In the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead reviews David Remnick’s biography of Barack Obama and notes that “students of foreign policy will be bemused and somewhat alarmed by the near-total absence of evidence in Remnick’s book that Obama ever showed any interest in foreign policy before running for president.” Mead writes that “to judge from this book, Obama spent little time dealing with foreign policy until he failed to get the Senate committee assignment he really wanted and was forced to make the best of an appointment to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.”
Obama’s speech announcing his presidential candidacy came in February 2007, two years after he was sworn in as a United States senator – not enough time to learn much about foreign policy even if he had shown any prior interest. He had held no prior elective office other than state senator, where he became famous for voting “present.” In his presidential announcement speech, foreign affairs played almost no role – other than his “plan” to bring all combat troops home from Iraq by March 2008. The address was a checklist of domestic issues and a ringing assertion of personal responsibility for solving them:
For the last six years we’ve been told that our mounting debts don’t matter, we’ve been told that the anxiety Americans feel about rising health care costs and stagnant wages are an illusion, we’ve been told that climate change is a hoax, and that tough talk and an ill-conceived war can replace diplomacy, and strategy, and foresight. And when all else fails, when Katrina happens, or the death toll in Iraq mounts, we’ve been told that our crises are somebody else’s fault.
A year and a half into the Obama administration, it would be an achievement just to get back to the “mounting debts” of the past; one of Obama’s first acts in office was to adopt every Democratic pet project ready to be shoveled into the federal budget — and to call it “stimulus.” He pushed through ObamaCare even though the majority of the public opposed it; the negotiations were not carried on C-SPAN. Climate-change research was revealed as corrupt. The “ill-conceived war” was effectively won by virtue of the surge that Obama opposed. His “diplomacy, and strategy, and foresight” produced an outstretched hand to Iran and sanctions no one thinks will work, a “peace process” that cannot even get direct talks to start, and a Nobel Peace Prize he had insufficient modesty to reject. And it is all Bush’s fault, or the Republicans’, or the public’s expectations.
Students of foreign policy may be bemused and somewhat alarmed. But the American public, if the current polls are accurate, does not appear to be amused.