After nine months in office, President Obama has assured us all of one thing: He is clearly a child of the 60s.
Thus far, his approach to foreign policy in dealing with the world’s most insipid international dictators, has been more flower power, hug-a-thon and free love, than iron fist. Whether he’s yukking it up with Hugo Chavez, chewing the cud with Saudi King Abdulluh, suggesting a cozy fireside chat with Ahmadinejad, or pulling up a lawn chair to watch North Korea’s nuclear fireworks display, it’s clear President Obama is not interested in carrying on America’s great legacy as intimidating world super power.
And thanks to the humiliating apologia he delivered at the UN last week, where he essentially asked the world’s all-time worst (and worst-dressed) cretins, “Why can’t we all just get along?” we are now officially just a kooky group of hippies, tree-huggers and peaceniks who prefer the naïve and lazy activism of a rec center sit-in to the courage of conviction and bold action. Walk softly and carry a big hug.
But I recently learned this Montessori School, touchy feely, self-helpy, group-therapy kind of worldview has its backers in other more banal realms of social diplomacy.
The other day, in the New York Times Science section, Alfie Kohn wrote an essay criticizing parents who disciplined their children by way of a technique called “positive or negative conditional parenting.” Now, forget the psycho-babble for a minute – this simply describes parents who reward their kids for good behavior by acting, well, happy about it, and punish their kids for bad behavior by being, like, a little ticked off. In short, it’s the way most people parent – cheering on a successful potty attempt and booing a temper tantrum, rewarding a good report card with a trip to the mall and taking away the iPod for fighting at school.
But for Kohn, who says this centuries-old and presumably instinctive reward-and-punishment system amounts to “withholding love,” conditional parenting is damaging and confusing to kids, and can leave lasting scars. Even positive reinforcement, which most people would consider pretty good parenting, is dangerous, because it “teaches children that they are loved, and lovable, only when they do whatever we decide is a ‘good job.’”
So, in the interest of being the absolute best mommy possible, well-liked by all, and able to sleep at night satisfied with your own parental superiority over the Smiths down the street, Kohn implores you to instead “love unconditionally.”
Befuddled? All that means a long list of don’ts. Don’t reward. Don’t praise. Don’t criticize. Don’t discipline. Don’t decide. “Give kids more say about their lives,” Kohn dreamily writes. “Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Our default response should be to let them choose — unless there’s a compelling reason to deny them that opportunity.”
And what about that time-honored tradition of banishing a kid to the corner for a 10-minute time-out? Kohn warns it’s akin to “forcible isolation.”
If you think Kohn’s advice sounds like something a stoner would tell you during a really good acid trip, imagine it as our president’s approach to foreign policy. Because it is:
Don’t reward: Thanks for all the military aid in Iraq and Afghanistan, Poland. But we’re still taking away your missile defense. And on the anniversary of your invasion by the Soviet Union.
Don’t praise: Bad, Israel.
Don’t criticize: Kim Jong Il, Ahmadinejad, Castro, Chavez, Qaddafi – no one’s right and no one’s wrong. They just see things “differently” than we do.
Don’t discipline: The UN handles that kind of stuff, right?
Don’t decide: Let’s wait on Afghanistan troop deployment until everyone else has weighed in.
Don’t time-out: Kneecap the CIA, close up GITMO and ban water boarding. Those terrorist guys just need a little love.
But Kohn’s parenting approach and Obama’s foreign policy approach have even more in common: They lack a list of dos.
Readers were so puzzled by Kohn’s essay and empty declarations to “love unconditionally” that they wrote in to the Times begging for an explanation of just what that means. The paper published his response, which was unsurprising:
“I don’t have a script to offer — a three-step recipe for what to do when your kid misbehaves. I think that sort of thing is disrespectful to kids as well as parents, and it’s also foolish because too much depends on who you are, who your child is, what kind of relationship you have and what exactly is happening at the time.”
He went on to offer 10 pseudo-psychological and wholly unspecific Hallmark adages to help better explain his parenting advice, like “Be authentic,” and “Put the relationship first.”
President Obama finds himself in a similar predicament – fuzzy on what his free love foreign policy actually means, and how it is enforced in pragmatic terms. What do we actually do about Iran, Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, Russia, Israel, Cuba, Venezuela and Libya? If American exceptionalism is out and the Age of Aquarius is in, who’s actually in charge?
Well, as any realist can tell you, when a mother lets her kids make their own choices, and refuses to actually parent, it’s clearly the children who are in charge. And when a president grovels at the feet of the rest of the world, including his enemies, and refuses to actually lead, it’s clearly his enemies who are in charge.
This isn’t an argument for American paternalism. It’s an argument for American leadership. Love-ins might have been a lot of fun, but they didn’t get a whole heck of a lot accomplished.
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