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No Left Turns on the War? By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 05, 2008


FOR A CANDIDATE WHO FAMOUSLY championed “change,” President-elect Barack Obama seems to have a soft-spot for continuity. Such, at least, is the inference to be drawn from his newly announced war cabinet, which includes such consummate Washington insiders as former adversary and would-be secretary of state Hillary Clinton; Bush administration defense secretary Robert Gates, who will retain his post; retired four-star general and soon-to-be national security adviser James Jones; and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Obama’s nominee as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

The political symbolism of this cast is hard to miss. What all of Obama’s nominees share – apart from their Washington pedigree – is a political orientation that is, if not exactly conservative, nevertheless pointedly at odds with the Democratic base on critical national security issues. To the partisans of the antiwar Left who thought Obama would usher in a sharp break with the Bush years, the incoming administration’s message rings loud and clear: On foreign policy, the Obama administration will take no Left turns.  

Nothing underscores the point quite like Obama’s selection of the woman who drove war critics into fits. A brief internet search will show that Democratic activists spent much of the past few years deriding Clinton for her original sin of supporting the Iraq War. As the antiwar protestors of Code Pink relentlessly hounded the former first lady, demanding that she apologize for the war, left-wing journals fired outraged editorials at “Hillary the Hawk.” This animadversion was never fully justified by Clinton’s record. Although she never gave her critics on the Left the satisfaction of an apology, she did renounce her support for the war, offering that “If I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way.” Seeking a bright spot in her State Department appointment, some on the Left have come around to the belated recognition that Clinton’s views on Iraq were closer to Obama’s antiwar stance than they had allowed in the heat of the campaign.

Yet there is a hint of desperation in these emerging epiphanies. If politics is in some measure a business of perception, then the implications of inviting the antiwar Left’s pantsuited nemesis into Obama’s inner circle are unmistakable. As Kelly Dougherty, the executive director of the 54-chapter Iraq Veterans Against the War, complained recently, Obama ran his campaign around the idea the war was not legitimate, but it sends a very different message when you bring in people who supported the war from the beginning.”

One discerns a similar message in Obama’s decision to retain Robert Gates as defense secretary. It’s not just that Gates is a veteran of the hated Bush administration; he is also a prominent opponent of the immediate withdrawal from Iraq that many of Obama’s supporters believed would be his first act in power. Against Obama’s campaign pledge to remove troops within sixteen months, Gates has argued that any pullout must be conditional on the counsel of military commanders in Iraq. Gates has also cautioned against a too-hasty closure of Guantanamo Bay, warning that concrete steps must be taken to make sure that any released detainees are not allowed into the United States.

It’s possible, of course, that Obama will ignore Gates’s advice on Iraq and Guantanamo. Even so, the idea that the Pentagon will be in the hands of a Republican openly critical of some of the president-elect’s foreign policy commitments has not been reassuring to antiwar Progressives. “Something’s terribly wrong with this picture,” groaned  The Progressive last week, after revelations that Gates would be staying on. Keeping Gates, the magazine lamented, was a sign that Obama doesn’t really want a change in foreign and military policy.”

If the presence of Clinton and Gates in Obama’s cabinet has been hard for some antiwar Progressives to bear, the possibility that Obama’s national security advisor will be General James Jones – retired Marine Corps commandant, friend and advisor to John McCain, and unabashed advocate of global American leadership – has added insult to injury.  Unsurprisingly, left-wing blogs have found it hard to contain their despair. Pointing to the inclusion of Clinton, Gates, and Jim Jones, the popular liberal blog Open Left angrily conceded that Obama had assembled “a center-right foreign policy team lacking any clear progressives.” Added blogger Chris Bowers: “I know everyone is obsessed with the ‘team of rivals’ idea right now, but I feel incredibly frustrated.” Left-wing journalist Jeremy Scahill, writing in the Guardian this week, echoed the lament. “There is not a single, solid anti-war voice in the upper echelons of the Obama foreign policy apparatus,” Scahill noted. “And this is the point: Obama is not going to fundamentally change US foreign policy. He is a status quo Democrat.”

This may be overstating the case. Recent hiring decisions notwithstanding, Obama still pledges to remove troops from Iraq on a 16-month time – regardless of security conditions on the ground. He remains committed, too, to his promise to close Guantanamo Bay. That has prompted some liberals to suggest, a touch hopefully, that “Obama intends to pursue a genuinely progressive foreign policy” and is simply “surrounding himself with people who can guard his right flank at home.”  

All the accumulating evidence, however, points in a different direction. With the exceptions of Iraq and Guantanamo, each of Obama’s foreign policy shifts have been toward the center. Under pressure from Hillary Clinton, he abandoned his much-mocked pledge to meet with Iranian leaders “without preconditions,” replacing it with a call for cautious low-level talks that owed more to realpolitik that the Department of Peace. In June, he angered his internet boosters by supporting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the government surveillance bill he had once promised to filibuster. In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, Obama achieved the unlikely feat of sounding more hawkish than his Republican rival, as he promised to hunt down al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan’s untamed hinterlands with or without that government’s approval. He has repeatedly promised to increase the size of the military. And now he has staffed his administration with figures whose foreign-policy views are famously more hawkish than his.

Little wonder that Obama’s leftist supporters are apoplectic. Personnel appointments are never a faultless guide to policy, but Obama’s war cabinet does suggest that his administration will be inclusive. It just won’t include the antiwar activists who once hailed the senator as their savior.


Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com


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