We Need Obama as Foreign Policy Educator-in-Chief

Part of the allure of Obama when he first ran for president was the prospect of an intellectual in the White House who would make progressive decisions, but also begin the task of educating huge numbers of low information citizens about how the world works.

This would be important, because his days in office would eventually end and a legacy endures longer if a leader leaves their record, but also an ideological framework for understanding its rationale. That perspective can survive term limits. Roosevelt did this and the New Deal view of government action as a vigorous corrective to the anarchy and social disruption of capitalist development lasted for almost forty years after his death. Reagan, unfortunately, although his actual domestic economic policies were never as laissez-faire as his rhetoric suggested, launched an ideology that has endured nearly as long: government is the enemy; free enterprise the cure. Post-Reagan, even Democrats have often believed they had to be defensive about government action, not proud of it.

President Obama had a golden opportunity to launch a powerful ideological counter-revolution when he took office during the Great Recession. Republicans and the most powerful corporate entities were back on their heels. The public was ready for a bold departure from the past. Unfortunately, those who placed such hopes on Obama were naïve, myself included, confusing his campaign rhetoric for his deeper convictions.

Obama is basically a moderate Republican of yesteryear... preserve the safety net, but otherwise let capital rule. Or a DLC Democrat, if you prefer: a corporate or neo-liberal. That he hasn't articulated a full-throated challenge to Reaganism may not be surprising. The one area, however, Obama was poised to radically depart from conventional thought was foreign policy. He was aware of its dark side: how anti-Communism and fear of any forms of populist nationalism, even if non-Communist, led to support for the world's most brutal dictatorships. His childhood in Indonesia under the murderous Suharto regime, which affected his step-family, and activism in the anti-apartheid movement, taught him lessons other U.S. presidents never learned. He could have punctured the myth of American "exceptionalism" and taught Americans that widespread anti-Americanism in the world is not primarily rooted in hatred of freedom and lack of gratitude for our generous foreign aid.

Anti-Americanism, in fact, mainly has to do with our past and, admittedly to a far lesser degree, present global role. We have a long record of alliances and selling arms to hated dictators and oppressive regimes. In addition, numerous military interventions, expressed as serving freedom, but doing so only if it also served our geopolitical and corporate interests. In the latter respect, American foreign policy was primarily "exceptional" in quantitative terms. Former President Jimmy Carter recently said the U.S. is the "Number one warmonger on earth," initiating armed conflict in about thirty countries since the United Nations was founded. The historical record of U.S. military interventions is unrivaled. Unfortunately, Carter's perspective was either one he never held when president, or was unwilling to express it at that time. A former president has a pulpit, but it pales in comparison to the incumbent's.

What about our exceptional generosity? Our foreign aid for development, for example, is a smaller proportion of our Gross National Income than 19 other nations, including Portugal, and is just .19 percent of it. Moreover, though things have somewhat improved since 2012, when USAID modified its rules, foreign aid typically required recipients to purchase American-made products even if they were more expensive than alternatives. What is called "tied-aid" is still true of food products, motor vehicles and US-patented pharmaceuticals and is still the norm among non-USAID governmental agencies. To be fair, other countries provide tied-aid as well, but quite a few others do not.

Unlike, domestic politics, where the President has to deal with Congress, foreign policy is a realm of nearly total freedom. Obama has taken some important steps in dealing with Iran and Cuba and not going whole hog in the Mideast. He is apparently very displeased with Israeli's expanded illegal colonization in the West Bank, though has done nothing to sanction Israel. He has also had missteps -- accepting the legitimacy of the Honduras' coup in 2009, a position rejected by the United Nations, OAS and European Union.

Unfortunately, Obama's re-thinking of foreign policy stays within his own mind or small circle of decision-makers and he has made only feeble attempts, at best, to be Educator-in-Chief. He knows the Iranians will never forget Mossadegh and the Shah, and our support for Saddam's invasion of Iran and our indifference, if not support, to his use of chemical weapons against them. He is aware they abandoned nuclear programs as un-Islamic until the horrific chemical warfare made them feel acutely vulnerable. He knows, apparently, that the Saudis are to Islamic State as Stalin's "socialism in one country" was to Trotsky's "permanent revolution." But he keeps that knowledge largely to himself, unless one reads foreign journalists or U.S. publications with modest circulations aimed at intellectuals.

This failure to systematically tell the American people about any of this means perpetuating their ignorance and making it more likely that evil and foolish policies will be pursued and supported in the future. The mantra of "American exceptionalism" will be trumpeted ad infinitum. Once his term in office ends the next president, unless perhaps if it is Sanders, will be giving unqualified love to the Saudis, Israelis and friendly autocrats. Roosevelt had his fireside chats with all the citizens. Obama should have a foreign policy "teach-in" before he leaves office. Even better, of course, would be to use his precious last months to "talk the talk" and "walk the walk."