A Big Difference


Ross Douthat forecasts Barack Obama’s political strategy:

Even with the GOP brand in the toilet, Republicans are still trusted as much or more than Dems on foreign policy, mostly for somewhat nebulous “toughness” reasons. So why give the Right a chance to play what’s just about its only winning card, when you can satisfy your base with a phased withdrawal from Iraq that’s scheduled to happen anyway while waxing hawkish on Pakistan, Afghanistan … and who knows, maybe Iran as well? (I have a sneaking suspicion that a President Obama will be slightly more likely to authorize airstrikes against Iran than a President McCain would have been.) […] And with his right flank safely guarded (assuming, of course, that Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iran doesn’t become his Administration’s Iraq), he’ll have that much more political for the big-ticket goals that will guarantee his place in the liberal pantheon – universal health care, a New Deal for energy policy, a succession of young liberal judges who will tilt the Supreme Court leftward for a generation, etc.

I object! All the work here is being done between the parenthesis. A phased withdrawal from Iraq plus a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan wouldn’t be a lurch to the right, that’s what Obama’s been calling for throughout the campaign. And, indeed, way back in 2002 he was saying that instead of invading Iraq, we should have a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But add “authorize airstrikes against Iran” to the mix, and then you’re talking about something entirely different. Obama made repeated, explicit promises during the campaign for a new approach to Iran, and the new approach wasn’t “bomb, bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.”

But I’m going to make a bold prediction. During the campaign, Obama stood foresquare for major health care reform and major energy legislation. When events occurred that made major economic stimulus seem desirable, he stood for that as well. Then for about a week on either side of Election Day there was a lot of talk about how Obama maybe should go back on all those pledges. But as he’s rolled out what we’ve seen of his team so far, they’re talking about throwing “long and deep” and fulfilling their key campaign pledges. On the only national security issues the transition has addressed, he’s reiterated his determination to close Gitmo and end torture.

Maybe he’ll break the pattern. But until he actually does, I think the safe thing to assume on foreign policy is that we’ll keep seeing more of the same — a President who meant what he said when he was a presidential candidate. That means withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a renewed focus on Afghanistan/Pakistan issues, along with a new diplomatic initiative aimed at Iran, and work on an Israel-Arab peace accord “starting from the minute I’m sworn into office”. That’s the agenda he campaigned on, and there was no real reason for him to have campaigned on it unless he meant to do it.