Crossposted at Ich Bin Ein Oberliner.
Writer, blogger, and Atlantic associate editor Matthew Yglesias has a fascinating look at Obama's foreign policy out in this month's Atlantic. It's called--for those too lazy to click on the link--"The Accidental Foreign Policy, and it's billed as "How an early gaffe and an excruciatingly long primary season helped Barack Obama find a distinctive voice on foreign affairs."
Yglesias focuses on Obama's willingness to meet with foreign leaders--something widely lambasted by the Serious class on both sides of the aisle as dangerously naive. That is to say, it was widely lambasted by the two big centers of establishment foreign policy: neo-conservatives (i.e. President Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, McCain, etc.) and moderate hawks (i.e. Senator Clinton, Broderites post-partisans, Friedman, etc.).
Yglesias points out that before the "gaffe", Obama's foreign policy was stunningly timid and hopelessly vague. He writes:
Despite his stand against the war in 2002, he had since hewed closely to the party line on foreign affairs. The only substantive thing he had to say about Iraq policy during his famous 2004 convention speech was: "When we send our young men and women into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they are going; to care for their families while they’re gone; to tend to the soldiers upon their return; and to never, ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world." This merely echoed the bland competence-and-execution argument of mainstream party thinking. And as Clinton’s campaign has been at pains to point out, Obama’s Senate voting record on Iraq-related issues is nearly identical to hers. Before the YouTube debate, the higher Obama’s political ambitions had reached, the more cautious his foreign policy had become.
Shortly put, Obama's foreign policy was pretty much run-of-the-mill for Democrats over the last few years: saner than Bush, but always with a "we're tough, too" whine. Needless to say, this isn't what we need today.
I appreciate two things about Obama's willingness to meet with foreign leaders--and the sketches of his policy points that have fallen out of that. First, it signals a pragmatism that has been sorely lacking since Bush II. Neoconservatism is essentially and necessarily dogmatic. That is to say, it provides a clear structure--a policy heuristic, if you will--that determines, given a situation, what the response is. In this way, Bush's foreign policy has actually been quite predictable. Dictator in the middle east? Make claims of threat to U.S. Safety and call for regime change. It's misplaced Mother Teresa with machine guns.
The moderate hawkishness of the Serious pundit and politician class fares little better. It often amounts to a "we'll do what he did, just better". It ignores the fundamental problems with "the white man's burden"-esque machismo of neo-conservatism. Namely, democracy at gun point might not be the panacea the right thinks it is. Free markets, free people; free people, moderate people--while catchy, has failed.
Obama's policy, as Yglesias notes avoids these kinds of dogmatic policy structures. As he writes, "[I]f Obama wins in November, the thrilling debate over what should replace neoconservatism--"realistic Wilsonianism"? "ethical realism"?--can be tabled." None of this is to say that Obama's pragmatism leads to great policy. Consider the AIPAC speech, which laid out a depressingly familiar toe-the-line approach to Israel/Palestine. But, Obama's policies in other areas are heartening. Yglesias writes:
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.
Looking back on Obama's foreign policy experience in the senate, one might have seen this pragmatism coming; his work, for example, with Sen. Lugar, a staunch conservative, in weapons proliferation demonstrates this kind of leftist pragmatism (see here or here). At any rate, his international politics, while certainly a departure from the Serious and Responsible clusterfuck of the last few years, is by no means as "naive" as his critics would say. It is different, to be sure, but after so many years of so much the same, it is a needed respite from the failures of the pundocracy.
The second upside of Obama's approach is his rejection of the classic snare for dovish politicians. That is, he refuses to play the testosterone equals good policy game that Republicans have been shoving down America's throat since Nixon. This rejection of American Exceptionalism is necessary both for good policy and for good politics, and its clear that Obama understands this. Instead of backing off from his comments about engagement with pariah states, he forcefully supported them. If you ask me, it's about time a Democrat showed some spine on foreign policy.
It's a great article. Read it.