The Amphibian

How Barack Obama learned to cover his right flank -- and his left.

It probably didn't do him a bit of good, but Barack Obama performed a lot better in this week's debate than many of his supporters -- okay, the one writing this column -- had feared. The reason for Obama's success was simple enough: Mitt Romney could not find enough politically usable space to Obama's right. In the Republican primaries, Romney could bid for the loony-tune vote by castigating the president as a closet European who doesn't really love America. But all that went out the window when Romney had to reassure independent voters that he could be trusted with America's national security. Romney could not figure out how to sound tougher than Obama without sounding reckless.

You'd have to go back to Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 -- the last pre-Vietnam election -- to find a Democrat who pulled off that trick. But LBJ was a Cold Warrior; in the 2008 campaign, Obama appeared to run to the left of Hillary Clinton, who had voted in favor of the war in Iraq and whom Obama scorned as a prisoner of conventional thinking. And yet today it is much easier to mount a coherent critique of Obama's foreign policy from the traditional left -- or from the isolationist right -- than it is from the position of responsible conservatism which Romney was trying to assume in the debate. What happened?

Of course, Obama's aggressive prosecution of the war on terror, and his decision to double down on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, made him much less vulnerable to the standard GOP allegation that Democrats are soft on national security even as it angered many liberals. But even before he became president, Obama scrambled the conventional understanding of "left" and "right" in foreign policy. He never had the visceral discomfort with the use of American power, and especially military power, which marked liberals who came of age during the Vietnam War. He wanted to draw down in Iraq in order to ramp up in Afghanistan. He was even able to out-flank Romney during the debate by recalling that in the 2008 campaign he had vowed to violate Pakistani sovereignty, if need be, to track down a high-value target, while Romney had denounced the idea.

One of the reasons why Obama has always been so hard to draw an ideological bead on is that the "engagement" paradigm -- which he hit on during the 2008 campaign, and made his watchword once he took office -- can be understood both as a form of "realism" and as a form of "idealism," as both right and left. The willingness to put values aside in the hopes of finding common ground even with America's most inveterate adversaries is classic realism, which is why figures like Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell felt, and continue to feel comfortable with Obama. But the belief that through gestures of respect and deference you can bring rogue states like Iran or North Korea to a rational discussion of shared interests constituted a form of idealism in the face of George W. Bush's unyielding bellicosity.

Obama's foreign policy was thus ideologically amphibious from the outset. Of course, for that very reason it could be criticized from both sides. Liberals worried that Obama was giving short shrift to human rights and democracy promotion in Iran, Russia, and China in order to advance his agenda on nuclear nonproliferation or climate change or trade balances. (Neo-cons made the same claim in much less varnished terms.) And conservatives accused him of naïvely imagining that displays of humility and cultural sensitivity would somehow make dictators more amenable to compromise. 

Over time, as I wrote last week, Obama has moved away from, though scarcely rejected, the engagement paradigm. He has learned that professions of deference and respect don't do as much as he thought to alter the basic calculus of enemies like Iran or North Korea, or refractory powers like Russia or China. The Obama of 2012 no longer speaks the language of "mutual respect for mutual interests" with autocratic states; in this week's debate, he even described China as an "adversary." He is a chastened and less hopeful figure, though also one much less easily reproached as naïve.

But he is also, strikingly, less "realist." The Obama of 2009 was prepared to soft-pedal scratchy issues like human rights and democracy in order to persuade China to take action on currency and trade issues, and to accept a more active role in global decision-making. It didn't work: Obama accomplished little on his trip to China that fall, and the White House felt that he had been ill-treated. Engagement looked like a one-way street. When Obama returned to the region in the fall of 2011, he pointedly declared that those who seek to rule by "one man" or "by committee" neglect "the ultimate source of power and legitimacy -- the will of the people." The administration has also recognized, as one official puts it, that "you can hold your ground, and still succeed." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deeply offended her Chinese hosts when she negotiated for the freedom of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, but managed at the same time to conduct the planed Strategic Dialogue.

In his 2009 Nobel peace prize acceptance speech, Obama mocked those who opposed engagement policy in favor of "the satisfying purity of indignation." One of the White House mantras of those early years was "consequentialism" -- the principle that you don't criticize other regimes if it won't do any good. But as Obama has learned the limits of engagement, consequentialism has been consigned to the lexicographical doghouse. Clinton's sharp criticism of Russia's rigged parliamentary elections last year was bound to make relations with Russia worse -- and it did -- but by then the "reset" policy was already dead, and there was nothing to gain by restraint.

And so Obama's worldview has evolved in a distinctive way, if much more subtly than did George W. Bush's, which lurched from realism to a kind of magic idealism, and then back to something more traditional. Obama has become both tougher and more moralistic -- more realistic, yet less realist. Two administration officials I spoke to said that they expected that, should he win a second term, Obama would show growing confidence about delivering tough judgments on autocratic states. For the moment, this development has made him a very difficult target for his challenger to hit. Romney has criticized Obama's decision to remain silent in the early days of Iran's abortive Green Revolution in 2009 -- a classic case of the dynamics of engagement -- but he can't find much material to latch on to from recent years. Romney seems to have concluded that while he can still fire broad rhetorical salvos -- "apology tour," "lead from behind" -- on specific issues he has little choice but to agree with the president.

Alas, there are no moral victories, or intellectual victories, or even substantive victories, in presidential elections. The debate likely didn't change voters' minds, and Obama didn't score a knockout, or even a decision on points. Since then, the poll numbers haven't moved Obama's way. It appears that each debate mattered less than the one before. Obama must trust to fate, and the ground game.

Marc Serota/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Last Hope

I know what I'd like Obama to say at the final presidential debate, but I'm not holding my breath.

"Welcome to the third and final presidential debate. Our topic tonight is foreign policy. First question to you, Mr. President. Your critics say that you have no clear strategy, that you just react to events. Is there an Obama Doctrine? If so, what is it?"

"I killed Osama bin Laden."

"Thank you, Mr. President. Governor Romney, your turn: What's wrong with the Obama Doctrine?"

"Libya. Libya. Libya."

"Well, I guess that wraps it up for tonight. Vote early and vote often, folks."

That would be a merciful version of Monday, Oct. 22's upcoming debate on foreign policy. In fact, we should probably feel thankful that Candy Crowley, the moderator of the Oct. 16 town-hall debate earlier this week, did not, as expected, divide the questions equally between foreign and domestic policy. During the few minutes devoted to foreign affairs, both candidates postured shamelessly on getting tough on trade with China, after which Barack Obama won a round on Libya by catching Mitt Romney ("get the transcript…") in a semantic error. But that was fair, because Romney's objection to Obama's Libya policy was itself semantic: When did he say "terrorist," and what did he mean when he said it?

Of course, Monday night's debate will give the candidates a chance to air their differences on Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Russia, and Syria -- as well as Libya and China all over again. And some of those differences are real, rather than simply rhetorical. In recent weeks, however, the foreign-policy debate between the two candidates has narrowed down to competing banalities. This tells us something about both men: Obama has very few achievements that he thinks he can safely brag about, while Romney has so few real convictions on the subject, and is so desperately attuned to public opinion, that he's prepared to latch on to anything, and to stand just about anywhere, in order to undermine his rival.

It's hard to remember now, but before the economy cratered in the summer and fall of 2008, Obama ran a campaign focused on fundamentally reorienting America's posture in the world. He spoke of putting aside George W. Bush's "color-coded politics of fear" in order to embrace a new foreign policy based on opportunity as much as on threat. In his foreign-policy debate with John McCain, he said that America had to make children around the world look toward the United States with hope, as his Kenyan father once did. And so, as he said throughout the 2008 campaign, America would double foreign aid, ban torture, close Guantánamo, and speak a new language of mutual respect for mutual interests. Obama had perhaps the most ambitious foreign-policy agenda of any candidate since John F. Kennedy: reverse nuclear proliferation, stem climate change, repair fragile states, and restore America's standing in the world.

As president, Obama has chalked up some very real successes. He signed an arms-control treaty with Russia, forged a global coalition to isolate Iran, intervened in Libya to overthrow a hated dictator, and ended America's military entanglement in Iraq. The world would have been worse absent Obama's patient and pragmatic internationalism, just as the American economy would be in much worse shape had Obama not authorized $800 billion in stimulus spending and intervened to save the finance and auto industries. But, as Obama has discovered, "It's better than it would have been" is not an argument that has much pull at the ballot box. And right now, with Syria in flames, Libya in chaos, Iran unbowed, and the "reset" with Russia in tatters, even that argument isn't easy to make.

The affirmative agenda of 2008 has disappeared. The world has turned out to be vastly more intransigent than Obama thought, or perhaps hoped. He learned, as I wrote two weeks ago, that citizens in the Middle East were waiting for a change in American policy, not a change in American leadership. Afghanistan has proved to be a vast pit of quicksand swallowing up time and attention, not to mention U.S. lives and dollars. And on climate change, nonproliferation, foreign aid, and the trial of terrorist subjects in civilian courts, congressional Republicans threw every obstacle in his path they could lay their hands on.

If the president has changed his hopeful worldview, so has his audience. It's a truism that voters don't care about foreign policy, but they also don't feel good about America's capacity to make the world a better place. According to the latest Pew Research Center poll, the proportion of Americans who believe that the Arab Spring will turn out well either for Arab peoples or for the United States has plummeted since the heady days of early 2011. Almost two-thirds of respondents say that they want the United States to be less involved than it has been in "Middle East leadership changes" -- an unambiguous negative on intervention in Syria. Growing numbers want to see tougher action on Iran and China, while a solid majority favors removing troops from Afghanistan "as soon as possible."

Is it any wonder that when Obama talks about his successes today, you hear almost nothing about the 2008 agenda or even about the New START arms-reduction treaty?

"I killed Osama bin Laden" and "I'm getting out of Afghanistan" speak both to his own diminished expectations and to a very dark public mood. That loss of public hopefulness is itself the most powerful sign of the failure of the promise that Obama once incarnated.

Is this his fault? Maybe yes, in the sense that he raised expectations he could not satisfy. But mostly it's not, because Obama has been dealt as lousy a hand abroad as he has been at home. He inherited two wars, the Iranian nuclear standoff, and an increasingly assertive China, and he had to contend with an epochal convulsion in the Arab world over which Washington has very little control. Voters are fearful and angry in part because America's capacity to determine what happens in the world is so plainly dwindling.

And Romney is quite content to exploit that fear and anger. He and his proxies have focused relentlessly on the trivial question of whether Obama ascribed the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to terrorism -- though recent news reports have vindicated the White House's initial judgment that the attack was provoked by a video insulting the Prophet Mohammed rather than being the result of a long-gestating plan. On the far more important question of whether the United States should have intervened in Libya -- and whether the White House should use force for humanitarian purposes in the absence of overriding national security goals -- Romney has accused the president of acting both too slowly and too precipitately, and once actually ran away from reporters rather than provide a direct answer.

Romney has also tried to score points on Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, but he is hobbled by the fact that his expressed views are almost identical to those of the president. Instead he fires blanks, loudly insisting that Obama is wrong, weak, irresolute, even where the two fundamentally agree. It's disingenuous, but apparently effective: The Pew poll found that Obama leads Romney on foreign policy by only 4 points.

Until recently, it seemed obvious that this final debate would give a lift to Obama's candidacy, if a modest one. That's no longer obvious at all. Although Obama acquitted himself well in the town-hall debate, it was striking how much of the debate was conducted on Romney's side of the policy argument, whether the subject was energy or guns or even tax relief. Given the narrowing poll numbers, that may be even starker on Monday. It will be "I made you safer" versus "No, you didn't."

Yet I have to believe that Obama's best chance lies instead in widening the lens, talking about how he has adapted American policy to a changing world, used international institutions to magnify U.S. power, and assisted at the very difficult birth pangs of democracy in the Middle East. He can strike a hopeful note without sounding naive.

Maybe I'm giving voters too much credit. Still, the World Series doesn't start until Wednesday, so I guess I'll be watching.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images