Barack Obama decided to end the media debate about his lack of foreign-policy experience by demonstrating decisively that he is out of his depth when it comes to international affairs. In the space of a few days in late July and early August, he stated publicly that he would meet with the leaders of five rogue states without preconditions during the first year of his administration, launch military strikes into allied Pakistan against al-Qaeda targets if Islamabad would not act, and then ruled out using nuclear weapons in any such attacks. The opponent of the Iraq invasion, who rightly declared himself opposed to “rash” and “dumb” wars, has lately been throwing himself rashly and foolishly into political fights for which he is not prepared and will not win. At least no one thinks that his routine claims to audacity are merely rhetorical now.

Most political observers and all of his Democratic rivals gleefully pounced on Obama’s missteps, citing them as evidence that the junior senator is too green to contend for the presidency. With only two years in the Senate, his inexperience is to be expected, as is his apparent lack of understanding about much of the rest of the world. What separates Obama from past candidates whose foreign-policy background was virtually nonexistent is his supreme confidence that he can see the flaws in standing policy and create effective alternatives. Where even Candidate Bush in 2000 tread carefully and said little that specifically contradicted current policy, Obama is a fountain of proposals that seem designed to worsen relations with key allies.

From his widely reported spat with Prime Minister John Howard over Australian troop levels in Iraq to his saber-rattling against an unstable, vulnerable, and strategically critical state, Obama is proving as adept at irritating and unnerving U.S. allies as the Bush administration was in 2002 and 2003. Indeed, together with some incendiary remarks by Rep. Tom Tancredo, Obama’s statements caused such a tumult in U.S.-Pakistan relations that the State Department called on all presidential candidates to refrain from speaking so carelessly about foreign policy.

Yet Obama continues to swing wildly: dovish toward “rogue” regimes, then cartoonishly aggressive, then back again to a ban on the use of nuclear weapons on the “right battlefield” to which he is interested in taking us. Beset by criticism from both parties (if enjoying some disturbingly positive remarks from Rudy Giuliani and the Wall Street Journal), Obama has held his ground, arguing that he represents “change.” But in almost every case where this is true, it appears to be a change for the worse. Moving from Bush’s approach that disdains diplomacy as a sign of weakness, he proposes to make a travesty of diplomacy by conducting it cavalierly and without purpose. Obama would get us out of Iraq apparently only to trap us in Waziristan—and destabilize and alienate a major ally in the process. He would rule out a tactical option mainly because he senses that the current administration would not.

But despite claiming to be a “change,” Obama’s overall foreign policy and his judgments do not represent that much of a correction from this administration’s hubris, recklessness, and presumption. His proposals actually derive from the same all-encompassing, hyper-ambitious, and dangerous foreign-policy tradition.

In his first major address on international affairs, he made a typically grandiloquent statement about the scope and nature of the U.S. role:

In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people. When narco-trafficking and corruption threaten democracy in Latin America, it’s America’s problem too. When poor villagers in Indonesia have no choice but to send chickens to market infected with avian flu, it cannot be seen as a distant concern. When religious schools in Pakistan teach hatred to young children, our children are threatened as well.

Replace “security” with “liberty,” and you have President Bush’s Second Inaugural all over again. Both Bush and Obama lack any sense of proportion or limit. If the ideology of the Second Inaugural conflated the national interest with vague and manipulable “values,” this conflates our national interests with the security interests of every person on earth. There is no logical end to the list of foreign crises and internal political disputes that both visions compel the United States to solve.

Obama has been trying to translate his original opposition to the invasion of Iraq into an emblem of his allegedly superior judgment in foreign affairs. Yet in almost everything else he has to say about foreign policy or the use of force overseas, he holds many of the same assumptions and conceits of those who, in his words, “helped to engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in a generation.”  

September 10, 2007 Issue