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.

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.