Barack Obama, Liberal Hawk?

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Yglesias cries foul on my last post, with its prediction that Obama would end up earning a "strange new respect" among some right-wing hawks - and that he might even end up bomb, bomb, bombing Iran:

A phased withdrawal from Iraq plus a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan wouldn't be a lurch to the right, that's what Obama's been calling for throughout the campaign. And, indeed, way back in 2002 he was saying that instead of invading Iraq, we should have a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But add "authorize airstrikes against Iran" to the mix, and then you're talking about something entirely different. Obama made repeated, explicit promises during the campaign for a new approach to Iran, and the new approach wasn't "bomb, bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran."

First, I should have been clearer: I don't think Obama is going to "lurch to the right," exactly, on foreign policy. Rather, I think there was an assumption among many on the right (and in some precincts of the left) that he would swing to the left once in office. That assumption always seemed to me more rooted in paranoia and/or wishful thinking than in Obama's actual rhetoric and proposals, and I think that the hints we've gotten about his personnel choices to date bear my assumption out. If Barack Obama's comfortable with the idea of Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, he's just not going to be the ridiculously-dovish President a lot of right-wingers kept insisting he might be.

The Iran issue is a separate and much more speculative matter, I admit, but here I think Matt and I just disagree about how to think about the incoming President's foreign policy vision. He sees Obama's various breaks with establishment thinking during the campaign as marking a real departure from the sort of liberal hawkery that made so many establishment liberals sympathetic to the invasion of Iraq. And I see them as representing a much more superficial departure, in which the lessons of Iraq are 1) don't invade Iraq and 2) take diplomacy more seriously that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld did. These are, of course, perfectly plausible lessons to take, but they don't amount to a strategic rethink of America's approach to the Middle East, or the world. And they don't tell us that much about how Obama will handle the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran - especially in a political landscape where letting the Iranians get a bomb might expose him to effective political attacks from the right. So in the short run, yes - I fully expect him to attempt the diplomatic offensive he's promised vis-a-vis Tehran, and obviously I hope that it succeeds. But I think there's good reason to expect that he'll fail, meetings with Ahmadinejad or no, and I think that both Obama's strategic premises and the hints we've had on his personnel choices suggest that if Iran looks poised to go nuclear in, say, late 2011 or so, nobody should be surprised at all if our new commander-in-chief decides that he doesn't want a nuclear-armed Iran as part of his legacy, and acts accordingly.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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