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Obama and the Ghosts of Reaganism

reagangorby062108.jpgIsn’t it interesting that it is the Democratic, rather than Republican, candidate for the U.S. presidency who is causing the ghosts of Reaganism to stir once again? Barack Obama’s simple yet revolutionary ideas of principled engagement with the leadership of the world’s pariah countries is causing a backlash of caustic criticism, accusing the Senator of proposing appeasement, more often than not inappropriately mentioning the name Chamberlain. I think it was Fareed Zakaria whom I first heard talking about how these criticisms were disturbingly similar (nearly word for word) to the criticism Reagan got from his own party when he first proposed talks with Gorbachev; what would end up becoming the first steps in bringing down the Soviet Union. A new column by the peculiar Florida author Ben Bova picks up where Zakaria leaves off:

Sen. Barack Obama has made it clear that he would prefer to meet with the leaders of Iran, North Korea and other adversaries to negotiate our differences. He’d rather talk than fight. This makes me think back a quarter of a century to 1983 and President Ronald Reagan’s approach to our Cold War adversary, Soviet Russia.

When Reagan came into the White House, in 1981, the prevailing wisdom among our allies, and even within the Washington establishment, was that the Soviet Union was so powerful and dangerous that our best hope was for a détente, an armed truce in which we admit that Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was a fait accompli and there was nothing we could — or should — do about it. (…)Today we face a very different world, with different threats. But Reagan’s faith in the fundamental power of human freedom and its inevitable triumph over dictatorship is a lesson we should all remember.

Bova is certainly at least right that we now live in a very different world, and I am much more hesitant to declare this simplistic Obama-Reagan parallel, and acknowledge the complexities that the “we should talk” solution to global problems is bound to be exploited by many insincere leaders (just look at how the North Koreans do their talking). Although it frightens me to recognize it, I agree with what Kissinger said last week about engagement – that you have to define a very specific strategy of what you want before you begin, and be prepared with another plan if you aren’t able to achieve that specific objective. Back in his day, Carter made the prime example out of engagement without strategy, and concessions without any definition of what was expected in return. George W. Bush similarly has conducted what I believe is the worst kind of foreign policy with Russia (in fact, he has a unfortunately comparable legacy with Putin). It’s as though his administration isn’t even on the same planet as Vladimir Putin, who always seemed to stay three steps ahead of their clumsiness, insult them, and then get invited for lobster dinners and fishing trips. A complete joke.Whomever becomes president is going to face some incredibly difficult challenges in foreign relations, and neither Obama’s perspective of “just talking” nor McCain’s proposal of “with us or against us” (in the form of kicking Russia out of the G8) will work in such a pure function (nor should any of us be foolish enough to think that’s actually how either candidate would run their foreign policies). In fact, if anything Obama’s lack of specificity (not that specifics are very marketable goods to general voters) opens an enormous opportunity for McCain to hack away at; an opportunity I am surprised his campaign has not yet seized. I have already blogged about how McCain’s Russia advisers are actually much more diverse than the campaign message (including a VP of the Ford Motor Company, and others interested in dialogue with Moscow), and he should not be afraid to take on his Democratic adversary over what kind of carrots and sticks exist for the United States to obtain desirable outcomes from Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev is going to find receptive ears in either administration. But speaking in intelligent and nuanced tones about how to go about this won’t sell well to the angry red meat party base.Oh well … the last time I had hoped for a vigorous debate on Russia in a U.S. election, I was sorely disappointed. We’ll see how we do this time around.