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Terms of Engagement

The Amphibian

How Barack Obama learned to cover his right flank -- and his left.

Marc Serota/Getty Images
Marc Serota/Getty Images

It probably didn’t do him a bit of good, but Barack Obama performed a lot better in this week’s debate than many of his supporters — okay, the one writing this column — had feared. The reason for Obama’s success was simple enough: Mitt Romney could not find enough politically usable space to Obama’s right. In the Republican primaries, Romney could bid for the loony-tune vote by castigating the president as a closet European who doesn’t really love America. But all that went out the window when Romney had to reassure independent voters that he could be trusted with America’s national security. Romney could not figure out how to sound tougher than Obama without sounding reckless.

You’d have to go back to Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 — the last pre-Vietnam election — to find a Democrat who pulled off that trick. But LBJ was a Cold Warrior; in the 2008 campaign, Obama appeared to run to the left of Hillary Clinton, who had voted in favor of the war in Iraq and whom Obama scorned as a prisoner of conventional thinking. And yet today it is much easier to mount a coherent critique of Obama’s foreign policy from the traditional left — or from the isolationist right — than it is from the position of responsible conservatism which Romney was trying to assume in the debate. What happened?

Of course, Obama’s aggressive prosecution of the war on terror, and his decision to double down on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, made him much less vulnerable to the standard GOP allegation that Democrats are soft on national security even as it angered many liberals. But even before he became president, Obama scrambled the conventional understanding of "left" and "right" in foreign policy. He never had the visceral discomfort with the use of American power, and especially military power, which marked liberals who came of age during the Vietnam War. He wanted to draw down in Iraq in order to ramp up in Afghanistan. He was even able to out-flank Romney during the debate by recalling that in the 2008 campaign he had vowed to violate Pakistani sovereignty, if need be, to track down a high-value target, while Romney had denounced the idea.

One of the reasons why Obama has always been so hard to draw an ideological bead on is that the "engagement" paradigm — which he hit on during the 2008 campaign, and made his watchword once he took office — can be understood both as a form of "realism" and as a form of "idealism," as both right and left. The willingness to put values aside in the hopes of finding common ground even with America’s most inveterate adversaries is classic realism, which is why figures like Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell felt, and continue to feel comfortable with Obama. But the belief that through gestures of respect and deference you can bring rogue states like Iran or North Korea to a rational discussion of shared interests constituted a form of idealism in the face of George W. Bush’s unyielding bellicosity.

Obama’s foreign policy was thus ideologically amphibious from the outset. Of course, for that very reason it could be criticized from both sides. Liberals worried that Obama was giving short shrift to human rights and democracy promotion in Iran, Russia, and China in order to advance his agenda on nuclear nonproliferation or climate change or trade balances. (Neo-cons made the same claim in much less varnished terms.) And conservatives accused him of naïvely imagining that displays of humility and cultural sensitivity would somehow make dictators more amenable to compromise. 

Over time, as I wrote last week, Obama has moved away from, though scarcely rejected, the engagement paradigm. He has learned that professions of deference and respect don’t do as much as he thought to alter the basic calculus of enemies like Iran or North Korea, or refractory powers like Russia or China. The Obama of 2012 no longer speaks the language of "mutual respect for mutual interests" with autocratic states; in this week’s debate, he even described China as an "adversary." He is a chastened and less hopeful figure, though also one much less easily reproached as naïve.

But he is also, strikingly, less "realist." The Obama of 2009 was prepared to soft-pedal scratchy issues like human rights and democracy in order to persuade China to take action on currency and trade issues, and to accept a more active role in global decision-making. It didn’t work: Obama accomplished little on his trip to China that fall, and the White House felt that he had been ill-treated. Engagement looked like a one-way street. When Obama returned to the region in the fall of 2011, he pointedly declared that those who seek to rule by "one man" or "by committee" neglect "the ultimate source of power and legitimacy — the will of the people." The administration has also recognized, as one official puts it, that "you can hold your ground, and still succeed." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deeply offended her Chinese hosts when she negotiated for the freedom of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, but managed at the same time to conduct the planed Strategic Dialogue.

In his 2009 Nobel peace prize acceptance speech, Obama mocked those who opposed engagement policy in favor of "the satisfying purity of indignation." One of the White House mantras of those early years was "consequentialism" — the principle that you don’t criticize other regimes if it won’t do any good. But as Obama has learned the limits of engagement, consequentialism has been consigned to the lexicographical doghouse. Clinton’s sharp criticism of Russia’s rigged parliamentary elections last year was bound to make relations with Russia worse — and it did — but by then the "reset" policy was already dead, and there was nothing to gain by restraint.

And so Obama’s worldview has evolved in a distinctive way, if much more subtly than did George W. Bush’s, which lurched from realism to a kind of magic idealism, and then back to something more traditional. Obama has become both tougher and more moralistic — more realistic, yet less realist. Two administration officials I spoke to said that they expected that, should he win a second term, Obama would show growing confidence about delivering tough judgments on autocratic states. For the moment, this development has made him a very difficult target for his challenger to hit. Romney has criticized Obama’s decision to remain silent in the early days of Iran’s abortive Green Revolution in 2009 — a classic case of the dynamics of engagement — but he can’t find much material to latch on to from recent years. Romney seems to have concluded that while he can still fire broad rhetorical salvos — "apology tour," "lead from behind" — on specific issues he has little choice but to agree with the president.

Alas, there are no moral victories, or intellectual victories, or even substantive victories, in presidential elections. The debate likely didn’t change voters’ minds, and Obama didn’t score a knockout, or even a decision on points. Since then, the poll numbers haven’t moved Obama’s way. It appears that each debate mattered less than the one before. Obama must trust to fate, and the ground game.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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