The Ruthlessness of Barack Obama

May 2, 2012 Topic: The Presidency Region: United States Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

The Ruthlessness of Barack Obama

Obama has reinvented the Democratic party's approach to foreign policy. Will the GOP follow suit?


Can anyone doubt that the blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng, who apparently says that he feels a "little" lied to by American embassy officials in Beijing, was, more or less, hustled out and dumped into a hospital before he could further disrupt Chinese-American relations, especially with high-level meetings coming up between Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts? American ambassador Gary Locke says Chen wasn't encouraged to leave. But that denials are needed is itself telling, and the brouhaha over Chen shows few signs of dying down as he now seems to be indicating that he would like to request asylum in America.

But as tensions rise with China over Chen's fate, that's the last thing Obama wants to provide. If any episode crystallizes the ruthlessness of President Obama, it should be this one. Even as the GOP tries to depict him as an impotent president—and as Mitt Romney's campaign is mired in an ugly controversy over the sudden resignation of a gay foreign-policy aide named Richard Grenell who was being hounded by the Christian Right—he is acting more ruthlessly and decisively than almost any American president in recent memory, including George W. Bush.


Obama gives off every sign of taking coldly antiseptic positions in foreign affairs. Again and again, Obama has dismissed the notion that he should get involved in the internal affairs of other countries. The Arab Spring? He viewed it with caution. Libya? He tried to lead from behind. Syria? He wants nothing to do with it.

This approach might be called Obama's neo-Kissingerianism. Neocons and much of the Right view Obama's stances as abhorrent. It's immoral realpolitik. Obama is jettisoning the values that Americans should uphold. It can, for example, be safely assumed that a chorus of indignation will be directed at Obama for having abandoned Chen in his greatest moment of peril. Here is Jennifer Rubin lambasting what she views as Obama's abandonment of Chen in the Washington Post:

This is par for the course—it is the same jumble of incompetence, naivete and timidity that characerizes the Obama foreign policy.

Wrong. There is nothing naive or timid about the administration's approach. If anything, it appears to be coldly calculating. The administration wanted to divest itself of a problem and thought it was perhaps carving out a deal that would allow Chen to live safely in China. The "agreement" it struck with China may not be as weak as commonly assumed, though it could also prove entirely pyrrhic. If Chinese security forces were to attack Chen or his family, the country would suffer a public-relations disaster abroad. Still, once the hubbub dies down, Chen will likely be at the mercy of Chinese officials.  In any case, Obama—and Clinton—gave every sign of trying to wriggle out of the Chen affair with as little publicity as possible. Instead of seizing upon it to upbraid the Chinese, they soft-pedaled it, barely acknowledging that he was even residing in the American embassy in Beijing.

In short, this episode supplies some important clues to Obama's more general approach to foreign affairs, particularly in an election year. The China hawks will complain that Obama is too complaisant in dealing with Beijing, but he is trying to rely on diplomacy rather than threats in dealing with what amounts to America's principal creditor nation. What the hawks also forget is that China's more bellicose actions on human rights are not a sign of strength but internal infirmity. This is not a confident authoritarian regime but one assailed by insecurity. Obama appears to recognize that.

At the same time, Obama is playing up the unilateral actions he has taken to protect American security by ordering military action, whether it is the drone program or his taking out of Osama bin Laden. In mocking Romney's bin Laden tergiversations—he was against chasing the al-Qaeda leader before he was for it—Obama, along with Bill Clinton, who takes a starring turn in a video lauding the president's heroism, is turning the tables on the GOP. He's depicting Romney, to borrow Rubin's language, as a hopeless jumble of incompetence, naivete and timidity—an indecisive weakling.

Is this politicizing foreign affairs? Of course it is. But there is a long tradition of it, and there is probably no reason foreign policy should be any more immune to politics than any other sphere of government. So now it's the GOP's turn to whine, as Democrats once did about Bush, that he's treating them unfairly. Obama's actions should put the GOP on notice. The truculent playbook that it has employed for the past several decades—and that Karl Rove, writing in Foreign Policy, recommended it turn to again to depict Obama as dangerously soft—is in tatters as the president reveals himself to be a very hard man indeed, what Peter Bergen even deems to be a "warrior in chief," though this may soft-pedal Obama's caution when it comes to Iran and China. If this keeps up, Obama may even start speaking about foreign affairs with a German accent.