If there's been one constant over the campaign season, it's this: Every time Barack Obama announces a new foreign policy idea, he's ridiculed by his opponents as naïve, inexperienced, and unready for the dangerous world he'd inherit. But if you run a tally, Obama's record over the last year shows a remarkable degree of foresight, even-tempered judgment, and a real willingness to make hard calls that aren't the politically popular flavor of the week. Indeed, almost every one of Obama's foreign policy positions has been vindicated.
Start with today's news that the Bush administration has issued classified orders authorizing special forces to conduct ground operations against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, even without prior approval from the Pakistani government. Obama was well ahead of the curve on this one. In August 2007, during the primary, Obama startled the foreign policy establishment when he declared, "Let me make this clear . . . There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [then-Pakistani] President Musharraf won't act, we will." Obama was written off by his critics as out of his element, too inexperienced to know that you can't unilaterally order raids on an ally's turf. But Obama alone saw back then that Pakistan's government and powerful intelligence agency weren't stepping up to the plate when it came to fighting al-Qaeda, and that we needed to pick up the slack. As the security situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan has deteriorated even further, it seems the rest of Washington has, a year later, realized that Obama had the right idea.
The plan for U.S. forces in Iraq is another powerful example of Obama leading the herd. John McCain questioned not only Obama's judgment, but his patriotism as well, for suggesting a sixteen month timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. It was easy for Republicans to call Obama a defeatist. Easy, that is, until the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, actually endorsed Obama's plan. And as if McCain's fantasy of spending the next hundred years in Iraq didn't seem radical enough at this point, even the Bush White House (!) and Gen. David Petraeus have since announced that they see a substantial drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq over the next two years as a real possibility.
The story's the same with Iran. Obama was lampooned as a weakling for suggesting diplomatic engagement with Iran, even if it would not commit beforehand to abandoning its nuclear ambitions. He was branded irresponsible, an appeaser of tyrants. But wouldn't you know it, the Bush administration this summer has quietly been establishing our highest level diplomatic contacts with Iran since the 1979 revolution, once again stranding McCain out in left field. Our Iran troubles aren't over, but perhaps overlooked in the firestorm of the campaign is that the level of incendiary rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran has very markedly declined over the last few months. Don't discount that as a force for stability in the Middle East (and, not coincidentally, as a factor in the recent decline in oil prices).
And it's been said a thousand times, but you just can't overlook that Obama opposed the Iraq war way back in 2002. Don't forget: this was no easy position to stake out in the wake of 9/11. Politicians were lining up to support the invasion. Democrats in particular were haunted by their politically costly opposition to the first Gulf War in 1991. But there Obama was, exercising judgment and a sound temperament in a volatile political environment. Most Americans would surely agree now that he was right.
Every one of these tough calls has proved spot on over time. And it would unquestionably have been easier in each instance for Obama to keep quiet and go with the crowd. But in the foreign policy realm, Obama's been the stockbroker who tells you to buy a battered stock just before it rallies. He's the G.M. that drafts a no-name kid from a small school who blows up in the big leagues.
It's so easy to paint the new guy as naïve, as unfit to be commander in chief. After all, any fresh ideas he has are by definition untested. But brush past the reflexive criticism, and a picture emerges of Barack Obama as a man with a pretty good foreign policy head on his shoulders. It's fine for John McCain to rail on about Obama's lack of experience. I'll take his proven track record any day.