Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reader's Choice #3: In What Respect, Charlie?

Hey look, this is back! Blog reader 'elisaana' asks: "will Obama's new [foreign policy] team be able to counter these threats effectively without a Bush-style overreaction?"

This is an excellent question... and one that I think is central to what kind of presidency the Obama one will be. Barack Obama, of course, defeated Hillary Clinton in the primary for a number of reasons (better campaign, broader appeal, etc), but central to his appeal to Democratic voters was the fact that she had supported the invasion of Iraq, and he didn't. Voters wanted a clean break from Bush-style foreign policy and war.

Will we get it? This won't be known until next year, but let's examine the clues.

First off, let's state the obvious. Barack Obama is not Dennis Kucinich. The hardcore anti-war crowd is likely to find many reasons to be upset at him over the next four eight years. His retention of Bob Gates as Defense Secretary, the curious selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State (I'm sorry, I still don't fully get it), and his intention to commit serious military energy to resolving the Afghanistan (and Pakistan, by proxy) issues shows that he is a man who plans to move ahead with a very aggressive (read: I don't mean aggressive in a Bush-Cheney way) foreign policy. Contrary to the spin by the Fox News dead-enders this past year, we elected a pragmatist, not a peacenik.

Still, we have a man who has promised to end our occupation of Iraq, to close down Guantanamo and end U.S.-sanctioned torture, and to take seriously the roles of diplomacy and alliance-building in foreign policy. So this is improvement, if not perfection.

Let me also point out that it was obvious even before his presidency that George W. Bush was a petulant and impatient man, whose foreign policy team was stacked by Project for A New American Century neocons just itchin' for an excuse to start Mideast wars. How that translated into his presidency is now clear. Obama, however, has come across as a patient and deliberate thinker in his character. If that translates into his presidency as well, we have room for optimism here.

In terms of situations that can be resolved diplomatically (ie. with North Korea), we are obviously better off with Obama. He will be taken more seriously on these issues, and his team is obviously more invested in genuine detente than was, say... John Bolton. In terms of situations that are outside the ability of diplomacy to resolve (ie. what happened in Mumbai last month), I also have faith in Obama to a) not be overly hawkish/rash about using force, and b) be more interested in using our intelligence resources wisely, instead of as a means to expand presidential powers.

In the early '60s, we saw a rookie President make a huge mistake by being too rash (the Bay of Pigs), but saw the following year that same President learn from his mistake and resolve a related-- and more serious-- global crisis by responding in a calm and calculated manner (Cuban missile crisis). Good news for Obama... he shouldn't have to screw up to learn from mistakes; he has eight years worth of them already to look back on.

Finally, I would add that I believe Obama gets the big picture... he understands the ways in which threats grow and are interconnected. In his interview in Time magazine this week, he discusses his foreign policy priorities ("Recognizing that it is not simply an Afghanistan problem but it's an Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Kashmir-Iran problem"), but also adds-
"[K]eep in mind that some of the long-term priorities I identified in the campaign remain just as urgent today. I already mentioned nuclear proliferation. I already mentioned climate change. I think dealing with development and poverty around the world is going to be a critical component of our foreign policy. It's good for our security and not just charity. And so, part of the goal ... is moving our foreign-assistance agenda to the center of our national-security conversations as opposed to the periphery. Paying more attention to Latin America. You know, we have neglected our neighbors in our own hemisphere, and there is an enormous potential for us to work with other countries — Brazil, for example, which is in some ways ahead of us on energy strategies. That, I think, would be very important."

And this is key. Being able to respond well to crisis is great. Being able to preemptively take on the root causes of crisis and aggression... even better.

If he strays from this, and gets stuck in the traps Bush has left for him, then we worry.


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