When Martin Luther King Jr. was tragically assassinated in 1968, that year’s Academy Awards was postponed for three days. When it re-convened, 20-time host Bob Hope acknowledged not just the difficulty for the nation and King’s many followers, but also for that year’s Oscar nominees: “How would you like to spend three days in a crouch?”
Three days? How about eight years?
This week, President Barack Obama signaled the media that he would be giving a major speech on American foreign policy. Well, he gave a speech, but it was less major and more corporal. The New York Times already published a decent editorial about how uninspiring it was. And one of their less liberal columnists, Ross Douthat, recently published an almost indecent editorial about how uninspired Obama’s foreign policy has been. I have to agree. I mean, look, I understand that we were right to look inward after the bluster of the Bush years, but there’s a difference between looking inward and staring at an x-ray of your chest for hours. I don’t know if America is in decline, but its defensive bitterness is certainly on the upswing. If MLK’s death haunted 1968, well, it’s like the Iraq war is the haunt that keeps on haunting American foreign policy. We’re in a crouch, and not a Crouching Tiger type that suggests a power readying its strike, but more like a shy, thick-hided, loner animal that uses water to avoid conflicts. We’re Crouching Tapir.
Someday, years after Obama has cashed that sweet, sweet $20 million advance check for his Presidential memoirs, when the book comes out and Obama has (maybe) decided to arrange his Presidency by policy categories (e.g. Obamacare, the environment, basketball) I’ll be madly flipping pages to read the foreign policy chapter first. Because I’m dying to know: wha hoppen????
It started so well. 2008: enthusiastic crowds all over the world, including those famous 200,000 in Berlin. 2009: Nobel Peace Prize – way premature, but a tasty down payment on ideas that Obama had been promoting. 2010: Libya and “Leading from behind” – yes I know this was an aide’s gaffe (Michael Kinsley defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say”), but I speak for populist America when I say we liked it! Obama’s fellow Chicagoan Michael Jordan wasn’t a forward, he was a guard. The Battle of Trenton excepted, George Washington ran from redcoats. Real Americans love leading from behind! Except when we have no choice, as in 2011 when we used our lethal tapir bite to say: Bye-bye, Bin Laden.
Even then, we were still having issues. Trusting Hamid Karzai to handle Afghanistan was like trusting Rob Schneider to handle the Bourne franchise. Obama was using drones the way John Boehner uses Kleenex, including a very unconstitutional attack on an American in Yemen. Guantanamo had about as much chance of closing down as youporn.com, which doesn’t exactly help our reputation. Syria gave the term “complete societal breakdown” a bad name. Vladimir Putin heard we wanted to hit the “reset button” and instead re-wired the US-Russia relationship into a Grand Theft Auto where we just keep getting killed. Pakistan was singlehandedly pushing the nuclear clock’s minute hand to “12” like Doc Brown on a thundery night. As for peace between Israel and Palestinians: you’re kidding, right?
Now each of those issues have become near-debacles, plus Benghazi plus Ukraine plus the Senkaku Islands plus resurgent Al-Qaeda plus the failure of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Also, with all our awesome technology, we can’t find a missing jumbo jet, a mass murderer named Joseph Kony, or 300 kidnapped schoolgirls. It’s kinda like we’re stuck in that summer of the BP oil spill, where the oil just keeps coming and coming and coming. “We’re working on it!” is what we hear. I’m sure all us oil-soaked seafowl are very reassured.
The right loves to call Obama’s foreign policy “feckless.” For Glenn Greenwald, it’s closer to reckless. As someone between these two partisan poles, I don’t really feel like applying an “eckless” adjective. I mean, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, our two most recent Secretaries of State, were and are trying, but that’s not enough. And that brings up another reason I write about foreign policy today: populism can often be misunderstood by strident leftists and rightists as a sort of mushy moderate middle ground. Well, as Obama’s speech this week made clear, he’s in the middle ground, but there’s hardly much populist about his policies. For example, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is a moderate, NAFTA-like sop to corporations, but does nothing notable for ordinary people. (Well, at least, I’m guessing that’s why Obama won’t fill us in on the details.)
What would a populist foreign policy look like? Let’s say that it starts with the support of at least 51% of Americans. When possible, it would also command the support of 51% of the world’s citizens. (Uh, this isn’t about a one-world government. This is about increasing our “soft power,” so that we don’t have to do everything with “hard power.” That was one sentiment Obama got right this week.) A peace agreement with Iran? Sure. Two-state solution in the Holy Land? Heck, why not. A general military drawdown around the world accompanied by vigorous rhetorical defense of international institutions like the UN, NATO, even Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International? You’d be surprised; if we meant it, people would love it. A future populist president would lead us from behind like gangbusters in the Washington-Jordan tradition.
Let me suggest something so overwhelming popular that our mainstream press won’t even contemplate it. I can summarize a populist foreign policy in one word: bribery. There are two kinds of problems in the world, in our country, in your house: those that can be solved with money, and those that can’t. The second group tends to involve a lot of awkward emotions. Speaking of emotions, if you don’t want to get upset, do not research how much of your taxes are being spent on obsolete and impractical programs in our military. But see, I follow news. Asking politicians to make real dents in our military budget is like asking Disney to stop making cartoons. Instead, how about redirecting funds? In terms of goodie bags, let’s treat our favorite leaders like we already treat whoever (and I mean whoever) is leading Israel and Afghanistan, only with strings attached for hard-working Americans. The more American jobs those leaders support (you know, by closing sweatshops that reduce American competitiveness), the more cash they get. The funny thing is that we have the money; we just find bribery distasteful, while gunboat diplomacy is apparently almost as tasteful as drone attacks. Enough already; the “Sue” in “Sue for peace” shouldn’t be a boy named Sue. Stop the kills, start the kickbacks. In the Game of Thrones books, coin currency is also called dragons. It’s time to unleash our hidden dragons.
Or: we ride out these next 2 ½ years as a crouching tapir.