T Nation

Obama's Learning Curve

Nice article by Kimberly Strassel covering some of Obama’s pivots and misstatements in foreign policy:

[i]POTOMAC WATCH
by Kimberly A. Strassel

The Obama Learning Curve
May 23, 2008; Page A13

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden took to the airwaves this week to “help” the rookie Barack Obama out of a foreign-policy jam. Oh sure, admitted Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee had given the “wrong” answer when he said he’d meet unconditionally with leaders of rogue states. But on the upside, the guy “has learned a hell of a lot.”

Somewhere Mr. Obama was muttering an expletive. But give Mr. Biden marks for honesty. As Mr. Obama finishes a week of brutal questioning over his foreign-policy judgments, it’s become clear he has learned a lot �?? and is learning still.

Right now, for instance, he’s learning how tough it can be to pivot to a general-election stance on the crucial issue of foreign policy. He’s also learning Democrats won’t be able to sail through a national-security debate by simply painting John McCain as the second coming of George Bush.

Remember how Mr. Obama got here. In a July debate, the Illinois senator was asked if he’d meet, “without preconditions,” the “leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.” It was an unexpected question, and Mr. Obama rolled with his gut: “I would,” he said, riffing that the Bush administration’s policy of not negotiating with terror-sponsoring states was “ridiculous.”

Hillary Clinton, who still had the aura of inevitability, and who was already thinking ahead to a general election, wouldn’t bite. At that point, any initial misgivings the Obama campaign had about the boss’s answer disappeared. Mr. Obama hadn’t got much traction differentiating himself from Mrs. Clinton over Iraq, but this was a chance to get to her left, to cast her to liberal primary voters as a warmonger. Which he did, often, committing himself ever more to a policy of unfettered engagement.

Today’s Obama, all-but-nominee, is pitching to a broad American audience less keen to legitimize Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who provides weapons that kill American soldiers. The senator clumsily invited this debate when he took great umbrage to President Bush’s recent criticism of appeasers (which, in a wonderfully revealing moment, Democrats instantly assumed meant them). Mr. Obama has since been scrambling to neutralize his former statement.

A week ago, in Oregon, he adopted the “no-big-deal” approach, telling listeners Iran was just a “tiny” country that, unlike the Soviet Union, did not “pose a serious threat to us.” But this suggested he’d missed that whole asymmetrical warfare debate �?? not to mention 9/11 �?? so by the next day, he’d switched to the “blame-Republicans” line. Iran was in fact “the greatest threat to the United States and Israel and the Middle East for a generation” �?? but all because of President Bush’s Iraq war.

This, however, revived questions of why he’d meet with said greatest-threat leader, so his advisers jumped in, this time to float the “misunderstood” balloon. Obama senior foreign policy adviser Susan Rice, channeling Bill Clinton, said it all depended on what the definition of a “leader” is. “Well, first of all, he said he’d meet with the appropriate Iranian leaders. He hasn’t named who that leader will be.” (Turns out, Mr. Obama has said he will meet with . . . Mr. Ahmadinejad.)

Former Sen. Tom Daschle, channeling Ms. Rice, explained it also depended on what the definition of a precondition is: “It’s important to emphasize again when we talk about preconditions, we’re just saying everything needs to be on the table. I would not say that we would meet unconditionally.” This is called being against preconditions before you were for them.

And so it goes, as Mr. Obama shifts and shambles, all the while telling audiences that when voting for president they should look beyond “experience” to “judgment.” In this case, whatever his particular judgment on Iran is on any particular day.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Democrats entered this race confident national security wouldn’t be the drag on the party it has in the past. With an unpopular war and a rival who supports that war, they planned to wrap Mr. McCain around the unpopular Mr. Bush and be done with it. Mr. Obama is still manfully marching down this road, today spending as much time warning about a “third Bush term” as he does reassuring voters about a first Obama one.

Then again, 9/11 and five years of Iraq debate have educated voters. Mr. McCain is certainly betting they can separate the war from the urgent threat of an Iranian dictator who could possess nukes, and whose legitimization would encourage other rogues in their belligerence. This is a debate the Arizonan has been preparing for all his life and, note, Iranian diplomacy is simply the topic du jour.

Mr. McCain has every intention of running his opponent through the complete foreign-policy gamut. Explain again in what circumstances you’d use nuclear weapons? What was that about invading Pakistan? How does a policy of engaging the world include Mr. Ahmadinejad, but not our ally Colombia and its trade pact?

It explains too the strong desire among the McCain camp to get Mr. Obama on stage for debates soon. There’s a feeling Mr. Obama is still climbing the foreign-policy learning curve. And they see mileage in his issuing a few more gut reactions.

Write to kim@wsj.com[/i]

Translation:

Republicans feel they can manufacture various swift-boat style campaigns to mischaracterize Obama’s statements in their traditional divisive and negative campaigning style.

[quote]vroom wrote:
Translation:

Republicans feel they can manufacture various swift-boat style campaigns to mischaracterize Obama’s statements in their traditional divisive and negative campaigning style.[/quote]

Translation:

Any criticism of Obama relating to substantive policy positions or his lack of experience, judgment, or knowledge will be derided as “negative campaigning” because the candidate and his supporters don’t have good answers to the criticism.

Obama explains at great length he is better than his opponents for the job because of Judgment. So, an analysis of his Judgment is perfectly legitimate and is not - sniff* - “dirty politics”.

Never in modern history have we seen a national candidate with such a glass jaw.

Loved this: “And so it goes, as Mr. Obama shifts and shambles, all the while telling audiences that when voting for president they should look beyond “experience” to “judgment.” In this case, whatever his particular judgment on Iran is on any particular day.”

Great thread, BB!

[quote]vroom wrote:
Translation:

Republicans feel they can manufacture various swift-boat style campaigns to mischaracterize Obama’s statements in their traditional divisive and negative campaigning style.[/quote]

Yeah, so which statements were mischaracterized?

Did Obama himself actually retract that statement or is Murdoch’s paper just putting words in his mouth?

[quote]lixy wrote:
Did Obama himself actually retract that statement or is Murdoch’s paper just putting words in his mouth?[/quote]

He hasn’t retracted anything - he just keeps saying new things that are mutually exclusive with the old things, and hoping people won’t notice. And then switching again.

Of course, you could actually do a 5-second Google search and come up with the answer yourself instead of trying to smear the Wall Street Journal…

This is the Obama-friendly way to say the same thing: his position has become more “nuanced”:

http://marcambinder.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/05/parsing_obama_without_precondi.php

http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2008/02/sweet_obama_doesdoes_not_want.html

The RNC has a nice chronicle going here:

http://www.gop.com/NEWS/NewsRead.aspx?Guid=2e7fd5b2-f801-4bd5-a771-03d345a6c7d0

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
lixy wrote:
Did Obama himself actually retract that statement or is Murdoch’s paper just putting words in his mouth?

He hasn’t retracted anything - he just keeps saying new things that are mutually exclusive with the old things, and hoping people won’t notice. And then switching again.

Of course, you could actually do a 5-second Google search and come up with the answer yourself instead of trying to smear the Wall Street Journal…

This is the Obama-friendly way to say the same thing: his position has become more “nuanced”:

http://marcambinder.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/05/parsing_obama_without_precondi.php

http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2008/02/sweet_obama_doesdoes_not_want.html

The RNC has a nice chronicle going here:

http://www.gop.com/NEWS/NewsRead.aspx?Guid=2e7fd5b2-f801-4bd5-a771-03d345a6c7d0
[/quote]

I’m pretty sure Obama’s still willing to talk to the enemy. And the vast majority of us think that’s a good thing.

Didn’t McCain loose this argument last week?

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
lixy wrote:
Did Obama himself actually retract that statement or is Murdoch’s paper just putting words in his mouth?

He hasn’t retracted anything - he just keeps saying new things that are mutually exclusive with the old things, and hoping people won’t notice. And then switching again.

Of course, you could actually do a 5-second Google search and come up with the answer yourself instead of trying to smear the Wall Street Journal…

This is the Obama-friendly way to say the same thing: his position has become more “nuanced”:

http://marcambinder.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/05/parsing_obama_without_precondi.php

http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2008/02/sweet_obama_doesdoes_not_want.html

The RNC has a nice chronicle going here:

http://www.gop.com/NEWS/NewsRead.aspx?Guid=2e7fd5b2-f801-4bd5-a771-03d345a6c7d0
[/quote]

Smear? Hey, I didn’t make it up. The WSJ is owned by Murdoch’s News corp. Deal with it!

As for this “nuance”, I can’t really see anything that suggests he’s a flip-flopper of McCain’s caliber. His position seems consistent to me. He is willing to meet with Iran and the Palestinians without preconditions.

[quote]lixy wrote:

Smear? Hey, I didn’t make it up. The WSJ is owned by Murdoch’s News corp. Deal with it![/quote]

Murdoch’s Newcorp’s ownership isn’t in question - implying that the article made something up and attributed it to Obama is a smear.

[quote]lixy wrote:
As for this “nuance”, I can’t really see anything that suggests he’s a flip-flopper of McCain’s caliber. His position seems consistent to me. He is willing to meet with Iran and the Palestinians without preconditions. [/quote]

So in other words there was nothing wrong with the story, and he’s confused about his own position and lacking in foreign policy experience and judgment.

[quote]100meters wrote:

I’m pretty sure Obama’s still willing to talk to the enemy. And the vast majority of us think that’s a good thing.

Didn’t McCain loose this argument last week?
[/quote]

Having some behind-the-scenes communications with enemy nations is a good idea; giving credibility and propaganda material to dictators by engaging in presidential-level meetings - particularly without gaining concessions - is not a good idea.

And no, he didn’t.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
Murdoch’s Newcorp’s ownership isn’t in question - implying that the article made something up and attributed it to Obama is a smear.[/quote]

The article and yourself make it sound as if Obama is contradicting himself or has changed his position. That is not true. Obama’s position about negotiating without preconditions is consistent.

Criticize his lack of experience if you want, but don’t tell us he changed positions when he didn’t. It makes you seem really desperate. But that, we already got from the dozen threads started by Republicans about Obama around here…

[quote]thunderbolt23 wrote:
Any criticism of Obama relating to substantive policy positions or his lack of experience, judgment, or knowledge will be derided as “negative campaigning” because the candidate and his supporters don’t have good answers to the criticism.

Obama explains at great length he is better than his opponents for the job because of Judgment. So, an analysis of his Judgment is perfectly legitimate and is not - sniff* - “dirty politics”.

Never in modern history have we seen a national candidate with such a glass jaw.
[/quote]

Don’t be silly. Substantive issues are perfect game for criticizing Obama!

Let’s see them in actuality instead of in scary inference for a change.

We hear about this “meeting with other countries” issue all the time, for example, and it is basically a non-issue. Even you folks around here were deriding previous talks with North Korea event though Bush eventually went ahead and came to an agreement with North Korea.

Now, did Barack give too quick an answer during that one debate a while back? Sure he did. Is he trying to meet with terrorist groups, as the current campaigning suggests, no.

Much of the fluff out there these days focuses on Obama as if he has said nothing other than blustery speech. This is not true at all. Let’s see articles pick apart the issues he has actually talked about… at the full level of detail discussed, instead of pretending that he hasn’t actually talked about them or that he hasn’t expanded upon misquoted talking points many times by now.

I seriously doubt you’ll see my point.

However, I’m certainly not going to say it is inappropriate to discusses issues concerning Obama – but if you are seriously trying to pretend you aren’t wildly blind due to partisanship then try to look for serious criticisms of actual statements and positions.

Seriously, you guys act like Obama is the anti-christ or something.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
100meters wrote:

I’m pretty sure Obama’s still willing to talk to the enemy. And the vast majority of us think that’s a good thing.

Didn’t McCain loose this argument last week?

Having some behind-the-scenes communications with enemy nations is a good idea; giving credibility and propaganda material to dictators by engaging in presidential-level meetings - particularly without gaining concessions - is not a good idea.

And no, he didn’t.[/quote]

I’m pretty sure he did. At least in the media narrative/public perception arena.

[quote]vroom wrote:
Translation:

Republicans feel they can manufacture various swift-boat style campaigns to mischaracterize Obama’s statements in their traditional divisive and negative campaigning style.[/quote]

McCain cold not weather a swift boat attack from the Dems

We have been giving Cuba the cold shoulder for 45 years, what good did it accomplish

Obama, one-man gaffe machine:

http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2008/05/what-the-farc-w.html

http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalradar/2008/05/obama-gaffes-on.html

http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives2/2008/05/020607.php

[quote]
lixy wrote:

Criticize his lack of experience if you want, but don’t tell us he changed positions when he didn’t. It makes you seem really desperate. But that, we already got from the dozen threads started by Republicans about Obama around here…[/quote]

He changed the substance of his position, and he’s trying to play it off as if his original position wasn’t a mistake while he changes what he meant. Yeah, Obama is nothing like all those old politicians…

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:

lixy wrote:

Criticize his lack of experience if you want, but don’t tell us he changed positions when he didn’t. It makes you seem really desperate. But that, we already got from the dozen threads started by Republicans about Obama around here…

He changed the substance of his position, and he’s trying to play it off as if his original position wasn’t a mistake while he changes what he meant. Yeah, Obama is nothing like all those old politicians…[/quote]

When he said he wanted to bring change he meant to his stated policies.

[quote]vroom wrote:

Don’t be silly. Substantive issues are perfect game for criticizing Obama!

Let’s see them in actuality instead of in scary inference for a change.[/quote]

We have been - it’s not my problem to fix if you won’t address them. No one here is saying Obama is scary, just naive, unprepared, and unserious to the task of having a mature foreign policy. That is measured - and can only be measured - by what he says on the campaign trail, as he has no other yardstick, since he has done essentially nothing in terms of Experience.

And that is substantive criticism - and that is what is being done right now.

Of course it isn’t a non-issue. How you deal with foreign countries matters, else the question at the Democratic debate wouldn’t have been raised in the first place. Obama had a chance to distinguish himself from Bush in that debate, and now is getting questioned about it.

Obama is trying to give multiple answers and is making a mess of it, that is the point. Who will he meet with, and what are the criteria? “No conditions” with Ahmanidejad means something very specific, and at the original debate Obama took great pains to make clear he thought the opposite approach was “ludicrous”.

If he gave “too quick an answer” on such a serious question, as you suggest, that, too, is a serious problem given his backtracking - it looks like he hasn’t put much thought into the nuts and bolts of his diplomacy at the highest level with the world’s bad guys. He is running for President - it’s not an entry level job - so this clumsy moving of the goal posts on the issue raises questions as to whether he is up for the job.

Were you to bother to educate yourself, the articles are doing exactly that. Nearly every article I’ve read criticizing Obama’s approach discusses the unintended consequences of his approach.

It’s out there - issue-driven criticism of Obama’s “no-preconditions-wait-preparations” approach. Happy reading.

I see your point, it just isn’t much of one - you keep complaining that no one will focus on a substantive criticism of Obama, when there is plenty of it. It may be convenient to your point to ignore it and keep repeating the claim - that doesn’t make it any more true.

McCain got blasted recently over his reported confusion on the Islamic tribal factions in Iraq, and that was a substantive criticism - “does McCain know the nuances of the sensitive politics over there, or does he just lump them in one camp and want to blow them all to hell?” I think there is an easy answer to that, but McCain’s statements were fair game to criticize, just as Obama is fair game on this one.

C’mon, Vroom, give us all a collective break. You’re as partisan as anyone on these threads, so the “I’m above it all” routine is wearing thin. The criticism in the OP is substantive, and the criticism is directly related to Obama’s “statements and positions”.

Do you even read the threads you post in? The complaint here is that Obama is naive and unserious with an idealistic and yet dangerous foreign policy approach - no one is saying Obama is evil, we are saying Obama is wrong.

Good Lord.