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Barack Bets The White House


This is a year of high-stakes political gambles – by a woman, a black guy, a Mormon, an Italian, just to name a few ways to characterize some of the front-runners – so it’s feels a bit odd to single out Sen. Barack Obama’s recent foreign policy pronouncements as something out of the ordinary.

But they are unique and they are defying all kinds of odds.

Obviously frustrated by the lack of coverage, or perhaps more accurately, at the coverage of his campaign as a phenomenon not worth taking seriously, Obama summoned the New York Times in for a few chats and playing the magazine off against the political staff, delivered a well-crafted smack-down to some of his less fearless rivals.

Make the one fearless rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Faced with the Clinton media manipulation machine, Obama’s called her out on foreign policy. And, well, she’s probably not going to answer. The Senator from New York stays on message and the message is moderate, considered and focused on pocketbook issues that will serve her well through next year.

Besides, the Clintons – based on their years of experience in U.S. politics – know that elections are not won or lost on U.S. foreign policy initiatives. Historically, Americans care very little for life beyond their borders.

Obama, who likes to point out that his sister is married to an Canadian of Asian descent and that his grandmother still lives in Kenya – does not share that view. And as Andrew Sullivan is pointing out in this month’s Atlantic, Obama’s life experience is more commonplace all the time. With his recent comments on how he would change the U.S. relationship with Iran, Obama is making very interesting series of bets, moving the election-year conversation to foreign affairs and the U.S. role in the world and how it should be changed while making that argument appeal to the average voter.

Getting that strategy to work however, will probably require some help from President George W. Bush and the public disgust – that’s not too strong a word – with his administration.

There is growing concern that the Bush White House will invades Iran. If it does, there’s a good chance that moderate Americans who did not object terribly to the Iraq invasion – the ejecting of a bad man from a corrupt regime – will vehemently protest more involved U.S conflicts and loss of life in the Middle East. Clinton’s bet, and pretty much everyone else running, is that voters won’t be moved – or won’t be moved enough – by an extension of hostilities between America and Iran, another “bad” country run by bad men. Obama’s bet is that voters will care.

If Obama’s right, it’s bad for “nuke ‘em now” Rudy Giuliani whose advisors want to turn Tehran into a parking lot. And it’s not great for Sen. John McCain who has supported Bush on the war. But it’s also bad for Clinton who has moderately followed – but still followed – the Bush Administration’s lead in foreign affairs. Part of this is Clinton’s local politics. She’s a New York Senator. To stay in office she needs to follow a peaceful pro-Israel path and the Bush Administration stands next to no other politicians in that regard.

But Obama, who opposed the war while he was still in the Illinois State House and built a presidential campaign on that, may have a very interesting edge here. If Iran is invaded – and as my Spot-on colleague Christopher Allbritton fears, the region explodes and implodes simultaneously – Obama is the only guy who’s urged peace. Consistently.

The undercurrent here is also interesting. In making his suggestions about negotiating with Iran, Obama becomes the only guy in the race who has – obliquely to be sure – suggested that the U.S. in talking to Iran dramatically re-adjust its relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia, both now content (although not strictly happy) with the odd balance of power in which they can claim a fair measure of influence because of their ability to speak with and for the U.S. Sharing power with those who would happily supplant them – or worse – doesn’t make anyone in Riyadh or Jerusalem very happy.

But that may, in the end, be where we’re headed anyway. A few months ago, writing in the New Yorker, the magazine’s former European correspondent Adam Gopnik summed up the feeling that European heads of state had toward the U.S. It’s worth quoting at length because it is this ideal – and this idea of how the West can and should work together – that Obama is moving the U.S. toward.

“…for the first time, it’s possible to imagine modernization as something independent of Americanization: when people in Paris talk about ambitious kids going to study abroad, they talk about London…When people in Paris talk about manufacturing might, they talk about China; when they talk about tall buildings, they talk about Dubai; when they talk about toublieng foreign take-overs, they talk about Gazprom. the Sarkozy-Gordon Brown-Merkle generation is not unsympathetic to America but America is not so much the primary issue for them, as it was for Blair and Chirac in the nineties when America was powerful beyond words. To a new leadership class, it’s sometimes seems that America is no longer the human bomb you have to defuse but the nut you walk away from.”

Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy is based very much on business-as-usual in Washington a reassurance to Americans that while we may have had some rough spots, things are back on track. That’s not true. With a little luck, that growing realization, which could well be measured by his ability to shift the U.S. presidential debate to foreign policy, may well put Barack Obama in the White House.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 7:17 PM | Permalink

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