I appreciate Peter’s inviting me into this forum, especially since I’m sure that he suspected I was going to rain on his parade. I am. This is a very reasonable, very intelligent discussion. And to me, that’s the problem. The unspoken premise of forums such as these, and of current questions about how to create a new “liberal” foreign policy, is that America’s current set of foreign challenges—and what President Obama will face after Jan. 20—is in some way the outcome of a normal, albeit conservative, foreign policy direction rather than what we have been going through, which is a catastrophe. Think “Deep Impact,” only the asteroid this time was Bush’s White House. In the history of U.S. politics and statecraft over the past century — let’s confine it to the Wilsonian century — the Bush administration cannot be seen as just another broad swing to the right like, say, Reagan. In other words, a shift to the right to which a “liberal” response is required. It needs to be viewed instead as an aberration so far off the scale, both as an embrace of extremist policy and as a display of incompetence, strategic and tactical, that it is probably unprecedented in American history (I would argue in the entire history of great powers, but that’s for another forum). Not just Bush’s going into Iraq in the middle of his war in Afghanistan, or Bush’s profound misconception of the nature of al Qaeda, but in terms of his complete misunderstanding of the way the world works and America limited power and resources within it, despite our continuing role as the “lone superpower” (a problem neatly captured, most recently, in Niall Ferguson’s concept of “Chimerica”). At least that was true in the first term (in the second, after Condi decorously advised him what a mess he had made, he got a little better.) Rather than being examined as an alternative “foreign policy direction,” the Bush administration needs to be seen as something pathological, a giant tumor of strategic misconceptions, mindless hubris and plain stupidity. And like any tumor, this period in our history needs to be simply cut out so the healing can begin.
That’s why Obama, in his interviews, is not talking about his foreign-policy philosophy. Instead he sounds like a clean-up guy standing in the middle of post-Katrina New Orleans. Whatever works, we’ll do it, he said in his 60 Minutes interview, and we’ll throw out what doesn’t. He doesn’t care if it comes from “FDR or Reagan.” His pragmatism doesn’t mean his world view isn’t philosophically grounded; it’s simply driven by necessity. He knows we can’t AFFORD ideology. When you’re drowning, you don’t have the luxury of conceptual debates about the best lifesaving techniques (though we might end up having a big one in a year or so over redesigning the global financial system).
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