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

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. cian says:

    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”

    Amazing to think that McCain’s strengths were supposed to be around defence and foreign policy. He has badly lost this argument over the last few days and he knows it.

    McCain has no reason to play ‘tough guy’. He’s the real thing, but the country is tired of that particular ‘persona’ and associates it with Bush and his failed wars and policies. We’re looking for someone who shows ‘smarts’, who can out-think the enemy and plan beyond the disastrous tactics of the last seven years.

    For a majority of us, a majority which includes the present Secretary Of Defence, Secretary of State and General Patraeus, talking to our enemies makes sense. It made sense to McCain two years ago, but for some bizarre reason he now seems to think that following Bush’s lead is a smart political move.

    It isn’t, and if he continues down this track, Obama will win. Bet your house on it.

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Failed wars????? Is Saddam Hussein still dictator in Iraq? No? How is that a failure? I see, you are changing the purpose of the conflict. That is like saying WWII was about nuclear weapons. The emphasis for invading Iraq was given to WMD, but the reasons were outlined in UN Resolution 1441. Read it and edify yourself.

  3. cian says:

    Read it and edify yourself.

    Point taken Zel. Its just I don’t have as much time as I used to and trying to keep up with the ever changing reasons for the war is so time consuming and a little pointless. As soon as one reason is proved bogus, they’ve another in the pipeline ready to roll and a willing bozo lined up to hype it.

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    So James, what you are basically counting on is if Obama is elected he will prove himself to be a liar and not do what he says he will do.

  5. James Joyner says:

    So James, what you are basically counting on is if Obama is elected he will prove himself to be a liar and not do what he says he will do.

    Most presidential candidates, and especially those who are Washington neophytes, campaign as if they can unilaterally change the system much more than they really can.

  6. duckspeaker says:

    Krauthammer, Kristol, Barnes, et al. still spouting about the how to’s of successful foreign policy is like the Chicago Cubs giving lectures about how to win the World Series. I can’t fathom why anyone would still take these people seriously.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Let’s take a look at how SUCCESSFUL foreign policy works:

    G Bush, yesterday:

    With Saddam gone, our job was to help the Iraqi people defend themselves against the extremists and to build a free society. In 2006, that mission was faltering.

    G Bush press conference on October 25, 2006:

    Q Are we winning?

    THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely, we’re winning.

    Liar or ignorant boob? You be the judge…

  8. yetanotherjohn says:

    So Anjin-san,

    You are saying Obama would be four more years of Bush?

  9. anjin-san says:


    Your president has been lying to you through his teeth. Thousands of our troops. Tens of thousands dead in Iraq. Hundreds of billions of dollars badly needed here poured down a rat hole.

    Yet you don’t seem to be upset at all.

    If Obama is elected, we will find out if he is up to it. Same as it is for McCain. Looking good on paper is not what counts, if it were GHW Bush would be on Mt. Rushmore now.

  10. I’ve quoted you and linked to you here.

  11. DavidTC says:

    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.

    Exactly. Normally we ‘secretly’ talk to all nations, and then ‘officially’ talk to them long after we’ve already figured out what to do and both us and them have figured out how to come out of any agreements looking like we ‘won’, and no president can or should change that. (While I’m normally in favor of openness in the government, this is one area that I agree the process should remained somewhat opaque, so countries can make concessions without appearing to make concessions.)

    However, it’s worth pointing out that, under Bush, we haven’t been talking to our enemies, and that’s gotten us nowhere.

    For example, is in the media ever going to look into the fact that Saddam was actually negotiating for exile and immunity from prosecution, for himself and his sons, with other Arab nations, when he realized we were serious about invading, and it is entirely possible we could have taken over the nation at the topmost level peacefully? (Which also would have helped with Baath insurgents hanging around, although those are frankly the least of our problems there.) But, no, we didn’t want to negotiate with him, we needed WAR.

    So the fact that recently we haven’t been talking to our enemies and that has caused problems make McCain (and Clinton) look particularly tone-deaf for demanding we not talk to them and Obama intelligent for demanding we do. Despite the fact that, policy-wise, they’ll be exactly the same, we’ll ‘not talk’ to nations for years, and then ‘suddenly’, we’ll enter into talks with them and manage to hammer out an agreement before lunch that makes both of us look good to our own people. An agreement that was printed up well in advance, but we all agree to ignore that.