Alex Massie

Sen. Strangemove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Obama

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Marc Ambinder says Obama's foreign policy speech today demonstrates just how the campaign believes it is going to challenge the way Washington does these things. The headline announcement may beObama's desire for a nuclear-free world which is, yes, something that has been gaining traction in foreign policy circles for some time and also the sort of optimistic "transformational" (if we are still allowed to use that word?) policy Obama likes to think typifies his campaign. Barring a miracle of course, it's also not going to happen.

The Obama campaign says these talking points demonstrate just how their candidate would "challenge Washington's conventional thinking" by:

1. Ending the war in Iraq

2. Ensuring there is no safe haven for Al Qaeda

3. Securing loose nuclear material and renewing our efforts towards eliminating nuclear weapons and stopping the threat of nuclear terrorism

4. Talking directly to friend and foe

5. Strengthening the State Department to make diplomacy a priority

6. Reversing Washington’s reliance on secrecy by establishing a National Declassification Center

7. Getting politics out of intelligence by giving the Director of National Intelligence a fixed term

8. Uniting America behind a non-partisan foreign policy

Taking these in turn...

1. Is a requirement for winning the Democratic nomination. The question is how to end the war, not whether doing so is - in the Democratic context - a "bold" initiative.

2. Bold indeed!

3. Everyone agrees on this, even if they differ on the emphasis given to it. It's a long-time since the bipartisan Nunn-Lugar bill passed. So, this is a bold return to bipartisanship.

4. Granted this is does challenge (recent) Washingtonian convention. Still, vis a vis Catro and Iran this is progress, even if as Obama notes himself this approach is so "challenging" that it's exactly that taken by Kennedy, Nixon, Carter and Reagan...

5. Everyone says this must be done. That includes Rudy Giuliani. Obama may be more sincere  - and more effective - than the other candidates but this is already conventional thinking inside the Beltway.

6. Nice idea and a good way of slapping the Bush-Cheney years of needless classification. Theoretically this could have a marginal impact on Washington's culture but given the way the bureaucracy works let's give this a Wait-and-See sticker.

7. Not clear that this really gets politics out of intelligence at all given that the President still chooses the DNI.

8. Broderism! How bold! And this is just a reversion to the "politics stops at the water's edge" nostalgia.

Remember too that the neo-conservative and neo-realist Bush foreign policy team arrived in Washington determined to rip up old certainties and challenge Washington's conventional wisdom too. They were quite successful in this - with the results that we see everywhere today. Obama's challenge to "conventional thinking" is to (boldly!) challenge a foreign policy approach everyone agrees has not worked and return to the foreign policy views that were in the ascendancy before George W Bush took office. That's fine but - with the possible exception of 4 above - it's not as much as his campaign would have you believe either.

Look, there are some nice things in the speech (eg, closing Guantanamo) but I'm not sure Obama's campaign helps the candidate by selling it so hard as some sort of revelatory exercise.

UPDATE: A smart friend emails to say I'm being a tad cynical. He's probably right:

The fact of the matter is Bush's foreign policy has been bold and idealistic. Just incompetent, petulant, ineffective, and disastrous too boot. Some of what Obama is proposing is humdrum, but most of the good ideas are widely accepted. That is part of what happens when someone thinks of a good becomes popular.  Things that make sense become popular too, ergo, a good sensible approach can't help but become bored and conventional.

If people really wanted a bold candidate they could support Kucinich or Ron Paul.  But boldness obviously can't be mistaken for wise.  And what this country needs more than anything right now might not be boldness but prudence.

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.

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