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

If Obama had followed up his win in Iowa with a victory in New Hampshire, as once looked likely, and then wrapped up the nomination in February, the YouTube skirmish might have remained a curiosity, a small outlier in an otherwise conventional foreign-policy agenda. A “bring home the troops” pitch would have created more than enough contrast with John McCain’s foreign policy, and a strong focal point for debate. With the entire electorate as an audience, it would have been in Obama’s interest to minimize their other foreign-policy differences.

But “bring home the troops” offered no differentiation from Hillary Clinton, who had more or less successfully pivoted away from her earlier support of the war. As the campaign stretched on and Clinton sharpened her attacks on Obama’s commander-in-chief credentials, he began to counter by questioning her whole approach to foreign policy—the establishment approach. 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.

Mercifully, Obama’s foreign-policy approach is not characterized by “new ideas”—there are no genuinely new ideas about how to manage America’s place in the world. Nor does it involve any strained attempts to develop a theoretical worldview from which all conclusions must follow (if Obama wins in November, the thrilling debate over what should replace neoconservatism—“realistic Wilsonianism”? “ethical realism”?—can be tabled). Instead, 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. Much of the professional counterterrorism community opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning, and Obama has obtained formal and informal support from many of that group’s leading lights. Similarly, Obama’s position on nuclear weapons follows not only liberal disarmament prescriptions but also the advice of Republicans in good standing, such as George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Above all, his general approach is pragmatic. More to the point, it doesn’t heed the usual political advice that says Democrats should recoil in fear from anything that could be painted as weakness.

Obama’s campaign is betting on the idea that the disaster in Iraq has helped make what it calls “the politics of fear” obsolete, and that the time is ripe for something else. It’s a plausible theory, but also a risky one—so risky that the campaign only adopted it when forced to. But regardless of whether it works in the end, it should be tested: 9/11, and Bush’s response to it, have raised important questions about America’s role in the world; the country deserves an election in which the nominees debate those questions squarely.

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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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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