In With the Old


E.J. Dionne says Barack Obama’s foreign policy might look a lot like George H.W. Bush’s. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to those who recall that back in March Obama said he wanted a foreign policy like George H.W. Bush’s:

“My foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional realistic policy of George Bush’s father, of John F. Kennedy, of in some ways Ronald Reagan,” he said Friday. A voter at the town hall in Greenburg had asked Obama to respond to charges that his foreign policy was naïve. […] “Remember, people were saying why didn’t you go into Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein? The realists understood that that would be a nightmare. And it wasn’t worth our national interests,” Obama added. […]

He described the conventional thinking in Washington on foreign policy as “bipartisan” and this “both ideological and highly political.”

That foreign policy he argued operated from the assumption that United States could act “as a lone super power” and said that “Senator Clinton is as captive to it in some ways as John McCain and George Bush.”

“I do think that Senator Clinton would understand that George Bush’s polices have failed,” Obama added. “But in many ways she has been captive to the same politics that lead her to vote for the war in Iraq. Since 9-11 the conventional wisdom has been you have to look tough on foreign policy by voting and acting like the republicans. And I disagree with it.”

Obviously, Obama seems to have warmed to Clinton’s approach to foreign policy since then. But the fact that he was putting things this way way back in March helps us understand the context in which giving positions to guys like Robert Gates and Jim Jones should be understood. Obama sees — correctly, in my view — this realist element of the Republican Party’s tradition as offering a useful corrective to the occasionally hubristic proclivities of some folks inside the Democratic coalition. For a while now there have been a lot of calls to try to produce a higher synthesis of realism with the liberal impulse — Futuyama’s “realistic Wilsonianism,” Robert Wright’s “progressive realism,” Anatol Lieven’s “ethical realism” — and Obama’s setting himself up to move in just this direction. One of my arguments in Heads in the Sand is that precisely such a synthesis has guided American foreign policy during its best moments.