Obama: Earning Contempt, at Home and Abroad

By Victor Davis Hanson / August 18, 2015 / National Review Online

The common bond among the various elements of the failed Obama foreign policy — from reset with Putin to concessions to the Iranians — is a misreading of human nature. The so-called Enlightened mind claims that the more rationally and deferentially one treats someone pathological, the more likely it is that he will respond and reform — or at least behave. The medieval mind, within us all, claims the opposite is more likely to be true.

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President Obama departs Air Force One. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

Read Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms or Richard Overy’s 1939, for an account of the negotiations preceding World War II, and you will find that an underappreciated theme emerges: the autocratic accentuation of the human tendency to interpret concession and empathy not as magnanimity to be reciprocated, but rather as weakness to be exploited or as a confession of culpability worthy of contempt.

The more Britain’s Chamberlain and France’s Daladier in 1938 genuinely sought to reassure Hitler of their benign intentions, the more the Nazi hierarchy saw them as little more than “worms” — squirming to appease the stronger spirit. Both were seen as unsure of who they were and what they stood for, ready to forfeit the memory of the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of their own on the false altar of a supposedly mean and unfair Versailles Treaty.

Hitler perversely admired Stalin after the latter liquidated a million German prisoners, and hated FDR, whose armies treated German POWs with relative humanity. In matters big and small, from Sophocles’ Antigone to Shakespeare’s King Lear, we see the noble and dutiful treated worse by their beneficiaries than the duplicitous and traitorous. Awareness of this pernicious trait is not cynical encouragement to adopt such pathologies and accept our dog-eat-dog world. Rather, in the postmodern, high-tech 21st century, we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we have evolved to a higher level than what Thucydides saw at Melos or Corcyra — a conceit that is dangerous for the powerful and often fatal for the weaker.

One thing Donald Trump got right was the pathetic spectacle of socialist Bernie Sanders being mystified about why Black Lives Matter activists would pick on him of all people. Why would they not first hijack a speech by Trump or Walker to shout down the conservative audience? If two white pro-life evangelicals had grabbed Sanders’s microphone, would he have so obsequiously ceded it? Would the activists have been more respectful of the microphone of the officious Sanders or the imperious Trump?

The most important characteristic of a sound diplomat and negotiator is the acknowledgment of this sad human characteristic, which to some degree is innate in us all. It was often said during the Cold War that the Soviet hegemonists would rather negotiate with right-wingers than liberals, apparently on the premise that those they could not bully they respected, and those they could bully they felt only contempt for. It reminds me of a minor Chinese official who once told me that she thought Obama must be a master of intrigue; otherwise, she could not believe a leader would so frequently neglect his own country’s strategic interests.
Consider immigration. After we had allowed well over 12 million illegal aliens into the country, permitted hundreds of sanctuary cities to be established, and de facto suspended federal immigration laws and stopped deportations, did either the Mexican government or the illegal aliens and their La Raza supporters interpret this as magnanimity to be reciprocated? Did we hear paeans to American willingness to take in 10 percent of the Mexican population and show it more deference and respect than did its mother country? Is that the message on Univision, in Chicano Studies departments, and at immigration rallies — the singular kindness of the United States in absorbing a tenth of the population of its neighbor by waiving all considerations of legality?

Or did the shrill complaints of racism, nativism, and xenophobia only accelerate as more impoverished refugees made their way into postmodern California and found themselves exempt from enforcement of the laws — and, by extension, without much respect for a country that itself had no respect for its own legal system? If there were a walled border, an E-Verify system, expeditious deportation for those who had either committed crimes or quickly enrolled in government entitlement programs, would Mexico’s rulers think worse or perhaps more highly of us, in the manner in which they assume that Central Americans respect Mexico for the confidence with which it patrols its southern border? Would illegal aliens here be more or less careful to follow the law, if a serious misdemeanor or a felony would result in instant — and permanent — deportation? Would there be more or fewer Mexican flags at immigration rallies, and would soccer fans be more or less likely to boo the American team and cheer the Mexican team, if the border were closed and those who broke the laws of the host country were sent home? In a system of closed borders, immediate and permanent deportation for criminal activity, and no sanctuary cities, would the illegal immigrant have more or less respect for his hosts?

Then we come to Iran. Does Supreme Leader Khamenei tone down his anti-American rhetoric — unwise though such rhetoric may seem in the midst of heated debates over the wisdom of President Obama’s negotiations — when the United States offers concessions on continued enrichment and centrifuges, or backs off from snap-back sanctions and anywhere/anytime inspections? If the U.S. Congress should defeat the treaty, reinstate even tougher sanctions, organize another global boycott, and warn the Iranians that they will be held accountable for their terrorist operatives, would Iranian theocrats keep chanting “Death to America” in their legislative chambers and press ahead with enrichment as they wink and nod to their allies about nuclear proliferation?
The trait is not quite ingratitude so much as it is gratuitous derision. It all reminds me of 1980, when the ingratiating Jimmy Carter (remember the aborted appeasement mission of Ramsey Clark, and Andy Young’s blessing of Khomeini as a probable “saint”?) was slandered as satanic by the Iranian hostage-takers, while President-elect Ronald Reagan was met with silence and released hostages.

The Castro brothers just upped their rhetoric, as Fidel demanded millions of dollars in embargo reparations as part of President Obama’s “normalization” of relations with Cuba — apparently to remind the world that the Cubans have no intention of paying back the billions of dollars they confiscated 55 years ago in American capital and property, much less of easing up on human-rights activists. Why would the Castros do that at this point, when no American president in a half-century has been more deferential to their Stalinist government? Is their defiance cheap public grandstanding for the benefit of Cuban hardliners, or a more natural reaction known to benefactors and beneficiaries alike as something like the following: “If he gave a wretch like me something for nothing, then he either did not deserve what he had or he should have given me even more”? Do spoiled teenagers become parsimonious when they see their hard-working parents scrimping and saving to pay off their maxed-out credit cards — or do they become even more irresponsible, thinking that their parents were rich, after all, or perhaps could not be real parents for covering the splurges of someone as reckless as themselves?

If a President Rubio announced a ratcheting up of sanctions, a public campaign on behalf of democratic dissidents in Cuban jails, and increased radio and television broadcasts to the enslaved island, would Castro think any less of him than he does of President Obama? Would he now be demanding of Rubio millions in reparations?

Why did Putin react to Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s obsequious reset with invasions of his smaller neighbors? Is the U.S. popular in Libya for removing the hated Qaddafi? Do the Palestinians appreciate stepped-up foreign aid to them and American pressure on Israel? Why did ISIS swallow Iraq immediately following our departure, when we had been told ad nauseam in the 2008 campaign that our foreign presence there was an irritant and a radicalizing force among the peoples of the Middle East?

The answer is something more than just the obvious: that naïve appeasement is more dangerous than wise deterrence, or that the sober advice to keep quiet and carry a large stick trumps sounding off while wielding a toothpick.

Certainly, there are downsides to braggadocio and the sloppy use of force. Rudeness and gratuitous putdowns are counterproductive. Still, certain sorts of outreach, especially those that appear to be pandering, incite revulsion. We see the phenomenon anywhere that human nature plays out in our collective arenas. If the police de facto confess culpability and pull out of the inner city of Baltimore in the wake of rioting, why wouldn’t the murder rate accelerate and hatred of the police — initially for their proactive strategy and later for their retrenchment — intensify? Would you expect criminals to think: “Since the police are now giving us some latitude, and since we are now free from intrusive proactive broken-windows policing, at last we have peace and mutual respect and thus, with the community in our own hands, less desire to commit crimes”?

Repeatedly the Obama administration has been shocked to see that the recipients of its consideration, from Putin to Khamenei, interpret such deference as weakness or maybe even smug arrogance. At times I think Vladimir Putin would prefer to be checked by NATO in Ukraine than psychoanalyzed by an appeasing Obama as an adolescent class cut-up engaged in “macho schtick.”

The current attraction of Trump is not his consistent and detailed agenda (he has no such thing), much less his conservative pedigree and mannered repartee. It instead may well be his brash assertions that what he believes in he is unapologetic about. Trump assumes that life is a bellum omnium contra omnes, in which protecting one’s own and preferring one’s own interests to someone else’s not only is natural but earns respect rather than contempt from rivals. That is not a credo to base a campaign on, but in these dark days, many for a time apparently see it as a brief return to normalcy.

Obama’s misreading of human nature has proverbially sown the wind, and the whirlwind is upon us.

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