Over the last few weeks, Barack Obama has once again taken positions that challenge Washington’s conventional wisdom on foreign policy. And once again, pundits and politicians have leveled charges that are now bankrupt of credibility and devoid of the new ideas that the American people desperately want.
On each point in the last few weeks, Barack Obama has called for a break from a broken way of doing things. On each point, he has brought fresh strategic thinking and common sense that break with the very conventional wisdom that has led us into Iraq. ~Samantha Power
Power’s memo is a clever attempt at damage control, but I don’t think many people will be biting. On so, so many things, Obama isn’t unconventional, fresh or challening at all–his previous statements on foreign policy before this past week mark him as a ludicrously ambitious interventionist. Knowing that about him, his statements about “acting” in Pakistan go from appearing careless to appearing rather horrifying.
In principle, there was nothing wrong with Obama saying that he would meet with leaders of “rogue” states and there was potentially quite a lot right with it, especially when it comes to Syria and Iran. It was the context in which he gave that answer and the particulars of the answer that made what might otherwise be a refreshing departure from the last six years into an occasion for head-shaking. The question he was asked was admittedly ridiculous, but he neither challenged the question for being a stupid hypothetical gotcha question nor did he say anything that suggested that he understood the purpose of top-level meetings between heads of government. He wanted to distinguish the symbolism of an Obama Administration from that of Mr. Bush. Besides, does any President ever have direct meetings with tinpot dictators, whether friendly or hostile, in his first year? Generally speaking, no. There are quite a few more important leaders for him to be meeting at that time. Then there is the Kennedy precedent. Bold, brash JFK thought he could stare down Krushchev in Vienna and managed to come off in the eyes of the Soviets as a fool and a pushover. The next year was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The good news for Obama is that none of the states he was talking about are anywhere near as powerful or important as the USSR was. The fallout from a failed Obama-Assad meeting would be minimal. Then again, this makes prioritising meetings with them seem especially daft.
Simply saying or doing something rash for the sake of doing something different from what had been done previously is exactly the sort of approach that got us into Iraq. Obama used to be against doing and saying rash things–now what is rash has been redefined as “unconventional.” Invasion became a respectable option because there were a great many “unconventional” arguments being made against the containment of Iraq, which was the received wisdom at the time. A few years ago, foreign policy “realism” was supposedly bankrupt, because the promoters of the war and the “freedom agenda” said it was. They represented the new prevailing wisdom. The Bush Doctrine, though it had its roots in earlier interventionism, represented a fairly significant change. Not all change is desirable, and sometimes the changes instituted as responses to events are, because they are being made quickly and recklessly, the wrong ones to make.
That is the sort of thing you will get when you want to be seen as trashing conventional assumptions and have no good ideas with which to replace them. Obama wants to pitch himself as the “change candidate,” and he claims that his statements reflect the “change” he’s going to bring to government. The trouble he has is that plenty of us believe that this is the case, and the change he is bringing seems to be mostly for the worse. Overall, the government would not be less interventionist under Obama, it would actually be less respectful of some of our major allies (if that is even conceivable) in the event that Washington deemed that those allies had “failed to act” inside their own countries to our satisfaction, and the new administration would also seem to be out of its depth in coping with the diplomatic brushfires that it would keep setting.
There are two principal reasons why Obama’s remarks on Pakistan in particular were wrong. First, they demonstrated the error of someone who is half-informed, someone who has just enough information (in this case, the new NIE) to be confident in pushing forward into a blunder, as he clearly has little sense of why it is that Pakistan has been unsuccessful so far in suppressing what he calls a “sanctuary.” Additionally, they show that he believes that the sovereignty of all states, both allied and hostile, should be irrelevant when Washington says that it is. He has made an argument here that takes for granted that all other governments exist to one degree or another to provide America with security–and why wouldn’t Obama believe that, if he believes that the security of everyone on earth is tied into the security of the United States? Liberal internationalism of the ’90s wanted a “human rights” exception to state sovereignty, and now Obama has added to this an expansive U.S. security exception, which states that no state is really sovereign and our forces may come and go as they please in any of them if the President deems it appropriate. Arguably, this is not so much of a change as a continuity with some of the worst aspects of the Cold War, which would make sense for a candidate who continually models himself after JFK.
We should judge presidential candidates on their judgment and their plans, not on their ability to recite platitudes.
Yet that is exactly what almost everyone criticising Obama is doing–they are judging the merits of his proposal and find that proposal to be, well, a bit loopy. Whether pro-war, antiwar, imperialist or anti-imperialist, most people seem to be in agreement that Obama erred badly. It is, of course, possible for most people in this country to be wrong, but it does not necessarily follow that Obama is always right because he has a knack of siding with unpopular foreign policy views. In the past, he took the then-unpopular view of opposing the Iraq war, as I and many others did, and he was right to do so, because the Iraq war was senseless and unjust and ruinous for our interests. There is a virtue in being able to defy conventional wisdom and establishment assumptions (one wishes that he would challenge more of them, but do so in a less obviously ridiculous way), but rejecting conventional wisdom is one thing and proposing a different, but potentially much more dangerous course is another. It would have been one thing if Obama had said that current Pakistan policy was unacceptable and that reflexive support for Musharraf was getting us nowhere, but instead of pursuing that kind of criticism in a much smarter direction he chose to offer a re-edited version of the Bush Doctrine.
Incidentally, Obama’s timing is also fairly terrible–Musharraf has, I think foolishly but also at some risk to himself, resumed the deployment of soldiers to western and northwestern Pakistan in a repeat of the policy that proved so unsuccessful before. Obama at once ignores an allied government doing something requested of it by Washington (regardless of how misguided that request may be), but he also provides Musharraf with an opportunity to shore up his own position with the administration and so ensure that any of the necessary reforms will be deferred into the future still longer. Obama has managed to promote a bad Pakistan policy and reinforce the worst elements of the existing one, and all in one week just by giving a speech. Imagine what he could do in four years as President.