Reading that Ken Adelman, commonly considered a neo-conservative, intends to vote for Barack Obama caused me to speculate about what an Obama foreign policy would look like. My thinking unfolds as follows:
First, Obama subscribes to something like Jimmy Carter’s view of the U.S. and the world. For example, he believes that our policies should meet a “global test,” and that having failed to meet this test we need to be especially subservient to world opinion. Indeed, Obama affirmatively distrusts America as a force in the world and would like to see our power curbed by global institutions. And like Carter, and his own former foreign policy confidant Samantha Power, Obama is not a friend of Israel.
Second, Obama favors a hard-left agenda when it comes to domestic policy. He wants to “spread the wealth around” and to increase the power of government over our lives. He does not believe in free markets because he does not like the outcomes they produce even in times of prosperity.
Third, Obama looks down on the American public. He sees large segments of it as deluded, clinging to the American dream (which is available to superior folk like himself, but not to the average American) and to religion and guns. He believes the public is resistant to change and needs to be guided and cajoled away from its quaint habits and beliefs.
Fourth, Obama is a cautious man with a sizeable pragmatic streak. He is also an opportunist. His commitment to his principles is real but not strong.
Fifth, Obama’s substantial doubts about the willingness of most Americans to accept wholesale change in a short period of time, coupled with his pragmatism, will cause him not to push simultaneously for very much open, palpable change on the foreign policy/national security and domestic fronts during his first years as president. Instead his focus will be on bringing about major change in one area or the other.
Sixth, Obama will push for open, palpable change on the domestic front rather than the foreign policy/national security front. For one thing, the public right now is substantially more troubled by the state of the economy than by the state of our foreign policy and national security. For another, Obama can change our foreign policy at any time during his presidency, but the majorities and the impetus needed to rearrange our economy may well exist only for a few years at the beginning of his presidency.
Moreover, and along the same lines, the political risks associated with a major shift in foreign and national security policy are greater than those associated with a shift in domestic policy. If Obama becomes an overt “soft-liner,” a terrorist attack on the U.S. or a major setback abroad could cause his popularity to plummet. The consequences of undermining the free enterprise system are more gradual and likely to be felt most profoundly in someone else’s administration (Obama does need to worry about the short-term consequences of overhauling the health care system, though).
In addition, the direction of our foreign policy can be reversed covertly through means not available on the domestic front. Domestic policy is changed by proposing and enacting legislation. Foreign policy can be changed subtly through behind the scenes, back-channel efforts.
For these reasons, I think it’s plausible to believe that Obama’s foreign policy will not be overtly Carteresque, but instead will take on more centrist, Clintonesque trappings. In this scenario, Obama will not appoint many out-and-out leftists to key visible posts. He will talk tough. If, as Joe Biden predicts, Obama is tested, he will not be inclined to back down and will certainly attempt to avoid the appearance of having backed down. There will be no confrontation with, or inordinate pressure placed on, Israel early on (here Obama will benefit from what will likely be an accommodationist regime in Israel).
Obama will make a few visible gestures to pacify his left-wing base. For example, he might well close Gitmo. But for the most part, he will keep the base happy with his domestic agenda, while attempting to establish his “post-partisan” bona fides in the area of foreign policy and national security affairs.
All the while, though, Obama will be laying the groundwork, behind the scenes, for a gradual but significant re-orientation of our foreign policy. The Carteresque nature of the underlying agenda may only become apparent in the second term, if there is one.
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