Alex Massie

Meet the New Boss, Not So Different From the Old Boss?

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Sure, last month Barack Obama was an un-American, terrorist-coddling, muslim threat to every American Ideal every true-blooded, stout-hearted, tub-thumping patriot held dear. Now, however, things are a little different. We can seem more clearly these days, now the nonsense has receded. Ross Douthat offers a prediction:

Among right-wing hawks, there will be strange-new-respectful talk about Obama's centrist instincts, his Scoop Jackson-ish tendencies, his Reaganesque blend of idealism, pragmatism and strength. Meanwhile, the rest of the right-wing coalition will be getting steamrolled.

Quite so. Viewed from outside the United States, the foreign policy "debate" in Washington is a curiously curtailed affair. It concentrates on means, not ends and this rather tends to obscure the fact that, on many and perhaps even most issues, there's less between the parties than might be thought.

Take Iran, for instance: as the world knows, Obama has talked a good deal about talking with Tehran. (Ignoring, conveniently, that there's already a good deal of "dialogue" between Iran and the West). This is all very well and good. It would be a fine thing if Iran were persuaded to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Perhaps it can be. But what if it can't? Obama has repeatedly said that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable". That means military action remains an option. It is still - as you may say it must be - on the table. Which is to say that the goal of American policy has not changed, only the emphasis placed, perhaps, on the various possible ways of reaching that goal.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, the goal of American policy remains just what it would have been had John McCain somehow won the election. Again, I make no judgment (now) on whether American policy is sensible or realistic, I merely suggest that either candidate would have found themselves retooling and, indeed, tooling up in the Hindu Kush. The difference, to the extent there was one, lay in Obama's greater willingness to openly support incursions into Pakistan. Again, this may or may not be a Good Thing but it's hardly the sort of policy likely to endear him to his own party's left-wing is it?

Ditto in Latin America. Obama has, to my knowledge, shown few if any signs of breaking with Washington orthodoxy on issues such as Plan Colombia or the wider drug war. And anyone hoping that relations with Cuba might be normalised is likely, I'd hazard, to be disappointed.

So too in Europe. Obama may well be in a better position to demand more from europe in, say Afghanistan, but that too, generally speaking, represents an intensification of existing US policy, not a break from it. And recall, also, that the new President also supports, like McCain, NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine. Maybe that won't happen, of course, but right now you'd be hard pressed to make the case that Obama's foreign policy thinking marks any substantial break from the general Washington consensus.

What's more likely, I think, is a reordering of priorities and shifts in emphasis but little alteration to long-standing US goals. Perhaps, as Steve Clemons suggests, Hillary will play "bad cop" to Obama's "good cop" in a renewed push for a solution to the Israeli-Palestine problem. That would not be a bad thing, though I confess I've little idea how it can happen, absent a renewed willingness to talk on the part of the warring parties themselves.

But what about Iraq? True, Obama has talked about bringing the boys home by the summer of 2010. And that may yet happen (though don't be surprised if there's slippage on the timetable). That is a difference from McCain, but either man would have been charged with managing and making the best of a mess.

Still, at the most basic level, the new President whistles the same old tune. His job is to maintain, preserve and protect american hegemony. Like his predecessors, Obama is of the view that the United States has the right to intervene in any part of the planet it sees fit. This may (Pakistan) be in the pursuit of the national interest or, more nebulously, on humanitarian grounds (the Sudan) if Obama, as seems perfectly possible, picks up the Albright-Clinton baton and runs with it.

I don't say that any, let alone all, of these are necessarily illegitimate ambitions, merely that, when you get down to the bottom of it, Obama hasn't yet given much indication that he either wants to, let alone will, break from the broad thrust of the Washington foreign policy consensus. That being so, why should hawks on either side of the aisle have anything to fear from him? Means matter, of course, but so do ends.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternationalforeign policy