Not His Fault

Robert Kagan is wrong. Obama isn’t to blame for our issues with Europe and Israel—Europe and Israel are.

Is Barack Obama, the man who loftily promised to restore America's luster abroad, badly tarnishing it instead? That's the accusation of Robert Kagan in the Washington Post. Kagan contends that America's ties to its allies are in greater peril than, as he's careful to qualify, those of the George W. Bush administration with Europe in its second term.

Or, on second thought, is Obama, the president who promised to titivate relations with Europe, actually fulfilling the vision of George W. Bush?

That, too, is the contention of Robert Kagan in a lengthy essay in Foreign Policy called "Bipartisan Spring." While Kagan I excoriates Obama for snubbing America's allies, Kagan II lauds him for creating bipartisanship at home and working with America's allies. While Kagan II finds a few things to quibble about, he basically seems happy with Obama's approach to foreign affairs. And so, according to Kagan in his Foreign Policy piece:

Yet some also realize that Obama's prolonged effort at engagement accomplished what George W. Bush never could: convincing most of the world, and most Democrats, that Iran is uninterested in any deal that threatens its nuclear weapons program. As a result, France, Britain, and even Germany appear more determined than at any time in the past decade to impose meaningful sanctions. A majority of Republicans, along with most Democrats, will support the administration as it toughens its approach to what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now calls the "military dictatorship" in Tehran. Partisan divisiveness will return only if the administration backs down from its own stated objectives.

One of these two views might be correct. But both cannot be at the same time. It strains credulity to believe that Obama is, on the one hand, allegedly snubbing America's democratic friends, and, on the other, uniting them with America by making a "prolonged effort at engagement" with Iran. Does Kagan I have it right? Or does Kagan II?

Writing in the Post, Kagan argues that the current ructions between Israel and America are symptomatic of a broader problem. Obama has no compunction about dissing America's allies and truckling to authoritarian regimes. In other words, he's vainly trying to convert foe to friend, while turning friend into foe. Kagan's bill of indictment runs from British fears that Obama isn't interested in a special relationship to the failure to install missile interceptors in Central Europe. Even "post-Lisbon Europe" has been treated shabbily by Obama, who has neglected to meet with the European Union's new president. Of course Kagan used to argue that tensions between America and Europe weren't rooted in casual differences, but, rather, in a tragic clash of warlike and bellicist cultures.

Kagan is right to observe that Europeans are (somewhat) disenchanted with Obama. But that disenchantment has not arisen because he's snubbing Europeans. It's because he isn't left-wing enough for them. It's because he adheres more closely to the schema drawn up by Kagan in his book Of Paradise and Power during the first Bush administration. For one thing, he's ramped up the war in Afghanistan. He hasn't closed Guantánamo Bay. He didn't sign a climate-change agreement in Copenhagen. He praised just war in his Nobel Peace Prize speech. Obama, in other words, is too conservative for many Europeans, or, if you want to put it another way, too American and not enough of a Weltburger, a world citizen. It's an end to illusion in Europe.

The crux of Kagan's criticism, however, is that Obama has been too eager to play kissy-face with autocrats. In Kagan's view, "This administration pays lip-service to ‘multilateralism,' but it is a multilateralism of accommodating autocratic rivals, not of solidifying relations with longtime democratic allies." China, Russia, and Iran should be dealt with more peremptorily. Yet Obama, Kagan suggests, has fixated on bludgeoning Israel over a small infraction.

What Kagan deems a dilatory policy toward Iran, though, may be a slow and inexorable construction of an alliance determined to prevent Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons-exactly as Kagan II observes in Foreign Policy. How Obama is supposed to crack the whip on Moscow to assent more quickly to a new START Treaty, which appears to nearing completion, is left unsaid. Why installing a costly and most likely militarily ineffective missile-defense system in Central Europe would be in America's interest has never been clear. And when it comes to Israel, Obama wasn't willfully lashing out, but responding to a sharp provocation, the latest in a series of contumelious gestures toward him and his presidency. Obama didn't create the crisis; he responded to it forcefully.

In short, Obama is no pushover. Nor is his foreign-policy team. Which is why Kagan II is nearer to the mark than Kagan I. Obama, you could say, has embarked upon his own project for a new American century.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.