War Stories

Is Barack Obama Too Naive To Be President?

Not in the post-Cold War world.

Barack Obama

The question of the moment: Is Barack Obama too naive to be commander in chief?

Now that Obama is the presumptive Democratic candidate, this is the line of attack that John McCain is aggressively pushing. In part, this is because he doesn’t have much else to run on. In part, it’s because there’s video footage, from the Democratic primary contests, of Hillary Clinton making the same accusation.

So is there something to the charge?

The notion stems from the Democrats’ CNN-YouTube Debate of July 23, 2007, when a viewer named Steve asked the candidates whether—in the spirit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s bold trip to Jerusalem—they would be willing to talk with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea “without preconditions” during their first year in office.

To the surprise of many, Obama answered, “I would.” Clinton countered that she would not make such a “promise” (though Obama didn’t either—the question was whether he would be “willing”). After the debate, she went further and called Obama’s response “irresponsible and, frankly, naive.” A presidential visit is special; it shouldn’t be undertaken unless the outcome is all but known in advance.

Even some of Obama’s own staff asked him after the debate whether he wanted to retract the remark. No, he told them, he meant what he said. He clarified later that there would have to be an agenda—he wasn’t keen on talking for the sake of talking—but “preconditions,” which means a great deal more, shouldn’t be required.

On Tuesday, hours before Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, McCain, signaling the start of the general election, told a crowd in New Orleans, “Americans ought to be concerned about the judgment of a presidential candidate who says he’s ready to talk, in person and without conditions, with tyrants from Havana to Pyongyang.”

And so it’s worth taking a look at what Obama actually said during that July 23 debate. Here is his full reply:

I would [be willing to meet with those leaders], and the reason is this: The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration—is ridiculous. … [Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy talked with Soviet leaders because] they understood that we may not trust them, and they may pose an extraordinary threat to us, but we have the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.

Obama added, referring to the countries that the questioner listed, “It is a disgrace that we have not spoken with them.” For instance, he said, we need to talk with Iran and Syria, if only about Iraq, “because if Iraq collapses, they’re going to have responsibilities.”

I would submit there is nothing wrong with any of this. Obama might have done well to focus more intently, at the time, on the phrase “without preconditions”—to parse its meaning and to distinguish the lack of preconditions from the lack of preparations—but, taken in full, and in the context of the question, his reply was the acme of common sense.

The remark did violate an article in the playbook of Cold War diplomacy: that a presidential visit is special, something that the recipient of the visit values above all else and therefore needs to earn; that success must be virtually guaranteed before such a high-stakes trip is taken; and that, therefore, before such a hallowed event can be scheduled, the grunts need to complete all the “spade work,” leaving little for the presidents to do beyond signing on the dotted line.

But here’s a fact of our times (and Obama seems to have a grip on this, perhaps because he’s not so immersed in the diplomatic subculture): A presidential visit is not the cherished commodity that it once was, because the United States is no longer the superpower that it used to be.

When the Soviet Union imploded, so did the Cold War system whose existence bolstered our power and influence. After a while, many leaders—who once turned to the United States to permit, enforce, and legitimize their dealings in the world—began to go their own way, pursue their own interests, build their own alliances, not necessarily against the United States (though sometimes it worked out that way) but, more to the point, without giving much thought to Washington’s feelings about the matter.

The Bush administration’s many failures have reinforced this tendency. For instance, its lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan has made our enemies less fearful of our threats and our allies less trusting in our assurances. Its disinclination even to engage in serious Middle East diplomacy has made it politically harder for moderate Arab leaders to side openly with U.S. interests.

Look at the deals that foreign leaders are cutting on their own. Israel and Hamas are talking about a cease-fire, using Egypt as a mediator. Turkey is serving as middleman in talks between Israel and Syria. The political factions in Lebanon worked out an accord, under Qatar’s supervision.

These local and regional arrangements are encouraging developments. But, as Robert Malley and Hussein Agha noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, the more these kinds of deals get struck without American involvement, the more marginalized we become. Our already-slackening influence all over the world diminishes still further.

But more than our own power is at stake. These regional peace deals often need a larger guarantor. In many parts of the world, the United States is the only country that has the potential to play that role. It is still the only country that has global reach—politically, economically, and militarily.

No matter who is elected this November, the next president will have to take extraordinary steps to translate this global reach into power and influence—to restore American leadership. One of the main challenges in this effort will be to prove to others that this leadership is desirable. 

The new reality is that to a degree we haven’t seen in our lifetimes, the United States is a normal country—a very powerful country, but normal nonetheless: not a superpower. A presidential visit, in this light, is not such a big deal. Or, to the extent that some countries might still regard it as a visitation from on high, it may be just the jolt to get things moving.

Either way, not only was Obama’s remark not naive; it reflected a more instinctive understanding of the post-Cold War world than either of his opponents seem to possess.