The Orthodoxy of Hope

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Journalists hate quoting journalists. It seems so déclassé. But a fellow scribe recently helped crystallize the biggest problem I have with Barack Obama's foreign policy ideas. So a tip of the hat to Fidel Castro of Havana's Granma newspaper.

The problem: Obama has offered a bold and penetrating diagnosis of the global mess the Bush administration will leave behind. But the candidate's prescriptions do not match his diagnosis in their scope or daring. Either Obama is, for vote-gathering purposes, holding back his true thoughts, or he is bluffing on how severe the need for fundamental change really is.

Castro spotlighted that dichotomy in his column last week. The semi-retired dictator praised Obama as "the most progressive candidate for the U.S. presidency," but he immediately balanced that potentially lethal compliment by attacking the Illinois senator's vow to continue the obsolete, counterproductive U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

The modest, sensible easing of restrictions on travel and currency transfers that Obama did promise in an appearance before the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami this month would produce only "hunger for the nation, remittances as charitable handouts and visits to Cuba as propaganda for consumerism," Castro claimed.

As usual, Castro's point is overdrawn. But it does underline the widening gap between Obama's repeated attacks on "Washington's conventional thinking" as the root of all evil and his reliance on established consensus when he is questioned in detail on Middle East peace, Iran, the U.S. position in its own hemisphere and other key issues.

My point here is not to accuse Obama of more-than-standard political tailoring of positions or to urge him to commit hara-kiri by needlessly taking unpopular stands. The point is that he is largely right in arguing that new thinking is desperately needed in U.S. foreign policy -- but he is failing to show how an Obama presidency would produce and apply such thinking to the policy disasters he decries.

This means he is not using the campaign to gather public support for the specific steps that he will need to take if he is to be a "transformational" president.

The Cuba embargo is an obvious case in point. Is Obama, in what he describes as this "urgent and pivotal moment" in history, seeking a broad mandate for . . . incrementalism? Does he propose to dismantle the embargo invisibly, step by step? Or will he in his first 100 days introduce a bold new hemispheric approach that would help produce the kind of change in Cuba that is long overdue?

Here's one example of new thinking he should pursue: The United States should apply to relations with hemispheric neighbors many of the lessons of the European Union and its half-century of economic and political integration. A functioning American Union that pools sovereignty is a goal worth introducing now. But that quest cannot start by tearing down the North American Free Trade Agreement and other hemispheric trade accords. A President Obama has to be willing to sit down with the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico without preconditions, such as demands for treaty renegotiations.

On the Middle East, Obama puts Israel first and foremost in U.S. policy and encourages the Palestinians to adopt the two-state solution that was first officially proposed by, well, President Bush. He rules out all contact with Hamas as does, well, President Bush.

On Iran, Obama would let direct negotiations with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government begin without Tehran first suspending uranium enrichment. That would be a procedural change in U.S. policy, but probably not a productive one. In any event, the incentives and sanctions that Obama would use to get Iran to abandon nuclear power are largely the same ones now on offer by the Europeans and, well, President Bush.

The lack of new, specific and substantive foreign policy changes offered by either Obama or by John McCain -- the subject of a future column -- accounts for the two campaigns spinning their wheels so furiously over whether a president should talk directly to dictators. This is a duel of symbols, meant by Obama's supporters to show how stuck McCain is to Bush's "disdain for diplomacy" and by McCain's forces to show how naive Obama is, and details be damned.

Both candidates deserve better than this as a foreign policy "debate." After drawing sharply contrasting positions on Iraq, Obama and McCain have shaded the rest of the world in the hues of Washington orthodoxies. That may be a ticket to winning. But it is also a ticket to ineffective governance.

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