The mainstream commentariat can nitpick all it wants about what President Barack Obama achieved or didn’t achieve from the G-20 summit and NATO meetings in Europe last week but the far bigger story is how the First Couple’s visit marked the total repudiation of the neo-conservative foreign policy project. It wasn’t long ago when Donald Rumsfeld was crowing about “New Europe” and Republicans in the House forced the Capitol’s cafeteria to serve “Freedom Fries” instead of French fries.
Talk radio blowhards were even staging events across the country where “patriotic” Americans dumped French wine into the nearest gutter. And these embarrassing antics were because the Bushies were outraged that most of our traditional allies thought invading Iraq was a bad idea.
In 2004, when the American people re-elected George W. Bush — after the claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were proven to be false; after Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; after Falluja and the unleashing of the sectarian bloodbath in Iraq — Who can blame the rest of the world for thinking that Americans had lost their minds?
This backdrop makes the Obamas’ triumphant European tour all the more significant. Finally, after eight long years of a petulant and parochial American foreign policy — articulated by a guy who thought John Bolton would make an awesome United Nations ambassador — finally, at long last, the world has a U.S. president it can talk to and respect.
Recently, the people of the Czech Republic gave a vote of no confidence to their prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, for his botched leadership. Adding to the embarrassment was that it happened to be the Czech Republic’s turn to head the European Union. The collapse of the Czech government, the New York Times pointed out, “cast doubts on Prague’s ability to lead the world’s biggest trading bloc during difficult economic times.”
So much for Rumsfeld’s “New Europe.”
One of Bush’s stupidest foreign policy moves was his decision to sacrifice U.S.-Russian relations on the altar of an ill-conceived “missile-defense” system for the Czech Republic. Bush and Condi Rice repeatedly told the world the insulting lie that the Czech ABM system was designed to counter missiles fired from Iran even though just about everyone knows that the system was aimed at the Russian Federation. Antagonize a giant country armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons in behalf of a rump state of “Czechoslovakia” with no power and little in exchange to offer? Yeah, that was a great idea. (No wonder Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili thought he could get away with attacking South Ossetia last August 7th — he probably thought Bush would have his back.)
Seeing President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev having a mature discussion about matters of mutual interest to both countries was a far cry from the posturing we’ve come to expect during the Bush years. Pressing the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations can pay dividends quickly not only in the area of nuclear non-proliferation (a top priority for Obama) but also help the United States in its dealings with Iran, Afghanistan, and other nations where neo-con saber-rattling and unilateralism have proven to be epic failures. Condi and the neo-cons just couldn’t put aside their knee-jerk anti-Sovietism and bring themselves to understand that Russia is not our enemy.
The neo-cons, epitomized by Dick Cheney, pride themselves for their shrewd understanding of how the “real” world works. But the first tenet of any successful foreign policy must be to NOT let your country get played by others who do not have your country’s wellbeing in mind. Ahmed Chalabi played Bush and the neo-cons when he gave them phony intelligence, over-sold his political standing in Iraq, and passed on information to the Iranians; Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf played Bush and the neo-cons when he diverted American aid from the fight against the Taliban to the military stand off with India; Bush and the neo-cons got played by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert when they attacked the West Bank in 2002, Lebanon in 2006, and Gaza in 2008, none of which helped the United States’ standing in the Middle East; and Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad played on Bush and the neo-cons’ belligerence to score points among people all over the world who agreed with their denouncing gunboat diplomacy and military threats coming from Washington.
And while Bush and Co. were busy bullying Iran and waging their “War on Terror,” they failed to notice that democracy had broken out in Latin America all the way from the Southern Cone to Central America; and that China was quietly signing contracts worth billions of dollars with these new left-leaning governments that represent tens of millions of people fed up with Yanqui Imperialismo. The neo-cons couldn’t even hold on to America’s “backyard.”
So, you see, far from being “worldly” policy planners with a clear-headed analysis of human nature, power relations, and the behavior of nations — the neo-cons, in reality, are nothing but a bunch of chumps. Remember this fact the next time you see Cheney, William Kristol, Ari Fleischer, Robert Kagan or other neo-cons jawboning on television as they promote their “new” anti-Obama think tank: “The Foreign Policy Initiative.”
The beauty of seeing the President and First Lady treated like rock stars and royalty in Europe is that they are liberals who represent the exact opposite of what Bush and the neo-cons offered the world. Barack and Michelle Obama are connecting to the world’s people in a way that Bush and Cheney never could (and never wished to). Not only are the Obamas young, hip, black, cosmopolitan, and urban, they care about the issues most people in the world care about.
At the town hall gathering in Strasbourg, President Obama spoke about how only through working together through multilateral action can we begin to find solutions to the financial crisis, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and AIDS and other epidemics. The Obamas’ first trip abroad has been a stunning symbolic success for the United States. Obama’s the only politician in the world today who’s popular. We should take pride that our institutions were responsive enough in 2008 to give us the opportunity to replace one of the most reviled presidents in history with one who could become one of the most revered.
by Joseph Palermo
Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He’s the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).
Originally published by The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.