Obama on Reagan’s Foreign Policy, WMDs, and Democracy

I just finished Obama’s chapter on foreign policy in Audacity of Hope (“The World Beyond Our Borders”). There are many things that I can say about several of Obama’s points. But, today, I want to focus on four of his statements: two about Reagan’s foreign policy, one about Iraq’s WMDs, and one about the U.S. promoting democracy throughout the world.

On Reagan’s Foreign Policy.

“Looming perhaps largest of all was Ronald Reagan, whose clarity about communism seemed matched by his blindness regarding other sources of misery in the world. In personally came of age during the Reagan presidency–I was studying international affairs at Columbia, and later working as a community organizer in Chicago–and like many Democrats in those days I bemoaned the effect of Reagan’s policies toward the Third World: his administration’s support for the apartheid regime of South Africa, the funding of El Salvador’s death squads, the invasion of tiny, hapless Grenada” (289).

I discuss apartheid in two of my posts, “Where Were You During Apartheid?” and James the Afrikaaner?, to which I refer curious readers. Regarding El Salvador, Reagan supported the moderate elements in that country, not the extreme right-wingers conducting the death squads. That was where Jesse Helms and the Reagan Administration disagreed: Jesse favored the right-wingers as a bulwark against Communism.

I can at least comprehend Obama’s criticisms of South Africa and El Salvador. But I can’t for the life of me understand why he’d oppose the invasion of Grenada. In that nation, a bunch of Marxist thugs overthrew the (already Marxist) government in a coup. And, through no fault of their own, there were American medical students who were caught in the middle of that chaos. So Reagan invaded Grenada to keep them safe. What was wrong with that?

Obama’s next paragraph is a lot better:

“But at times, in arguments with some of my friends on the left, I would find myself in the curious positions of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview. I didn’t understand why, for example, progressives should be less concerned about oppression behind the Iron Curtain than they were about brutality in Chile. I couldn’t be persuaded that U.S. multinationals and international terms of trade were single-handedly responsible for poverty around the world; nobody forced corrupt leaders in Third World countries to steal from their people. I might have arguments with the size of Reagan’s military buildup, but given the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, staying ahead of the Soviets militarily seemed a sensible thing to do. Pride in our country, respect for our armed services, a healthy appreciation for the dangers beyond our borders, an insistence that there was no easy equivalence between East and West–in all this I had no quarrel with Reagan. And when the Berlin wall came tumbling down, I had to give the old man his due, even if I never gave him my vote” (289).

I agree with much of this. Communism was bad, Reagan was right to stand up to it, a strong military was important during the Cold War, the West is not solely responsible for the world’s ills, and foreign aid can easily find its way down a rat-hole (as we’re seeing right now in Myanmar). Of course, had I been voting in the 1980’s, Reagan would’ve gotten my vote. But I voted for him in my second grade “election” back in 1984, so perhaps that counts.

On WMDs in Iraq.

“Like most analysts, I assumed that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and coveted nuclear arms. I believed that he had repeatedly flouted UN resolutions and weapons inspectors and that such behavior had to have consequences. That Saddam butchered his own people was undisputed; I had no doubt that the world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

“What I sensed, though, was that the threat Saddam posed was not imminent, the Administration’s rationale for war were flimsy and ideologically driven, and the war in Afghanistan was far from complete. And I was certain that by choosing precipitous, unilateral military action over the hard slog of diplomacy, coercive inspections, and smart sanctions, America was missing an opportunity to build a broad base of support for its policies” (294).

Obama often cites his 2002 opposition to the Iraq War as a sign of his good judgment. But, after reading this quote, I’m not so sure. Okay, in 2002, he believed that Iraq was evading UN weapons inspectors and actually possessed chemical and biological weapons, in violation of UN resolutions. And his proposal at that time was more inspections and sanctions? Within his own mindset, he should not have arrived at that conclusion. If Iraq had evaded weapons inspections and possessed big-time weapons even after Clinton’s sanctions, as Obama supposed, then doesn’t that show that inspections and sanctions didn’t work? I mean, we’re talking about logic here: if A and B are true, then that entails C. So Obama’s premises should have led him to support the Iraq War.

Also, if Obama thought that Iraq and the world were better off without Saddam, then what was wrong with Bush II getting rid of him?

On Promoting Democracy throughout the World.

“Of course, there are those who will argue with my starting premise–that any global system built in America’s image can alleviate misery in poorer countries. For these critics, America’s notion of what the international system should be–free trade, open markets, the unfettered flow of information, the rule of law, democratic elections, and the like–is simply an expression of American imperialism, designed to exploit the cheap labor and natural resources of other countries and infect non-Western cultures with decadent beliefs. Rather than conform to America’s rules, the argument goes, other countries should resist America’s efforts to expand its hegemony; instead, they should follow their own path to hegemony, taking their lead from left-leaning populists like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, or turning to more traditional principles of social organization, like Islamic law…

“Ultimately…I think critics are wrong to think that the world’s poor will benefit by rejecting the ideals of free markets and liberal democracy. When human rights activists from various countries come to my office and talk about being jailed or tortured for their beliefs, they are not acting as agents for American power. When my cousin in Kenya complains that it’s impossible to find work unless he’s paid a bribe to some official in the ruling party, he hasn’t been brainwashed by Western ideas. Who doubts that, if given the choice, most of the people in North Korea would prefer living in South Korea, or that many in Cuba wouldn’t mind giving Miami a try?

“No person, in any culture, likes to be bullied. No person likes living in fear because his or her ideas are different. Nobody likes being poor or hungry, and nobody likes living under an economic system in which the fruits of his or her labor go perpetually unrewarded” (315-316).

That’s why I don’t like statements like “Muslims are not suited for democracy,” or “People under Saddam were happy. Who were we to overthrow him?” Sure, there are people who actually prefer authoritarianism–usually the authorities, but also those who like order more than freedom. But there is also a hunger for liberty in all cultures.

Obama doesn’t say that we should overthrow all dictators by military force. (That would be quite a task!) Rather, he prefers methods such as inspiration, international agreements (yes, he’s quite the globalist, even though he at one point criticizes the Security Council’s veto), foreign aid, the bully pulpit, and economic and diplomatic pressure. I agree with the inspiration part. That’s what Reagan did when he gave hope to the people of Eastern Europe! And diplomatic pressure worked on countries such as El Salvador, perhaps even Chile. (Communism wasn’t the only force that fell under Reagan, but so did right-wing dictatorships.) But there may be times when we should support democratic movements with military aid, as Reagan did for the Nicaraguan contras. There may need to be teeth to our pro-freedom rhetoric. Obama should have mentioned that.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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