Obama’s Accidental Foreign Policy
Matt Yglesias and Charles Krauthammer don’t agree about much but they are in convergence over the origin of Barack Obama’s foreign policy: a gaffe at last August’s YouTube debates wherein he avowed that, if elected president, he would indeed meet, “without precondition … with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.”
In an insightful piece in this month’s Atlantic, “The Accidental Foreign Policy,” Yglesias writes,
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.”
This position really was a departure for Obama. 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.
Krauthammer concurs wholeheartedly, albeit believing the accident was much less happy. In “The Absurdity of Meeting the Enemy,” he explains,
After that, there was no going back. So he doubled down. What started as a gaffe became policy. By now, it has become doctrine. Yet it remains today what it was on the day he blurted it out: an absurdity.
Should the president ever meet with enemies? Sometimes, but only after minimal American objectives — i.e. preconditions — have been met. The Shanghai communique was largely written long before Richard Nixon ever touched down in China. Yet Obama thinks Nixon to China confirms the wisdom of his willingness to undertake a worldwide freshman-year tyrants tour.
Most of the time you don’t negotiate with enemy leaders because there is nothing to negotiate. Does Obama imagine that North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela are insufficiently informed about American requirements for improved relations?
There are always contacts through back channels or intermediaries. Iran, for example, has engaged in five years of talks with our closest European allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency, to say nothing of the hundreds of official U.S. statements outlining exactly what we would give them in return for suspending uranium enrichment.
Obama pretends that while he is for such “engagement,” the cowboy Republicans oppose it. Another absurdity. No one is debating the need for contacts. The debate is over the stupidity of elevating rogue states and their tyrants, easing their isolation and increasing their leverage by granting them unconditional meetings with the president of the world’s superpower.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, I agree with Krauthammer here so far as it goes. If the choice is unconditional presidential level summits with the world’s despots or saber rattling in public while holding backchannel meetings among the professional diplomatic corps, I’ll take the latter.
As I noted in Wednesday’s episode of OTB Radio, though, I think both Obama and McCain are merely posturing on this issue for the sake of carving out identities that are more distinct than their likely policies would be. Obama is trying to brand himself as a guy who engages the world and builds consensus. But would he really be so foolish as to show up for a meeting with the Iranian mullahs and lend them the prestige of his office without some reasonable assurance of accomplishing something substantial? I can’t imagine he would. Likewise, McCain is trying to further burnish his “tough guy” persona by making it appear that he would refuse to meet with the “bad guys” without their unconditional surrender as a prerequisite. In reality, I think, he’d essentially continue the current policy of talking tough while talk goes on behind the scenes.
Photo credit: U.S. News & World Report