"If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart," President Obama told Democratic mega-contributors last month in one of the 400-plus fundraisers of his presidency.
But not to worry. "The world has always been messy," he said. "In part, we're just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through." Like being beheaded by Islamist terrorists. Or having your country invaded by Russian soldiers.
The president gives the impression of trying to reassure not so much his audience, as himself. For this is not what he expected for his presidency. The world was not supposed to fall apart. It was supposed to come together, as he assured thousands at Berlin's Tiergarten in 2008 that their wall had come down because "there is no challenge that is too great for a world that stands as one."
So one hopes that, as Obama left the fundraiser trail and headed to NATO ally Estonia and the NATO summit in Wales, he arrived stripped of the delusions he carried into his presidency. They include, in no particular order, the following:
-- The delusion that the world would love the United States once the first black president -- a "citizen of the world," as he called himself in Berlin -- took office. But symbolism important to American voters has less purchase overseas. The elites and chattering classes of other nations, even allies, are always going to resent the enormous asymmetrical power of the United States and complain about its policies.
-- The delusion that once the United States withdrew all its troops from Iraq, tranquility would reign in the Middle East. The idea was that Middle Eastern Muslims were provoked by Americans' bossiness and blunders. That takes no account of the longstanding hatreds, desires for revenge and religious fanaticism present in the region before 2003 and flaring again now that U.S. forces have left.
-- The delusion that the key to solving the problems in the Middle East is to arrange a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The problem here is that there are no Palestinian interlocutors willing to make or able to deliver on a promise to live in peace with Israel.
-- The delusion that the hatred of Islamist Muslims for the United States would disappear once Barack Hussein Obama (as he referred to himself in his June 2009 Cairo speech "to the Muslim world") was its leader. Like an American politician recalling his Italian or Polish grandmother, Obama assumed that having a common background would be appealing. The fact that his father was a (very unobservant) Muslim and that he attended Muslim schools cut no ice with Islamists, who consider apostasy a capital crime and are willing to die to make others submit to their version of the faith.
-- The delusion that relations with Russia were ready to be reset now that the cowboy who provoked Vladimir Putin was back in Texas. The fact, as George W. Bush belatedly understood, was that Putin, seething with resentment, was bent on restoring something like a czarist or Soviet empire. His aggression in Georgia in 2008, and in Ukraine this year, were the result not of misunderstanding, but of deliberate intention.
These delusions may or may not have been dispelled. But Obama's recent speeches suggest that Obama still clings (bitterly?) to others. "The arc of the moral universe is long," he likes to say, "but it bends toward freedom."
Not necessarily, unfortunately, and one headed to Estonia should understand this. In the summer of 1940, Hitler and Stalin were allies, in control or threatening to take control of most of the landmass of Eurasia. Lithuania and most of Poland went to Hitler, Latvia and Estonia to Stalin. Britain was under bombardment and Franklin Roosevelt, bucking American public opinion, was only beginning to send aid.
The triumph of the West was not inevitable. What if Hitler had not invaded Russia in 1941? What if America had not joined the war? George Orwell, in England during the Blitz, described one possible outcome in 1984.
That outcome was avoided not by appeals to history but by application of military force. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died in that effort.
Military force and the credible threat thereof are necessary to bend the arc of history the right way. Let's hope Obama is no longer deluded about that.