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The Fog

Translating Obama's vague foreign policy pronouncements.

Oct 20, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 06 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Discerning Barack Obama's foreign policy in any detail is far from easy. The great majority of his statements on the subject consist of criticism of the Bush administration. Asked during the first presidential debate how he sees "the lessons of Iraq," Obama replied, "I think the first question is whether we should have gone into the war in the first place." Later he added: "The strategic question that the president has to ask is not whether or not we are employing a particular approach in the country once we have made the decision to be there. The question is, was this wise?" The constant lamentation over Bush's mistakes, justified though it may be, leaves obscure what Obama thinks we should do now. A close examination of his pronouncements on foreign affairs nevertheless suggests the general outlines of his likely foreign policy. Like the Clinton administration, an Obama administration would set out determined to rely on diplomacy, backed where necessary by economic sanctions and, in some cases, limited and precise military strikes--the sole exception being Afghanistan, where Obama proposes an open-ended commitment of American troops to win on what he regards as the central front in the war on terror.


Obama and his team have made it clear that they intend to rely on diplomacy to achieve most of their objectives in the world. Obama's declaration that he would meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "without preconditions" defines his approach to the Iranian challenge. Asked in a 2004 debate with his Republican Senate opponent Alan Keyes how he would handle potential threats from Iran and North Korea, Obama answered, "Well, I think that we have to do everything we can diplomatically." Noting the failure of the international nonproliferation regime, he blamed U.S. strategy and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which he said "has to be rewritten and renegotiated." In April 2007, he recognized that Iran and Syria "want us to fail" in Iraq: "I am under no illusions there." But given what he believes are common strategic interests, he continued, "It's absolutely critical that we talk to the Syrians and the Iranians about playing a more constructive role in Iraq." During the January 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton, Obama cited the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program as evidence that "if we are meeting with them, talking to them, and offering them both carrots and sticks, they are more likely to change their behavior."

Criticized for promising to meet with Ahmadinejad, Obama added nuance in the first presidential debate: "Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran. So he might not be the right person to talk to." The conversation then descended into an argument about the meaning of "without preconditions," with Obama explaining: "It means     that we don't do what we've been doing, which is to say, 'Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won't have direct contacts with you.' There's a difference between preconditions and preparations. Of course we've got to do preparations, starting with low-level diplomatic talks." It is not clear whether the Obama team envisages reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Iran. During the Cold War, the United States had full diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union--and negotiated with Moscow, as Obama often points out. Denis McDonough, Obama's foreign policy coordinator, noted in June 2008 that "every one of our European allies maintains full diplomatic relations with Iran.     So I am very confident that our European allies would welcome greater American engagement in this." It is extremely difficult to negotiate presidential-level summits when major issues are at stake even with full diplomatic teams in both capitals, so the question of Obama's intention to reestablish relations is important.