and Evil.
The influences of Christian thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr are obvious, as Obama has admitted. ("Democracies are indeed slow to make war, but once embarked upon a martial venture are equally slow to make peace and reluctant to make a tolerable, rather than a vindictive, peace," Neibuhr once said.)
True strength, Obama believes, is achieved when a country exposes some of the subcutaneous, vulnerable tissue under its tough exterior when doing so serves our national interests. Let me unpack that a bit.
In Obama's mind, these apologies, concessions, or what-not may, on their surface, seem to many Americans to be the proffering of a weak hand. But if it is in America's interests for -- to put it plainly -- the Muslim world to trust us more (to help combat Islamism, a nuclear Iran, terrorism) -- then it is not out of line to project a less bullying, less patronizing image of America. There is some realism in this.
Obama understands that many Americans believe that the country, as an entity, should not apologize for anything; that, as much as we might make mistakes, we're a force for good in the world, our extracurricular endeavors are aimed at liberating the world from tyranny, and that our interests suffer if other countries perceive our self-reproach.
For conservatives, America is like a person negotiating a deal; showing weakness, even if calculated, never gets you what you need. But we're not a person; we're a collection of interests with a long but disputed history; and the truth of the matter is that many Americans -- a majority of Americans, if you want to look at election results -- found themselves quite humbled by what the Bush administration did. And facts matter, too. History, at this point, does not support the claim that we invaded Iraq to liberate the Iraqis. Our democracy-promoting efforts in Palestinian territories probably prolonged the conflict there.
The Obama White House doesn't like to use the word "apology." They speak instead of dignity promotion, or acknowledgment of "mutual interests' or of "soft power." And despite its Christian influences, it is a profoundly secular worldview, one that does not justify its action by some reference to an idealized "America" or the sanction of God. At the same time, it manages to be universalizing.
This fairly profound departure from the way the Bush Administration thought about itself is quite unsettling to Obama's critics. And it is also not the way that Americans are used to thinking about themselves. (We live in an exceptional country, a nimble, responsive democracy that constantly strives to do good, even when we do bad -- our military is extremely inefficient because we so carefully try to avoid civilian casualties -- and so on.)
Which approach is better suited to the world today? Obama's post-election gestures seem to have reduced the level of anti-Americanism and taken that complaint off the table in some instances, but much of that anti-American sentiment was contrived, and it is easy to make gestures when the American people have faith in your leadership skills. If Obama loses that trust, if he capitulates too much, if he cuts past the adipose layer and into the muscles, then the criticism will have more resonance.