For the better part of a generation, top Democratic politicians have followed, with astonishing uniformity, the same set of unwritten rules in their approach to foreign affairs: match GOP “toughness”; tack to the right on major foreign-policy principles; and, above all, avoid taking positions that could be criticized as weak. So at the YouTube debate on July 23, 2007, when Obama was asked whether he would be willing to meet “without precondition …with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea,” the right answer, conventionally speaking, was a qualified “no.” But Obama answered in the affirmative.
Initially, even sympathetic observers like The Nation’s David Corn called this statement a “flub” at best. Hillary Clinton, the quintessence of Democratic establishment thinking, had answered that she would use “high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way,” before holding direct meetings with heads of state.
Few observers believed that Obama genuinely intended to break new ground with his response—his campaign had never articulated any such policy before, and seemed ill-prepared to defend it on the spot. The Clinton campaign dutifully pressed the attack the next day, calling Obama’s statement “irresponsible and frankly naive.” But then a funny thing happened. Obama’s team did not try to qualify (or, in political parlance, “clarify”) his remark, and no one said he misspoke. Instead, the campaign fought back, with memos to reporters and with a speech by the candidate himself, aimed squarely at the sort of “conventional wisdom” that had, in the words of his then-foreign-policy adviser, Samantha Power, “led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy.”
…Today, Obama calls not only for direct negotiations with leaders of rogue states, but also for an American commitment to eventual global nuclear disarmament (in part to reinvigorate nonproliferation efforts); a substantial rebalancing of American military priorities toward Afghanistan (and away from Iraq); a softening of the embargo on Cuba; and a widening of the current, single-minded focus on democracy promotion to include other development goals that might more effectively prevent terrorist recruitment. Many think that there’s little difference between the Democrats on policy grounds. That may once have been true, but over time—and largely in response to Clinton’s barbs—Obama’s foreign-policy approach has evolved into something substantially different from either Clinton’s or McCain’s.
...The crux of his approach is a certain fearlessness in asking questions, a refusal to dismiss any option as simply taboo. Why not talk to the leaders of Iran and Syria? If we want other countries to follow the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, why shouldn’t we be willing to live up to our own treaty commitments? If al-Qaeda is primarily in central Asia, how come America’s military and intelligence resources aren’t?
Through his willingness to ask those questions and follow the answers wherever they lead, Obama has discovered substantial wellsprings of support.
Monday, June 02, 2008
The Accidental Foreign Policy
In the Atlantic, Matthew Yglesias explores how “an early gaffe and an excruciatingly long primary season helped Barack Obama find a distinctive voice on foreign affairs.” An excerpt:
On that note, as reported by Kos, Gallup found that “large majorities of Democrats and independents, and even half of Republicans, believe the president of the United States should meet with the leaders of countries that are considered enemies of the United States. Overall, 67% of Americans say this kind of diplomacy is a good idea.”