Of all the interventionists out there, Robert Kagan should know better than to claim that the Oslo speech represented some sort of “shift” in Obama’s foreign policy. As Tomasky made clear in his article, Obama was saying things that he had been saying for years. There was nothing new. There was no “shift.” Kagan should know better because he was one of the few neoconservatives who recognized early on that Obama was an ambitious interventionist. Kagan liked Obama’s early foreign policy speeches, as well he should have. Most of his complaints since then have been baseless (he once claimed Obama was cutting the Pentagon’s budget) or focused on a disagreement over process and means, which are the only significant disagreements that separate most neoconservatives from liberal internationalists. Obama made no “course adjustment.” His Nobel speech, like his war plan speech, was defined by a particular occasion, but he could have given most of the speech two or even seven years ago.
None of this stops Kagan from making a fool of himself:
He would not be the first president to make the transformation from skeptic to champion of a war.
Obama has never been a skeptic of the Afghan war! There has been exactly one war where Obama’s skepticism outweighed his normal hawkishness, and this was Iraq. As it happens, he was absolutely right to be skeptical about that. It could turn out that he ought to have been more skeptical of what the U.S. can accomplish in Afghanistan, but all of this commentary I see claiming that Obama has somehow been “half-hearted” or not a fully convinced supporter of the war in Afghanistan is completely wrong.
The comparison with Wilson is silly. Wilson was lying when he claimed that he was trying to keep the United States out of war, and once he was secure in office after the 1916 election and had a good enough pretext he could not enter the war fast enough. His second inauguration was in late March, and the war declaration was passed in early April. Wilson’s voters would have had a right to feel betrayed by Wilson’s sudden volte-face; Obama’s backers are getting exactly what Obama promised them. Obama has never claimed as a candidate or as President that he wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan under present circumstances; he did not campaign on suddenly ending the war in Afghanistan. Unlike Wilson, Obama did not blatantly lie about his intentions regarding Afghanistan. What seems to amaze so many people is that Obama evidently meant what he said when he argued for providing the Afghan war with more resources and soldiers. All of the campaign rhetoric that Obama wanted to “retreat” or “surrender” to or “appease” America’s enemies has been exposed as the lies that they obviously were at the time, and so now there is something of a desperate race to claim that Obama’s foreign policy has changed from what it was and, if possible, to take credit for the change.
The Oslo speech also does not represent a “turning point in Iran policy.” Obama’s idea of engagement with Iran has always included the possibility of punitive measures, and of course Obama has never absolutely ruled out the use of force against Iran. Engagement was one tool among many to achieve a certain end. Obama’s goal has always been the dismantling or strict limitation of Iran’s nuclear program. Obama’s Iran policy is continuing on the same trajectory it has been on since the beginning, and so long as the severe limitation or elimination of Iran’s nuclear program is the official goal the administration will employ increasingly harsh measures to try to extract concessions. This will fail, and Iran will never make those concessions. Obama’s approach is not what I have in mind when I think of engagement with Iran, but Obama’s Iran policy has not turned anywhere, nor has it changed. It continues on its straight line to confrontation and conflict. At least this last part obviously pleases Kagan and Kristol, which is the lesson to take away from neoconservative praise of Obama’s speech: they will embrace anything, even a Democrat delivering his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, if it makes aggressive war more likely.