Don't Tread on Him

Republican stalwarts have tried to caricature Obama as a weak-kneed liberal on foreign-policy issues. But the president might have more Jacksonian muscle than his critics think.

Something funny happened this past weekend. Conservatives were stunned by President Obama's approval of a military operation to free an American captain held hostage by Somali pirates. The president's action should serve as a wake-up call for both the pirates and the Right.

For several months now, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Marc Thiessen and other members of the George W. Bush administration have been pounding Obama for his alleged weakness on foreign policy. Cheney has been making dire predictions about terrorists running loose because Obama has supposedly emasculated American defenses by forbidding the use of torture and vowing to shut down the CIA's so-called black facilities. Meanwhile, Thiessen and others have been forming a background chorus to Cheney's arias. Only Bush himself has declined to get mixed up in the fray, leaving it to his subordinates to heap scorn upon Obama.

The most basic problem with the conservative bash-Obama campaign, however, isn't that it's dirty pool for members of a previous administration to criticize their successors. It's that they're dead wrong.

The pirate episode shouldn't be overblown, but it does seem to bear the hallmarks of Obama's style. Shun overblown rhetoric and get the job done. In this instance, Obama was apparently closely involved but gave the military a free hand. What's more, there hasn't been any chest-thumping about America's victory, just quiet satisfaction. For the past several decades, however, America has treated even the most minor episodes as though they were vital triumphs on the par of winning a battle during World War II-remember the heroic welcome given to Scott O'Grady, the F-16 pilot who was shot down by a Bosnian Serb plane in 1995 and eluded capture by eating ants and grass? Perhaps Obama's calm approach will have a calming effect, restoring a sense of reality to American foreign policy.

The Right, however, has indulged in a hypertrophied approach to foreign policy, treating each episode as a new chapter in good versus evil. Foreign affairs is no longer about effectively pursuing the nation's interests, but a prolonged morality tale in which the president has to huff and puff about the dastardliness of America's enemies. The corollary of this approach is that Democratic presidents are invariably invertebrate jellyfish that can't stand up to bad guys around the globe.

The script for Obama has already been written. Too soft on Iran and Russia and North Korea and China. Ready to get taken to the cleaners. In short, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Obama doesn't have what it takes. George W. Bush, by contrast, did. He was willing to play even harder ball than his foes by ignoring lawyerly cavils about international law and sanctioning torture.

Leaving aside Bush's misconduct of America's foreign relations, conservatives are, for the most part, peddling a retrospective view. They're assuming that Obama can easily be pressed into the mold of previous Democratic presidents. But that doesn't seem likely. Obama is not a product of the 1960s. He doesn't seem unduly moralistic, as was the case with Jimmy Carter. If anything, Obama seems to be embracing realism and scanting human rights and democracy promotion, or at least making them subordinate issues to restoring American relations. Given the debility of the American economy, he doesn't really have much of a platform to lecture the rest of the world, even if he wanted to. But as his recent trip abroad suggested, he doesn't.

It's also the case that Obama, unlike Bush, did not enjoy a cosseted childhood. Again and again, he had to prove himself. His rise was not based on catering to the Democratic establishment. He was an outsider who performed an end-run around Hillary Clinton.

Conservatives, in other words, are running the risk of making the same mistake that Bill and Hillary committed during the campaign. They're misunderestimating Obama.

Don't think for a moment that Russia, North Korea and China, among others, were blind to the pirate escapade. Obama's cool handling of the crisis should raise eyebrows in foreign chancelleries. In essence, Obama was embracing the old Jacksonian credo-don't tread on me. It's a credo that Obama's adversaries, at home and abroad, would probably be wise to keep in mind.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.