Obama Still Wants To Talk To Enemies, But He's The Only One

After Paris, San Bernardino and now Brussels, bellicosity is in.
President Obama took part in a Civil Society Roundtable discussion in Havana on Tuesday.
President Obama took part in a Civil Society Roundtable discussion in Havana on Tuesday.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- “Split screen” coverage can vividly illuminate the real story in politics.

On Monday, it highlighted the essential foreign policy conflict between President Barack Obama and his would-be successors. The contrast became even sharper on Tuesday, with the terrorist attacks in Brussels.

From Havana, President Barack Obama has doggedly pursued the idea that helped get him elected: that the best way to assure peace and prosperity is to reach out to one's “enemies” -- in this case, Cuba -- and express a willingness to understand them and seek deals on common ground.

The U.S. presidential candidates went in the opposite direction at a gathering Monday before Israel supporters in Washington. They competed to make the toughest “get tough” speech about Iran while assuring supporters of Israel that America would never even consider seeing the world as Arabs and Iranians do.

The split-screen news returned on Tuesday morning. Obama paused from his diplomatic tour of Cuba to urge the world to fight terrorism together, "regardless of nationality, or race, or faith."

Donald Trump, by contrast, took to the morning TV shows to vow that his answer to the attacks in Brussels would be to close U.S. borders to all people from Arab and other Muslim countries. Sen. Ted Cruz called for law enforcement to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods."

Sen. Cruz thinks it's time to start patrolling "Muslim neighborhoods."
Sen. Cruz thinks it's time to start patrolling "Muslim neighborhoods."
George Frey/Getty Images

Poor Brussels. It's the capital of a country that all too often has been a theater of war in Europe. This time the carnage created another opportunity for bellicosity from the U.S. candidates -- not just Republicans Trump and Cruz, but Democrat Hillary Clinton. In one way or another, they further distanced themselves from Obama’s message of open-handed engagement.

That message featured in the defining speech of Obama’s presidency, delivered in 2009 in Cairo, but aimed at not only the Muslim world but the planet. If there is an “Obama Doctrine,” he enunciated it then -- a sunburst of optimism and empathy that soon thereafter won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

But seven years later, as the 2016 presidential campaign gains in intensity, it’s clear that “Obamaism” is a lost cause, at least for now.

Clinton is an interventionist at heart, going back to a wife's counsel to a president who was reluctant to intervene on behalf of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. The onetime teenage Goldwater Girl from a conservative suburb of Chicago has, in the main, been a careful but committed supporter of “boots on the ground” as an answer to global problems.

Cruz, son of an evangelist and a steely-eyed foe of the establishment foreign policy he learned to loathe at Princeton and Harvard, adds religious fervor to his native belligerence. In the name of God he wants to make the “sand glow” in the Middle East, plans to “rip to shreds” the Iran nuclear deal that Obama negotiated, and would send the U.S. Navy to confront Chinese leaders who want to control the South China Sea.

Donald Trump wants to pull up the drawbridge and keep the world out.
Donald Trump wants to pull up the drawbridge and keep the world out.
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Trump attacks Obamaism from a different direction: a pull-up-the-drawbridges neo-isolationism that promises to abrogate trade deals, cut ties to NATO, ask allies to pay more -- if not the entire bill -- for their own defense, and close U.S. borders to most immigrants from most places.

To the extent we can know (and it is hard to know), Trump’s foreign policy would be Theodore Roosevelt in reverse. Teddy said the idea was to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Donald’s is to “shout as loudly as possible while retreating from the world.”

Together, Clinton, Cruz and Trump -- winners of the lion’s share of the primary votes so far -- add up to a repudiation of Obama’s foreign policy, albeit from different directions.

Who’s left to carry the Obama banner forward in 2016? Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who was emotionally engaged but substantively quite careful in his speech to Israel supporters on Monday and warned against monitoring all Muslims.

And Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who continues to attract younger voters with his support for a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, his open admiration for the welfare policies of Scandinavia, and his Socialist International vision of “sisters and brothers” of the world joining together to combat oppression.

That is where millennials are, to a comparatively large degree, and where America is probably headed in the decades ahead.

But not in 2016.

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