Obama and the Politics of National Security

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As the presidential race grinds towards its finale, writing preemptive postmortems on the campaigns is something of a cottage industry. Yet while most of the attention has been focused on the McCain campaign and its internecine feuds, less attention has been paid to whether the Obama campaign has achieved an enduring Democratic hope – changing the politics of national security.

Even casual observers are familiar with the conventional wisdom that economic issues tend to favor Democrats, while foreign policy and national security issues favor Republicans. Such wisdom was only reinforced during this campaign, as Senator Obama’s lead in the polls grew as U.S. economic fortunes began to sink.

Before the economic maelstrom struck, the presidential election was shaping up to be a referendum on national security issues – particularly the war in Iraq. And, in contrast to 2004, it would pit a Democrat who had opposed the Iraq war from the start against one of the war’s most vocal proponents.

As Obama fought toward his primary win, he successfully leveraged his early objection to the Iraq war to paint his opponents as hostages to old thinking. In a speech in December 2007, he chastised “a conventional way of thinking about foreign policy that values time spent in Washington over timely judgments; posturing over pragmatism; and fear of looking weak over the conviction to get things right.” It was a direct shot at Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, who, out of mistaken conviction or political opportunism, voted to authorize the Iraq war. It was also a signal that Obama would not play defense when it came to defense.

Progressives swooned. “Obama is offering the most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we've heard from a serious presidential contender in decades. It cuts to the heart of traditional Democratic timidity,” wrote Spencer Ackerman in the American Prospect. Former Obama aid Samantha Power took to the New York Review of Books to argue that Obama was poised to turn the tables on the GOP’s “issue dominance.” The Democrats, Power predicted, could show the public a “new strength” and convince them that they were the party to keep America safe if they only had the courage to confidently confront the Republicans on their favored terrain.

The basic idea was simple. Obama would be the scion of “soft power” – restoring the credibility of diplomacy, foreign aid, multilateralism and moral leadership after eight years of the Bush administration. Rather than echo the GOP line on defense while scrambling to change the subject, Obama would channel the public’s unhappiness with Iraq into a broader indictment of Republican foreign policy stewardship.

And yet, with mere days to go before the contest is decided, polls suggest that Obama didn’t close the sale. An October 23 Newsweek poll of registered voters gave McCain a 50 to 40 lead over Obama on the question of who would do a better job handling terrorism and national security. In an October 17 poll for CNN, 56 percent of likely voters said McCain would do a better job on terrorism compared to just 39 percent for Obama.

According to a Rasmussen Reports poll released in September, 52 percent of Americans surveyed said they trusted John McCain on national security matters versus 40 percent who trusted Obama. In a recent Pew Research survey, swing voters said that McCain could best handle foreign policy by a 52 percent to 25 percent margin.

On the Iraq war, 47 percent of voters said Obama would do a better job versus 45 percent for McCain in Newsweek’s poll. CNN found likely voters preferred McCain on the Iraq war over Obama by a ten point margin. This is notable because in an October poll, CNN found that 66 percent of Americans opposed the war - a figure that has stayed nearly consistent for roughly two years.

How could it be that in such a seemingly propitious moment, Obama can’t move the national security needle? A few answers suggest themselves.

First, since securing the nomination, Obama has behaved much like the Democrats he scolded during the primary. When he spoke before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in June, Obama went out of his way to echo McCain’s hawkishness on Iran, saying that he would do “everything – and I mean everything” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. After sounding a reasonably cautious note in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia, his tone turned increasingly harsher – and closer to McCain’s. Despite urging cooperation with Russia, Obama, like McCain, supports adding Georgia and Ukraine into NATO – a move guaranteed to irritate Moscow.

The selection of Delaware Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate only confirmed Obama’s timidity. Senator Biden is many things, but as long serving member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations committee, he’s not exactly a stirring rebuke of Washington’s foreign policy thinking. Biden voted to authorize the Iraq war. As he boasted during his debate, he was a vocal proponent of using military force in the Balkans and – he now hopes – in Sudan.

On Iraq, Obama has quietly but unmistakably studded his proclamation to “end the war” with enough caveats as to make the promise contingent on a variety of factors – Iraqi and regional stability, for one – that might not break his way come January. These caveats, we were told, were reassuring “moves to the center.” They could just as easily be read as the traditional Democratic defensive crouch.

Second, Obama has been victimized by the Bush Administration. The crux of Obama’s pitch is that he represents “change” from the Bush era, while McCain represents Bush’s third term. Yet across several major foreign policy issues – negotiating with Iran, a timeline for withdrawal in Iraq, launching unilateral military strikes into Pakistan - there is now more agreement between President Bush and Senator Obama than President Bush and Senator McCain. Commentators are even urging Obama to retain Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, because of the synergy between his and Obama’s views.

Since Obama has spent so much time railing against “Bush/McCain” he can’t avail himself of a more accurate, and far more damning critique: that many of the policies espoused by Senator McCain are being walked back by the very administration that initially implemented them.

Third, on many soft-power issues vital to redefining the political landscape, Obama is simply swimming against the tide of public opinion. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found declining support for measures such as stopping genocide, strengthening the United Nations and promoting human rights – initiatives that were not terribly popular to begin with. As Senator Biden hinted at during his debate, the government’s multi-billion dollar bail-out of Wall Street will effectively doom increases in foreign aid.

Obama did stand his ground during his debates with Senator McCain when talk turned to national security issues, but his performance underscored an important reason why he hasn’t “changed the politics” of national security. He hasn’t changed the premise.

Any debate about national security is rooted in a perception of American interests. Yet the Obama campaign has not focused much attention on defining what America’s fundamental security interests are – but on how best to manage them. On issues such as Iran and North Korea, the signature difference between the two parties is not over the extent to which these nations represent uniquely American problems (as opposed to regional ones), but the tools with which they propose to “solve” them.

Indeed, the approach advocated by Obama and the Democrats – cast aside multilateral diplomacy in favor of direct negotiations – reinforces the presumption that no other country has as much at stake in a nuclear Iran or North Korea than the U.S. But that is absurd. Just look at a map.

By conceding the premise of American security interests, it’s easy to see why Democrats keep losing the politics. If America is to be the world’s policeman, who is the more credible figure: the state trooper ready to club the bad guys, or the security guard at the mall, brandishing a walk-talkie?

The defining feature of America’s post Cold War political debate is that while every campaign pays rhetorical homage to the “new world” we live in, none appear interested in actually pondering its strategic significance. The global defense obligations that America assumed as a direct response to the urgent threat of Soviet communism have morphed into the hubristic conceit that it is incumbent upon the U.S. to be, as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright put it, “the indispensable nation.”

Thus, Obama proclaims that “the mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity.”

And so, the indispensable nation is dispensed, again and again, while allies wisely free-load off of a nearly fathomless “defense” budget and other nations, like Georgia, feel justifiably betrayed when lofty American promises are recanted at the last minute.

It may not be possible to shift Americans’ perceptions of defense issues in a way that improves the Democrat’s political fortunes. The real story, however, is not that Senator Obama tried and failed. It’s that he didn’t even try.

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