The President’s Metal

August 28, 2012

Summer has tarried late in my native New England.  We find ourselves still in the placidity of sun and sweat despite September’s arrival in a few days.  A blessed few more moments to allow our thoughts to drift with the soft breezes, to look back at where we have come, and to reflect quietly on differences between what we believed past actions would yield and the reality which resulted.

Newspapers are not the judgment of history.  Time and perspective are necessary allies in our efforts to judge accurately what has occurred.  Even so, with important decisions that have to be made whose deadlines cannot be postponed, we must do the best we can to extrapolate the past into the future.  And in this halcyon moment before the clanging din that will undoubtedly erupt when the political campaigns move into full attack in a few days, we may have the emotional calm to cast aside ideology and party tribalism and ask ourselves, most honestly, what has worked and what has not.

In judging Mr Obama, as we must, we his judgments fall into two areas of policy:  the domestic and the foreign.  I choose here to examine his foreign policy.  It is simpler, more straight forward and primarily within the sole control of the executive branch.  As the president’s stage, the effects of his actions redound to his credit or detriment.  This cannot be so clearly ascribed in the case of domestic policy where congress and opposing parties and constituencies must be accorded and accommodated.

 In his Farewell Address, President Washington warned Americans to beware of foreign entanglements.  I have never viewed this advice to be reflective of a policy of isolationism on Washington’s part, but rather of an understanding that because the culture and values of our county were so fundamentally different from those of Europe, we would be at a decided disadvantage in our dealings with them.  People tend to judge others as they are themselves; hence we would naturally and naively presume that others are motivated by the same things that motivate us.  Washington recognized that this was not the case, and hence cautioned the adoption of a healthy skepticism, especially until we had acquired through experience a level of sophistication sufficient to allow us adequately to protect our interests.  Thus in seventeenth century Europe, war was still an alternative type of diplomacy; to Americans, it was a fight for liberty.  America was a formed as a “republic of reason” whereas the fundamental premise of monarchies is that men are governed in accordance with the naked preferences of the sovereign.  America’s culture is enabling:  everything is permitted unless specifically prohibited.  Europe’s is restrictive:  men live “by the leave” of the sovereign and thus everything is prohibited unless it is specifically permitted.  Many of these cultural and value differences still persist to this day.

It was for this reason, that the greatest question that plagued the Obama candidacy in 2008 was his lack of experience.  Yet a majority of the electorate lightly esteemed this credential, believing that Mr Obama’s native intelligence would more than make up for any lack of real-life training.  Irrespective of whom we voted for, we were all hopeful.  Indeed, at first he received high marks for his bold move in visiting Egypt in the initial days of his presidency where he delivered his famous and conciliatory Cairo Address.   I recall how personally moved I and my colleagues were, one of whom told me he had to pull over while listening to the speech in his car as his eyes were tearing over.

With the election now a little more than two months away, what can we say about how Mr Obama’s actions have played out?

Take the Middle East.  The Cairo Address seems now forgotten, as America’s stature within the Muslim world has fallen to an all-time low.  His strong-arming of Israel to adopt a permanent settlement freeze has failed and has emboldened Israel’s enemies.  His efforts to get China and Russia to adopt even a symbolic condemnation of Syria’s brutal dictator has failed.  Iran has gotten much stronger, even in the face of the weak economic sanctions that even the United Nations regularly violates.  Indeed, the annual meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement is being hosted in Iran this year and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be ignoring Mr Obama’s plea that he not go.  Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, has become Iran’s latest friend.  The president’s efforts in 2009 and 2012 to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran were summarily rebuffed.

Other fronts reflect no better on the president’s initiatives.  His personal plan to orchestrate a climate-change agreement in 2009 at Copenhagen ended in failure.  His initiative to reset relations with Russia ended in failure.  He failed in his attempt to make a settlement with the Taliban, and his diplomatic entreaties to North Korea ended in embarrassment.  He tried to involve himself in Europe’s recent economic crisis and was summarily dismissed, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble suggesting that “Herr Obama should above all deal with the reduction of the American deficit.”  Despite his grandstanding initiative, he was even incapable of bringing the 2016 Olympics to Chicago.

Hardly an impressive record.

So what went wrong?  I submit that there are three causes.  First, as Washington warned, Mr Obama’s lack of sophistication and experience make his policies cannon fodder for wily foreigners.  Second, he operated under the assumption that his personal magnetism and charisma that had worked so well within the American environment could be exported successfully to the rest of the world.  In short, he believed that if they liked him personally, they would respect him the next morning.  The direct antithesis of Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Third, and perhaps most damning, is the fact that while Americans marveled at his glib sound bites, the rest of the world laughed at the lack of substance.  And when one is seen as uttering pretty phrases that are meaningless, one’s basic weakness becomes obvious and one’s credibility vaporizes like the dew on a summer’s morn.  Let me use just one powerful excerpt from Mr Obama’s Cairo Address as illustrative of this point.  In its opening, the president said:

“I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.’ And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.”

Very pretty words indeed, but wholly without a shred of substance or truth.   Take each historical allegation point-by-point:

1.       Moroccan recognition:  It is true that Sultan Muhammad II included America in a list of countries to which Morocco’s ports were open.   This was not an Islamic statement however, but a political-economic one and one not shared by the rest of Islam at that time.  In any event Morocco has always been on the fringe of the Islamic club, being a staunch supporter of the US (remember Casablanca) and a country that has a zero tolerance policy towards Al Qaeda.  Moreover, this recognition was not formalized until the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship in 1786, nine years later.

2.      Treaty of Tripoli:  Mr Obama is really reaching here.  First, this was a routine treaty of little consequence.  It gained recognition only because of a provision in the English translation that contained the following clause about religion:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Unfortunately, not only did the president did not quote it correctly, but what it stood for was a statement to the world that Americans view all religions as equal, not that we admired Islam.  Further, Adams did not write it; his diplomats did and he signed it.

3.      Moslems fought in our wars:  I am sure they were not draft dodgers.  Do they want credit for doing what they should have done and what every other American did?  Moreover one may probably assume that they were in our armed forces NOT as Moslem-Americans, but as Americans who also happened to be Moslems. 

4.      Moslems in Government:  I am sure they took government jobs.  So what?  As for politics,  even Mr Obama points out that we have only had one Moslem who has ever gotten elected.  This is a poor record.

5.      Stood for civil rights:  I assume that he is talking about such luminaries as Malcolm X (who was Christian but took on the militant side of Islam), Farrakhan, and the like.  They are a disgrace and not part of American culture.  Indeed, they rejected it and promoted hate.

6.      Started Businesses:  Give me a break.  Do I even have to comment on this?  By the way, Islamic businessmen are also overwhelmingly (80%+) Republicans.

7.      Taught in our universities:  What’s the point here?  That they took high-paying teaching jobs? 

8.      Excelled in our sports arenas:  Oh come on.  We are only taking about 6 boxers who converted like the admirable Mike Tyson, ten basketball players who converted (most notably Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Rasheed Wallace and Larry Johnson), 9 football players, all of whom converted and only one, Ahmad Rashad, who was really good, and three other minor ones.  Hell, even the Jews have a longer list. 

9.      Nobel Laureates:  There have only been ten Muslim winners of this prize (unless you add Mr Obama), only one of whom, Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian by birth who became a citizen after going to college here, won the prize for chemistry in 1999.

10.Built our tallest building:  Well, as we now know, “he didn’t build that.”  In any event, I assume that Mr Obama was referring to Fazlur Kahn, a Bangali architect considered the father of tubular design who was paid a well-deserved fortune to design the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower).  Obviously, he is neither an American nor did he build anything; Sears built it.

11.Lit the Olympic torch:  An obvious reference to Mohammed Ali, but this was no accomplishment, it was simply giving Ali a lifetime achievement award.  More importantly, Ali is not a Moslem; he became a Black Muslim, a denomination that is not recognized by either the Shiites or the Sunnis, and even had been prohibited from going to Mecca.

12.A Muslim used Thomas Jefferson’s Quran to take an oath:  Is there a point here?

While I apologize for the lengthy analysis above, but it is symptomatic of the fundamental hollowness of Mr Obama’s knowledge and analytical skills and which have resulted in the failures of foreign policy that have characterized his administration.  So why is it that so  many democrats still cling to the view of Mr Obama as being the gold standard of presidents?  Why is there a perception that Mr Romney, on the other hand, is “unlikable”? I believe the answer lies simply in Mark Twain’s sad observation:

Gold in its native state is but dull, unornamental stuff, and only lowborn metals excite the admiration of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter.  However, like the rest of the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of mica.

© Richard L Wise and 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Richard L Wise and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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