SAN FRANCISCO — Sometimes really bad decisions produce some unintended good results. Two recent public diplomacy disasters caused by President Obama’s questionable judgement — where was Judith McHale and the State Department diplomats? — had some unexpected good consequences, as did the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize despite his lack of any concrete foreign policy accomplishments. Some of his recent foreign policy decisions that were particularly ill-advised finally prompted the liberal media in the U.S. to start doing some critical reporting, albeit still far too limited, and may have forced President Obama himself to begin questioning his own thinking about the realities of international politics.
When the president chose to make his announcement of canceling the Bush Administration missile defense plans in Central Europe on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, both The New York Times and The Washington Post published op-eds criticizing his lack of historical sensitivity in dealing with U.S. allies and his handling of other foreign policy isues. This level of criticism of President Obama has not been seen before in liberal U.S. media.
Conservative and independent media reporters have been doing their job of questioning and criticizing the Obama Administration, but their loud voices do not count for much among the current Democratic Party governing establishment in Washington. In fact, prior to the missile defense announcement debacle, the White House had ignored numerous criticisms and suggestions that might have averted the latest foreign policy and public diplomacy disasters.
When rumors started the day before the announcement that it was imminent, I had warned that making it on September 17 would expose the United States to international dismay and ridicule that would not be limited only to Poland. But President Obama was going to scrap the missile shield no matter what, apparently in order to please the Kremlin in the vain hope of getting Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev to help him in Iran. In retrospect, therefore, the fact that he made the announcement on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland was a fortunate one, despite the fact that the decision itself was a very bad one for America’s reputation among its friends abroad, and in terms of how Barack Obama will be perceived by America’s potential enemies and rivals.
In finally forcing liberals and Obama supporters to engage in admittedly limited public discourse, but still better than the previous near total admiration for the president and lack of any critical discussion, the missile shield announcement on September 17 produced a good outcome that the administration and its critics had not expected. These decisions exposed the incompetence of the White House and the State Department public relations officials and diplomats. This turned out after all be a good thing for the American people despite the terrible message of President Obama’s decisions for those small nations that count on America’s commitments to defend human rights, democracy, and independence from bullying by authoritarian powers like Russia. The controversy finally prompted even the most liberal media in the U.S. to start doing its journalistic job of questioning some of the foreign policy decisions and actions of their favorite president.
The second bad Obama decision that potentially can have equally negative repercussions around the world for a long time to come — again where were the State Department public diplomacy experts? — was the banning of the Dalai Lama, the highly-revered Tibetan spiritual leader, from visiting the White House. Why was the Dalai Lama snubbed? Because President Obama did not want to offend a bunch of aging Chinese communist leaders before his presidential visit to Beijing. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan refusing to see Pope John Paul II because the then Soviet leadership might have been upset?
By the way, the Norwegian Nobel committee never gave the Peace Prize to John Paul II or to Ronald Reagan, even though they both contributed greatly to ending the Cold War. Perhaps the Cold War was not hot enough, but more likely the Left-leaning Nobel committee members did not like the politics of these two leaders. Their decision of giving this year’s prize to President Obama again focused media’s attention on his lack of foreign policy accomplishments and his questionable judgement on Poland, the handling of other U.S. allies in Central Europe, and the Dalai Lama’s visit.
Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, another famous international figure who has never received the Nobel Peace Prize although he clearly deserved one, simply could not believe that the U.S. president would decline to see the Dalai Lama out of fear of how such a visit might be received by the Chinese communists. This former human rights activist and inmate of communist prisons, who was among international supporters of Barack Obama’s campaign for the U.S. presidency, had this to say:
“It is only a minor compromise,” Mr. Havel said of the nonreception of the Tibetan leader. “But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”
Is President Obama listening? He might be to some degree after the latest barrage of criticism of his foreign policy decisions that is no longer limited to conservative U.S. media. Vice President Biden is being dispatched to Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania to engage in damage control. It’s too bad, however, that the liberal U.S. media did not consider it necessary to look critically much earlier at some of the naive assumptions behind President Obama’s foreign policy statements. Perhaps the United States would have been sparred international embarrassment and the loss of trust among its allies and among human rights supporters around the world.