Herbert London: Obama's Ship of State Without a Helmsman

Oct 24, 2012

This presidential campaign season is a time for clarification. If campaigns have any value over and above the megaphone effect of why one candidate is more desirable than the other, it is the chance to use a campaign as an educational forum. From my perspective, even silence or ambiguity can be revealing. In this season, President Obama has indicated the threat and direction of American foreign policy through ellipses.

If the foreign policy of this administration can be described in one word, it would be “drift.” Should one parse the president’s campaign statements about foreign policy, only obscurity emerges. For example, what is the American policy in Libya? Why wasn’t the embassy reinforced when requests for such action was made? At what point will the Iranian nuclear program be unacceptable? Why isn’t aid to Egypt contingent on behavior this government considers acceptable? The questions beg for answers that are not forthcoming.

Fedrick Nietzche offered an explanation for this lack of responsiveness. He wrote, “Those who know they are deep strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity.” Is President Obama without depth, yet appealing to the masses? Is substance a casualty of indecisiveness?

Surely what one might assume is a decisive vision of the president’s foreign policy position. That vision may not be consensual; in fact, it may be divisive, but at least the public would know where the Obama team stands.

During the Civil War when President Lincoln was disconsolate about the state of Union forces, he turned to his minister for counsel. The minister told the president to turn to the Bible for solace. Lincoln did so. And there in the Book of Proverbs, he found the words that offered hope and inspiration: “When there is no vision, a people perish.” President Lincoln realized he had to provide that vision. It wasn’t enough to defeat Confederate forces, he had to limn a philosophical picture for the soon-to-be united nation.

In a sense, the same condition exists at the moment. Another president, Thomas Jefferson, echoed Lincoln’s sentiment years earlier when he said “… the spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor.” Alas, how does this republic maintain its vigor when all one encounters is drift, a predictable distance from clarity and public understanding?

Recognizing the failure – or should I call it a lapse? – is not easy. Leaders are wedded to positions, false or true, good or bad. History is replete with reverential assertions. “ I believe it, ergo it must be true.”

Yet another humanist from the past provides insight into this phenomenon. Leo Tolstoy writing in the nineteenth century noted, “I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

Does President Obama suffer from the persistence of false conclusions? After all, he did infer the U.S. was (is) a neo colonial state. He did engage in an apology tour across the globe for what he described as the “excesses” of American foreign policy. Yet aside from the apologies, there does not seem to be the articulation of a pathway to the future. Drift is not an answer since in drift one is a captive of historical influences over which there isn’t control. A great power cannot be put in a turbulent sea without a rudder.

This foreign policy picture presented by President Obama hasn’t any texture. Despite all the hyperbole and rapid fire responses to questions and assertions, it is illuminating that the president has been unable to offer any guidance on American foreign interests, the defense of global freedom or how we should steer the ship of state.

Herbert London is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

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