The campaign of 2008 for president of the United States was defined by two issues. The first and foremost issue was the economy. But it was also defined by the stark differences between John McCain and Barack Obama on foreign policy. Obama staked out his claim to the “Peace” wing of the Democratic party in the primary with rival Hillary Clinton. John McCain battered all challengers to his record on the issue by touting his war record and experience in the GOP primary.
When the two met on a debate stage three times when foreign policy came up they went after each other like rabid wolves. McCain criticized Obama on his doveish instincts and his lack of experience on the issue (McCain was right, Obama later chose longtime Delaware Senator Joe Biden to be his VP for this reason). Obama attacked McCain on his support of the Iraq War and letting Afghanistan go to hell for lack of a better description. Voters trusted McCain on foreign policy, but in the end the economy determined the campaign.
It is interesting to note how Obama has pivoted from his positions on foreign policy from the primary to the general election. Whereas in the primary Obama campaigned hard against war and only made passing reference to Afghanistan being the “Right war” (he did say it in a few debates) once the general election hit Obama tacked hard to the right on the Afghanistan War. One can remember in the late summer when Obama had locked up his nomination and Russia had invaded the small state of Georgia. McCain, came out strong on the issue, condemning the action and coming close to threatening military action. Obama did not come out until in a much more measured response. This seemed to assure liberals he would be the exact opposite of a Clinton/Bush presidency.
Well how the world changes ones views. Obama came into office promising grand things on foreign policy to liberals. He promised to close Gitmo (Guantanamo Bay), wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and practice a more humble foreign policy. He also promised to rebuild bridges supposedly damaged by G.W. Bush during his presidency. Almost three years into Obama’s presidency none of this has been done. And contrary to limiting the US’s military involvement in the world Obama has upped it, immensely. The US is now involved in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and perhaps soon to be Syria. The number of conflicts the US finds itself in under this president has risen twice if not three-fold.
So what changed? Why did Obama pivot so damn hard to the right (or neoconservativism for you people who use the term) on the issue? What drove him to do so? One word. Reality. It is very easy to promise the hungry masses of liberals and independents angry at war one thing but then deliver. Look at Guantanamo. The conundrum the president faced on the issue was prevalent when the deadline was expiring for when he wanted it closed. The whole of the GOP, many hawkish Democrats and even some liberals questioned the move in Congress. Military experts warned of the consequences and the liberal masses grumbled as Obama backed away from the issue. Faced with reality the president backed off.
Let’s look at another example shall we? Afghanistan. The president in his tenure has given two major addresses on the subject, first to announce a surge of troops in the country and second a drawdown of forces. In both cases the president’s speeches were far more doveish then the reality. More troops were sent into the country then promised in the speech. Likewise, fewer troops have left the country then the timeline permits, though the president says he is allowing his generals “Flexibility.”
Realities like these, practical, political, as well as security based have stood in the president’s way on implementing his doveish policies. But it is perhaps most amazing that the president has embraced the right’s interpretation of foreign policy in the way he has. Obama’s appointment of Hillary Clinton as his SofS or Susan Rice should have been a stern warning to liberals where he was going. Neither Hillary nor his National Security Advisor Rice are exactly doves. In fact, they are strong promoters of the idea the US should continue to be the world’s cop, under the UN’s supervision of course. It was reported they pushed Obama into Libya and have been actively promoting the drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen on terrorism grounds.
To conservatives and realists who promote this view of foreign policy they should be proud. They have yet another convert to their cause. Obama is not the first president to come into office promising something on foreign policy he did not do. Look at the history of presidents from Reagan on who have promised a “Humble Foreign Policy” they never followed through on. Reagan’s presidency is a good starting point considering that by this time the USSR was weakening and was not the only calculus in US foreign policy implementation anymore. In 1980 Reagan campaigned on a pragmatic approach to foreign policy. While Reagan was less interventionist then his successors he was the first true neoconservative. He threatened military action against Iran if they did not release their embassy hostages. He bunked marines in Beirut until 1983. He invaded Grenada and Panama to remove dictators. In 1989 his successor H.W. Bush doubled down on the idea. Bush liberated Kuwait in 1991 and got the country involved in humanitarian work in Bosnia and Somalia in 92. Clinton’s foreign policy was distinguished from H.W.’s by the fact he had the US enter things but never finished them. In 93 he pulled US troops out of Somalia. In 95 he had the US bomb Iraq for four days then stop. In 1998-99 he had the US bomb Albanian and Bosnian targets to prevent the genocide going on in the region of Kosovo.
The election of 2000 was meant to herald a new kind of president on foreign policy. Both Bush and Gore backed off on strong foreign policy stances and preached limited views. Bush narrowly won. For the first year of his presidency Bush was true to his word. Then 9/11 came and his presidency and world-view changed. Bush and the US/NATO invaded Afghanistan. In 2003 the US and the “Coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq. Along the way the US started bombing targets in Pakistan when Al Qaeda and the Taliban fled there. By the time Bush left office the US was also getting involved in Yemen.
Since Obama became president the world has only grown more dangerous. Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, Al Qaeda now has no central head (doubtful Bin Laden still was when he was killed) but dozens of smaller splinter cells across the globe. De-centralized the organization may be more dangerous. The Taliban continues to operate out of Pakistan. Al Qaeda affiliates are numerous and present across the Mideast and North Africa. And I didn’t even get into Iran and its funding of Hezbollah and Hamas, let alone the whole Israeli/Palestinian mess.
If there is one thing the left should love Obama’s foreign policy on it is his divisive stance on Israel. This has always been a fault line among Democrats. Many of the rich, party faithful are old Jews who stick with the party out of a belief in social justice. But on foreign policy they made a pact with the devil and they are paying for it. Obama has snubbed Israel more than once and even called for them to go back to the ridiculous pre-1967 boundaries as a starting point in negotiations with Palestine. This is a break with older Democratic presidents tolerating Israel but not going out of their way to antagonize the country. It does not help Israel elected a center-right government and their new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, does not take crap from the US president lightly.
Those who criticize the prevalent foreign policy of the right claim that it creates more enemies than it eliminates. It breeds new foes for the future, costs vast amounts of wealth and leaves the US military stretched thin. All true. But that calculus ignores the simple fact of what all modern presidents want to avoid (and sadly G.W. could not) during their tenure. Having an attack on US soil. Toward that end Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama alike have pursued aggressive foreign policies to keep the battles abroad. Bush didn’t have to invade Afghanistan but he did to prevent Al Qaeda from planning another strike. Obama does not need to strike Yemen and Somalia but if those countries fall an entire nation-state could be a pure breeding ground for terrorists (though one could make the case Syria and Iran already are).
This foreign policy has gained increased prominence with the growth of terrorist cells across the globe. Whereas during Reagan’s tenure the worry was a group like Hezbollah might hit the US in some way by Clinton’s time Reagan’s funding of the Taliban in Afghanistan had bred a new and dangerous terrorist group. To their credit, both Bush and Clinton tried to exterminate this group, with limited success.
So this brings us back full circle. This is not offered as a defense of an aggressive foreign policy nor a comprehensive investigation. God knows dozens of books have been written on the topic. Rather this article is to explore some explanations about why the supposed “Peace” candidate Barack Obama suddenly moved right on his foreign policy. Toward that end we analyzed up to the beginning of President Reagan’s tenure the new and developing view of foreign policy (neoconservatism for those who like the term) and the changing aspects and threats the world has offered up to modern presidents to explain Obama’s move to the right. In reality, it should not come as a shock to anybody.