Obama's Meta Problem

Peter Beinart pens a very smart analysis of why Barack Obama's had trouble gaining traction with his foreign policy critique of Hillary Clinton: His arguments about forward-looking Iraq policy make him look "like he's splitting hairs," the Senate resolution on Iran Clinton voted for "was rewritten to avoid any suggestion of military force," and most of all he "runs smack into America's strange indifference to the past. Recent American history is littered with candidates who were right about war and weren't rewarded at election time."

But Beinart misses another problem with Obama's strategy. When he tries to engage in an intra-party argument about foreign policy, people like Peter Beinart who've gone so far as to write a book about intra-Democratic disputes about foreign policy issues ignore what he's arguing in favor of making arguments about why his arguments aren't penetrating.

But that still leaves us with the question: Whether or not the voters care about a vote that happened five years ago, should they care? Not necessarily. But in combination with the fact that her posture toward Iran seems more aggressive, that she's less optimistic about the possibility of achieving a "grand bargain" through diplomacy, that her forward-looking Iraq policy seems more focused on a continuing military role, that she's been more cautious on America's nuclear arsenal, that she's attacked her primary opponents from the right on foreign policy issues, that seems to have a more hawkish cadre of advisors, and that has every incentive at the moment to minimize the appearance of a difference between her and Obama, I think all the evidence points in one direction: Obama would pursue a more restrained foreign policy, more inflected by the strains of realism and internationalism that have come to predominate among the dovish camp in American politics whereas Clinton would pursue a more militarily expansive one, more in line with the thinking of the establishmentarians who got us into war with Iraq and have since come to kinda sorta regret but don't really think they were wrong.

Can I say with 100 percent certainty what that'll amount to at the end of the day? No. Presidents have a habit of re-evaluating their foreign policy approach while in office. But it seems to me that the role of a journalist who's attuned to the small ins-and-outs of these debates is precisely to convey to readers things they might not otherwise pick up on, not to merely explain that people aren't picking up on stuff. And there's the rub, the differences in the positions Clinton and Obama have staked out have been subtle, but the differences keep lining up the same way.