Dick Cheney's demented last laugh: Neoconservatives destroyed American exceptionalism, but made Obama collateral damage

This July 4, we know our foreign policy must change after the neocon's Iraq disaster. Let's take the right lessons

Published July 4, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Anis Mili/AP/Janet Van Ham)
(AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Anis Mili/AP/Janet Van Ham)

Our national polls—run by the media, a few universities, and foundations such as Pew—seem to represent us better than our elected leaders, which is a fine thing because our leaders do not represent us. The polls tell us what we all think in some proximately collective fashion. And they have just told us that a majority of Americans do not like our 44th president’s foreign policy.

This is something worth understanding. What does it mean that almost 60 percent of Americans disapprove of the way they are represented abroad? That this percentage of people—extrapolating from the polls, of course—think we should behave differently among others?

Straight off the top, we must recognize that a long tradition in this country’s conduct overseas endures. Since America first elaborated a foreign policy in the later decades of the 19th century, it has been the preserve of densely networked, comfortably sequestered cliques. White, WASP, East Coast, keen on bloodlines, their members are accustomed to defining American interests, and then shaping and executing policy, without impeding reference to the public or, indeed, the democratic process altogether.

O.K., these cliques are more diversified now. This changes nothing. Gaining entry still means subscribing to the orthodox version of America’s place in the world. This is why one cannot get too excited about a woman making secretary of state, in my view—to say nothing of a woman making CIA station chief, as happened for the first time some years ago. So what, in each case?

In this, President Obama is the most available illustration of the point, and more about his predicament in a minute.

The poll also tells us that the orthodoxy just mentioned does not hold up well among those whose place is to accept it as formulated and packaged for public consumption. The failure of leaders to act according to the wishes of those who put them in office is a failure of process, of course. It is hardly new, but we who employ our leaders now note the poor performance of our employees.

This is a turn, a variant of the shift in public sentiment prompted by the ever more shameful prosecution of the Vietnam war as the 1960s tipped into the 1970s. “The corralling of public opinion,” as the inimitable (thank goodness) Zbigniew Brzezinski put it not long ago, does not go well. There are some potentially big consequences to consider here.

One other immediately evident point, this one from the perspective of a foreign affairs columnist, maybe. Many Americans, well versed in the established order of things, do not trouble themselves overmuch with America’s doings abroad so long as they think they are safe. Indifference is another long tradition—much relied upon in the upper reaches. I find it a good sign of the times that our nation’s overseas conduct is of greater interest—just as it is a very fine sign that so many of us do not like what we see when we look.


The poll prompting these observations was conducted by Hart Research Associates, a Washington firm that contracts out to the Democratic and Republican parties, among other organizations. It was commissioned by NBC and the Wall Street Journal.

The survey questioned 1,000 people and has a 3.1 percent margin of error. The work was done June 11 to 15—before, worth noting, Iraq’s fall into chaotic violence. Here is the NBC report issued on publication, which contains a link to the polling questionnaire, and here the Journal’s.

“This is a bad poll for President Obama, and not a good poll for anybody else,” said Bill McInturff, a Republican who conducted the survey with two Democrats at Hart Research. I am with him on the first observation, not the second. Obama comes over miserably. It is altogether good that so many Americans are now able to say of our foreign affairs, “We’ve got the wrong end of the stick.”

Fifty-seven percent of those questioned think so. On the other side, 37 percent endorse this country’s doings overseas. These are a record high disapproval rate and a record low approval since the poll was first conducted. (This is not specified, but Hart has been running it annually since at least 2000.)

And get this. Marginally more than a quarter of respondents think the war in Iraq Bush II dragged this country into on false pretenses in the spring of 2003 has turned out to be “worth it.” Sixty-five percent say “not worth it,” up from 51 percent at the start of 2013 (and Obama’s second term).

Something is afoot here, if the figures do not mislead. What better way to mark our nation’s escape from empire this July 4 than to peer into what might be awry in the empire America went on to make of itself?

The best way to start is by recognizing that “Obama’s foreign policy” is not Obama’s foreign policy. What his administration has done overseas since 2009 is rooted in his inheritance. In my view, his decisions have been confined to the margins.

We can debate indefinitely whether Obama is some kind of neoconservative Trojan horse, ill-intended from the first, or a well-meant man who got in over his head and quickly lost what little control over policy he may have had at the start. Maybe conclusions will someday be drawn, and for now I am of the latter persuasion. But this is not our July 4 conversation. We are concerned here with the inheritance.

And we have to talk, first, about the impossibility of an administration of either mainstream stripe altering the course of America’s purpose in its conduct abroad. Again, at the margins modest tinkering. But there is no drastic redirecting of the supertanker. Many have remarked these past several years to the effect, “This son of a gun is no different from the Republicans, from Bush II himself.” It is true, and there is a reason it is.

It is this: The consciousness of the need to change is not there among our leaders, a post-exceptionalist recognition that the duality constructed in the late 1970s by Stanley Hoffmann, the late, great Harvard  historian, remains exactly right: It is “primacy or world order” for us Americans, and we continue to insist on the former, wrongly it should go without saying. The price we pay mounts as we speak, and in the end it will prove as high as anyone else’s.

What are the things of this inheritance, the instruments? Diplomats these days speak of their tools, as in, “We have a variety of tools to use against the Russians,” meaning sanctions and so on. But what is the whole toolbox about? I see two important features.

One was evident in the years immediately following the Cold War’s end in 1991. This was the replacement of military assertion with economic assertion. Francis Fukuyama published his sophomoric book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” the next year—just as history was restarting after the Cold War’s deep-freeze decades. (Remarkably, Fukuyama survives in the Washington think-tank set, although I sense he is a little bit the Clarence Thomas of the scene.)

Soon enough some of us called the new method (but not new line) “triumphalism.” Others called it “the Washington Consensus,” as if there was one anywhere outside Washington. Under the banner, the neoliberal economic model was to be extended as far across the planet as it could go, for it was—the Fukuyama thesis—the end point of humankind’s strivings, the thing that was proven right and would remain eternally so.

This is part one of Obama’s foreign policy inheritance. Among its tools are the policies and programs of the Treasury Department and the International Monetary Fund, although many other agencies and institutions are deployed—the Agency for International Development, the Export-Import Bank, and so on.

In large measure these are Washington’s new instruments of intrusion. In essence, they serve the financial institutions and corporations that are the vessels of the neoliberal enterprise. The aggression you see in the prosecution of the model is not as graphically violent as a typical Cold War outbreak. But if you have ever seen an IMF austerity program up close, you know the old conceit that America’s task is to lead the world brings another kind of violence, indiscriminately destructive in this latest iteration.

The “war on terror,” of course, is part two of the inheritance. This has had a curious fate.

As the Bush II rhetoric gained momentum in late 2001 and onward—with us or with the terrorists, axis of evil, and so on—the many questions raised might have swamped the story at one point. A war without limits in either time or space seemed too cosmic or too biblical or both. “It’s a flawed paradigm,” a friend at the CIA said at the time. “As a compelling post-Cold War narrative, ‘the war on terror’  won’t hold up.”

He seemed right at the time, but he turned out right and wrong. The buy-in among Americans has been nothing like the freak-out scare of the peak Cold War years. What was then the dissent of a caricatured, hounded minority is now a prominent dimension of the mainstream. The NBC/Journal poll attests to this; it is something I have noted in every radio or television exchange I have had of late. But there has been no defeating the premise. Obama tried, at his National Defense University speech in May of last year. At West Point this May, he capitulated: The war on terror is with us for the foreseeable future, he avowed.

There is no need to list the Obama administration’s important moments on the foreign policy side—all failures, if not immediately, then failures in waiting. Readers can choose their own occasions, and in each one the driver will fall, broadly speaking, into one or the other aspect of the inheritance.

Our moment is key in this connection for a number of reasons. One, anyone with his or her eyes open will see that the Obama-Clinton, Obama-Kerry foreign policy was fated to fail from the outset because it is so profoundly inappropriate to the contexts wherein it is executed. It rests on the delusion famously and arrogantly articulated by Karl Rove at the height of Bush II’s confidence. “We’re an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality,” he explained to an astonished magazine writer in 2004.

We have reached the end of a long line, then, the start of a momentous transition, never mind that no one is going to announce it on the public-address system.

Two, no foreign policy can be sustained without a domestic consensus. This has been a truism since Hearst’s newspapers whipped American opinion into a frenzy in preparation for the Spanish-American war. This makes the dissenting majority we have now a matter of consequence. The next question becomes, “What is the level of tolerance beyond which things begin to get confrontational? That level may prove high, but doubt not Washington is looking for it.

Finally, there is the question of where this dissenting majority sits. The opinion piece Dick Cheney published recently in the Journal was interesting in this respect. “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong,” they wrote of Obama on the foreign side.

With a little less vehemence and no ideological charge, I have to agree. However, the piece was at bottom a claim to ground that is not yet occupied. The Cheneys want to cast Obama’s failures as a right-wing vindication: He is weak, he lacks conviction, timidity gets in his way, this administration represents a pause in the great American fight.

I do not take this as majority opinion. It cannot be that all dissenters share my view that Obama failed because the policy framework he was handed was wrong and therefore destined to deliver only messes and complications. However, there is a case that many view the exceptionalist narrative as exhausted, destructive to ourselves as well as others, and unsuited to our new century.

“Yet while Obama is unpopular in the poll, he looks like the homecoming king compared with the Republican Party,” the NBC analyst said, and I could not say it better. “Just 29 percent of respondents have a favorable view of the GOP, versus 45 percent who have an unfavorable view.”

There is nothing wrong with an argument fought in ring where left and right face off (a genuine left, that is, not the left side of the right side). However, this is not the frame within which to assess the new majority—let us claim the term—of objectors to America’s behavior among others.

It is forward-facing vs. backward-facing that is at work now, in my view, embracers of reality vs. those with the fantastic idea we can create it, the clear-sighted vs. those who flinch and call it courage.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

MORE FROM Patrick L. Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Dick Cheney Editor's Picks Iraq Neo-conservatives Polls Syria