Washington Post monthly columnist Robert Kagan, who’s often seen by the anti-war left as a “Neo-Con Boogieman and War Monger,” writes in today’s paper how a lot of the “change” being advertised is just spin.
President Obama’s foreign policy team has been working hard to present its policies to the world as constituting a radical break from the Bush years. In the broadest sense, this has been absurdly easy: Obama had the world at hello.
When it comes to actual policies, however, selling the pretense of radical change has required some sleight of hand — and a helpful press corps. Thus the New York Times reports a dramatic “shift” in China policy to “rigorous and persistent engagement,” as if the previous two administrations had been doing something else for the past decade and a half. Another Times headline trumpeted a new “softer tone on North Korea,” based on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that the United States would have a “great openness to working with” Pyongyang — as soon as it agrees to “verifiable and complete dismantling and denuclearization.” Startling.
The media have also reported a dramatic shift in the Obama administration’s approach to conducting the Activity Formerly Known as the War on Terror. “Bush’s ‘War’ on Terror Comes to Sudden End,” The Post announced on Jan. 23, and subsequent stories have proclaimed a transformation from “hard power” to “soft power,” from military action to diplomacy — even as the Obama administration sends 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, significantly expands Predator drone attacks in Pakistan and agrees to a timetable for drawing down troops in Iraq scarcely distinguishable from what a third Bush administration (with the same defense secretary) might have ordered.
So, too, the administration’s insistence on linking proposed missile defense installations in Europe to the “threat” posed by Iran, or its offer to negotiate Russia’s acquiescence to this plan and even to share missile defense technology. All this is widely celebrated as new. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates began these negotiations with Moscow more than a year ago. On Iran, the emphasis on carrots, in the form of a global political and economic embrace if Tehran stops pursuing nuclear weapons, and sticks, in the form of international sanctions and isolation if it doesn’t, is not exactly novel. Add to this the administration’s justifiable hesitancy, campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, to jump into direct, high-level negotiations but to focus instead on mid-level contacts or multilateral meetings on other subjects such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and it’s no surprise if Iranian officials wonder what’s the big deal.
There was a lot of discussion on the talking head shows during the final months of the 2008 Presidential Election the question was along the lines of “just how much can the new President effect foreign policy.” Most of the pundits thought — even the liberals on the panel — there really was much which could be done. A lot of U.S. foreign policy dates back decades, and all a new Administration can do is put a new smiling face on it.
After all, history has shown this to be true unless a President literally grabs the bull (In this analogy, that’d be the State Department) by the horns and turn it in the direction he wants it to go. Few have had remarkable success in doing so unless in times of war.
It’s good to see Kagan point this out today, because I really don’t think a lot of liberal America realized the Administration of George W. Bush was actually trying to get thinks wrapped up in foreign policy before they left the building. All Team Obama is doing is crossing the goal line.
Here’s hoping they don’t fumble the ball along the way.