By William Pfaff
BRUSSELS—The Americans who voted for Barack Obama as president were promised change they could count on, but it rather looks as if they may actually be asked to make do with a mildly refurbished Clinton administration, with many of the same officials and nearly all of the same policies. The policies are drawn from the same centrist Democratic Party sources as those of Bill Clinton, and Obama’s admirers might even find themselves with Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state—which makes no sense whatsoever.
Are there no significant differences of view on war and peace between the two of them? Why did the American (and international) public have to endure a year and a half of Democratic Party primaries in addition to the national election contest if the Democratic race could have been settled by the flip of a coin between people who believed in the same policies and thought the same thoughts?
Where is the sweeping change Barack Obama was promising the electorate? Looking back, he was rarely specific about the changes he intended to make. He constantly invoked the principle of change, without going much into the messy details, for which—admittedly—he was criticized at the time.
Many who voted for him, as did this writer, relied upon his evident qualities, in comparison with his predecessor and most of his competitors, which were that he clearly was very intelligent, as well as balanced and mature: He was an adult, who spoke to his audiences as fellow adults. This was his great difference from Hillary Clinton. Personally very intelligent, she has spent too long in the shady political precincts of ambition and calculation. She could never have made the speech Obama made on race. (Possibly he will never again be able to make such a speech. He has himself said that we must settle down now to being disappointed by Obama.)
The disappointment problem is international. Because of the enormous expectations Obama’s election has aroused abroad, above all among America’s European allies, any Obama-Clinton restoration of Clintonism would be met with incomprehension and disappointment. This is not because the Clinton administration was so awful, but because it was so confused in perception and lacking in foreign policy direction that it was easy for George W. Bush to merge it into the Great War on Terror. He had simply to add fear, security hysteria, lies about mass destruction weapons, and torture.
Europeans had never thought of Americans as torturers. When it turned out that the sponsors and defenders of torture occupied the highest offices of government in the United States, with the chief legal enablers of torture in the White House counsel’s office itself, and heading no less than the Department of Justice, a chill passed through the Western alliance. It was noted that the chosen euphemism for torture by the president, lawyers and the CIA was “enhanced measures,” a direct translation of the term employed by the Gestapo.
I was just in Brussels to speak to the European Ideas Network, sponsored by the Christian Democratic-Center Right-Conservative group, the largest in the European Parliament. The audience seemed taken aback when I answered their question about what will change in European-American relations under Barack Obama by replying, “Probably not much.”
The president-elect has said he will stop torture and extra-legal imprisonment, but on fundamental matters of transatlantic relations, he clearly has indicated that he wants an alliance in which the Europeans contribute more. (This will undoubtedly be a welcome change from the Bush effort to split the European Union by encouraging hostility toward the West Europeans by the pro-American former Warsaw Pact governments.)
The U.S. contribution to the Georgia fiasco has undermined its reputation among the East Europeans. In the future, there probably will be more American consultation and good will in transatlantic relations, and perhaps even in dealing with Russia (there certainly is nothing to gain from hostility). However, Barack Obama himself said in his Berlin speech that he expects the Europeans to contribute a lot more to “winning” the war in Afghanistan.
This is not a popular idea; the European governments have been encouraging regional diplomatic solutions for Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Most Americans may be surprised to know that there is West European concern (as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told a Brookings audience in Washington last week) that the new American administration might try to take all this over for itself, and thereby wreck the progress already made. After all, it was Barack Obama who said that he would himself talk to the Iranians.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.