They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But the recent snapshot of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva embracing Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has launched tens of thousands of words of commentary. Rarely has a single photograph irritated so many people.
The target of the most criticism, however, was a man who was not even in the picture. “Full credit for this debacle goes to the Obama administration,” declared The Wall Street Journal. The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was less restrained. Writing in The Washington Post, he thundered, “that picture—a defiant, triumphant, take-that-Uncle-Sam—is a crushing verdict on the Obama foreign policy. It demonstrates how rising powers, traditional American allies, having watched this administration in action, have decided that there’s no cost in lining up with America’s enemies and no profit in lining up with a U.S. president given to apologies and appeasement.”
This is now the settled line of attack against Barack Obama’s foreign policy. He is too soft, and other countries are taking advantage of him. First it was the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians. Now even the Brazilians and Turks are joining in. “There’s nothing to fear from Obama, and everything to gain by ingratiating yourself with America’s rising adversaries,” writes Krauthammer.
Some of this reflects a familiar pattern of criticism against an American president. Bad things happen in the world, and we say to the White House, “How could you let this happen?” The worse the oil spill gets, the surer we are that Obama should be doing something to stop it and get those images off the television screens.
The critics are angry, for example, that Obama did not make the Green Revolution triumph in Iran. But the Iranian regime is both repressive and resourceful, using guns and money to keep itself in power. It also has some significant support among the poor, the old, and those in rural areas. This is not a regime like North Korea’s that survives solely on its brutality. Nor is it isolated like Pyongyang. Brazil and Turkey are hardly alone in their overtures to Iran. The 118 countries that make up the nonaligned bloc routinely pass resolutions supporting Tehran in the battle over its nuclear program. A more belligerent speech by Obama would not have made the Tehran regime collapse.
His conservative opponents believe that Obama needs to get tougher, to push around these other countries and show them that America means business. There’s just one problem: that policy has been tried extensively and failed miserably. The administration of George W. Bush consciously defined its foreign policy as tough and aggressive. “It is better to be feared than loved,” Dick Cheney used to say, quoting Machiavelli. Donald Rumsfeld chose a less upmarket source, often citing Al Capone’s line: “You will get further with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word.”
Have we forgotten the results of this experiment in foreign policy as machismo? America’s oldest allies in Europe turned against the United States. Governments publicly criticized Washington on policy after policy and refused to support its efforts. By 2007, large majorities of people in country after country, even historically pro-American places like Britain, had turned against America.
Turkey, as it happens, proved a case study of how not to handle an ally. The Bush administration treated the country with the usual mixture of high-handedness and arrogance, threatening it with dire consequences if it would not allow U.S. troops to attack Iraq from Turkey. Seemingly unaware that Turkey had become a flourishing democracy, and that 95 percent of the Turkish public opposed a war with Iraq, the Bush administration was totally blindsided when the Turkish Parliament voted no, upending U.S. war plans.
There is a broader trend that Obama’s critics have completely missed. Countries like Turkey and Brazil (and China and India) have been growing in economic power over the last two decades. In 1995 the emerging-market countries made up about a third of the global economy. This year they will make up half—and rising. They weathered the economic crisis far better than the Western world. They are politically stable, rich, and increasingly confident, determined to play a larger role on the world stage. Under these circumstances, the idea that Obama just needs to throw America’s weight around more is foolish and dangerous. Brazil and Turkey will not become more cooperative if Washington threatens them more. America’s task is to find ways to partner with and convince the emerging powers of the world that they have an interest in a more stable and decent world. And Al Capone is not much of a model for how to make that happen.