Thursday, August 28th, 2014, will go down as one of those rare moments when a President of the United States admitted publicly that the United States didn’t know how to deal with a major foreign policy crisis. When President Obama declared, “we don’t have a strategy yet” to confront ISIS, he was merely admitting what his Administration’s actions, or lack thereof, had made obvious.
Every President has to deal with a chaotic world that often seems focused on wrecking havoc on America’s self-interest. Presidents fail at foreign policy objectives more frequently than they succeed. Yet rarely have we seen a President so openly struggle with a declaration of American purpose and goals. Some of this is undoubtedly due to President Obama’s personality and the reluctance he shows in leading on many issues, foreign and domestic. But for the first time since JFK, we have a President who is not a product of the Cold War era—and the ramifications of that are profound.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’ve elected three Presidents. Clinton and George W. Bush were classic post-war baby boomers with a worldview formed by the Cold - and hot - Wars against communism. They were old enough to know “duck and cover” drills in schools and the formative figures of their political lives were key players in the Cold War era: President H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Senator Fulbright of Arkansas. Both stumbled in their first presidential campaigns over issues of their service, or lack thereof, in the fight against communism.
Born in 1961, Barack Obama is our first president since JFK whose worldview was shaped in a non-Cold War crucible. Barack Obama never had to register for the draft and his seminal political experience were protests against apartheid, not the Vietnam War. “My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College,” he said in Senegal, on his 2013 trip to Africa. “As a 19-year-old, I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement back in 1979, 1980, because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.”
At Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, the President reflected on how his involvement in anti-apartheid protests moment “ set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.” Obama was drawn to and defined by causes of “social justice” in which nonviolence and appeals to decency were more than good intentions—they were effective tools. (The more violent aspect of the anti-apartheid movement was, safe to say, largely lost on Occidental College protestors.)
The language of the Cold War era dominated our politics for decades, giving politicians short hand clues to express a worldview clearly understood by their intended audience. When Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” he was encapsulating the dominant theme of post-World War American foreign policy: Peace Through Strength. One could agree or disagree with him, but Reagan was drawing on a clear set of assumptions of how the world worked.
These moral and strategic assumptions continued into the Bush 43 era even as the geopolitical landscape shifted. For Reagan the “evil empire” was the Soviet Union; for George W. Bush, there was an “axis of Evil.” The countries changed but evil was still evil. And by pronouncing other cultures and political systems “evil,” there was the assurance that America was good. Our goodness was defined, in part, by our willingness to confront evil abroad backed by military force.
As a post-Cold War figure who matured through “movements,” Barack Obama is drawing from a distinct tradition. He is clearly more comfortable talking about “justice” than “evil.” The “oppressed” to him are much more likely to be victims of society’s prejudice than communism. Some on the right argue that Barack Obama rejects the concept of America as a force for good but I think that’s a misjudgment. It’s more that he defaults to a fundamentally different test than his predecessors.
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