Is President Obama Stuck in the 80s?

There’s a theme I’ve heard sounded occasionally that I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more of over the period of the next two years. Basically, it’s something to the effect that President Obama has adopted, uncritically, every left-wing idea that was floating around when he was in college. The latest example of this theme is in Jackson Diehl’s column in the Washington Post:

So has nothing changed in the past quarter-century? In fact, almost everything has – especially when it comes to nuclear arms control and Israel’s national objectives. What hasn’t changed, it seems, is Barack Obama – who has led his administration into a foreign policy time warp that is sapping its strength abroad and at home.

Start with the New START treaty that Obama has made a priority for the lame-duck Senate, at a time when Americans don’t yet know what income tax rate they will pay on Jan. 1. The treaty resembles the landmark U.S.-Soviet arms control treaties that were negotiated in the years after Obama wrote his article – and it would perpetuate their important verification measures.

The difference is that no one stages marches today about U.S. and Soviet – now Russian – strategic weapons, and with good reason. The danger of a war between the two states is minuscule; and treaty or no, Russia’s arsenal is very likely to dwindle in the coming years. The threat of nuclear weapons now comes from rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and Syria, and maybe from terrorist organizations. Obama believes that U.S.-Russian treaties will lead to better containment of that threat – but that’s at best an indirect benefit.

He continues by similarly characterizing the Administration’s interests in stopping Israeli construction on the West Bank and Jerusalem:

The same might be said about Obama’s preoccupation with stopping Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem – a campaign that even Palestinian and Arab leaders have watched with bafflement. True, almost everyone outside Israel regards the construction as counterproductive, and only a minority supports it inside Israel.

But that is just the point: The dream of a “greater Israel” died more than 15 years ago. Even the Israeli right now accepts that a Palestinian state will be created in the West Bank. The settlements have become a sideshow; the real issues concern how to create a Palestinian state in a Middle East where the greatest threat is not Israeli but Iranian expansionism. What to do about Hamas and Hezbollah and their Iranian-supplied weapons? How to ensure that the post-occupation West Bank does not become another Iranian base? Those issues did not exist in 1983 – and the Obama administration seems to have no strategy for them.

The reason for the president’s interest in Russian nuclear disarmament and in stopping Israeli construction is because nuclear disarmament and the Israeli-Palestinian problems are persistent problems that continue to present direct national security threats to us right down to this day.

There is no more important bilateral relationship in the world today than that between the United States and Russia. The reason is simple: we are the only two nations with the capability of destroying the world. Neither North Korea nor Syria nor Iran pose nearly as a direct problem to us as the prospect of loose Russian nukes. The surest way of preventing Russian military equipment and materials from falling into the hands of those who would do us harm is for the Russians to dispose of them in a certain, scheduled, verifiable way. To do that the Russians will inevitably demand that we do the same. Hence, START.

Even though the contours of the Israeli-Palestinian problem may have changed over the last 30 years the problem remains, thorny as ever, and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future. I think that the broader security implications are largely a pretext. I don’t believe that the Arab Middle East will love us any better if the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians were magically resolved (presumably by causing one or the other of the parties to vanish from the face of the earth).

But it’s been asserted as a primary cause by everybody from Osama bin Laden to John Kerry. Consequently, the attention isn’t completely unwarranted.

I don’t know whether the rap against the president, that his views were forged during his college days and haven’t changed a good deal since, is a good one or a bad one. I do think that Mr. Diehl’s criticism of the president for appearing to be more interested in intractable foreign policy dilemmas than in (probably similarly intractable) domestic economic ones is a promising avenue of political attack and President Obama.

Is he a prisoner of the 80s? Aren’t we all? Nearly every major problem that faces us today has its roots in the past. We’ve solved the easy ones. It’s the wicked problems that continue to bedevil us.

5 comments… add one
  • john personna Link

    There is a counter-meme that ‘Obama is a “captive of right-wing mythology”‘

  • steve Link

    This whole fuss over NEW START really bugs me. Our relationship with Russia is a big deal. Nukes are a big deal. Ultimately, the POTUS has limited ability to affect the domestic economy. He has great opportunity to affect foreign policy issues.


  • Brett Link

    He has great opportunity to affect foreign policy issues.

    That’s the thing – he has done all that he can do in his position as President. In both the Israel-Palestine issue and the START issue, Congress is the main impediment.

  • I don’t understand the GoP opposition to START. I guess they’re not living in the 1980’s despite the constant Reagan hagiography.

  • Russia and the United States are the most powerful players on the geopolitical chessboard and the relationship between these two countries as well as their cooperation are essential in the process of building a world without nuclear threat. To prevent attacks similar to those carried out recently in South Korea it is inevitable to bring the US and Russia to the same table and the return to six party talks can become a reality.

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