So, a few high-ranking Democrats gave some foreign policy interviews over the weekend.
Barack Obama’s muse du jour was the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman. You can go read their interview. I, for one, am delighted with it, because it pretty much confirms the point I made last month about Obama’s Zen Master approach to foreign policy. As a general rule, Obama is reluctant for the United States to take the lead in other countries’ civil strife, unless he thinks the balance of domestic politics on the ground favors the side he wants to back. It certainly explains why he didn’t intervene in Syria but why he’s intervening in Iraq right now.
The thing about Obama is that on foreign policy, he’s pretty predictable at this point, and also spectacularly bad at, well, you know, the actual politics of the whole thing. So his chat with Friedman is not the most interesting interview by a high-ranking Democrat to be published this weekend (though it is always fun to see what thing Obama says that Breitbart will distort the most).
No, that honor goes to Hillary Clinton’s chat with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
There’s a lot to parse through here, and much of it has already been parsed, but there was one part of the interview that did jump out at me, in talking about the need for an ordering principle for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East:
I think part of the challenge is that our government too often has a tendency to swing between these extremes. The pendulum swings back and then the pendulum swings the other way. What I’m arguing for is to take a hard look at what tools we have. Are they sufficient for the complex situations we’re going to face, or not? And what can we do to have better tools? I do think that is an important debate.
One of the reasons why I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States. Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d’être is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it….
[M]ost Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement. That’s why I use the phrase “smart power.” I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground. (emphasis added)
In bringing up containment, it would seem that Clinton is trying to steer a middle ground between Obama’s reluctance to take more aggressive action and the neoconservative impulse to take aggressive action at the drop of a hat. But what’s fascinating about the reference to containment is that it reminded me of a GOP contender who, last year, made a similar analogy in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. Can you guess who said this?
What the United States needs now is a policy that finds a middle path. A policy that is not rash or reckless. A foreign policy that is reluctant, restrained by Constitutional checks and balances but does not appease. A foreign policy that recognizes the danger of radical Islam but also the inherent weaknesses of radical Islam. A foreign policy that recognizes the danger of bombing countries on what they might someday do. A foreign policy that requires, as Kennan put it, “a long term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of . . . expansive tendencies.” A policy that understands the “distinction between vital and peripheral interests.”….
Like communism, radical Islam is an ideology with worldwide reach. Containing radical Islam requires a worldwide strategy like containment. It requires counterforce at a series of constantly shifting worldwide points. But counterforce does not necessarily mean large-scale land wars with hundreds of thousands of troops nor does it always mean a military action at all.
If you said “Rand Paul,” you’re right — and likely very confused. After all, there’s been a lot of chatter the past few months about what neoconservatives would do in a Clinton vs. Paul race, as they think the former is more hawkish than the latter. Indeed, as Time’s Michael Scherer pointed out last Friday, “[Rand Paul] is also running for President—albeit without an official campaign—on the idea that he can best distinguish himself from Clinton on key matters of foreign policy that are likely to resonate with independent and young voters.” But the above quotes don’t sound very different at all.
How to explain this? Well, there are two possibilities. The first is that, despite all the hyperbole about political polarization, the two-party system is once again producing a Kang vs. Kodos choice:
The other possibility is that we’re in the very preliminary stages of the 2016 presidential election, and statements like these are sufficiently anodyne and flexible enough to allow either candidate to reference containment without feeling locked into any particular foreign policy position. And that embracing concepts like “smart power” and “neither isolationism nor invasion” will resonate pretty well with foreign policy cognoscenti.
For me, what all of this means is that whatever any potential 2016 hopeful says about foreign policy right now isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit. We’re at the posturing phase of a presidential campaign that’s already started way too damn early. Let’s wait at least a year and see if these candidates actually add some flesh to these foreign policy bare bones.
Am I missing anything?