Two days after Barak Obama's latest foreign-policy gaffe—allowing reporters to see him reading a memo from his campaign advisors on how to spin the war in Iraq—there's a new round whispering among Washington's foreign-policy watchers as to whether the Illinois senator and presidential wannabe can really be taken seriously on these subjects. Similar chatter could be heard this summer after Obama's previous blunders on Pakistan and Israel-Palestine.
This most recent episode occurred during Tuesday's Senate testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker. To be reading a memo about how to politicize the war during their testimony showed incredibly bad taste. Regardless of what you think about their policies, Petraeus and Crocker are risking their lives every day in Iraq. While I'm not naive enough to think politics doesn't play a role in the conflict, a man who wants to be the next commander in chief should have shown more respect. As the Telegraph's Toby Harndon has noted, the screwup is enough to bring into question just how sincere Obama is about changing the culture in Washington.
Obama talks a lot about building consensus. But so far, his performance on the foreign-policy front suggests he and his staff spend most of their time trying to find consensus among themselves. Rumor has it Obama's got a huge cadre of people advising him on foreign policy. It shows. Yesterday in Clinton County, Iowa, he released his plan (pdf) to end the war in Iraq. "The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war," the plan says, "is to begin immediately to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year – now." Then, seven lines later, it says: "Under the Obama plan, American troops may remain in Iraq ..." Depending upon how you read it, it's either annoyingly confused or irresponsibly ambiguous.
Similar confusion can be found in Obama's thinking on Iran. In his Iowa speech yesterday, Obama asserted, "President Ahmadinejad may talk about filling a vacuum in the region after an American drawdown, but he's badly mistaken." Really? Try to find a foreign-policy expert who agrees with that statement. It ain't easy. When FP recently asked more than 100 of America's most respected foreign-policy hands what would happen were the United States to withdraw from Iraq precipitously, which is what Obama is proposing, 75 percent told us Iran would step in to fill the power vacuum left by the United States. In the absence of American forces, what's to stop them? Writing in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Obama pronounces Bush's policy on Iran a failure, then he proposes the following solution: "Our diplomacy should aim to raise the cost for Iran of continuing its nuclear program by applying tougher sanctions and increasing pressure from its key trading partners." I could be wrong, but isn't that precisely the strategy the Bush administration is pursuing?
In a recent piece for The New Republic, Ted Sorenson wistfully asks, "Is Obama the Next JFK?" Maybe. But the real question is, which John F. Kennedy? The young dynamo remembered favorably by Sorenson and revisionist historians? Or the inexperienced son of privilege who botched an invasion of Cuba and brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation? The jury is still out.