Monday, November 24, 2008

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Last year conservative columnist William Safire, addressing the prospect of a Hillary Clinton/Rahm Emanuel presidential ticket on Meet the Press, remarked that the noted liberal interventionists' rallying cry could be "Invade and bomb with Hillary and Rahm." While a Clinton/Emanuel ticket was not be, the alleged opponent of the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama, has ensured both will likely have significant sway over U.S. foreign policy for the next four years.

One of the constant refrains in my posts about Obama over the last six months has been that those expecting fundamental change from the president-elect, particularly with regard to U.S. foreign policy -- withdrawing from Iraq, engaging countries like Iran -- would be severely disappointed. For while a smart politician who deftly positioned himself to capitalize on voter discontent with those associated with the Iraq war during the primaries, Obama is far from a radical set on upturning the system. Rather, he has shown himself time and time again to be the very epitome of the cautious, consensus-seeking politician -- one more likely to placate the established interests than take them on. 

While Obama's penchant for conciliation and consensus has been welcomed by many in the wake of the Bush administration's unilateralist approach to governing, that approach is also likely to generate much more in the way of continuity than change, particularly in the realm of foreign policy -- as witnessed by the number of holdovers from the Clinton administration on the Obama team like Madeleine Albright and -- if media reports are right -- Hillary Clinton.

The appointment of Clinton to secretary of state, in particular, has upset liberal antiwar activists who (rightly) thought the former first lady a hawk for unrepentantly backing the Iraq war and the sanctions and official policy of "regime change" that preceded it -- and who (wrongly) believed Obama, who contrasted his 2002 speech against the war with Clinton's early and loud support as evidence of his superior judgment and the failure of the Washington establishment, would as president break from the Washington foreign policy establishment.

The last major party candidate who even talked of significantly altering U.S. foreign policy was George McGovern in 1972 -- every candidate since, Obama included, has embraced America's right to intervene militarily around the world to promote its interests. Jimmy Carter officially embraced the U.S.'s sole right and responsibility to intervene in the Middle East to protect its oil.

But the idea that Obama was a neo-McGovernite peacenik -- as claimed by Republicans, and wished by antiwar activists -- was always rooted in the campaign's rhetoric rather than the substance of Obama's views. Part of the reason for this misperception was willful, but part of it can also be traced to inaccurate media reports that conflated Obama's moderate deviations from Bush administration policy with radical departures.

Case in point: Obama's pledge, as reported in news story after news story, to "withdraw troops from Iraq." In reality, Obama has long supported merely withdrawing "combat" troops from Iraq -- based more recently on "conditions on the ground" --  and maintaining a "residual" force in the country to combat terrorists and train the Iraqi military; a platform that is arguably less "antiwar" than the status of forces agreement that the Bush administration just negotiated with the Iraqi government.

With that in mind, the hawkish Clinton as secretary of state makes perfect sense, especially when you realize, as the New York Times notes, that the differences between her and Obama during the Democratic primaries were for the most part merely rhetorical:
While Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama agree most of the time on foreign policy, during the campaign she made a point of highlighting their differences, seeking to paint him as unsophisticated. Now those differences will be brought into stark relief as she seeks to become into Mr. Obama’s emissary to the world.
On Iran, for instance, Mrs. Clinton staked a position during the primaries to the right of Mr. Obama. She voted in favor of a measure more hawkish than what even most of the Bush administration had been willing to venture, asking Mr. Bush to declare Iran’s 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. Mr. Obama did not show up to vote that day but said that if he had, he would have opposed the bill.

Many Iran experts criticized the bill, saying it was similar to Iran’s declaring the United States military a terrorist organization because it carried out Mr. Bush’s orders. Even some members of the Clinton campaign’s foreign policy team at the time privately disagreed with the vote.

But the bigger fight between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama was over the issue of talking to Iran, which Mrs. Clinton could soon find at the top of her portfolio. When during a debate Mr. Obama termed “ridiculous” the notion of not talking to adversaries, Mrs. Clinton sharply criticized him, calling that position “irresponsible and frankly naïve.”

The difference between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama on the issue is more perception than reality, advisers to both now say. Mr. Obama has said he would have a lower-level envoy do preparatory work for a meeting with Iran’s leaders first, and Mrs. Clinton has said she favors vigorous diplomacy and lower-level contacts as well.
On Iran, it's worth noting that while Obama's campaign criticized Clinton as a reckless militarist for voting to label the Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization", Obama himself told AIPAC just this summer that the IRG, in his view, had been "rightly" labelled a terrorist group. Meanwhile, Obama's backtrack on meeting with foreign leaders of "enemy" nations -- such as Cuba's Raul Castro, as I noted in a piece during the campaign -- further reveals the would-be change candidate's efforts to more closely align with the same elite that brought the world the Iraq war.

To expect a candidate who during the campaign endorsed unilaterally attacking a nuclear-armed ally, Pakistan -- and pledged his support for Israel's disastrous and deadly war on Lebanon in 2006 -- to be a peacenik was always a fantasy. As Obama transitions from campaigning to governing, however, it will be a fantasy increasingly difficult to maintain:
Aside from Clinton and [Bush Defense Secretary Robert] Gates, the roster of possible Cabinet secretaries has included Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who both voted in 2002 for the resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq, though Lugar has since said he regretted it.

"It's astonishing that not one of the 23 senators or 133 House members who voted against the war is in the mix," said Sam Husseini of the liberal group Institute for Public Accuracy.
It certainly is astonishing that no antiwar voice has been considered for any position higher than White House janitor, but not if one were paying attention during the campaign. No doubt, like during the campaign, Obama will continue to enjoy a good deal of support from professed liberal antiwar types, likely well into his first term -- the reality of his business-as-usual, militaristic foreign policy views (such as a "surge" of tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Ira-- excuse me, Afghanistan) be damned.

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