Risk Factor

Peter Beinart writes:

In liberal blogland, reports that Barack Obama will probably choose Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and retired general James Jones as National Security Adviser and retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense have prompted a chorus of groans. “I feel incredibly frustrated,” wrote Chris Bowers on “Progressives are being entirely left out.”

A word of advice: cheer up. It’s precisely because Obama intends to pursue a genuinely progressive foreign policy that he’s surrounding himself with people who can guard his right flank at home. When George W. Bush wanted to sell the Iraq war, he trotted out Colin Powell — because Powell was nobody’s idea of a hawk. Now Obama may be preparing to do the reverse. To give himself cover for a withdrawal from Iraq and a diplomatic push with Iran, he’s surrounding himself with people like Gates, Clinton and Jones, who can’t be lampooned as doves.

Now of course some might question Beinart’s credibility in telling foreign policy progressives what’s good for us. After all, it was just a few years ago that he was calling for a systematic purge of doves from the progressive coalition. Still, I think the scenario he’s envisioning is very plausible. I wouldn’t be at all shocked — thought I would certainly be pleased — if things turned out that way. At the same time, I wouldn’t be at all shocked — though I would certainly be disappointed — if this proved to be totally wrong. The exigencies of column-writing tend, it seems to me, to push people in the direction of unduly definitive statements on inherently murky situations. If Obama is looking for political cover under which to undertake a dramatically new foreign policy, then he would have to avoid signaling clearly that that’s what he wants to do. But he might just be acting cautious because he intends to implement a cautious strategy. I wrote about this for The National in the spirit of offering an argument about what should happen rather than what will happen:


Still, there is a clear pattern to these differences, one that becomes more dramatic when considered alongside the positions Clinton and Obama took back in 2002 on the merits of invading Iraq. Clinton is not only more hawkish than Obama — she’s also more politically risk-averse: disinclined to tackle entrenched interest groups or challenge conventional wisdom. Clinton represents a segment of the Democratic party that spent the years after September 11 fretting intensely over whether Democrats seemed sufficiently “tough” — worried about a replay of the 1970s, when Democratic anti-war sentiment scared off the public. […]

What is unclear at this point is whether Clinton joining the Obama team means that Clinton has gained faith in Obama’s approach, or that Obama has lost faith in his own. The very fact of Obama’s election would seem to tilt things in his direction: there was a consistent trajectory to their disagreements, and Obama was on the right side — a judgment vindicated by his victories over both Clinton and McCain. It’s not merely that he won, but that winning demonstrates his supposedly “risky” positions were not so risky after all.

Obama not only won the presidency while bucking the demands of the hardliners in the Cuban-American community, he won the very state of Florida, whose pursuit allegedly demands obeisance to decades of an idiotic embargo. He took 77 per cent of the Jewish vote — more than John Kerry. He was attacked by his Republican opponent as weak, naive and dangerous — and he prevailed. To be sure, he had a powerful assist from the economy and John McCain’s inept approach to the financial crisis. But if voters really believed that Obama was insufficiently “tough” to secure their personal safety, surely that would have trumped other considerations.

In other words, the strategy ought to be full speed ahead. But will it be? I don’t know.