A common metaphor runs through the words that most conservative commentators use to describe Barack Obama's foreign policy, and, in particular, his speech early tomorrow morning to the Muslim world, which the White House has entitled "a New Beginning."
It is that Obama does nothing but concede American weakness -- and, in particular, by apologizing or somehow walking away from harder rhetorical constructions, he humiliates our national character. Weakness, apologies, humiliation. American meekness -- as opposed to the projection of American strength -- troubles the conservative mind.
Here's the dean of conservative foreign policy talkers, Charles Krauthammer, on Obama's outreach to Russian president DmitryMedvedev:
"'Smart diplomacy' is a meaningless idea, but if it has any meaning at all, it is not ever doing something as humiliating, amateurish, and stupid as this."
Here's Mitt Romney from two days ago, urging Obama to stop his "tour of apology":
"I draw the line by saying in reaching out to other nations we certainly should not stand up and apologize for America."
The idea is that America has scarified too much for these countries to be apologizing for anything.
Last week, Dick Morris cataloged Obama's foreign policy as "Anti-American" because it was premised on apologies.
When Obama recorded a YouTube meant for the people of Iran to see, Bill Kristol called it "a weak and embarrassing statement by the President of the United States" because it did not refer to core American values like liberty and freedom.
Newt Gingrich worried in April:
"I think there is something fundamentally wrong with weakness in America, and then playing to placate dictators."
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.
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Marc Ambinder is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.