Report June 2008

The Accidental Foreign Policy

How an early gaffe and an excruciatingly long primary season helped Barack Obama find a distinctive voice on foreign affairs
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Photo by Michael Czerwonka/EPA/Corbis

For many Democratic insiders, the seemingly endless primary season has become a sore subject; they believe the length of the contest will hurt the party’s chances in November. We’ll have to wait and see if that happens, but it’s worth noting that as the campaign has gone on, it has produced more than just acrimony. It’s produced a meaningful new approach to foreign policy as well—the first substantial alternative to George W. Bush’s policies that has entered the political mainstream since 9/11, and one whose airing should be welcomed not just by Democrats but by all voters.

Barack Obama has always been an independent thinker. He of course opposed the war in Iraq, and he’s built a team of national-security advisers who disproportionately took the same, then-unpopular antiwar view. But as a presidential candidate articulating what he might do in office, his real break with convention may have begun with a gaffe.

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.”

It was only mid-summer, ages before the Iowa caucuses in campaign time, so it was a good moment to experiment. And it worked: polling suggested that Americans were largely on board with Obama’s position. Soon, on the stump, he was regularly referring to his willingness to meet with foreign leaders, unlike other top presidential candidates.

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.

Presented by

Matthew Yglesias is an Atlantic associate editor. His book, Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats, was published in April.

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