The Berlin Missionary
Democrats and star-struck adulators will remember Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin as something more than it actually was. “By this foreign policy speech will future ones be measured,” declared dKos editor Tim Lee Lange, and, well — not really. The truth is that the definitive statement on the speech is probably Jim Geraghty’s: he acknowledged that “[t]here was not a ton to object to, and indeed a lot to like,” and then challenged his readers to see whether they could distinguish its rhetoric from that of We Are the World. You can’t, and that’s the point. Barack Obama’s celebrity appeal is not (contrary to what he appears to believe) fueled wholly by his innate qualities: the elements of desperation and projection, powerfully amplified by his comparative lack of public accomplishment, build him into the apparent juggernaut — and thus enable him to travel to Berlin, deliver a thoroughly pedestrian speech, and receive adoration for it.
What Barack Obama’s partisans want to hear less than this — that their candidate’s speech was unremarkable — is that it was very much in the rhetorical tradition of one George W. Bush. In listening to it, the recollection was not of the oft-cited JFK or Ronald Reagan, but of the current President’s Second Inaugural Address. The central themes are quite nearly the same: a wholesale reversal of John Quincy Adams’s formulation of American foreign policy, which stated that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” George W. Bush explicitly rejected this when he proclaimed, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” Barack Obama expressed the same rejection less succinctly:
Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress, to meet the challenges of the 21st century … Now the world will watch and remember what we do here — what we do with this moment. Will we extend our hand to the people in the forgotten corners of this world who yearn for lives marked by dignity and opportunity; by security and justice? Will we lift the child in Bangladesh from poverty, shelter the refugee in Chad, and banish the scourge of AIDS in our time? Will we stand for the human rights of the dissident in Burma, the blogger in Iran, or the voter in Zimbabwe? Will we give meaning to the words ‘never again’ in Darfur?
The implied answer to each query: under President Obama, yes we will!
If George W. Bush and Barack Obama share the same conceptual view of America-in-the-world as an active exporter of values and mores, it does not follow that they are the same in their particulars. (The President, mercifully, never inflicted upon us pseudo-scientific whoppers such as, “As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya.” Question: will some alert member of the press corps ask Obama to identify and travel to the inch of Atlantic coastline that “cars in Boston and factories in Beijing” shrunk?) Nonetheless, it is tremendously important to understand that their differences are fundamentally those of process, not premise.
Again, this is not what Obama supporters want to hear — nor, I suspect, is it what the President’s ever-shrinking fan club wants to hear. The group that loves the one generally loathes the other. There are good reasons for this, but we increasingly see that the basic vision of America’s place in the world is not one of them. The specific differences matter, but can we argue that one is fundamentally worse than the other? With Iraq still at war (however improved that war is), with Osama bin Laden still free, with the Taliban resurgent, with the Iranian nuclear program going strong, with Hamas in possession of a de facto state, with Hezbollah ascendent, and with Pakistan still unstable, is there a case to be made that the vapid platitudes that undergird Barack Obama’s foreign-policy program are qualitatively worse than the vapid platitudes that informed most of George W. Bush’s?
In the end, they share the most vapid platitude of all: that America’s mission in the world is to, well, “lift the child in Bangladesh from poverty.” We’re a long way from the United States’s former mission — you know, the one compelling it to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” America’s engagement in the world after 1945 used to be justified and justifiable on those terms, and every postwar president till now more or less grasped this. George W. Bush decisively changed that, and the question was whether his re-orientation of America’s raison d’etre was unique to him, or a lasting shift in foundations of American policy. With Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin today, we know the terrible answer.