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Desperately seeking substance - from Obama

By Ted Bromund - posted Friday, 1 May 2009

President Barack Obama marked the end of his first 100 days in office on Thursday.

For those who didn't vote for him, it seems like 100 years. The remainder of Obama's tenure stretches out before us, as broad as the Sahara and about as devoid of sustenance.

But if the past 100 days have been lacking in substantive achievements, they have certainly not been boring. Already, Obama has charted a course that should remind us of a fact of history: the post-war generation is passing from the scene and its tradition - based on a larger but still limited state at home and an assertive, pro-liberty policy abroad - has come to an end.


In its place have come the Baby Boomers - the Me Generation, deeply sceptical about the basic goodness of America, and lacking any compunctions about imposing enormous debt burdens on their children to pay for their own spendthrift ways. In Obama, they got the man they wanted.

Winston Churchill once remarked that he never criticised his government when he was abroad, though he made up for lost time when he came home. Obama has not only thrown Churchill's bust out of the Oval Office, he's reversed Churchill's policy: he attacks the US abroad, and then praises it when he comes back.

His recent European tour was a fiesta of embarrassments, featuring a speech at Strasbourg apologising for the supposed fact that "America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive" towards the European Union. If only. Actually, Bush's administration - showing a serious failure of judgment - supported the EU's constitution, as well as the EU's feckless diplomacy towards Iran, and its feeble mission in Darfur.

More broadly, Obama's first 100 days have featured a series of humiliating rejections of America's closest allies, ranging from the administration's dismissive assessment of Britain as "nothing special" to stabbing Poland and the Czech Republic in the back over missile defence.

Towards dictators, on the other hand, Obama has been relentlessly conciliatory: weakening sanctions on Cuba, opening talks with Iran, and trying - blunderingly - to press the "reset button" with Russia.

What does all this mean? Three possibilities. First, this is a liberal administration, and a lot of its foreign policy exemplifies the liberal belief that it's all about us: the reason Putin's Russia is so nasty, for instance, is supposedly that we have not been nice enough to it. In this view, the administration is sincerely interested in foreign policy, but also ignorant and naïve.


The second possibility is that it has a plan. Call it a revival of spheres of influence. Or, if you wish, Metternich without the genius, after the mid-19th century Austrian statesman. The concept is that Russia will have a sphere (which is why Georgia has been left in the lurch), China will have a sphere (farewell Tibet), Iran will have a sphere (and nuclear weapons), and the EU will get one, too (hence the mea culpa at Strasbourg).

This is, at least, a coherent plan. It has only three flaws. First, any "spheres of influence" policy cannot be based on freedom - which is why Obama never mentions the word. Second, the spheres will not get along - Russia will rub up against the EU, for example - so it's not a policy that will promote peace. And third, most of these places have made it clear that they dislike the West in general, and the US in particular, so it strengthens freedom's enemies.

The last possibility is the simplest: Obama doesn't much care about foreign policy, which is why he gave the portfolio to his bitter rival Hillary Clinton. If his policies fail, she'll be the one for the chop. Perhaps his overriding goal is to make foreign affairs go away, so he can focus on where his interests lie: domestic policy. To that end, he's willing to cut as many deals as he can, in the hopes this will clear the table.

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First published by the Heritage Foundation on April 29, 2009.

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About the Author

Ted Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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