JULY 1, 2009
The thing that people haven't figured out about President Obama's conduct of foreign policy is that it's the same as his conduct of domestic policy. Obama believes in the power of negotiation and public dialogue to split his adversaries--Republicans at home, Islamists abroad--and strengthen his own position. Obama's speech in Cairo to the Muslim world was simply the foreign analogue of his dealings with the GOP.
Obama's method begins with attempts to find common ground, expressions of respect for the adversary's core beliefs, and profuse hope for cooperation. In his iconic 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, Obama famously announced that Democrats, too, "worship an awesome God." In his Cairo speech, Obama pointed to the contributions and freedoms of American Muslims. In both speeches, Obama signaled cultural respect by adapting the other side's own rhetorical formulations--invoking "a belief in things not seen" (2004) or calling the Middle East the region where Islam "was first revealed" (Cairo).
This rhetoric removes the locus of debate from the realm of tribal conflict-- red state versus blue state, Islam versus America--and puts it onto specific questions--Is the American health care system fair? Is terrorism justified?-- where Obama believes he can win support from soft adherents of the opposing camp.
Naturally, Obama's pacific expressions tend to alarm the more hawkish elements of his own camp, who interpret his idealistic rhetoric as naivete or weakness. A few months before the 2008 presidential primary, columnist E.J. Dionne reported, "Several Democrats also said Clinton's claim that she can deal with the Republican 'attack machine' rings truer to an angry party than Obama's call for an end to partisan polarization."
Democratic partisans think the enemy is vicious and must be met with uncompromising force. That's exactly how conservative foreign policy hawks feel about the world. Unsurprisingly, the right-wing foreign policy critique of Obama today sounds eerily like the partisan Democratic critique of Obama during the primary.
Watch TNR senior editor Jonathan Chait discuss this column with editor Franklin Foer:
In January 2008, Obama told a newspaper editorial board that Ronald Reagan provided a "sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing." Paul Krugman complained, "Where in his remarks was the clear declaration that Reaganomics failed?" Likewise, in his Cairo speech, Obama touted the historic role of Muslims in the United States. Conservative pundit David Frum complained: "One of the most disturbing things about the Cairo speech is the persistent misrepresentation of history. It is really absurd to say that Islam for example has 'always been a part of America's story.'"
Obama probably realizes that Muslims have played a marginal role in American life throughout most of its history. He also probably believes that the U.S. economy in the 1970s suffered primarily from oil shocks and irresponsible monetary policy rather than from the absence of a Reaganesque cheerleader for entrepreneurship. But Obama's method entails small acts of intellectual dishonesty in the pursuit of common ground.
Critics such as Krugman and Frum are correct that surrendering intellectual ground comes at a cost. Our most successful presidents articulate clear, forceful public rationales for their beliefs --think of Roosevelt or Truman excoriating reactionary Republicans at home, or Truman, Kennedy, or Reagan standing up to the Soviets internationally. It is a mistake, however, to view Obama's strategy as an act of submission.
Consider how Obama explained his approach toward Iran during a recent interview with Newsweek:
Now, will it work? We don't know. And I assure you, I'm not naive about the difficulties of a process like this. If it doesn't work, the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community, and Iran will have isolated itself, as opposed to a perception that it seeks to advance that somehow it's being victimized by a U.S. government that doesn't respect Iran's sovereignty.
This is a perfect summation of Obama's strategy. It does not presuppose that his adversaries are people of goodwill who can be reasoned with. Rather, it assumes that, by demonstrating his own goodwill and interest in accord, Obama can win over a portion of his adversaries' constituents as well as third parties. Obama thinks he can move moderate Muslim opinion, pressure bad actors like Iran to negotiate, and, if Iran fails to comply, encourage other countries to isolate it. The strategy works whether or not Iran makes a reasonable agreement.
The results remain to be seen. But it eerily resembles the way Obama has already isolated the GOP leadership. Obama began his presidency by elaborately courting the opposition party. Republicans in Congress believed that, by flamboyantly withholding cooperation, they could deny Obama his stated goal of bipartisan harmony and thus render him a failure. Instead, they wound up handing Obama the alternative victory of appearing to be the reasonable party. Polls showed that the public, by overwhelming margins, believed that Obama was trying to work with Republicans and that Republicans were not reciprocating.
Likewise, by defusing the complaint among Islamists that the United States disrespects their religion, Obama can more easily force the Iranian leadership to negotiate on the terms of its stated goals. This is actually "a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers," as American Prospect editor Mark Schmitt wrote in 2007. "One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in," Schmitt explained, "treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem."
This apparent paradox is one reason Obama's political identity has eluded easy definition. On the one hand, you have a disciple of the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky turned ruthless Chicago politician. On the other hand, there is the conciliatory post-partisan idealist. The mistake here is in thinking of these two notions as opposing poles. In reality it's all the same thing. Obama's defining political trait is the belief that conciliatory rhetoric is a ruthless strategy.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.