David Brooks Interviews Obama

David Brooks recently interviewed Barack Obama and discussed it in today’s column. You always have to take anything Brooks says about a Democrat with a grain of salt, but in this column Brooks held back on his usual Democrat-bashing. Considering that it is rare to have someone like Obama who we know so little about but who has such a good  chance of becoming the next President, I’ll look to any source, even David Brooks, for more information about Obama. Brooks concludes his column with:

In Chicago this week, Obama argued against the current tides of Democratic opinion. There’s been a sharp rise in isolationism among Democrats, according to a recent Pew survey, so Obama argued for global engagement. Fewer Democrats believe in peace through military strength, so Obama argued for increasing the size of the military.

In other words, when Obama is confronted by what he sees as arrogant unilateral action, he argues for humility. When he is confronted by what he sees as dovish passivity, he argues for the hardheaded promotion of democracy in the spirit of John F. Kennedy.

The question is, aside from rejecting the extremes, has Obama thought through a practical foreign policy doctrine of his own — a way to apply his Niebuhrian instincts?

That question is hard to answer because he loves to have conversations about conversations. You have to ask him every question twice, the first time to allow him to talk about how he would talk about the subject, and the second time so you can pin him down to the practical issues at hand.

If you ask him about the Middle East peace process, he will wax rhapsodic about the need to get energetically engaged. He’ll talk about the shared interests all have in democracy and prosperity. But then when you ask him concretely if the U.S. should sit down and talk with Hamas, he says no. “There’s no point in sitting down so long as Hamas says Israel doesn’t have the right to exist.”

When you ask about ways to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he talks grandly about marshaling a global alliance. But when you ask specifically if an Iranian bomb would be deterrable, he’s says yes: “I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.”

In other words, he has a tendency to go big and offer himself up as Bromide Obama, filled with grand but usually evasive eloquence about bringing people together and showing respect. Then, in a blink, he can go small and concrete, and sound more like a community organizer than George F. Kennan.

Finally, more than any other major candidate, he has a tendency to see the world in post-national terms. Whereas President Bush sees the war against radical Islam as the organizing conflict of our time, Obama sees radical extremism as one problem on a checklist of many others: global poverty, nuclear proliferation, global warming. When I asked him to articulate the central doctrine of his foreign policy, he said, “The single objective of keeping America safe is best served when people in other nations are secure and feel invested.”

That’s either profound or vacuous, depending on your point of view.

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