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Style And Substance

Andrew Bacevich reminds us that Obama has not made any moves to change or challenge the consensus on national security:

What the president is doing and saying matters less than what he has not done. The sins of omission are telling: There is no indication that Obama will pose basic questions about the purpose of the US military; on the contrary, he has implicitly endorsed the proposition that keeping America safe is best accomplished by maintaining in instant readiness forces geared up to punish distant adversaries or invade distant countries. Nor is there any indication that Obama intends to shrink the military’s global footprint or curb the appetite for intervention that has become a signature of US policy. Despite lip service to the wonders of soft power, Pentagon spending, which exploded during the Bush era, continues to increase.

The recent back-and-forth over Obama’s actions in Trinidad has caused many observers to mistake the shift in tone, important as that can be, for something more significant. Prof. Bacevich reminds us that on many of the most important questions Obama is largely indistinguishable from many of his current critics. I might go so far as to say that the summit in Trinidad, like many of the earlier summit meetings this year, was almost entirely unremarkable, except that Obama’s opponents on the mainstream right showed how ready they are to lash out at any gesture or move, however meaningless and harmless in itself, and declare it proof of Obama’s naivete, weakness, folly, etc.

Even though Obama does not question “global power projection, global military presence, and global activism,” and probably could never have won election had he done so, it is imperative for these critics to use any perceived blunder to claim that America is somehow “losing ground.” It doesn’t matter whether these criticisms make sense (for the most part, they don’t), and it doesn’t matter that no one can actually point to any “ground” being lost. What does matter is that Obama’s shift in tone be made far more important in the public’s mind than his support for continuity in overall U.S. foreign policy. This way, should anything go awry during Obama’s tenure, any failures will be pinned on the relatively trivial stylistic changes rather than on the misguided hegemonism that Obama’s critics champion even more than he does.

It is interesting that the mainstream right has “rediscovered” their opposition to excessive spending and exploding deficits, and quite a few have once again learned to fear and loathe expansive executive power, at least when it comes to economic policy, and suddenly talking about the inviolability of the Constitution is very much in vogue again, but on national security matters the script remains the same and there is no hint of any opportunistic “rediscoveries” of principle. One might have thought that the brief blip of realism and skepticism of U.S. hegemony that appeared on much of the right in the ’90s would reappear now, if only for partisan purposes, but what we have been seeing instead is something like the Republican shift in foreign policy from a mostly neutralist stance in the ’30s to the predominantly global anticommunist “rollback” position of the ’50s and ’60s.

Of course, if we took this comparison too seriously, it would greatly exaggerate how non-interventionist the right was in the ’90s, but the movement is in the same direction towards support of “global power projection, global military presence, and global activism” since the end of the Cold War and obviously this accelerated in the last eight or ten years. For some reason, most of the mainstream right keeps falling into the habit of embracing “global power projection, global military presence, and global activism” and movement conservatives have been, for the most part, among the most zealous advocates of all three. This has been the pattern for so long that it is almost as if they no longer know how to respond to the heirs of the Old Right, much less would they know how to adopt their arguments to criticize an activist foreign policy directed by left-liberals. This helps to make clear that post-Cold War administrations may come and go, other economic and political principles may be compromised as needed, but misguided, excessive hawkishness and nationalistic bluster are constants on the mainstream right through the decades.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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