The Catholic Thing
HOME        ARCHIVES        IN THE NEWS        COMMENTARY        NOTABLE        DONATE
Continuity and Change Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Thursday, 23 April 2009

Though a lot of people – including many Catholics – seem to want to believe otherwise, there is thus far not much new in the substance of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Commentators right and left have noted considerable continuity between the decisions by the previous administration and by the new one. Withdrawal from Iraq is proceeding largely as negotiated with the Iraqis in the Status of Forces Agreement agreed under President Bush. The “new” Afghanistan strategy follows the old strategy reviews of the second half of 2008. The tactic of making nice with European leaders and avoiding asking for anything difficult, whether on Afghanistan or the financial crisis, is straight out of Bush’s second-term playbook.

In our relationship with China, Obama’s focus is financial, no surprise for the American investment bankers who forged a consensus about Chinese economic potential over the last twenty years. The “reset button” with Russia consists mainly in proposing a replacement treaty for the START strategic arms control agreement, which expires this year. The Bush administration sent Moscow a similar draft treaty last year (there was no response). This case actually demonstrates continuity not just with Bush but with Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan despite the fact that our problems with Russia and the real dangers we face abroad are very different today from what they were in the Cold War.

In its overtures to Iran, the newer and more immediate threat on the global scene, the administration has maintained the same posture as its predecessor: progress is possible if and when Iran forfeits its nuclear weapons ambitions, as reiterated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week. Like the new administration, President Bush authorized quiet talks with Tehran while holding to the same condition. Nothing very new with North Korea, either, which has torn up agreements with the last two administrations.

Of course, there are some real differences. Obama swiftly reversed the “Mexico City” policy, thereby allowing U. S. support for abortion overseas; that decision will likely produce more deaths worldwide. Some restrictions on American involvement with Cuba have been lifted, though the economic embargo, much criticized by the Vatican, remains in place. Future terrorist suspects will not be subjected to what The New York Times described as the “brutal” experience of being deprived of sleep and kept in a small, dark space with insects about. Yet those who see “stability” as the holy grail of American foreign policy are on the whole satisfied with the administration’s acceptance of the policies it was handed.

Rhetorically, though, what a difference three months makes! If the substance is the same, the words represent an utter and important break with the past. Over time, as we move beyond the first 100 days of the administration, those rhetorical flourishes will translate into significant differences.

President Obama, in all of his international travel, has spent time apologizing for America. His consistent theme is that we had no right to do what we did, especially in the previous eight years but in the longer term as well. In some instances, he is right. But there is little mention of America’s responsibility to lead where others could not or would not. And scant notice of the single-minded determination of totalitarians, right and left, Islamist and secular, to dominate in their own spheres and beyond.

In the president’s remarks, there are allusions to American criminality but little discussion of America’s positive exceptionalism, nor claims for a universal morality – freedom of conscience and all the political arrangements that it necessarily entails, a necessity the Catholic Church came to embrace in the last century. There is a distinct lack of emphasis on American efforts to render ourselves less exceptional by extending the reach of those universal truths where possible, but more emphasis on the underlying assumption that it is rather America that must be changed.

The administration’s foreign policy parallels its domestic policy, and Obama’s roots: break existing power structures and level outcomes. This may sound attractive to some Catholic ears, for whom equality of outcome seems to accord with Church social teaching. But the outcome of the administration’s rhetoric-turned-policy will not be equality based on Catholic truth. It will be premised instead on the absence of any such universal truth. This is the source of the administration’s dalliance with the culture of death. In time, this will be the core contribution of the Obama team to American foreign – and domestic – policy.

Foreign leaders from Beijing to Moscow to Caracas cheer this. Gone are not just the Texas accent but the natural law references of George W. Bush (who might not have known, but would have felt deeply, the intellectual heritage of phrases like “freedom written on the human heart”). President Nicolas Sarkozy of France referred in frank comments last week to Obama’s inexperience but also to his “subtle mind.” Translation: “he’s like us.”

And waiting in the wings is a transnational view of legitimate law and sovereignty as advocated by Harold Koh, nominee for State Department legal advisor, whereby international institutions and law trump national legislatures. It sounds like the dawn of cooperation and fairness among nations. But we should enjoy the continuity in our foreign policy while it lasts. The next turns could be very ugly.

Joseph Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (18)Add Comment
0
...
written by William H. Phelan, April 23, 2009
I eagerly await Mr. Wood's Apologia for the war crimes that the U.S. has committed around the world in the last forty years. Let's start with the Agent Orange which was dropped on an agrarian foe which is STILL CAUSING BIRTH DEFECTS TODAY! Colin Powell's appearance before the Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003 in which he lied about the threat that Iraq was to the U.S. (it wasn't). The hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, killed by the American Beast for its goals.
0
No Change?
written by William Dennis, April 23, 2009
I agree that somethings seemingly have not changed. It is hard to decipher the new regime's foreign or domestic policy these days. It seems to be one of appeasing foreign thugs and apologizing to our allies for our arrogance. The massive murder of 911 and the ban on experimentation on human embryos seems Oh "So Yesterday." Change doesn't occur overnight. The decline of Western Christendom and our culture took time. No! There is no visible change yet, but the winds of change are blowing fast.
0
Mr Phelan Is Correct
written by Ron, April 23, 2009
If Mr. Wood can reduce the current torture debate to an out of context quote about insects, it raises serious questions about his other conclusions. Identifying the Catholic right with the Republican party or any political party is a serious mistake.
0
looking for change?
written by debby, April 23, 2009
we all need to become beggars. but what kind of beggars! the kind looking for change on the street? those who put their trust in princes, charriots, horses, govt? we are called to be holy beggars before God, begging Him to Change our hearts. read the AP article linked about the Morning After Pill as an Over The Counter drug! my 16yr old cannot take her Rx migraine med to school w/out risk from AUTHORITIES but this Admin has made yet another change for death she can get at CVS! Come Lord Jesus!
0
...
written by Matt, April 23, 2009
"It will be premised instead on the absence of any such universal truth."

That is the key - that is what is important to recognize about this administration and the changes being made. WHAT is being done is not near as important as WHY it is being done. The legacy of this administration, I fear, will be the overwhelming drift of American legal conciousness, and national identity, away from a foundation in natural law and moral certainty toward a new justification based on relativism.
0
student
written by Achilles, April 23, 2009
I know that all Catholics oppose torture and inhumane treatment of any human, but think of this, not as a justification for torture but as an idea for perspective. The man you seem to enjoy calling president finds it ok to kill an innocent unborn child or an unwanted born innocent child, but objects so strenuously, to the point of hyperbolizing and bending definitions, the rough treatment of terrorists?????????????? How do you guys run that one through those little thinkers of yours?
0
...
written by Daniel Nichols, April 23, 2009
Relativism is nothing new and the American moral vision has been based on consequentialist logic for longer than I can remember. Note that the whole "debate" about terrorism from the Right is based on the premise that "it worked". If what the Bush administration did can be based on this, what cannot? Can we crush the testicles of the child of a terrorist, as Mr Yoo so infamously posited? If not, why? Where do you draw the liine, and how is it not arbitrary? Both sides are relativists...
0
...
written by William H. Phelan, April 23, 2009
A clarification, please! My previous point was not in any way to appear invidious. I prefer neither political party as I believe they are both guilty of horrors. The leadership of both parties is amoral and pragmatic as any objective study will show. Whether we discuss how the S.E.C. could investigate Madoff twice and find nothing, how we prosecuted our enemies after WWII for waterboarding(yes!), 50 MILLION abortions in the last 35 years, the list is endless. Thank you for your patience.
0
LCDR, USN [ret]
written by Keith Toepfer, April 23, 2009
I think Achilles and Matt have it about right. And Mr. Nichols is correct in his conclusion. Both sides are relativists. The problem with Mr. Phelan's argument, if you can call it that, is that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has demonstrated that former Secretary Powell knew that the Hussein regime was not a threat. Intelligence, unfortunately, does not often deliver certitudes. If Mr. Powell honestly believed Iraq was a threat, it was not a lie!
0
...
written by William H. Phelan, April 24, 2009
LCDR Toepfer: Thank you for your comments. When you viewTV footage of C. Powell's presentation at the Security Council on Feb. 5, you will note that George Tenet, then CIA head, is sitting to our left, Powell's right rear. Powell insisted he sit in plain view as he suspected the intelligence was suspect and he wanted Tenet to have skin in the game. As this speech was to lead us into a war, a person of conscience would have demurred from giving such data as facts. The man is disgraced.
0
...
written by Liz, April 24, 2009
Mr. Phelan: while waiting for apologies can we add the Bataan Death March to the list? or how about the Rev. Al Sharpton and the fiasco he orchestrated years ago re: Tawana Brawley - boy am I glad I didn't hold my breath for that one!!! Why is it that only some people or groups need to apologize but not others? Why are we perceived by the left as being the "bad guys"? Why are those whom we have helped the most (e.g., France) demanding our humiliation? What do we need to apologize for?
0
Mr.
written by Zachary Foreman, April 24, 2009
While apologies can be laudable, they must be done with prudence. Although politics is not the highest thing, it does preserve peace and order so that we may pursue the highest things. If apologies embolden dangerous enemies (like the soon to be nuclear Iran and N. Korea), we should question their necessity. The apologies simply strengthen the narrative that all the world's evils are caused by the US. At a time when the US is the only power able to prevent many evils, this is a grave danger.
0
Student
written by Achilles, April 24, 2009
Dear Mr. William H. Phelan,

I am particularly disturbed by the characterization “American Beast.” George Orwell wrote a fantastic essay on language and politics and I would recommend it to you, but its true meaning would be lost on you if you were unable to critically examine some of your assumptions. you are quick to sling around the term ‘war crimes’ as juxtaposed to Mr. Wood’s repetition of a hyperbolized misstatement by the NY Times. Very disturbing.
0
Student
written by Achilles, April 24, 2009
Dear Mr. Foreman, I really appreciate your comments. If we follow the moral relativist’s corrupted thinking, there would be no end to the apologies we would have to make. If we decide instead to seek the Truth and we humble ourselves to reality we would be perennial thankful that we suffer not a fraction of what we truly deserve. The apologies we truly owe have very little to do with politics at this point.
0
Student
written by Achilles, April 24, 2009
Sorry Liz, when I thanked Mr. Forman for his comments I of course meant to include your excellent comments too.
0
...
written by William H. Phelan, April 24, 2009
As a citizen of the only nation to have ever used an atomic weapon (twice) on a foe, I stand by my appellation of the American Beast. My college thesis was on the internment of Japanese-Americans (many were citizens) during WW II. Google Earl Warren. He was governor of CA and pushed hard to accomplish pushing the Japanese to the camps. It later disturbed him so much that when was Chief Just. of Supreme Court, he swung it far to the left (Brown v. Brd. of Ed.) Spare the rhetoric- refute me
0
Student
written by Achilles, April 25, 2009
Dear Mr. Phalen, Well done! Tough to spare the rhetoric when it has so much more explanatory power than isolated, linear facts. Can you really surgically remove all sinew, interconnected tissue, bone fragments and blood vessels of the geo-political, social, cultural, historical context of that most regrettable of events; the dropping of the atomic bomb? I am quite sure Occam did not intend for you to use his razor as a machete, especially in the operating room.
0
student
written by Achilles, April 25, 2009
America is also beastly because of the Japanese internment camps? I find it pedantic and simplistic to start with the premise “America is a Beast” and then collect examples of horrific behavior. We are fallen man after all, compiling this evidence does not take a rocket scientist. I would suggest that your turn that myopic gaze through those multicultural lenses on a few other societies and see what you see, don’t bump your head on the PC ceiling.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 
CONTACT US FOR ADVERTISERS ABOUT US
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner