Obama has demoted liberty
October 3rd, 2013
08:56 AM ET

Obama has demoted liberty

By Will Marshall, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.

President Barack Obama has demoted liberty and democracy as primary U.S. foreign policy goals, at least where the Middle East is concerned.  So the president informed the world in his address to the United Nations last week.

Obama said four “core interests” would henceforth guide U.S. policy toward the Middle East and North Africa: protecting our allies, ensuring the flow of oil, fighting anti-American terrorists, and preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction. While he said U.S. efforts to “promote democracy, human rights, and open markets” will continue, they are now relegated explicitly to the second tier of U.S. interests.

Not so fast Mr. President. Shouldn’t Democrats at least be questioning Obama’s logic, if not raising objections?  After all, the president’s embrace of realpolitik is at odds with the party’s liberal internationalist outlook, which on balance has served America and the world well for seven decades. And it collides with America’s strategic interest in banking the fires of political violence and extremism in the world’s most turbulent region.

Since he took office, Obama has displayed deep ambivalence about using U.S. power to advance the nation’s liberal ideals. Early on, he was at pains to distance himself from George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” which unwisely conflated U.S. support for democracy with military intervention.  In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress the new administration’s foreign policy would revolve around diplomacy, defense, and development, pointedly omitting a fourth “D” – democracy.

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But on other occasions Obama has sounded more like his Democratic predecessors in affirming America’s unapologetic support for liberal democracy around the world. Here’s what he told the U.N. General Assembly back in 2010:

“Yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty; that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply, democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens.”

Now the president seems at last to have resolved his long-running argument with himself in favor of foreign policy “realism” over liberalism. He sounded less like Harry Truman, John Kennedy or Bill Clinton, and more like George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Even as communism was imploding in the late 1980s, Bush and Scowcroft showed more concern about “stability” than aiding the captive peoples rising up for freedom across the Soviet bloc. And after the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, Bush – in what many observers considered indecent haste – dispatched Scowcroft to Beijing lest the Chinese government feel “isolated.”

Offering his own example of realism, Obama vowed to maintain a “constructive relationship” with the Egyptian military junta, despite its disregard for niceties like elections and its bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. “Our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point: the United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests,” Obama said.

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But that has always been the case, and until the millennium of universal democracy arrives it always will. The real question is how to strike the right balance between securing the cooperation of autocrats on “hard” national interests while siding with their subjects’ aspirations for liberty and a say in how they are governed. Otherwise, we’ll earn the enmity of oppressed peoples everywhere and squander the moral authority on which America’s “soft power” rests. For an extreme example, look at Iran’s Islamic Republic, for which anti-Americanism is a foundational principle.

Now Obama wants to test President Hassan Rouhani’s professed desire to negotiate an end to the nuclear confrontation, and hastens to reassure Iran that the United States is not interested in “regime change.” But what happens if talks collapse again, or simply buy time for Iran to enrich enough uranium to make nuclear bombs? Over the long-term, our best hope for better relations with Iran rest on internal political change that gives rise to a more representative and less outwardly aggressive government.

Likewise with what Obama described as America’s other top Middle East priority, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel can’t be expected to negotiate a settlement with a Palestinian community split in two camps, one of which denies its right to exist. Until Palestinians can compose their differences and form a unitary and, one hopes, secular and representative government, Israel has no partner for peace.

It’s not surprising that President Obama wants to limit U.S. exposure in the Middle East. Americans are deeply frustrated by the meager results of our costly military interventions there, by the “Arab Spring’s” dispiriting descent into chaos and despotism, and by nihilistic violence against (mostly Muslim) civilians perpetrated by Islamist fanatics. As the president says, we are tired too of the credulous conspiracy-mongering that alternately blames us for causing or failing to fix the region’s problems.

But such is the lot of a superpower.  In any case, it makes little sense for Washington to ignore or downgrade the “values dimension” of American power.  Like Europe a century ago, the broad Muslim crescent from Afghanistan to Morocco is convulsed by ethnic, religious and national feuds. It is hatching virulent ideological rivalries and most of its governments lack solid foundations of political legitimacy. (Hereditary monarchies seem the most stable).

It is foolish to imagine that in today’s interconnected world we can quarantine the region, tending only to a few “hard” security interests while praying that its upheavals won’t spillover and affect us. We thought the same thing about Europe a century ago, and it took two calamitous hot wars and the Cold War to finally pacify that region.

Obama is right that the United States ought to be humble about our ability to shape events in the Middle East. But we should always throw America’s weight behind popular hopes for greater economic and political freedom. And for democracy too, because as a means of sharing power, enabling compromises and trade-offs, and managing social pluralism, it’s the only plausible alternative to the region’s zero-sum politics of guns, rockets and car-bombs.

That’s why this is exactly the wrong time for America – and especially for a Democratic president – to give up on liberal democracy.

Post by:
Topics: Barack Obama • Middle East

soundoff (93 Responses)
  1. us_1776

    Liberating the world is a worthy cause.

    But the last 33 years we've overspent on liberating other nations.

    Now we are going to focus on liberating our own citizens from the grip of GREED.


    October 3, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
  2. mickinmd

    "U.S. efforts to “promote democracy, human rights, and open markets” will continue, they are now relegated explicitly to the second tier of U.S. interests."

    NOW relegated. NOW? You mean when past Presidents back through FDR backed the absolute ruler of Saudi Arabia, democracy was in the 1st tier then. When the USA helped overthrow the democratic government of Iran in 1953 and installed the Shah, another absolute monarch, in 1953, democracy was in the 1st tier then?

    I could go on and on. This article isn't well thought out!

    October 3, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Patrick

      I couldn't agree with you more. You're right on point

      October 4, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  3. Jerry

    The Campaigner/Golfer/Liar/Fear Mongerer? (etc., etc., etc.)-in-Chief (Obama) and his equally clueless administration have no REAL plans for anything, either foreign or domestic! They try to make it as they go along. During the last five years, América has become the laughing stock of the world.

    Now, now, who is really holding the country hostage and being disrespectful to women?! Hint, hint. (It's NOT the Republicans.)

    Obama, thank you; but no thank you!!!

    Oops! Sorry. I forgot it's still ALL Bush's fault...

    October 4, 2013 at 1:14 am |
    • paulii

      You seem not to have made any point here other than that you listen to AM radio. Have a cup of tea and think it over.

      October 4, 2013 at 3:05 am |
    • Flappy

      OMG the president plays Golf? Unforgivable.

      October 5, 2013 at 10:25 am |
      • chris

        The reference is to the 146 (and counting ) times this president has played golf during his years in 58 months in office. I know many many avid golfers, none of which have played anything close to that rate. And those are retired, semi-retired or single with simple jobs.

        Just do your own homework and look at where this president spends his time (golf, family vacation around the world) while supposedly fighting for the little guy. You tell me how many american have taken their family to hawaii (multple times), Kenya, Spain, London, Italy, Malaysia, China, (and the list goes on). All on the tab of the american tax payer (malia and sasha are often listed as "american representatives" so the Obama's don't have to pay the trip.

        WHat more could you expect from a President who appointed an known tax evader in charge of the treasury.


        October 7, 2013 at 1:25 am |
    • Daniel Daronda

      Jerry, you sound like that typical "Tea Party" loser, who watches Fox News 24×7, has way too many green & red tattoos all over his body, does quite a few drugs on the side, including making meth in your own kitchen, has not held down a job in 10 years, has not much education to speak of, is scared & insecure that a so-called "black man" is President (even though he is half white!) and has now shut down the Government because everything is Obama's fault!!! Go get a real education before you make silly comments in public forums, you nitwit....... 🙁

      October 7, 2013 at 12:45 am |
  4. Roland

    The U.S. only supports democracy where it conforms with U.S.(geo strategic,corporate) interests.The Middle East region has so many dictators because the U.S. either placed them there or supports them with money and weapons.Obama is not different from other U.S. presidents in the general outline of U.S. foreign policy.So he allowed the Saudi's to crush a democracy uprising in Bahrain a tiny oil dictatorship home to a U.S. naval base , but it supports democracy uprisings in Syria that has a dictator that doesn't take orders from Washington.The first Gulf war was supposedly about "liberating" Kuwait but the U.S. re-installed the previous dictator.U.S. interventions in WW1 and WW2 were to halt the advance of communism.U.S. first enters WW1 just after the Russian revolution,and it enters WW2 after it becomes clear the Soviets would defeat Nazi Germany.The cold war is one massacre after another , installing dictators and arming death squads.If I were an American I would concern myself first and foremost with the state of democracy in the U.S. itself where public opinion gets ignored in favor of the interests of capital concentrations.Take for example universal healthcare,polls have shown overwhelming support for it for decades,but only a very limited reform is allowed,the public option was quickly abandoned by Obama when lobbied by the healthcare industry now Obamacare does not hurt their profits but increases them.It would not have become an issue if manufacturing industry had not demanded reform.It is cheaper for GM to build cars in Canada then the U.S. because of healthcare cost.

    October 4, 2013 at 4:36 am |
  5. Tigerflower

    The author of this article needs to take a few anthropology classes because he really doesn't get it. To accomplish his priorities we'd have to go into every last county on earth, take over, and enforce our US values and way of life for a few generations. And they still might decide to keep what they had to begin with. Not everyone shares our values and ideologies. About the best we can hope for is the stability he mentioned and over time better treatment of women and dissenters.

    October 4, 2013 at 6:36 am |
  6. copperhead

    Mr. Obama is under the delusion that his bad policies are going to remain in place forever. He is only in power, (but never accountable or responsible ) until the end of his term, then the next President will do what they want.

    October 4, 2013 at 9:21 am |
    • vistar hornbill

      Everyone seems to have forgottent that Pres Obama inherited an enormous debt of US$15 trillion from Bush Jr's Government. This national debt would take at least 20 years to resolve.

      Where's the accountability?

      Why isn't Bush Jr called up to explain that amazing squander?

      October 4, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
    • ✠RZ✠

      And therein lies the problem. In a truly functioning democracy the torch should be proudly and openly passed from one president to the next and carried forward with the same confidence, honour, and conviction to stand up strongly for and by the people..... Good God! What country were we talking about here?!?

      October 6, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  7. hifly3r

    So the Left complains on and on about how bad America has dealt with dictators since WWII, and yet, when their enlightened leader gets the chance, he does the exact same thing. Only there is no excuse now that we are fighting an agressive, corrupt, global rival. Obama could not muster any support for the Iranian moderates, was fine with the intolerant and undemocratic policies of Morsi in Egypt, and won't do a damn thing to help the Syrians even though they were gassed. Bush's attempts to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, were basically liberal ideas. Welfare for entire societies. That is why they both failed.

    October 4, 2013 at 9:31 am |
  8. John

    USA can win, with the right alliance partners. Trust the NATO alliance, in particular, Great Britain, Italy, France, Turkey and we could move on, to a more peaceful and prosperous world.

    October 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Quigley

      On the other hand, John, the U.S. by "liberating" these countries in the Middle East has turned that part of the world into a far worse nightmare than it found it. Are you really serious about what you posted above, or are you trying to be funny? Either way, your post is senseless!

      October 4, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  9. chiz3914

    Look at how great Iraq is doing after spreading liberty there

    October 4, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  10. jamesdickason

    And this surprises anyone about Obama–He's a disaster-

    October 4, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  11. Raj

    The thing is, these folks are trying to make it sound like Obama is making extraordinary steps in the opposite direction from where past Presidents have gone. The United States has NEVER been a glorious beacon of anti-imperialism and liberation. From annihilating the Amerindians to overthrowing democratically elected regimes for puppets states, the U.S. has done it all. Now, you've got more media coverage of this crap and suddenly more people are realizing that even the popstar President isn't immune to making those cloak and dagger decisions that have been going on for generations.

    October 5, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • Daniel daronda

      What an awesome comment........... you have absolutely "nailed it" my friend............ 🙂 I visited the "Native American Museum" in South Dakota recently, and was shocked beyond imagination to learn about exactly how these "Anglos" murdered the Native Americans and brazenly stole their land, the ENITRE Continent of North America, while shoving the "natives" that survived, onto "Reservations".......... yes, these people of European descent are by far the biggest murderers and thieves on our Planet, the biggest terrorists, by a factor of x1000, when compared to our modern day Islamists............ and the "guy" in the White House, no matter what his race, has no choice but to continue this "game" of Let's screw over everybody else, so that we can stay "king of the mountain".......... 🙁 Obama, because he is "half black" is doing a much better job, due to his more balanced view of the fact that "the world is made up of people of ALL races, not just white people", than ANY President before him...........

      October 5, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  12. Dallas

    I'm as free as I've ever been because I wont listen to a darn thing he says. EVER. He just don't matter. Only the weak would follow a tyrant.

    October 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  13. RCDC

    I just can't figure out if he is a good thinker anymore...There's my one cent.

    October 6, 2013 at 12:39 am |
  14. ✠RZ✠

    Securing a position is smart. Pushing an ideology is usually viewed upon as arrogant. And if I might allude to a John Steinbeck novel, trying to promote your ways might be likened to putting a vacuum cleaner in a household that has no electricity.

    October 6, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  15. John Culley

    President Obama promotes democratic centralism!

    October 7, 2013 at 8:29 am |
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    October 7, 2013 at 9:43 am |
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