Sen. Obama’s Fan Base

Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign received some modest support over the weekend, one from a predictable source, the other modestly surprising.

An editorial in Saturday’s Washington Post welcomed Obama’s attempt to flesh out his foreign policy views in a speech last week before the Chicago Council of Global Affairs. While appropriately knocking his silence on trade issues, the Post praised Obama for his support for a larger military; his willingness to exert pressure on Iran – he stressed that the military option must remain on the table; and his proposal to double U.S. foreign aid to $50 billion by 2012.

Overall the Post editors were encouraged by Obama’s invocation of Franklin Roosevelt, who said that the United States must “lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.” Obama might have cited a more recent speech, by a still living politician, that made essentially the same argument (see George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005), but that presumably would not have played well with the base.

Robert Kagan’s praise for Sen. Obama is more troubling. After all, Robert Kagan, one of the founding members of the Project for a New American Century, is a leading advocate of the decision to go to war with Iraq in the first place. Kagan is also a passionate believer in the Bush administration’s stay-the-course strategy in Iraq. (He also wrote recently in favor of preparing the groundwork for a war with Iran.)

Kagan and Obama are ostensibly on opposite sides with respect to Iraq, with Obama favoring a timeline for withdrawal. On this crucial issue, Sen. Obama does seem to be differentiating himself from the policy elite and reflecting the will of the country; 64 percent of Americans favor a timetable for withdrawal in 2008, according to the most recent New York Times/CBS poll.

How to explain, therefore, that Senator Obama has a fan in Mr. Kagan? It could be that Kagan, who is advising Sen. McCain “on an informal and unpaid basis”, wants to undermine Obama’s credibility on the left, thereby ensuring that a less charismatic candidate will emerge from the Democratic field. But that seems too cynical. It also assumes that McCain will be the nominee, which is an even greater stretch.

A more likely explanation is that Kagan is genuinely excited about Sen. Obama’s embrace of the foreign policy status quo. Kagan had a hand in shaping this status quo in the mid-1990s, when he (along with William Kristol) called for the United States to play the role of benevolent global hegemon, aka friendly empire, aka world’s policeman. At a time when 76 percent of Americans say that the U.S. plays the role of world policeman too much, Kagan has found yet another politician who believes the U.S. doesn’t play the role often enough. 

This is disappointing. Sen. Obama had earlier said, when asked about his opposition to the war in Iraq, that he was not opposed to all wars, just dumb wars. This makes for a good soundbite, but it does not illuminate the philosophy guiding the most important decisions that a president will make concerning the use of military force abroad. His speech last week shed little additional light on the subject.

Simply put, which of the major actions conducted by the U.S. military since the end of the Cold War classify as “dumb wars”? Would President Obama have sent troops to Panama? To Haiti? To Somalia? Would he have declared, as George H.W. Bush did, that Saddam’s aggression against Kuwait would not stand? Would President Obama have favored using ground troops in Kosovo (as Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and, reportedly, Hillary Clinton did) or would he have opted for Bill Clinton’s approach – relying on a bombing campaign that killed perhaps 1,500 people in order to force Slobodan Milosevic to the bargaining table?

And what of the military actions that were not taken during the 1990s? Would President Obama have sent U.S. troops into Rwanda in 1994 in an attempt to halt the genocide that occurred there? And what would their mission have been, specifically? To pry the machetes out of the hands of murderous thugs, mainly Hutus? Or would U.S. troops commanded by President Obama have sought merely to provide safe haven for endangered Tutsis?

In the course of the 2004 presidential campaign, one of Senator John Kerry’s advisers turned aside questions about whether Kerry would have launched a war with Iraq in March 2003 with the response “We don’t answer hypothetical questions.” With all due respect, what other kinds of questions are there? Indeed, necessarily hypothetical questions are essential to helping voters to sort out the positions of the various candidates.

U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has involved the promiscuous use of our military power, often in places that had no connection to U.S. vital interests. Americans are justifiably frustrated by the high costs and questionable benefits of these policies, and they are looking for realistic alternatives that would more equitably share the burdens of policing the globe with other countries. While many Americans still value “engagement,” loosely defined, they reject the presumption that this engagement must take the form of the U.S. military undertaking dubious missions of questionable import, while the rest of the world looks on from a distance.

Robert Kagan is on the side of those who believe that U.S. military power has not been used often enough in the 15 years since the end of the Cold War. The editors of the Washington Post seem squarely in this camp as well, given that they have consistently supported the use of force abroad, even clamoring for several interventions that the White House ignored. These opinion leaders stand on the opposite side of most Americans, three out of every four of whom are fed up with Kagan and the Post’s benevolent global hegemony.

Where does Senator Obama stand? We still don’t know.