Sunday, July 12, 2009

President Obama, Unintended Messages, and the Real Liberal Alternative (with a surprise ending)

By Barry Rubin

Let me contrast three things. First, what President Barack Obama says. Second, the unintended message this conveys to the world. Third, what a U.S. president should say

1. Leadership

A. Obama Says: We are really sorry that the United States has been too bossy in the past. We were unilateralist, aggressive, often oppressive, and haven’t listened enough to others.

B. Unintended Message: Don’t look to us for leadership in the future. We’re just one of the gang. So how can we complain if you ignore our interests or don’t listen to us? That’s what we’re asking you to do! And how can we take the lead, as you will remind me of what I, myself, said and know there will be no cost for defying the United States.

C. A proper president should say: In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility -- I welcome it. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

2. Power

A. Obama Says: The United States has been wrong in using force in the past and in interfering in others affairs. We have sinned. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Or, rather, George Bush maxima culpa.

B. Unintended message: So we won’t do so in future. Don’t worry about us attacking you no matter what you do. Break all your commitments and fire off missiles (North Korea) and we will “urge” you to behave. Send pirates to terrorize shipping and we will avoid doing anything if at all possible. Send terrorists into Iraq to kill American soldiers (as Syria does) and we’ll send you back our ambassador. Send your officials into Iraq to direct the war against us and we’ll let them go and invite you to our Independence Day party. Steal an election and repress your own people and we will—if you push hard enough—bear witness. Try to take dictatorial powers and repress your own people (Honduras) and we will side against you.

C. A proper president would say: Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

3. America

A. Obama says: Our system has lots of problems; our democracy is flawed.

B. Unintended Message: So don’t look at us for a model. Find someone else. Perhaps some other system entirely? How about Islamism or dictatorship? Who are we to tell others what to do when we cannot even get our house in order?

C. A proper president should say: We are proud of having played a pivotal role in solving, and trying to solve, the great political and human problems of our time. The struggle for democracy and freedom against the forces of dictatorship and repression. The battle to provide human beings at home and abroad better lives. Have we made mistakes? Of course we have. But rather than waste time moaning and apologizing we have fixed those mistakes to the best of our ability and at the greatest possible speed. We will never fail to hear and respect the advice of friends, and we will never fail to hear the threats of foes.

4. Change

A. Obama says: Yes, we can; yes, you can. Yes, everyone can. Except the Muslim world which already did everything right pretty much.

B. Unintended message: Well, that’s sort of inspiring. And if you send me to an expensive private school in Hawaii, let me into Harvard though I don’t meet the standards, and hand me a Senate seat because I’m the front guy for the local political machine, I can succeed, too. But if this guy thinks we can will away all our material problems and those trying to crush us as dictators or revolutionary demagogues or simply the burden of history, he’s na├»ve at best.

C. A proper president says: The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe -- the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

5. Dealing with friends

A. Obama says: I hope you like the CDs, Mr. Prime Minister, and here’s your bust of Churchill back. And as for you, freeze all construction!

B. Unintended message: This guy is nicer to his enemies than to his friends.

C. A proper president says: To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do -- for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

6. Dealing with Enemies

A. Obama Says: Engaging with enemies is our top priority.

B. Unintended message: This guy is lying, a sucker, or weak.

C. A proper president would say: To those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.

We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.


Yes, extra credit for noticing that all the quotes in C—except 3C which I wrote before I reread the real speech—come from President John F. Kennedy’s January 20, 1961, inaugural speech.

[And if you are the kind of person who would think of this issue right away, note that Kennedy had decided to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Vietnam.]

Kennedy was, of course, a liberal and a Democrat and his approach should remind us of what those two words have traditionally meant, before being reinterpreted recently to mean something else entirely.

And as was once said in a different context: I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine….You're no Jack Kennedy."

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