The Blog

Is Progressive Foreign Policy Dead on Arrival?

12:48 AM, Nov 22, 2008 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It will be some time before we know the full extent of Obama's ambitions on domestic policy, but progressives are sure to feature prominently in any debate over health care, energy, banking, etc. In the realm of foreign policy, however, progressives seem already to have been marginalized, or dismissed entirely.

Barack Obama's national security team is beginning to take shape and there is not a progressive in sight. Assuming the leaks and rumors are true, Hillary will be at State, Jones will serve as national security adviser, Brennan will head the CIA, Gates will stay on at Defense, and Obama will be taking counsel from Scowcroft all the while. These people are not progressives (except Clinton on domestic policy); they are generally considered to be in the realist camp, with the possible exception of Clinton, a liberal internationalist. Jones, Gates and Scowcroft aren't even Democrats.

None of this is surprising. Obama never seemed to take progressives very seriously on foreign policy. Throughout the campaign he signaled his respect for the foreign policy of Bush 41, and his advisers tended to split between realists like Richard Danzig and liberal internationalists like Samantha Power. In the one instance that Obama did genuinely excite progressives -- his call to sit down with the leaders of rogue states for direct and unconditional negotiations -- there was no formal roll out or set-piece speech announcing the policy. Instead, even supporters of the idea acknowledged that his arrival at the position had been 'accidental,' and Obama backpedaled over the course of the campaign.

What is clear is that the split between realists and neoconservatives has been resolved, for the time being, in favor of the realists, whose titular leader, Colin Powell, endorsed Obama at the end of the campaign. Over the last eight years this split produced some genuine personal animosity between the two camps, and, in fact, it may have been personal animosity more than anything else that drove Powell away from McCain and into the arms of Obama. So what had been an intra-Republican fight has now led the realists to take refuge in an ascendant Democratic party.

But the real losers here seem to be progressives. If progressives can't get their foot in the door on national security in an Obama administration, it's difficult to imagine precisely what conditions would bring them to power, since we are unlikely to see a more liberal president for decades.

Meanwhile, in foreign policy, the fight for the soul of the Republican party -- realists vs. neocons -- has shifted venues, with realists drifting into prominent positions in a Democratic administration and neoconservatives staying behind. The liberal internationalists, led by Hillary, will also be a powerful force in the new administration, and in their battles with Obama's realists they may find willing allies among the neocons on the right. After all, liberal internationalists have been allied with out-of-power neoconservatives before, most notably during the fight inside the Clinton administration over U.S. policy in the Balkans.

Since progressives will have their hands full with domestic policy over the next four years, they could well be completely locked out on matters of national security. The same fights that riled the Bush administration could then continue into the Obama administration -- with different winners and losers perhaps, but the same basic framework guiding the debate. Progressives are getting wise to this pretty quickly. From their point of view, neocons, realists, and liberal internationalists are separated by only a few degrees of difference. Their frustration may be some small consolation to conservatives of all stripes.

One final thought on this: John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress, is running the Obama transition. CAP was the most visible proponent of a 'muscular progressivism' during the Bush years, and yet the transition appears likely to bring very few muscular progressives into government. Does Podesta really subscribe to the foreign policy ideas produced by his own organization, or does Obama simply disagree with Podesta on these issues?