Sometimes a sympathetic and perceptive journalist paints a more devastating portrait of a public figure than even his most vitriolic detractors could. A prime example is Ryan Lizza's New Yorker article titled "The Consequentialist" and subtitled, "How the Arab Spring remade Obama's foreign policy."
Lizza's article, characteristically well reported and well written, reads less like the story of an adult politician's evolving view of foreign issues and more like the story of the wildly oscillating opinions of a college student now in his junior year.
As Lizza points out, Obama didn't think much about foreign policy during his years as a community organizer and Illinois state senator -- no more than the typical good pupil does in the years between kindergarten and eighth grade.
As it became clear that he was going to be elected to the U.S. Senate, he started reading and seeking out foreign policy experts of varying views -- Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria, Anthony Lake and Susan Rice and Samantha Power -- much as a curious high-schooler starts reading interesting books he finds on the shelves.
Arriving in the Senate in 2005, when it was clear that things were going sour in Iraq, Obama took the side of "realists" who always advised caution about military involvement abroad rather than the "idealists" who had backed such involvements in the Bill Clinton years and after.
This served his own interests as he moved toward running for president against Hillary Clinton, who had taken the "idealist" view and voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002. This looks a lot like the freshman and sophomore brown-noser seeking to upstage a rival by embracing a cause widely popular with both the faculty and student body.
As Lizza records, this hugely impressed "realists" like Zbigniew Brzezinski, who saw Obama as a trustworthy acolyte. And Obama's scornful dismissal of George W. Bush's "idealist" calls for advancing democracy around the world had something in common with the adolescent discovery that "Dad is wrong about everything!"
Of course, when Obama got to college, er, the White House, he found that Dad was right about some things. The surge in Iraq was allowed to continue succeeding, and something like a surge was ordered in Afghanistan. Guanatanamo remains open, and CIA interrogators are not going to be prosecuted. Robert Gates was kept in the Pentagon, and Hillary Clinton installed at State.
But Obama clung to his "realist" policy on Iran, treating the mullahs' regime respectfully and showing cool detachment if not cold indifference when the Green Movement rose against the mullahs' election fraud in June 2009.
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