Obama's Foreign Policy Advantage

A funny thing happened on the morning of July 19 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq endorsed Barack Obama's plan for a 16-month withdrawal timeline from Iraq in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine. In a stroke, the entire conservative argument on Iraq was demolished. Withdrawal, they'd been telling us, was abject surrender and the abandonment of our Iraqi allies. The conservative counter that this was merely political posturing by Maliki made no sense -- if the reason Maliki was calling for withdrawal was the overwhelming demand for withdrawal on the part of the Iraqi public, that was all the more reason for us to leave. And, of course, looking backward John McCain was (and is) still committed to the idea that, even in retrospect, invading Iraq was a good idea. It looked to me like the election was in the bag. Democrats were going to win the national-security argument, and hence, the election.

It hasn't quite gone that way. Indeed, Maliki's stunning and repeated endorsement of the progressive position hasn't really penetrated the narrative of the campaign. And while I'd like to blame the media for this, the truth is the Obama campaign hasn't seriously pushed its arguments about Iraq. Nor have they talked about the fact that on Tuesday, five former secretaries of state, including Republicans like Jim Baker and Colin Powell and even McCain adviser Henry Kissinger, endorsed Obama's position on the need for talks with Iran. Indeed, they've stopped pushing national-security messages altogether.

Now, the campaign has its reasons for this. The economy really is a dominant public concern. But I still find it disappointing that these issues have been left off the table.

Among other things, it leaves an awful lot of Barack Obama out of the Obama campaign. Obama is a candidate who, rather plainly, could never have secured the Democratic nomination without national-security issues. Indeed, it seems extremely unlikely that he would have had an opening to run against Hillary Clinton in the first place if not for her catastrophic misjudgment in backing the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Beyond that, some of his finest moments in the primary campaign were linked to foreign policy -- from his refusal to back down from his controversial-but-correct stance in favor of high-level talks with Iran to Samantha Power's brilliant denunciation of the "bankrupt conventional wisdom" that's led our country astray.

And beyond that, it leaves most of what we really know about John McCain. Not only has McCain, by his own admission, made military and national-security issues the primary focus of his career but anyone who's being honest will tell you that nobody has the foggiest clue what domestic policy would actually look like in a McCain administration. We can, to be sure, evaluate his campaign's policy proposals: They mostly stink. But if elected, he'll face expanded Democratic majorities in Congress who are unlikely to go along with these proposals. What happens then is in the realm of pure conjecture. McCain's been all over the map and then back again, ideologically, on domestic issues and seems prone to capricious decision-making. Faced with congressional resistance would he compromise? Dig in his heels and fight? Nobody really knows.

Foreign policy isn't like that. Congress has, in practice, few tools with which to constrain presidential war-making powers. And McCain is passionate about his ideas on this score and will surely resist any congressional efforts to restrain him quite vigorously. What's more, his ideas on this subject are extremely unsound. Jeffrey Goldberg, who is sympathetic to the McCain approach to national security, observes in a recent profile that "in one area, though, he has been more or less constant: his belief in the power of war to solve otherwise insoluble problems."

Pocketbook concerns are always dear to the electorate, but it would be nice for voters to give some consideration to the question of whether the right lesson to learn from the Bush years is that we need a president who believes strongly in the power of war to solve problems. Indeed, it seems telling that neither Condoleezza Rice nor Colin Powell can bring themselves to endorse McCain.

Their indecision reflects the larger state of U.S. foreign policy. Around when Robert Gates was appointed to run the Pentagon, the Bush administration's proclivity for neoconnish hubris was checked in favor of something more pragmatic. But mere pragmatism has been unable to accomplish much in light of the disasters of the previous years. But Bush has been unwilling to take the sort of dramatic steps -- a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, reinvigoration of the multilateral nonproliferation process, a new worldwide treaty on climate change -- that could right the course. As a result, we've been drifting: no new disasters, but no solutions either. In this regard, McCain wouldn't offer four more years of the same thing; he'd offer a return to the kind of approach that Bush himself eventually abandoned as unworkable. Obama, meanwhile, offers the sort of bold new approach that could break the impasse. Or, rather, he did back when he talked about national-security policy.

Both campaigns have their reasons for downplaying foreign-policy debates, and it's at least defensible for the press to follow the candidates' lead in this regard. Still, it's disturbing to realize that one of the starkest choices ever offered on national-security policy seems likely, barring a sudden and happy end to the financial crisis gripping the country, to go almost entirely undiscussed during the portion of the campaign season when voters are actually paying attention.

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