“It’s helpful to point out that Barack Obama is not the messiah,” says Richard Danzig, a national security adviser to the Illinois senator, tongue only slightly in cheek. “There’s a tendency to see him in messianic terms. He cannot multiply loaves and fishes.”
Perhaps nowhere else are expectations as high for what an Obama presidency will mean as in foreign policy, where many Americans–and most of the world–are holding their breath awaiting the end of George W. Bush’s wrecking-ball approach to world affairs. In some important areas, Obama would alter or reverse course: he’d draw down forces in Iraq; open talks with adversaries such as Iran, Syria and Cuba; end torture and close Guantánamo; renounce unilateralism and preventive wars; rebuild ties with allies; and re-engage with the Kyoto climate change initiative. He’s also pledged to halt the development of and to seek a “world without nuclear weapons.” In sharp contrast to presumptive GOP nominee John McCain, Obama would start to put the threat of terrorism in its proper perspective, elevating the importance of other threats to security, from poverty to pandemic disease to global warming. “He recognizes that there are a lot of problems in the world that merit attention besides the war on terrorism,” says Danzig.
But in many respects, Obama seems likely to preside over a restoration of the bipartisan consensus that governed foreign policy during the cold war and the 1990s, updated for a post-9/11 world. That conclusion arises from an in-depth examination of the Illinois senator’s views as well as dozens of interviews with foreign policy experts, including lengthy exchanges with the core group of Obama’s foreign policy team and other participants in his task forces on the military, Iraq and the Middle East. It’s also based on a careful review of speeches and position papers, Obama’s 2007 article in Foreign Affairs and a key chapter, “The World Beyond Our Borders,” in his book The Audacity of Hope. All this suggests there is a gap between Obama’s inspirational speeches and the actual policies he supports. “So far, what you’re seeing is rhetoric that we can make bold changes in our foreign policy,” says John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. “But when he lays out specifics, it’s not as transformational as the rhetoric.” Will Marshall, director of the right-leaning Progressive Policy Institute of the Democratic Leadership Council, agrees. “On most of the details, he’s aligned with the general Democratic consensus,” Marshall says. Says Tom Hayden, the veteran activist and former California state senator, “At best, he will be a gradualist.”
Even as he pledges to end the war in Iraq, Obama promises to increase Pentagon spending, boost the size of the Army and Marines, bolster the Special Forces, expand intelligence agencies and maintain the hundreds of US military bases that dot the globe. He supports a muscular multilateralism that includes NATO expansion, and according to the Times of London, his advisers are pushing him to ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on in an Obama administration. Though he is against the idea of the United States imposing democracy abroad, Obama does propose a sweeping nation-building and democracy-promotion program, including strengthening the controversial National Endowment for Democracy and constructing a civil-military apparatus that would deploy to rescue and rebuild failed and failing states in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.