Thursday, January 31, 2013

Our Greatest Asset?

What is our greatest asset? Is it our military?

Or is it something greater? America's greatest assets aren't the things we use to preserve our values. They are our values.

It seems simple but often such basic thoughts can be overlooked in our daily shuffle.

Democracy, freedom, openness to new ideas, acceptance, tolerance, adaptability, community. Those are the things we swear to defend. Sometimes the greatest defense isn't military might, sometimes it is capitulating to our values and including our rivals instead of bowing to what we think might get us what we want.

It's an intriguing realization that our great nation has limits. That what we do is hindered by reality.

I have been reading some commentary on Obama's inauguration. Most of it is a drivel of some sort or another, broad sweeps that try to create a trend out of his liberal speech. But I was struck by one assessment that called him a liberal and a conservative. Specifically it referred to his tepid approach to his policies. His idealism mixed with the grounded middle path he has taken. An apprehension for sweeping changes.

Don't believe me? Even Ronald Reagan had more ambitious tax plans, even Eisenhower had loftier public works goals, even Johnson had a more progovernment vision.

In Obama's first term, that approach got him little. Aside from ACA his term was one of the least productive, in terms of bills signed, ever.

But then you look to his foreign policy and see someone far less nebulous--unencumbered by domestic politics. Our popularity has soared abroad, international agreements are far more readily made, and we haven't occupied another country.

All of these things are results I think a reasonable person can get behind. Of course there is the matter of approach. Many find his approach off-putting, going so far as to say that our president has gone on an apology tour.

And, that's not true. Plenty of fact-checking sites verify Obama's failure to apologize--Washington Post did a pretty comprehensive one. What he has done, is take a softer stance on foreign policy than the previous administration. I mean soft as in favoring diplomacy (soft power) over military action (hard power). Even then that is a tenuous distinction.

Obama is a covert president. One much more accustomed to the JFK style of intervention as opposed to a Jeffersonian.

It's odd that there are so many comparisons to Reagan. In many ways he resembles Reagan's approach, but in many ways he does not. Notably Obama does not seem to subscribe to the Nixonian view of "just crazy enough to do it."

Reagan definitely did.

The point I'm making is that Obama, despite some pretty reprehensible actions such as drone strikes, has still managed to garner more respect in the world than our last president. Arguably that gives him the ability to do more. Although admittedly Iraq and Afghanistan both have democracies now, troubled as they may be.

And under Obama's watch, the Arab Spring happened, probably not due to any direct intervention on his part. Yet, our multi-faceted and tailored approaches to these distinct revolutions has garnered us lots of political capital with minimal expenditure. Let me put it another way--Bush was a bit one-dimensional in his foreign policy. Everything was a nail and our military was a giant hammer.

Obama is more of a Swiss army knife. Sometimes you need to uncork some wine and other times you need to stab something.

When this period of American history settles into the past, I think we'll look back at this period of American history as a turning point. Our post-9/11 presidents have not only taken an aggressive and unilateral approach to world politics through our military, but we have done it without a substantial existential threat, or even a legitimate rival.

The economy contracted in 4Q of 2012 by .1% largely due to cuts in military spending. And the cuts weren't that big. That's how big our military is. It's tempting to use our hammer for every screw loose when our hammer is so freakin' big (and it's got apps and a touchscreen to boot).

I've written too much and deviated far from my point.

I was trying to say that sometimes speaking softly is far preferable to wielding a big stick and gets us further.