Sunday, July 13, 2008

Obama and "Soft Power"

"I think Barack Obama would do wonders for America's soft power."

--Harvard’s Joseph Nye

The term “soft power” has to be one of politics’ great self-inflicted wounds. It’s supposed to mean something better than Bush’s over-reliance on force, but the words actually suggest appeasement in the face of terrorists, nuclear bomb-waving Iranians, and other threats to peace. Joseph Nye [picture] invented “soft power,” and sells it as a preferred alternative to “sticks” or even “carrots” (he believes we do better to “co-opt” our potential adversaries than hit or bribe them). Yet to me, “soft power” is like the word “wets,” the pejorative Margaret Thatcher’s supporters (later known as “dries“) threw at predecessor Edward Heath and his allies for pushing “soft” solutions.

Nevertheless, Obama supporters such as the Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss (who favorably quoted Nye above) have high hopes for “soft power”. They instead worry about the “hard power” folks now crowding around Obama.

As Dreyfuss writes:

 nowhere else are expectations as high for what an Obama presidency will mean as in foreign policy[--]the end of George W. Bush's wrecking-ball approach to world affairs. [But can] an Obama administration . . . articulate a coherent progressive purpose for American foreign policy[, since] his team appears to be falling back on the liberal interventionist notions of the 1990s that led us into Iraq. [It’s] important that progressives drive their ideas into the campaign's debates.

Dreyfuss spots these positive soft power developments:

 Obama would . . . open talks with adversaries such as Iran, Syria and Cuba; end torture and close Guantánamo; renounce unilateralism and preventive wars; . . . seek a "world without nuclear weapons,” [and] in sharp contrast to presumptive GOP nominee John McCain, . . . 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.

 Obama's celebrated 2002 speech, in which he called Iraq a "dumb war" and warned that it would destabilize the Middle East and fan the flames of terrorism, was a key reason antiwar Democrats rallied to his side during the primary season.

 Obama's declaration that he'd meet with Iran's leaders sets him apart. . . Obama has been widely praised for insisting on a central role for diplomacy and negotiations, and for supporting the normally less than shocking idea that diplomats sometimes talk to adversaries and enemies.

 Progressives . . . put their faith in the senator's character and innate instincts and . . . the likelihood that he "will actually listen to foreign leaders he sees."

But Dreyfuss frets about evidence of hard power:

 Obama's team has seen the addition of . . . Madeleine Albright, . . . William Perry and . . . Sam Nunn, the promilitary conservative from Georgia.

 [there’s a] tendency to see the world in Manichaean terms. [Obama:] "I dismiss the cynics who say that this new century cannot be another [in which] we lead . . . We must lead the world."

 Obama's foreign policy team [opposes cutting] the Pentagon's bloated budget. . . even though, not counting spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, it has nearly doubled since 2000 and is roughly equal to the military spending of all other countries combined.

 Obama's . . . support for a continued arms buildup [raises] the question of whether he understands the political and economic constraints the United States will face in future years.

 he'd attack Pakistan unilaterally to take out Al Qaeda-linked forces if there was "actionable intelligence" about their location. . .

 Obama . . .impressed hawkish Jewish leaders. "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power... everything," he said, adding. . . he supported "banning the export of refined petroleum to Iran," which . . .could lead to a US-enforced naval blockade of Iran.

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