December 3, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Change? Obama stays the course

For a while during the campaign, I was keeping track of each time Barack Obama "changed his tune" (i.e., flip-flopping on issues), and yesterday was a classic example. Obama's choices for the top national security cabinet and advisory positions confirmed the widely-rumored 180-degree reversal on his foreign policy campaign pledges. In other words, he is -- for the most part -- "staying the course" set by President Bush. How ironic! Who would have thought? (See below.) As Obama named his national security team at a press conference in Chicago, he hailed "a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership" in the world (???), saying that his nominees "share my pragmatism about the use of power, and my sense of purpose." See Washington Post. The nominees are:

Some of those names had already been disclosed unofficially. Frankly, I think Obama made a big mistake -- both politically and policy-wise -- in choosing Hillary Clinton over Bill Richardson, who is slated to become secretary of commerce. Richardson has already served as U.N. ambassador and has ample experience in diplomacy, though his judgment is often suspect. At least he would be less likely to anger some foreign leader and start a war than Mrs. Clinton!

In anticipation of the announcements by Obama, Prof. Glenn Hastedt of James Madison University was interviewed by WHSV-TV3 in Harrisonburg. He noted that Obama is "putting together a team of rivals," smart and strong-willed people who don't always see eye to eye. That could either lead to a creative fusion of ideas, or chaos. Hastedt expects that Obama will respond to the heightened threat level since the attack on Mumbai, India with "a selective strategy in terms of where U.S. forces and efforts will be placed." Hastedt also noted the aspect of continuity in Obama's foreign policy, which will anger the left-wing Democrats.

Obviously, anyone who voted for Barack Obama in hopes that he would quickly abandon President Bush's foreign policy and pull our troops out of the Middle East must be sorely disappointed. It must also be extremely aggravating for supporters of Hillary Clinton, who contrasted her strong foreign policy positions to Obama's dovish approach during the primary campaign. Obama prevailed in large part because of anti-war sentiment among Democrats, and now look what has happened!

Likewise, the hawks on the right who feared the worst in letting down our guard must be quite befuddled as well. Is this for real, or just a trick? Obama's putatively pragmatic thrust came as a rather pleasant surprise, but such continuity in foreign policy is really par for the course during presidential transitions. Those who study such matters are well aware that new presidents have precious little leeway in diplomatic or military affairs. On the other hand, Obama (like most incoming presidents and presidents-elect) enjoys a wide range of latitude in domestic politics during the initial "honeymoon" phase. He is so deeply admired by so many Americans (especially journalists) that he can do just about anything right now without taking any flak.

It was a little curious that Vice President-elect Joe Biden was not very visible as the nominees were announced, since Biden was chosen as Obama's running mate in large part because of his expertise in foreign policy. It may be that his presence would have reminded people of the comment he made that, if elected, Obama would be tested by some roguish foreign power during his first months in office. (Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen.)

More Nixon tapes

I happened to see an old colleague while watching C-SPAN this morning: Timothy Naftali, director of the Nixon Presidential Library, was discussing the latest batch of White House tapes that have been released to the public: "Approximately 198 hours of tape recordings from the Nixon White House recorded between November and December 1972 and consisting of approximately 1,398 conversations." That's an awful lot to digest. I knew Prof. Naftali when we both worked at U.Va.'s Miller Center a decade ago, and he used to tell me stories about seeing the Montreal Expos play in old Jarry Park when he was young.

I was amused, in a way, by Nixon's paranoid warnings to his aides not to trust the press because "They are the enemy." He also said the same thing for professors. Well!