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Sowell's Attack on Obama's Foreign Policy Is Misguided
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Although I’ve usually benefited from reading Tom Sowell, his recent syndicated column “Obama hides his ideology” leaves much to be desired. According to Sowell, “Obama’s ideology is an ideology of envy, resentment, and payback,” and nowhere is this supposedly more evident than in his conduct of foreign affairs. Driven by “a vision of the Haves versus the Have Nots,” the former community organizer elected to the presidency happily insults those countries he views as privileged: “He flew to Moscow, shortly after taking office, to renege on the American commitment to put a missile shield in Eastern Europe, in hopes of getting a deal with the Russians.” He also treats Israel as “one of the Haves” and has decided that “Israel is not simply to have its interests sacrificed and its security undermined. It is to be brought down a peg and—to the extent politically possible—insulted.” Obama even “downplays” “visits to the White House by the prime minister of Britain, our oldest and staunchest ally.” He constantly “curries favor with our enemies” while spurning our friends.

One can easily read into Sowell’s complaints a recent polemic by AEI publicist Dinesh D’Souza, depicting Obama as the resentful son of a Kenyan revolutionary who inherited his father’s hatred for English colonialism. Consumed by anti-colonial feelings, Obama treats the English passive-aggressively and insults the Israelis, who are running a democracy in the Anglo-American tradition. This theory explains nothing at all. Many of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, whether good or bad, are not specifically anti-Western or necessarily leftist. They are in fact popular on the non-neoconservative Right, for example, with Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and such maverick conservative publications as the American Conservative and the Taki’s Magazine website.

Although the Bush Two administration supported the Israeli nationalist Right, the Bush One administration under Jim Baker tilted at least as noticeably as Obama toward the Palestinians. Whether or not George H.W. Bush was right in this case, he certainly didn’t take on the American Israeli lobby because of a Kenyan father or his fondness for the “Have Nots.” There is also considerable debate on the right (although not much of it gets into the media) about whether the US should upset the Russians by ringing their country with missiles and establishing alliances with Russia’s “democratic neighbors.” This policy, which seems near and dear to the heart of Mitt Romney, is also popular with Sowell’s colleagues at the Hoover Institute. But it is not the only policy toward Russia that one hears in conservative discourse. Obama’s failure to embrace Romney’s ideas about foreign policy may indicate good sense rather than a vengeful spirit.


Equally questionable is Sowell’s division of humanity into staunch allies and perpetual enemies. One is reminded at this point of Charles de Gaulle’s sober comment that nations have interests rather than permanent friends. Recent GOP rhetoric about England being our best democratic pal, except possibly for the Israelis, differs significantly from the dominant Republican attitudes of the Eisenhower era.

Back then Germany under its widely respected Chancellor Konrad Adenauer went almost overnight from being a pariah into our staunchest if not oldest ally. This friendship seems remarkable given that Ike had fought the Germans in two world wars. Further, our secretary of state John Foster Dulles had written the “war guilt clauses” for the Treaty of Versailles (1919), blaming the Germans exclusively(but counterfactually) for the First World War. But under the impact of the Cold War and the emergence of Germany as a reliable friend, attitudes changed. Even more remarkably another longtime anti-German, de Gaulle, tried to win over the Germans as allies in the 1960s, against the threat of American dominance in Western Europe. Fifty years ago it was still possible to debate foreign policy without engaging in pseudo-psychology.

Sowell’s attack on Obama reflects a widespread fallacy about American political differences. Because Obama stands on the left economically and culturally does not mean that he occupies this spot on other questions. And because the GOP takes positions more favorable to private initiative and more critical of abortion on demand than those of the Democrats does not indicate that Republicans represent “the Right” in international affairs. About thirty years ago advocates of a liberal internationalist foreign policy, moving out of the Democratic Party, got the Republicans to embrace their views. The Democrats continued to pursue the same liberal internationalist course but more reservedly; while the Republicans began to berate the other party for not being sufficiently committed to “human rights” and Israel. But this debate has nothing to do with who’s on the left or on the right. Just about every prominent conservative once opposed “foreign adventures” and thought that we had been tricked into getting into the First World War. By Sowell’s standards, these conservative isolationists were really anti-American left-wingers—perhaps with Kenyan relatives.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Thomas Sowell 
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  1. tbraton says:

    “Equally questionable is Sowell’s division of humanity into staunch allies and perpetual enemies. One is reminded at this point of Charles de Gaulle’s sober comment that nations have interests rather than permanent friends.”

    One small quibble, Prof. Gottfried. DeGaulle may have said that (in French, of course), but he was merely echoing the famous comment of Lord Palmerston, the British foreign minister of the 19th century:

    “Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

    That mouthfull has been popularly condensed to the more commonly heard “nations have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.”

  2. cackcon says:

    It seems you’re nibbling around the edges of Mr. Sowell’s piece rather than confronting it directly. Added to that, you put words in his pen, so to speak.

    I’m not necessarily inclined to believe that the President’s foreign policy is driven by the haves vs. have-nots philosophy which drives his domestic agenda. But could it be a factor? Probably. The great strength of Mr. Sowell–his ability to perceive broad patterns and describe them for his readers–can also be a drawback sometimes. Even so, one is always enriched by considering something from Mr. Sowell’s perspective.

    Now, I must say if Mr. Sowell is a frothing-at-the-mouth neocon, I’ve missed it. Most of his columns I’ve read deal with cultural topics ancillary to domestic policy issues. Suffice it to say, I’m not entirely sure Mr. Sowell would back the interventionist strawman featuring so prominently in this column. I could be wrong, of course.

    However, I do know that in the column you’ve linked he never once indicated that there are permanent friends or enemies in foreign relations. That Britain is a staunch ally at present (sharing, for good or ill, many of the interests pursued by our federal government) cannot be denied. What Mr. Sowell’s column highlights is the dumbfounding approach by the President to alienate allies even when no U.S. interest is at stake. It would be like me walking up to my mother and kicking her in the shin for no good reason.

    Do I get a little queasy when people say we have a “special relationship” with Britain? Yeah. It starts to sound like Stockholm Syndrome–i.e., love for our former captors. But the very fact that Mr. Sowell is not griping about the American Revolution indicates he understands that alliances shift over time.

    Finally, I respectfully dissent on whether foreign relations are affected by the psychological profile of heads of state. Regrettably, I think this effect is more profound than you’ve indicated–and, for that matter, more profound than many of us would prefer. I winced when the last president was charicatured as a cowby out to avenge daddy, but I can’t say for sure this wasn’t at least a subconscious motivator when it came to Iraq.

    On the other hand, historians tend to credit leaders’ psychological profile too much, since it makes history writing easier to forgo sociological profiles of entire nations.

  3. The first respondent is correct that Lord Palmerston uttered the maxim before deGaulle that countries should guided by interests rather than permanent. The second repondent however attributes to Sowell a general brilliance on the basis of his sound views on social economics that I’m afraid I don’t see. Because Einstein was outstanding in certain areas of physics did not mean that he was politically wise or a significant philosopher. Although I may be missing something important in Sowell’s foreign policy statements, from what I have read he seems to be rehashing neocon platitudes–of the kind he’d be likely to pick up at the Hoover Institute, where he spends a great deal of time as a resident scholar.

  4. Ken Hoop says:

    I would correct Gottfried. Many of Obama’s policies are “popular” in the circles he mentions, until he backtracks on them,usually very rapidly and with motives the Arab/Islamic world sees right through.

  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Judging by your summary of him, Sowell has the situation exactly backward.

    The Israelis show utter contempt for the United States. They treat us as a convenience, a giant ATM machine populated by stupid people who can be spied on and manipulated with impunity. And compare the reverent sycophancy with which Netanyahu was recently greeted with the way the Israelis treated Biden last time he visited Israel.

    For his part, Obama has catered both to Israel and Israel’s agents here in the US. That Sowell can characterize a few half-hearted, timid efforts to simulate “balance” as insulting to Israel only indicates how grotesquely distorted and out of touch Sowell’s own views have become. This iassumes, perhaps too charitably, that Sowell’s views aren’t borrowed. As you point out, he may simply be aping the Dinesh D’Souza polemic rather than doing his own thinking. He’s been phoning it in for a very long time.

  6. Robert says:

    Did Dulles actually write (as distinct from put his signature to) the “war guilt clauses” at Versailles? Surely he would have been too young and too low-ranking at the time to do so (although I know that Robert Lansing was his uncle and that he was part of the American delegation)?

  7. cackcon says:

    Mr. Gottfried,

    You paid as much attention to my previous comment as you did to Mr. Sowell’s article–which is to say, only enough to miss the point entirely.

  8. VikingLS says:

    Sowell argued once that a Democratic administration might surrender the entire country to Iran if we were attacked with a few dirty bombs. Sowell is one more peddler of the notion that we should treat the world as a vast game of Risk, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the Democrats are reluctant to wage war.

  9. Dulles was indeed assigned by his uncle RL the task of preparing Articles 227-231 of the Treaty, including the war guilt clause and the references to unspecified reparations. Someone may have assisted Dulles, who was then in his early thirties, but the line about Germany accepting full responsibility for the war and its destruction was the work of Eisenhower’s future Secretary of State. It has been suggested that the war guilt stuff was put in to justify the indeterminate reparations laid on the defeated Germany.

  10. cfountain72 says: • Website

    I have long respected Dr. Sowell and have bought several of his books (I really enjoyed Race and Culture). I also know it’s not that fair to take a single paragraph and critique the man, but here goes…

    “The bottom line is whether we are better off or worse off for having removed the threat of Saddam Hussein? Does anyone doubt that our demonstration of resolve and power in Iraq is what has made other terrorist-supporting nations start to back off?”

    That was from June 2003. How quaint to think back to a time when people actually thought that our actions in Iraq would serve notice to the Terrorists that we are Serious, or when the answer to “Is the Iraq better without Saddam?” seemed to be a no-brainer. Funny, I hear the same rationales being used for our intervention in Libya (“Of course the world will be better off with Gadaffi gone” and “This will make it clear to other dictators that they can’t brutalize their citizens.”)

    I looked (admittedly briefly) for an example of recent wars that he was against, and I was sorely disappointed. The worst he could say about Libya is that Obama’s not waging it tough enough. Sadly, he still seems to view everything that happens in the prism of a Left/Right dynamic.

    Guess we still haven’t learned our lesson after all. (

    Peace be with you.

  11. tbraton says:

    With regard to John Foster Dulles, he was born in 1888, so he was 30 years old when President Wilson appointed him in 1918 as legal counsel to the U.S. delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference.

    According to “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” by Margaret MacMillan (great granddaughter of David Lloyd George), a finely written book:

    “Starting the section in the treaty on reparations were two articles—Articles 231 and 232—that came to be the object of paticular loathing in Germany and the cause of uneasy consciences among the Allies. Article 231 assigned responsibility to Germany and its alies for all the damage caused by the war. Article 232 then restricted what was an unlimited liability by sayng that since Germany’s resources were in fact limited, it should be asked to pay only for specified damages. The first clause—the war guilt clause, as it later came to be known—had been put in after much debate and many revisions, primarily to satisfy the British and the French that Germany’s liability was clearly established. The Americans helpfully put one of their clever young lawyers on to it. John Foster Dulles,the future secretary of state, thought he had both established the liability and successfully limited it and that, on the whole, the treaty was pretty fair.” (Paperback, at 193.)

    “And so Article 231, a clause that the young John Foster Dulles helped to draft as a compromise over reparations, became the great symbol of the unfairness and injustice of the Treaty of Versailles in Weimar, Germany in much subsequent history—and in the English-speaking world.” (p. 467)

    Ironically, Dulles’ law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, later served as attorneys for the Nazi Party and only terminated the relationship when it closed its Berlin office in 1935.

  12. I think criackcon has a point.

    Obama has behaved abominably with allied leaders. The press would have crucified Dubya (for the umpteenth time) if he’d presented Lizzie with an ipod loaded with his own speeches.

    It demonstrates a teenage insolence which is mark of the perenially disaffected and socially anxious – Leftists and their obamessiah.

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