How Obama Divides—and Conquers

May 16, 2009

Barack Obama has gotten off to a remarkably sure-footed start on foreign policy. There is the pragmatism of his policies on Iraq and Afghanistan, in which he has managed, so far, to square his campaign promises with the advice of his military commanders; the liberalism of his early moves on detainee treatment and nuclear disarmament; and the ambition of his efforts on public diplomacy and Middle East peace.

The real measure of his success, however, is the confusion of his enemies. Thus al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, alarmed by Obama’s adroitness in reaching out to Muslims, has had to resort to casting racial epithets at America’s first black president. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, on the other hand, has taken a different approach. At the Summit of the Americas last month, a blushing Chávez told Obama “I want to be your friend,” and gave him a book inscribed: “For Obama with affection.”

Even the Castro brothers are bickering over Obama, with Raúl saying that “everything” was on the table for negotiation, including human rights and political prisoners, and Fidel then claiming that the media had “misinterpreted” Raúl’s statement.

A similar schism has appeared among American foreign-policy conservatives. The provisional wing of the conservative movement has criticized Obama for being so different from George W. Bush—for being weak, bloodless, and un-American. Bloggers who did not seem to worry about President Bush holding hands with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia went apoplectic at the sight of President Obama apparently bowing to him. Karl Rove has criticized Obama for going abroad and “confessing our sins.” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer has accused the president of showing “disdain… for his own country while on foreign soil, acting the philosopher king who hovers above the fray mediating between his renegade homeland and an otherwise warm and welcoming world.”

Krauthammer et al are correct in believing that international relations is an unsentimental business. Few difficult problems are susceptible to agreement without leverage and pressure. Regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran are not overly impressed by Obama’s exotic lineage, his fine words or his Portuguese water dog. Yet it is silly to suggest that by showing courtesy toward other countries, Obama is showing disdain for his own. Obama’s thoughtfulness about America’s history is bolstering Washington’s prestige, not undermining it.

The second conservative take on Obama’s foreign policy is the exact opposite of the first. This latter camp argues that Obama’s approach is actually a replica of Bush’s. Former Bush administration staffer Peter Feaver of Duke University argues that on the big issues, it’s a matter of “same policy, different letterhead.” Robert Kagan concurred in an op-ed in the Post, arguing that “the basic goals and premises of U.S. policy have not shifted” and sending up the ironic cry: “Viva la revolucion!”

Kagan’s argument is entirely misleading. Naturally, any country’s foreign-policy contains strong elements of continuity, produced by its history, geography, wealth, population, and position in the international system. But within that broad structure of continuity, changes of government cause significant alterations to international policies (or why else would someone like Kagan himself have signed up as an adviser to John McCain?).

A short list of early foreign-policy differences between Obama and his predecessor include: a new strategy for Afghanistan and clearer indications about the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq; the ending of Washington’s macabre dance of climate-change denial, skepticism, and delay; the announcement of plans to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay; a declaration that the U.S. will not torture and the release of documents showing that it has done so in the past; and a striking new diplomatic tone. Will Obama decommission the U.S. Army, join the Non-Aligned Movement and invite Robert Mugabe to Camp David? No, but compared with all historical precedents, this is change we can believe in.

Apart from being wrong, Kagan’s argument is also familiar. In 2000, he published another op-ed in the Post titled, spookily, ‘Vive what difference?’ In that piece he asked gloomily: “When it comes to international affairs, is there really any difference between Bush and Gore?” Yes, unfortunately there was, just as there is an enormous difference between Bush and Obama.

You can hardly blame American foreign policy-conservatives for feeling a little discombobulated. It was one thing when their policy prescriptions were unpopular abroad, but in recent years they were also rejected by the American people and even, in his final years in office, by President Bush himself.

For some of these conservatives, there must be an End of Days feeling to the present moment. In addition to war, earthquakes, and pestilence, we now have the astonishing sight of Dick Cheney—the most secretive vice president in history—calling for the release of memos detailing the intelligence fruits of the Bush administration’s harsh detainee-interrogation techniques.

When Dick Cheney is arguing in favor of governmental transparency, it’s clear that Barack Obama has really gotten into his opponents’ heads.