Although I’ve usually benefited from reading Tom Sowell, his recent syndicated column “Obama hides his ideology” leaves much to be desired. According to Sowell, “Obama’s ideology is an ideology of envy, resentment, and payback,” and nowhere is this supposedly more evident than in his conduct of foreign affairs. Driven by “a vision of the Haves versus the Have Nots,” the former community organizer elected to the presidency happily insults those countries he views as privileged: “He flew to Moscow, shortly after taking office, to renege on the American commitment to put a missile shield in Eastern Europe, in hopes of getting a deal with the Russians.” He also treats Israel as “one of the Haves” and has decided that “Israel is not simply to have its interests sacrificed and its security undermined. It is to be brought down a peg and—to the extent politically possible—insulted.” Obama even “downplays” “visits to the White House by the prime minister of Britain, our oldest and staunchest ally.” He constantly “curries favor with our enemies” while spurning our friends.
One can easily read into Sowell’s complaints a recent polemic by AEI publicist Dinesh D’Souza, depicting Obama as the resentful son of a Kenyan revolutionary who inherited his father’s hatred for English colonialism. Consumed by anti-colonial feelings, Obama treats the English passive-aggressively and insults the Israelis, who are running a democracy in the Anglo-American tradition. This theory explains nothing at all. Many of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, whether good or bad, are not specifically anti-Western or necessarily leftist. They are in fact popular on the non-neoconservative Right, for example, with Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and such maverick conservative publications as the American Conservative and the Taki’s Magazine website.
Although the Bush Two administration supported the Israeli nationalist Right, the Bush One administration under Jim Baker tilted at least as noticeably as Obama toward the Palestinians. Whether or not George H.W. Bush was right in this case, he certainly didn’t take on the American Israeli lobby because of a Kenyan father or his fondness for the “Have Nots.” There is also considerable debate on the right (although not much of it gets into the media) about whether the US should upset the Russians by ringing their country with missiles and establishing alliances with Russia’s “democratic neighbors.” This policy, which seems near and dear to the heart of Mitt Romney, is also popular with Sowell’s colleagues at the Hoover Institute. But it is not the only policy toward Russia that one hears in conservative discourse. Obama’s failure to embrace Romney’s ideas about foreign policy may indicate good sense rather than a vengeful spirit.
Equally questionable is Sowell’s division of humanity into staunch allies and perpetual enemies. One is reminded at this point of Charles de Gaulle’s sober comment that nations have interests rather than permanent friends. Recent GOP rhetoric about England being our best democratic pal, except possibly for the Israelis, differs significantly from the dominant Republican attitudes of the Eisenhower era.
Back then Germany under its widely respected Chancellor Konrad Adenauer went almost overnight from being a pariah into our staunchest if not oldest ally. This friendship seems remarkable given that Ike had fought the Germans in two world wars. Further, our secretary of state John Foster Dulles had written the “war guilt clauses” for the Treaty of Versailles (1919), blaming the Germans exclusively(but counterfactually) for the First World War. But under the impact of the Cold War and the emergence of Germany as a reliable friend, attitudes changed. Even more remarkably another longtime anti-German, de Gaulle, tried to win over the Germans as allies in the 1960s, against the threat of American dominance in Western Europe. Fifty years ago it was still possible to debate foreign policy without engaging in pseudo-psychology.
Sowell’s attack on Obama reflects a widespread fallacy about American political differences. Because Obama stands on the left economically and culturally does not mean that he occupies this spot on other questions. And because the GOP takes positions more favorable to private initiative and more critical of abortion on demand than those of the Democrats does not indicate that Republicans represent “the Right” in international affairs. About thirty years ago advocates of a liberal internationalist foreign policy, moving out of the Democratic Party, got the Republicans to embrace their views. The Democrats continued to pursue the same liberal internationalist course but more reservedly; while the Republicans began to berate the other party for not being sufficiently committed to “human rights” and Israel. But this debate has nothing to do with who’s on the left or on the right. Just about every prominent conservative once opposed “foreign adventures” and thought that we had been tricked into getting into the First World War. By Sowell’s standards, these conservative isolationists were really anti-American left-wingers—perhaps with Kenyan relatives.