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Monday, July 21, 2008



Fareed Zakaria tells us why those looking to accuse a candidate of idealism in foreign policy have been looking in the wrong direction:
Over the course of the campaign against Hillary Clinton and now McCain, Obama has elaborated more and more the ideas that would undergird his foreign policy as president. What emerges is a world view that is far from that of a typical liberal, much closer to that of a traditional realist. It is interesting to note that, at least in terms of the historical schools of foreign policy, Obama seems to be the cool conservative and McCain the exuberant idealist.

Obama rarely speaks in the moralistic tones of the current Bush administration. He doesn't divide the world into good and evil even when speaking about terrorism. He sees countries and even extremist groups as complex, motivated by power, greed and fear as much as by pure ideology. His interest in diplomacy seems motivated by the sense that one can probe, learn and possibly divide and influence countries and movements precisely because they are not monoliths. When speaking to me about Islamic extremism, for example, he repeatedly emphasized the diversity within the Islamic world, speaking of Arabs, Persians, Africans, Southeast Asians, Shiites and Sunnis, all of whom have their own interests and agendas.

Obama never uses the soaring language of Bush's freedom agenda, preferring instead to talk about enhancing people's economic prospects, civil society and—his key word—"dignity." He rejects Bush's obsession with elections and political rights, and argues that people's aspirations are broader and more basic—including food, shelter, jobs. "Once these aspirations are met," he told The New York Times's James Traub, "it opens up space for the kind of democratic regimes we want." This is a view of democratic development that is slow, organic and incremental, usually held by conservatives.

Obama talks admiringly of men like Dean Acheson, George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr, all of whom were imbued with a sense of the limits of idealism and American power to transform the world. "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative," wrote Larissa MacFarquhar in her profile of him for The New Yorker. "There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It's not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good."

After dealing with Bush, this would be a welcome change.

(Photo: Flickr.)

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