Foreign Policy as symbolism

As mentioned in my previous post, I was quite pleased with the way that Obama hit back hard at Bush and McCain's risible and astonishingly ignorant use of “appeasement.”  Michael Tomasky has a nice analysis on why Obama's response was so effective:

the Kerry loss of 2004, Democrats began to vow: we understand what
happened. We're not going to let ourselves get outboxed and intimidated
next time around, especially on national security. There was every
reason in the world to think this was an empty promise. If Hillary
Clinton were the nominee, it wouldn't be exactly empty, because the
Clinton camp does know how to return fire. But it would be a
dissatisfying thing for most Democrats to watch, because Clinton's
returns of serve would consist of hawkish statements designed to prove
that she could be just as tough as the Republicans (witness her recent
promise to “obliterate” Iran).

Obama is doing something
altogether different. He is standing for an alternative vision of how
America should operate in the world, and he is defending it tooth and
nail. I'm not sold on the idea that negotiations without preconditions
with hostile powers are the world's best strategy. If the US had some
leverage over Iran that might be one thing, but, in our current state,
we have little. Still, this is one of those cases where the symbolic
message of what Obama did last Friday is more important, for now, than
the substance. He said: These people have screwed up foreign policy and
security. I have a different way of doing things. And I'm not ceding an

In an interesting essay, Jon Chait complains that candidates are essentially forced to make foreign policy statements that we really should not put much credence in:

Obviously, campaign rhetoric of all kinds offers an imperfect guide to
how a candidate will govern. But it's particularly true of foreign
policy rhetoric. Why is it so hard to vote on foreign policy? A
president's foreign policy tends to get driven by new developments
overseas. Any number of things could happen between now and January
that would persuade McCain to pull troops out of Iraq, or persuade
Obama to leave them there. But dramatic, mind-changing data about
health care or the minimum wage is not likely to pop up.

Chait's not happy that this is how things work, but points out that Obama has learned how to play the symbolism of this game:

Four years ago, poor John Kerry tried to explain that he was for the
war given what he knew at the time, against it knowing what we know
today, but in favor of its continued prosecution given that we were
already there. It didn't end well for him. The lesson the candidates
have taken away from this episode is that you need a consistent,
easy-to-explain position or else you'll come across as a flip-flopper.
Foreign policy has become a character issue, with nuance understood as
a sign of weakness.

Obama, as Michael Crowley explained in the previous issue, understands
that events could change his plans (see “Barack in Iraq,” May 7). But
he also grasps that the risks of appearing indecisive outweigh the
risks of appearing too dovish, which is why he so quickly disowned
Power's remarks. Republicans have arrived at the same conclusion.

I know this is one of the reasons I find Obama such an appealing candidate.  Even though it may not be entirely sensible, Obama seems to really get this important political reality– you have to appear solid and firm in your own beliefs (even when that's stupid) to show “toughness” and “character.”  I absolutely love that Obama is itching for a fight on foreign policy rather than attempting to defuse the issue by being Republican-lite.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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