Monday, December 01, 2008

Obama's Foreign Policy: Change Is In the Process, Not Necessarily the Policy

As everyone tries to read the tea-leaves of the Obama foreign policy team, people are naturally wondering if Obama has changed his views and become a hawk, or whether he'll convince people like Clinton to change hers.

But I would argue that Obama's views aren't changing so much as evolving. And in a good way.

His earliest positions - on Iraq, for instance - were clearly one dimensional. Iraq was a mistake, he said in his first major speech on the subject (and he even said then that war was still a good policy tool, in the last resort). But claiming Iraq as a mistake is not foreign policy. In 2002, it was prescient and courageous; by 2004, it was obvious.

So Obama next tried to lay out a principal that would contrast with the Bush doctrine: we should talk to our enemies.

But clearly the initial formulation of that struck some people as naive. What "we" did Obama mean? He responded by clarifying his position to the point where in the end, it was hardly much different from Bush's own (which had also evolved over the same period): send low-level people to do talks, save Presidential visits for rewards.

It seems that both Obama from the left and Bush from the right have evolved into this centrist, "realistic" foreign policy assessment.

The difference is that Obama evolved swiftly, over a matter of months, and before he could actually take office and mess things up with a naive policy. He clearly listened to people who knew something about these things, and he even more clearly changed his mind. Yes, he had to weave his changing position and thread a pretty unconvincing semantic needle between "preconditions" and "preparation." Obama had realized he needed to modulate his position, and it was hard to do that while drawing a line back to earlier statements without effecting some awfully awkward Clintonian distinctions.

Bush, on the other hand, got to be naive for six years, and did a hell of a lot of damage, before his administration wised up and tried the same modulation.

So here's the thing. When Obama speaks of change, he doesn't mean that there won't be politics to the way he characterizes his approach, and he doesn't means that everything he does will be the policy opposite of Bush. People who draw these distinctions do so at their peril, and without much close reading of Obama himself. His approach to this - like the economy - has been pretty consistent: He means that the process of government will change. It will be smart, open-minded, bipartisan, and nimble, not slow, obstinate, ideological and naive.

If that was your biggest complaint about the last eight years - and it was mine - then that's change we can still believe in.

It also should be noted, however, that there will apparently be a very clear difference between Obama's emphasis on an array of foreign policy tools, and Bush's "attack first, ask questions later" approach - which even if he finally abandoned when he installed people like Gates - who agree with Obama - he never clearly corrected into a coherent policy.

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