The central theme of Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency has been his call for “change”—albeit often with few details about the nature of that change.  There is certainly a pressing need for change in U.S. foreign policy.  During the Cold War, Washington’s strategy led to security free-riding by allies and clients, caused the republic to blunder into ill-advised military crusades, and laid an unnecessary, chronic financial burden on taxpayers.

Matters have become even worse since the end of the Cold War.  U.S. presidents have ordered ten major military missions in the past 19 years, intervening in places as diverse as Panama, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf.  Washington’s security commitments have expanded enormously; America is now under treaty obligation to help defend such tiny clients as the Baltic republics, Slovakia, and Slovenia in addition to the obligations undertaken to various allies during the Cold War.  America’s strategic overextension and muddled priorities have reached new levels under George W. Bush, with Washington’s expensive and bloody folly in Iraq and the administration’s utopian goal of implanting democracy in the Middle East and other unpromising regions.

Our foreign policy fairly cries out for drastic change, but it remains uncertain whether Obama would bring the right kind of change.  Many of his positions are sketchy, and in those cases where he has provided significant detail, there are as many reasons for uneasiness about his approach as there are for hope.

To his credit, Obama was an early opponent of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, at a time when it was not popular to take that position.  In an October 2007 speech at DePaul University, he described the political climate that those of us who opposed the lemming-like surge to war remember all too well:

Five years ago today, I was asked to speak at a rally against going to war in Iraq.  The vote to authorize the war in Congress was less than ten days away, and I was a candidate for the United States Senate.  Some friends of mine advised me to keep quiet.  Going to war in Iraq, they pointed out, was popular.  All of the other candidates were supporting the war at the time.  If the war goes well, they said, you’ll have thrown your political career away.


But I didn’t see how Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat.  I was convinced that a war would distract us from Afghanistan and the real threat from al Qaeda.  I was worried that Iraq’s history of sectarian rivalry could leave us bogged down in a bloody conflict.  And I believed the war would fan the flames of extremism and lead to new terrorism.  So I went to the rally and argued against a “rash war”—a “war based not on reason, but on politics”—“an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences.”

That kind of courage and judgment warrants admiration.  Likewise, during the 2008 primary, Obama’s blunt call for a prompt withdrawal of U.S. forces was a refreshing contrast to Hillary Clinton’s cynical fence-straddling.  His position remained clear throughout that campaign; he pledged to have most U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months after taking office.

But even on the Iraq issue, there are troubling signs that the senator is beginning to “move to the center” for the general election.  Already in early July, he indicated that talks with U.S. military commanders during an upcoming trip to Iraq might cause him to “refine” his position regarding a schedule for withdrawal.  Opponents of the war immediately subjected him to a barrage of criticism, and he subsequently stated that his commitment to the 16-month timetable has not changed.  Nevertheless, the episode raises doubts.

His “refine” comment occurred almost immediately after a motley assortment of foreign-policy advisors to Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign joined Obama’s team.  They included former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and former assistant secretary of state Susan Rice—all of them prominent members of the Democratic Party’s interventionist wing.  Although they are generally critics of the Iraq war, their objections seem to be based on little more than scorn for the Bush administration’s inept execution.  They give no indication that they are prepared to repudiate their overall fondness for humanitarian intervention and nation building.  In fact, they were all enthusiastic proponents of Bill Clinton’s interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo—episodes that had little connection to legitimate U.S. security interests.  Albright’s casual attitude about military force is epitomized by her infamous comment to Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

It is not encouraging to see such unrepentant interventionists begin to surround Obama and try to shape his views.  Even some of his original advisors, including former national-security advisor Anthony Lake and Harvard professor Sarah Sewell, are little better.  Sewell wants to reshape the U.S. military so that it can better perform nation-building missions.  If such individuals come to dominate Obama’s foreign-policy team, there is little prospect for a more focused, restrained, and sensible security strategy—the kind of “change” that America needs.

While Obama’s stance on Iraq has been encouraging (at least thus far), his position on Iran is less so.  True, the senator has expressed a willingness to engage in dialogue and negotiations with America’s adversaries, including Tehran.  Moreover, he did not back down even when Clinton and a bevy of Republicans accused him of being a naive appeaser.

Obama is right to advocate diplomacy.  Washington’s habit in recent decades of stubbornly refusing to conduct a normal diplomatic relationship with difficult and obnoxious regimes has been a spectacular failure.  U.S. leaders pursued that strategy of surly hostility toward China from 1949 to 1972, toward Vietnam for two decades after the end of the Vietnam War, toward North Korea from the late 1940’s until the past year or so, toward Cuba for nearly half a century, and toward Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.  It has consistently failed either to topple the target regime or to effect a desirable change in the regime’s policy.  When the United States abandoned that approach in the cases of China and Vietnam, however, the result was a much-improved relationship and a marked reduction in tensions.  Although there is no certainty that engagement with Iran would produce a similar outcome, Obama’s approach offers more promise than does the current strategy—much less Sen. John McCain’s enthusiastic flirtation with armed conflict.

Yet Obama muddies the water regarding his policy toward Iran.  At the same time that he calls for dialogue and engagement, he advocates trying to impose tougher multilateral sanctions against Tehran—measures that are more likely to antagonize the clerical regime than bring it to the bargaining table.  He also panders to the Israel lobby and its supporters by echoing Bush, McCain, and other hawks in saying that America and the international community cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran, and that all options must remain available to prevent such an outcome.  In a June speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama stated: “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”  He repeated himself for emphasis, “everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  Everything.”  He added: “I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally, Israel.  Do not be confused.”

That hardly constitutes new or sensible thinking.  Obama may be marginally less hawkish than John “bomb bomb bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” McCain, but the difference is not nearly as great as one might wish.

The senator’s position on the other nuclear crisis, North Korea, is both sketchy and bland.  He does not condemn the Bush administration’s commitment to diplomacy through the ongoing six-party talks, but he does quibble that they are too “ad hoc.”  Obama favors a more permanent framework to address not only the nuclear issue but other security concerns in Northeast Asia.  At the same time, he favors continuing to use sanctions to pressure Pyongyang to agree to a complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to its nuclear program.  The bottom line is that his position is not much different from the Bush administration’s over the past two years or so—although his views are less confrontational than the Bush policies during the first few years of the current crisis, and decidedly less confrontational than the policies Senator McCain has advocated.

On an assortment of other issues, Obama’s positions are consistent with conventional, mainstream thinking.  He shows no willingness, for example, to reconsider Washington’s commitment to the hoary North Atlantic alliance.  Indeed, he advocates further expansion of NATO, including membership for Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, and—despite the certainty of provoking Russia—Ukraine and Georgia.  Obama has praised NATO’s interventions in both Bosnia and Kosovo during the Clinton years, and he believes that the February 2008 decision to grant Kosovo independence over the vehement objections of Serbia and Russia was both justified and wise.

On such issues, his perspective is nearly indistinguishable from the views of the foreign-policy establishments in both parties.  It embodies the stale, sterile conventional wisdom of a bipartisan consensus.  There is certainly no evidence of a desire for meaningful change.

That is most unfortunate, since some of those policies reek of obsolescence and misplaced priorities.  For example, Obama’s reflexive enthusiasm for NATO ignores mounting evidence that the alliance lacks both the cohesion and the strategic rationale to play a worthwhile security role in the 21st century.  NATO’s bumbling performance in Afghanistan is only the most visible example.  Worse, adding small security clients in the various rounds of expansion creates dangerous liabilities for the United States as the leader of the alliance.  An obligation to defend Georgia, for example, could easily entangle America in the fighting between Tbilisi and Moscow over the status of Georgia’s secessionist-minded region of South Ossetia.  Senator Obama should ask himself how risking a confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia over such meager stakes would benefit America.

Likewise, his endorsement of Kosovo’s independence is myopic.  The policy pursued by Washington and the leading powers in the European Union set a hideous precedent.  It has encouraged secessionist forces in numerous countries, especially throughout Asia and Africa, and threatens to ignite or intensify conflicts.  That is why countries as diverse as Russia, Spain, Rumania, China, India, and Indonesia all vehemently opposed the U.S.-E.U. action.  Although the United States and her allies insist that the Kosovo situation sets no precedent, that is an attitude other countries see as hypocritical or naive.  In any case, the policy has created needless tensions in America’s relations with key powers and has tossed a live political grenade into the midst of the international system.  It does not speak well for Obama’s judgment that he endorses such a policy.

Regarding issues on which there are significant divisions between the Democratic and Republican party elites, Obama, not surprisingly, adopts the conventional wisdom of the former.  For example, he regards global climate change as a very serious problem that requires concerted diplomacy to get the international community to take action.  That is a notable contrast to the more skeptical attitude of the Bush administration and most Republicans, and is even more hardline than the relatively eco-friendly positions that Senator McCain has taken.

Obama’s policy views regarding relations with China also adhere to Democratic Party orthodoxy.  He accepts Washington’s long-standing “one China” policy regarding the status of Taiwan, although he urges Beijing to pursue more flexible and less threatening policies toward Taipei.  On the economic front, Obama recognizes the importance of trade with China, but he also reflects the impatience of the Democratic Party’s protectionist wing when he charges that Beijing engages in unfair trade practices, especially by manipulating the value of its currency.  He even agreed to cosponsor legislation to impose punitive duties on Chinese goods unless constructive action was taken on the currency issue.  The senator is at least as critical as John McCain of Beijing’s human-rights record.  He argues that Tibet should enjoy “meaningful autonomy,” and that President Bush should not have made a commitment to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics if Beijing’s conduct did not improve.

It is on the issue of humanitarian intervention, though, that Obama and his key foreign-policy advisors are most worrisome.  In his article “Renewing America’s Leadership” (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007) he insisted that

the security and well-being of each and every American depend on the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders.  The mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common history and a common humanity.

That is not much different from the sentiment that President Bush expressed in his Second Inaugural Address—with heavy input from William Kristol and other neoconservatives: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

But that sentiment is dangerously wrongheaded.  Taken to its logical conclusion, it means that America can never be safe or prosperous unless the dozens of chronically misgoverned countries are transformed into free, democratic states.  That is a blueprint for endless nation-building missions and perpetual war.  It is also a strategy that would fritter away the many advantages America has thanks to her geographic position, her economic dominance, her unparalleled deterrence capabilities, and her pervasive cultural influence in the world.

Indeed, the formulation the Obama team articulates is even worse than the version the Bush administration has pursued.  Several of the senator’s advisors insist that the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy should be to promote, defend, and enforce respect for “human dignity.”  As an operational concept, such a standard would have to improve several notches in terms of substance just to reach vacuous.  At best, it would entail Washington becoming the nag of the planet, constantly hectoring other governments to improve their behavior.  At worst, it could become an excuse for lavish foreign-aid expenditures and military interventions to protect the downtrodden in failed states or even in functioning countries with repressive regimes.  Yet most of the probable arenas for such interventions involve little or no connection to America’s tangible interests.  Instead, this country would embark on expensive and potentially dangerous humanitarian crusades that would bleed our Armed Forces and drain the treasury.

It will not be much of an improvement if Obama withdraws U.S. forces from Iraq only to launch new interventions in such strategically and economically irrelevant snake pits as Darfur and Burma.  That is not the kind of change the American people want or need.

If a President Obama were to adopt a security strategy confined to defending vital American interests, narrowly defined, he would win—and deserve—the gratitude of the American public.  If, on the other hand, he were to embrace a nebulous crusade to secure “human dignity” all over the world through the instruments of U.S. foreign aid and military power, he would undermine his own administration and ignite yet another round of frustration and disillusionment about the willingness of political leaders to focus on America’s best interests and well-being.

At this point, we cannot be certain which path Barack Obama would take.  His foreign-policy views seem to be a work in progress and embody more than a few contradictions.  Those of us who advocate a more restrained, sensible, and sustainable foreign policy for the United States need to monitor his campaign closely to gauge the senator’s probable course if he becomes president.