America the Apologetic

Published April 21, 2009

Commentary Web Exclusive

President Obama, who over the weekend continued his overseas effort to, among other things, apologize for supposed American misdeeds from both the recent and distant past, held a press conference on Sunday. He made several statements that are, I think, worth examining.

On explaining his apologies for America, President Obama said this:

If we are practicing what we preach and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand; that allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues.

But what Obama has engaged in is more than an “occasional confession”; apology is, in fact, a centerpiece of his approach. He has spent an unprecedented amount of time as President giving voice to grievances of both allies and adversaries over America. And when he's not himself confirming those criticisms, he is showing himself less than eager to respond to them.

As for what he hopes to gain by this approach, Obama explains it this way:

Countries are going to have interests, and changes in foreign policy approaches by my administration aren't suddenly going to make all those interests that may diverge from ours disappear. What it does mean, though, is, at the margins, they are more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate. It means that where there is resistance to a particular set of policies that we're pursuing, that resistance may turn out just to be based on old preconceptions or ideological dogmas that, when they're cleared away, it turns out that we can actually solve a problem.

President Obama also took issue with those who believe that “if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness.” According to Obama, “It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.”

But what matters is the stratagem behind the “polite conversations.” President Obama appears to be making a bet that his personal charm and reticence in defending America against those who are disparaging her will redound to our benefit, that his approach will win the confidence of leaders long antagonistic to America and its values, and that in the end his apology tour will lead to greater cooperation in advancing justice and American ideals.

Those of us who differ with Obama's approach operate on a different set of assumptions and expectations. They include these:

1. Obama entered office in a situation in which, as his Vice President warned during the campaign, he would be tested by our enemies. When you braid Obama's apology tour with what some of us believe to be his weak early stands on a series of other matters (documented here and here), the message Obama is sending is a potentially dangerous one: we are willing to absorb, but not to respond to, blows directed against us. And that, in turn, can set up a serious confrontation down the road.


In his sympathetic biography, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963, the historian Robert Dallek recounts Kennedy's encounter with the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev. According to Dallek, “Kennedy's chief worry about Khrushchev was that after the Bay of Pigs, he would not believe JFK's resolve on Berlin or anything else.” Kennedy repeatedly tried to establish greater rapport with Khrushchev and told Khrushchev that Soviet strength was equal to that of the United States, a concession that “exhilarated” Khrushchev, who later told his comrades about JFK: “He's very young… not strong enough. Too intelligent and too weak.”

In Dallek's words:

His own performance especially troubled Kennedy. His anger and frustration were as much with himself as Khrushchev… Instead of being responsive to Kennedy's expressions of regard for Soviet power and appeals to reason over Berlin , Khrushchev had become more assertive and unbending. Kennedy was angry with himself for not having shown a tougher side from the beginning of the talks.

Dallek concludes his chapter this way:

It was the first time [JFK] had ever met “somebody with whom he couldn't exchange ideas in a meaningful way,” Bobby Kennedy said later. “I think it was a shock to him that somebody would be as harsh and definitive” — as “unrelenting” and “uncompromising” — as Khrushchev was in Vienna.

Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, lamented the fact that he didn't have the chance to meet with Ho Chi Minh one-on-one; if he did, Johnson was convinced, he would be able to wring concessions out of him as Johnson had done over his lifetime with Members of Congress. And the war would end. LBJ was, according to those who worked with him, frustrated and befuddled because Ho Chi Minh wasn't willing to compromise or, to quote a passage of Scripture which Johnson was fond of, to come reason together.

Obviously the situations are different in important respects, and no historical example perfectly fits another circumstance. Still, there is a core truth to be learned, which is that America's enemies often test new presidents; the head of repressive regimes aren't usually as susceptible to the charms of an American president as Members of Congress might be; and sometimes an attempt to reason with our adversaries is taken as a sign of weakness and/or leads to an endless and counterproductive series of negotiations.

A lot of hostile nations are measuring up Obama; it's not at all clear he has impressed them as a formidable figure.

2. Obama chatted amiably and treated respectfully the oppressors of those brave people in Venezuela and Nicaragua who are putting their lives on the line in order to advance democracy. President Obama completely ignored them. That is bad in its own right and, when combined with Secretary of State Clinton's remarks to the Chinese that we are essentially prepared to overlook their human rights violations, sends exactly the wrong signal to both the forces of liberation and the forces of oppression.

3. The major issue facing Latin America is a fundamental choice between competing social models — a socialist/authoritarian model on the one hand, and a free market/open society on the other. Obama not only isn't championing the latter; he did not even speak up effectively on its behalf. Someone needs to.

4. It would be encouraging if Obama spent as much time supporting our friends as he is wooing our enemies. For example, Obama has entered into a discussion about removing trade sanctions against Cuba, which may or may not be a good idea. But while he's pushing on that front, a ready-to-sign trade agreement with Colombia, one of our best friends in the region, is languishing, with the main opposition to the agreement coming from members of Obama's own party.

5. For many of us, the issue isn't that we believe the United States is a perfect nation, pristine and without flaws. It is that taken in its totality, America is a remarkable nation, among the greatest in history, whose acts of beneficence far outweigh its acts of maleficence. If Obama believes that — and I hope and trust he does — then he seems oddly hesitant to say so, to defend the nation he represents in a forceful and deeply-felt way. Rather, he speaks about America in a manner filled with qualifiers and caveats, as if to prove to the world that he sees himself as a “citizen of the world.” Worst o
f all, in my estimation, he often perpetrates a cartoon image of America, one that doesn't correspond to reality and overlooks the good we have done (like opposing Marxist regimes and the spread of Soviet influence in Central America in the 1980s).

I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love,” President Washington said of the nation he founded. This kind of amor patriae isn't the most vital qualification necessary to be President, but it is an important one to have, and to show.

What troubles some of us about President Obama isn't a single apology here or a single handshake there; it is evidence of a particular cast of mind. For Obama's foreign policy gambit to succeed, it isn't enough for him to “listen” and sit passively by as America is castigated by the Daniel Ortega's of the world. He also, and most importantly, needs to press reluctant allies and our enemies for concessions and actually get a few. Helping orchestrate new mood music is the easy part; winning substantive concessions from Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Omar al-Bashir is far more challenging. It may even be impossible to achieve. But it is what Obama promised to do.

Barack Obama, during Sunday's press conference, remarked, “the test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds.” On this point I have no disagreement. We are in the midst of testing the propositions animating the Obama Doctrine. What Obama is willing to do for our adversaries seems clear enough; what he is able to get in return isn't.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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