President Barack Obama entered office with no more pressing assignment from the voting public than to be as little like his predecessor as possible. Ever since, Obama’s stewardship of America’s foreign affairs has been as ad hoc, convoluted, and contradictory as this vague mandate suggested it would be.
The president’s determination yesterday to unilaterally ease trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, to extend to that communist nation formal diplomatic relations, and to review Havana’s place on the list of state terrorism sponsors may be the most confounding of all his foreign policy decisions. The Castro brothers got everything they could have wanted out of the United States, and have committed nothing in return save for a renewed vow to release some political prisoners – a pledge first made four years ago.
What’s more, Obama sacrificed a bit of America’s moral standing in the world yesterday. The president and his liberal supporters reject what they perceive to be the preening of conservative leaders like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan who had the temerity, or some might say the naïveté, to use the word “evil” to describe the world’s most dangerous actors. The Obama presidency has made it clear that we need a new American president who will again be comfortable using that word and acting like it means something.
Those who disfavor this proposal will claim that this manner of posturing from an American leader is not only unrealistic but counterproductive. America must navigate the international environment unencumbered by the sloppy and obstructive rhetorical excesses of a zealot in the White House. The United States is not an editorial board, they’ll add, and it must behave both rationally and maturely.
These objections are not merely valid arguments. They are also prescriptions for sound statecraft. Of course, certain geopolitical realities and America’s national interests prevent Washington from adopting a purely idealistic blanket approach to foreign policy. Furthermore, it is possible that a foreign affairs doctrine that displays less casual disregard for precedent than Obama’s may not even be that much more productive.
Moreover, in some cases, pragmatism is also the wisest course. The United States is presently free through both deed and action to apply pressure to unsavory allies like the governments of Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and even China – human rights violators with whom the United States has vital strategic interests – but it largely declines to do so from the pulpit. For these and other states, a softer touch is the optimal approach. There is no such thing as a cookie cutter foreign policy.
Where it can, however, the United States is morally obliged to demonstrate its resolve to stand against tyranny rather than to accommodate it. America, its citizens, and its president must be prepared to bear burdens in the defense of freedom. If it casts off this yoke bestowed upon it by history, America should also be willing to see its moral authority wane and the hopes of those who look to its shores for promise and moral leadership collapse into despair.
America needs a president who is unafraid to run afoul of effete and influential opinion in America’s liberal elite corridors and call Cuba what it is: A homicidal, authoritarian, thug state with which we have no interest in normalizing relations until it ceases to abuse its citizens and desists in destabilizing the international environment by cooperating with rogue nations like Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.
America does not need another president who will reward the recalcitrance of Cuban dictators merely to win the acclaim of The New York Times. Barack Obama has thoroughly jeopardized American national security by sending a signal to the world’s rogue regimes, as well as governments in Beijing and Moscow, that internal reforms are quite unnecessary in order to enjoy the fruits of association with the United States. And those are just America’s adversaries. What of the message that has been sent to America’s allies? “What are American guarantees and promises worth if a fifty-year-old policy followed by Democrats like Johnson, Carter, and Clinton can be discarded overnight?” The Weekly Standard’s Elliot Abrams asked. Few dare whisper the self-evident and terrifyingly disruptive answer.
America needs a president who will call the cyber-attack on Sony studios what it is: A state-sponsored terrorist attack by North Korea upon the United States. Does that mean the yet unresolved Korean War armistice is dissolved? Of course, it doesn’t. It does, however, mean that the United States will no longer abide diplomatic courtesies — a polite term for lies — when its citizens see their livelihoods threatened as the result of an act of war conducted by a foreign power. Multilateral negotiations over this state’s nuclear program are off the table, and the U.S. will pressure its allies to renew strict sanctions on that Stalinist state.
America needs a president who will remind those skittish film executives who decided to withhold the release of a movie due to the nebulous fears involving both liability and bad press in the wake of vague terroristic threats to demonstrate some spine. The concerns that prompted Sony’s decision not to release The Interview are both valid and understandable, but they are also mortifyingly cowardly. For a president who regularly inserts himself in local controversies, ongoing law enforcement matters, and national debates over peripheral entertainers and sports figures, Barack Obama’s silence on Sony’s decision to give in to a terroristic ultimatum is inexcusable. Its success will only invite future imitators.
America needs a president who is willing to call Moscow’s decision to both overrun and annex sovereign European territory for the first time since World War II an “invasion,” and it also needs a president willing to treat it like one.
America needs a president willing to explain to the nation why a “pivot” to Asia is a desirable doctrinal shift in American military and diplomatic policy. In doing so, he or she should inform the country of the increasingly dangerous flashpoint in the Spratly Islands where the next great war could well begin.
America needs a president willing to respond to acts of war against the United States conducted by the Islamic State with full force so as not to have to commit American servicemen and women to a multi-year containment effort. America needed a president willing to address the precedent-setting use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War with force and to vigorously pursue a residual status of forces agreement with Iraq; courses of action that might have allowed Washington to avoid having to fight a far more complex regional war against ISIS today.
America needs a new president, but not just any president. America needs one willing to tackle the challenges presented by the modern global security environment with both an ideological attachment to the spread of democratic republicanism, but also to the unapologetic and muscular defense of American national interests. Nearly every past American president has been able to thread this needle. It is only the present occupant of the Oval Office who finds this charge so vexing.
America needs a new president.