Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Obama Method

First he did it to Boehner, now Ahmadinejad.

Excerpted and boldfaced from Jonathan Chait, senior editor at The New Republic:

The thing that people haven't figured out about President Obama's conduct of foreign policy is that it's the same as his conduct of domestic policy. Obama believes in the power of negotiation and public dialogue to split his adversaries--Republicans at home, Islamists abroad--and strengthen his own position. Obama's speech in Cairo to the Muslim world was simply the foreign analogue of his dealings with the GOP.

Obama's method begins with attempts to find common ground, expressions of respect for the adversary's core beliefs, and profuse hope for cooperation. In his iconic 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, Obama famously announced that Democrats, too, "worship an awesome God." In his Cairo speech, Obama pointed to the contributions and freedoms of American Muslims. In both speeches, Obama signaled cultural respect by adapting the other side's own rhetorical formulations--invoking "a belief in things not seen" (2004) or calling the Middle East the region where Islam "was first revealed" (Cairo).

This rhetoric removes the locus of debate from the realm of tribal conflict-- red state versus blue state, Islam versus America--and puts it onto specific questions--Is the American health care system fair? Is terrorism justified?-- where Obama believes he can win support from soft adherents of the opposing camp.

Naturally, Obama's pacific expressions tend to alarm the more hawkish elements of his own camp, who interpret his idealistic rhetoric as naivete or weakness .....

Democratic partisans think the enemy is vicious and must be met with uncompromising force. That's exactly how conservative foreign policy hawks feel about the world. Unsurprisingly, the right-wing foreign policy critique of Obama today sounds eerily like the partisan Democratic critique of Obama during the primary.

..... in his Cairo speech, Obama touted the historic role of Muslims in the United States. Conservative pundit David Frum complained:
One of the most disturbing things about the Cairo speech is the persistent misrepresentation of history. It is really absurd to say that Islam for example has 'always been a part of America's story.'
Obama probably realizes that Muslims have played a marginal role in American life throughout most of its history. He also probably believes that the U.S. economy in the 1970s suffered primarily from oil shocks and irresponsible monetary policy rather than from the absence of a Reaganesque cheerleader for entrepreneurship. But Obama's method entails small acts of intellectual dishonesty in the pursuit of common ground.

Critics such as Krugman and Frum are correct that surrendering intellectual ground comes at a cost. Our most successful presidents articulate clear, forceful public rationales for their beliefs --think of Roosevelt or Truman excoriating reactionary Republicans at home, or Truman, Kennedy, or Reagan standing up to the Soviets internationally. It is a mistake, however, to view Obama's strategy as an act of submission.

Consider how Obama explained his approach toward Iran during a recent interview with Newsweek:
Now, will it work? We don't know. And I assure you, I'm not naive about the difficulties of a process like this. If it doesn't work, the fact that we have tried will strengthen our position in mobilizing the international community, and Iran will have isolated itself, as opposed to a perception that it seeks to advance that somehow it's being victimized by a U.S. government that doesn't respect Iran's sovereignty.
This is a perfect summation of Obama's strategy. It does not presuppose that his adversaries are people of goodwill who can be reasoned with. Rather, it assumes that, by demonstrating his own goodwill and interest in accord, Obama can win over a portion of his adversaries' constituents as well as third parties. Obama thinks he can move moderate Muslim opinion, pressure bad actors like Iran to negotiate, and, if Iran fails to comply, encourage other countries to isolate it. The strategy works whether or not Iran makes a reasonable agreement.

The results remain to be seen. But it eerily resembles the way Obama has already isolated the GOP leadership. Obama began his presidency by elaborately courting the opposition party. Republicans in Congress believed that, by flamboyantly withholding cooperation, they could deny Obama his stated goal of bipartisan harmony and thus render him a failure. Instead, they wound up handing Obama the alternative victory of appearing to be the reasonable party. Polls showed that the public, by overwhelming margins, believed that Obama was trying to work with Republicans and that Republicans were not reciprocating.

Likewise, by defusing the complaint among Islamists that the United States disrespects their religion, Obama can more easily force the Iranian leadership to negotiate on the terms of its stated goals. American Prospect editor Mark Schmitt wrote in 2007 that this is actually,
a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers ..... One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem."
This apparent paradox is one reason Obama's political identity has eluded easy definition. On the one hand, you have a disciple of the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky turned ruthless Chicago politician. On the other hand, there is the conciliatory post-partisan idealist. The mistake here is in thinking of these two notions as opposing poles. In reality it's all the same thing. Obama's defining political trait is the belief that conciliatory rhetoric is a ruthless strategy.

10 Moderated Comments:

Blogger Vigilante said...


A good pick and a good read! (I'll comment later.)

6/23/2009 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger Mac Daddy Tribute Blog said...

Well reasoned piece. We are fortunate to have a president who takes this approach. He is the right person at this time.

6/23/2009 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

McCain (who I normally respect) is flat-out wrong on this one. The U.S. has literally zero credibility in Iran (our history with the Shah, our support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, all that "axis of evil" nonsense talk from Bush, etc.). And what does Senator McCain mean when he says that the Iranian people need to know that we stand with them? The Shiites in Iraq thought that we were "standing with them" in 1991. They ended up getting slaughtered. Obama's absolutely the one thinking clearly here.

6/23/2009 08:24:00 PM  
Blogger Vigilante said...

Mac and Will, I am in total agreement.

Ahmadinejad is the main and immediate issue. His early departure would be just the first step in untying the knot in the Middle East. We must understand that Iranians want his ouster for reasons different than ours. (I am not especially hopeful.) However, with him gone, nuclear energy in Iran assumes a different profile.

Where lies the path of Mr. A’s demise? For that to happen, it’s clear to me that it’s essential that schism(s) be opened within the ranks of the Iran Army and the Revolutionary Guard. That’s not going to happen with McCain & Co bellowing and braying about ‘fixing’ Iranians up. Every Iranian remembers the last time we fixed their democracy (circa 1953) like it was yesterday.

The optimal official American position is on the sidelines. Our new president has started the rebuilding of United States' moral and political leadership after its demise during the Busheney years. But we have not yet restored that credibility. President Obama is a mature student of statesmanship who understands that his grasp should not exceed the reach of American foreign policy. Although Obama can render more than adequate rhetoric for any circumstance, what this situation calls for is results. We need a foreign policy that advances our interests, not oratory that makes us feel good about ourselves.

But as individual Americans, we do not and should not remain on the sidelines. We need to demonstrate our active vigil and witness, together with the rest of the world, on a people to people basis. Our 'social network' technology permits and encourages that now, more than ever before.

6/23/2009 09:09:00 PM  
Blogger Soros' Proxy said...

The AP is carrying a story about today's Presidential press conference entitled,

White House solicited question on Iran from writer.

In fact, the president did not request a specific question, only that it originated from the Iranian opinion. Obama did go to some pains to ensure Huffington Post blogger Nico Pitney was present. Pitney is a major blogger linking Iranians up to the rest of the world via the "social network".

Obama had no inkling as to the question that was coming to him. The President called on Nico and the exchange went like this:

Nico, I know that you - and all across the Internet - we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran. I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?

Pitney asked Obama what he described as a question from one of the people "still courageous enough to be communicating online" about whether Obama would recognized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, or if such a move would be a betrayal of protesters.

Obama responded:

Ultimately, the most important thing for the Iranian government to consider is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States. And that's why I've been very clear: Ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their government.

I call that tone-perfect!

6/23/2009 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger Kentucky Rain said...

This is easy: I agree with everything everyone says. Now that is rare indeed. Great post.

6/24/2009 08:37:00 AM  
Blogger Commander Zaius said...

Okay, after the group hug lets all go out for chips, salsa, and beers. I'll buy, you will just have to meet me down at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Seriously, we are going on vacation Saturday.

6/24/2009 07:25:00 PM  
Blogger Blogging4Food said...

I'd have to say at this point, that this guy Obama has answered the 3 A.M. call from Persia pretty damned well. Better'n McCainites woulda, anyways.

6/25/2009 08:20:00 AM  
Blogger Blogging4Food said...

And better'n Hillary, too, with her broken elbow, huh?

6/25/2009 08:20:00 AM  
Blogger Kentucky Rain said...

LOL Beach! Have fun at the "beach."

6/25/2009 11:03:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home