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Obama and the Coming Foreign Policy

Among the most notable things about Obama’s victory is the following: for the first time in American history, someone unambiguously from the political left will be commander-in-chief during wartime. This thought brings to mind a dazzling Irving Kristol essay, written in 1967 and published in Foreign Affairs, entitled “American Intellectuals and Foreign Policy.”

Kristol argues that “whereas a national community is governed by principles by which one takes one’s intellectual and moral bearings, the nations of the world do not constitute such a community and propose few principles by which their conduct may be evaluated.” Because of this, “the entire tradition of Western political thought has very little to say about foreign policy:”

What this adds up to is that ideology can obtain exasperatingly little purchase over the realities of foreign policy — and that intellectuals feel keenly their dispossession from this area. It is not that intellectuals actually believe — though they often assert it — that the heavy reliance upon expediency in foreign affairs is intrinsically immoral. It is just that this reliance renders intellectuals as a class so much the less indispensable.

A brilliant insight, and one that will now face a reckoning. Obama is the candidate of the intellectuals, especially those who disdain a foreign policy of expediency. Obama rose to popularity largely due to a critique of Bush administration foreign policy premised in a standard leftist demand about America: that we must integrate as an equal partner in the international order, in defiance of our greater economic, military, and political power. The New Left skepticism of American power that flourished during the Cold War — the belief that American power is provocative abroad, serves sinister interests domestically, and should not be viewed with any greater legitimacy or virtue as any other state’s power, and perhaps with less — will finally have a friend in the White House. Or it is hoped that the man in the White House will be a friend.

The intellectual community en masse . . . denounces, it mocks, it vilifies — and even if one were to concede that its fierce indignation was justified by extraordinary ineptitude in high places, the fact remains that its activity is singularly unhelpful. The United States is not going to cease being an imperial power, no matter what happens in Vietnam or elsewhere. It is the world situation — and the history which created this situation — that appoints imperial powers, not anyone’s decision or even anyone’s overweening ambition.

The intellectuals who, Kristol believes, do not understand the origins of American power provided much of the fuel, noise, and righteous indignation behind Obama’s candidacy. It will be fascinating, in the coming years, to watch how Obama reconciles himself to a foreign policy of expediency, and what the intellectuals will say about it. There is no chance that they will finally learn to appreciate, or even understand, American power. But they will also desperately wish to continue loving Obama.

Domestic political problems, when inconvenient, can frequently be ignored, whereas international crises often require immediate judgments, choices, and action. Obama, if he is smart, will govern domestically as a cautious center-leftist. But presidents cannot exercise anywhere near so much control over the rest of the world. If Iran resumes killing American soldiers in Iraq and destabilizing the Iraqi government, to take just one example, President Obama will have to make decisions, and make them immediately. I suspect that the choices he makes will frequently be in defiance of the zeitgeist that originally gave substance to Obama’s critique of the Bush years. The intellectuals, after a brief period of excitement, will be forced to get back in touch with an old familiar feeling — alienation.


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