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What Else Is New?

Steve Clemons is a very sharp guy, so I found his reactions to the debate tonight to be a little strange.  Let me clarify: I sympathize with a lot of his reactions, but I don’t know why a progressive realist thought he was going to hear things from Obama that would please him.  His frustration with Obama sounding like “McCain-lite” is understandable (even if this is nothing new about Obama), and I suppose I have shared this same frustration for over a year.  My fruitless crusade against the Obamacon delusion has been founded on the conviction that Obama’s foreign policy views are staggeringly conventional and in agreement with neoconservatism more than not.  Still, I sometimes wonder what his admirers among foreign policy thinkers expect him to say that causes them such displeasure when he restates positions he has held for months and years. 

One of the things that critics of Obama on the left seem to be complaining about tonight is how imitative of McCain on foreign policy he was, but what else was he going to do?  It’s not as if he was ever a contender for Dennis Kucinich voters, so why would he start talking like Kucinich?  Maybe it helps that I concluded that Obama was a hawkish interventionist a long time ago, so none of this disturbs me any longer.  It is what it is.  I have found the small consolation that he is at least a slightly more cautious hawkish interventionist, so that’s something.  Some of his progressive admirers still seem to bristle when he states positions on Iran, Russia or Palestine that he has more or less always held since entering the Senate. 

For instance, Clemons says:

It turns my stomach that Obama is defending Saakashvili.

Yes!  I have the same feeling whenever anyone defends Saakashvili, but that is what will happen when you insist on a MAP for Georgia and your running mate is chummy with old Misha.  Of course neither candidate will acknowledge that the Georgians escalated the conflict.  The establishment is foursquare behind NATO expansion, “democratic” solidarity and standing up to Putin, and perhaps no one more so than Obama’s running mate.  The electoral calculation behind this position seems to be that there are not enough ethnic Russian-Americans in this country who will take anti-Russian posturing ill, so there is basically no political downside to railing against Russian perfidy. 

Democrats probably have even less incentive to minimize their anti-Russianism because a lot of the ethnic Russians who are here, including immigrants and second- and third-generation Americans, seem to favor the Democrats anyway for a number of other reasons.   Yes, it is unfortunate that Obama felt compelled to back away from his original statement on Georgia that called for restraint on both sides, since restraint on both sides is necessary to end a conflict.  McCain wouldn’t know much about ending conflicts, though, since starting them is more his area of interest.  Even so, the candidate who backed the bombardment of Lebanon is someone who is either susceptible to pressure or already inclined to backing hawkish policies in many parts of the world.

Add Clemons to the small list of Obama supporters who thought McCain prevailed in the debate.  However, even here I think his high expectations for Obama (” I thought Obama would trounce McCain”) made Obama’s performance, which I think was far and away his best debate performance all year, seem worse than it was.  If there was anything wrong with Obama’s performance, it was that he holds foreign policy views that are so close to McCain’s on issue after issue that it will often sound to an audience as if Obama is always submitting to McCain’s will.  What really happened in the debate, though, was that Obama was gracious enough to acknowledge when he and McCain agreed and McCain was disrespectful and contemptuous throughout despite the remarkable convergence of their positions on the U.S. role overseas. 

Of course, that is imperative for McCain.  If he cannot scare the public into thinking that Obama is a lightweight McGovernite who loves dictators, he has absolutely nothing left to offer as an alternative.  Obama has already locked himself into a certain set of hawkish positions, and there is now little advantage in becoming less hawkish.  He has already changed enough positions for one year, and if there is one constant it is that Obama never changes his views to adopt a more anti-establishmentarian or marginal position.  As long as people keep perpetuating the idea, or the hope, that he is some kind of dove who represents some significantly different vision of America’s role in the world there will continue to be this shock and dismay when he restates the views he has held all along.  Meanwhile, it will be possible for McCain and his backers to frame Obama as copying and following McCain, when the unfortunate truth is that Obama came to many of these terrible positions all on his own long before the election season.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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