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.