In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama, the then-junior senator from Illinois, insisted that he was a great friend of Israel, that he was committed to winning the war in Afghanistan and that he fit squarely within the bipartisan mainstream on foreign policy that more or less held up since the end of the Cold War. But President Obama has been none of those things, to no surprise of many on the right who anticipated pretty much (maybe not as bad) as we got — hostility toward Israel, the hollowing-out of our armed forces, unseriousness in the war against jihadism, indifference to human rights, refusal to carry out our commitments (whether to punish use of weapons of mass destruction or to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity), foolish appeasement of enemies and determination to cede leadership in the world. The results speak for themselves.
A lot of people who did expect competent and mainstream foreign policy and a fully alert commander in chief have been surprised and disappointed. We’ll leave for another day the danger of confirmation bias, but looking ahead, how are people who care about restoring peace and stability in the world — which flow from U.S. leadership — supposed to sniff out the responsible from the irresponsible candidates seeking to replace Obama? How do we know we won’t wind up with another Obama?
One way not to do it is to accept candidates’ self-labels. They are meaningless. Even Obama called and calls himself pro-Israel.
A far more accurate way to predict a candidate’s real views and future policies is to look at his or her rhetoric, words and closest associates before the current campaign. Ronald Reagan spent his entire adult life studying, writing and speaking about the evils of the Soviet Union. He didn’t change his stripes in the White House after decades toiling in the anti-Communist vineyards. Obama hasn’t changed much at all from the college student who favored the nuclear freeze in Europe, from the acolyte who hung on the words of former Palestine Liberation Organization spokesman Rashid Khalidi or from every other garden-variety campus leftist who sees the United States (and to some extent Israel) as the cause of many of the problems in the world.
It’s also helpful to look at votes (by legislators) and actions in other offices — for or against military spending, for or against sanctions on Iran, for or against pushing back against a Russian president determined to re-create a Russian empire. If they haven’t taken the war against jihadis seriously (believing al-Qaeda was dead or the threat overblown), don’t expect them to take it seriously in office. Remember how some commentators were convinced that Obama would wise up once he saw the panoply of threats we face? It didn’t happen. Presidents and their hand-picked advisers see what they want to see.
And finally, you have to look at a candidate’s worldview in its entirety. With the exception of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and a tiny number of other “Scoop Jackson Democrats,” liberals in the party have been averse to military spending, doubtful of U.S. influence in the world (who are we to tell anyone anything?), opposed to use of hard power and enamored of multi-lateral institutions. Aside from fondness for multi-lateral institutions, the Pat Buchanan-Ron Paul segment of the far right share many of these preferences — plus an obsession with ending foreign aid. A candidate’s overarching political outlook is not determinative, but it’s quite predictive of his or her views on foreign policy.
Politicians can undergo real conversions on foreign policy. The late senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who became a fierce defender of Israel later in life, is one example. A slew of anti-war liberals in the 1970s became hawks (and left the Democratic Party, or the party left them). But the records of those who changed views remained consistent over long periods of time and through many foreign policy travails.
We’ll have conspicuous election-eve converts to tough foreign policy in 2016. Hillary Clinton is already rewriting history and hinting that she’s really tougher and savvier than Obama. But whether it is Clinton, a more liberal Democrat or Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), it won’t be hard to figure out who is the real deal and who is posing for electoral convenience. Candidates’ ingrained habits of mind, intellectual influences, voting records and rhetoric especially before they decided to run in 2016 aren’t hard to find thanks to Google. The problem, as one wag put it, is that if they are so willing to cast off views they actually believe in, imagine how quickly they will abandon views they don’t. If nothing else, the current president has proved that.