A lot of observers are having trouble figuring out the philosophical underpinnings of Barack Obama's foreign policy. How does the president see America's place in the world? How will he use American power? How much does he care about such things?
There are no good answers at the moment, but there is a new theory going around: Obama approaches foreign affairs as he would neighborhood issues.
"President Obama is applying the same tools to international diplomacy that he once used as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side," claims a recent analysis in The Washington Post. As such, Obama is "constructing appeals to shared interests and attempting to bring the government's conduct in line with its ideals."
When he was a community organizer, the Post notes, Obama "worked to identify the common interests" of neighborhoods that had been hit by hard economic times. That required a lot of patience, and today he is showing that same patience "in regard to reviving Middle East peace talks or reaching out to Iran." He's also "cultivating a lower profile than the other parties involved," as he did in Chicago.
Perhaps Obama is, in fact, drawing on his organizing experience in approaching foreign affairs. But what's lost in the theorizing is this: What does that experience tell us about Obama himself? And is there anything in his time as a community organizer that could possibly provide a useful model for conducting foreign policy?
During last year's campaign, I spent some time in Chicago looking into Obama's career as an organizer. A number of the people he worked with back then he was on the job for all of three years, from 1985 to 1988 are still in the field today, and they have vivid memories of their time with the future president. Talking to them, and looking back over Obama's record, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that as an organizer, Obama started a lot of projects, gave a lot of inspirational talks, but accomplished very little.
Among other things, Obama tried to find new jobs for displaced steelworkers, to create after-school programs, and to bring new political power to public housing residents. But he truly succeeded at just two things. One, he pushed the city of Chicago to open up a summer-jobs office on the far South Side, where there had not previously been an office, and two, he helped force the city to clean up asbestos in a 1940s-era housing project in the same neighborhood.
That was it.
Obama the organizer spent most of his time teaching community members how to put pressure on the city government, or on various wealthy corporations, to give them money. Obama's organizers could be confrontational, or they could be conciliatory Obama favored the latter but the whole idea was to make powerful people feel guilty, or embarrassed, or annoyed enough to give them things.
Obama, born in 1961, felt that he missed the great days of the civil rights movement. Becoming an organizer was the next-best thing he could find. But his successes were small; he wanted to redistribute wealth and resources on a large scale, and he could only accomplish so much by protesting outside the housing project management office. That was the reason he ultimately left organizing to go to law school and run for public office.
That's not to say that Obama left no legacy as an organizer. The colleagues I talked with all remembered him fondly. Several said he inspired them to improve their lives. But these were all people who shared his goals. They wanted to believe in him and in their shared enterprise.
Does Mahmoud Ahmedinejad fit into that category? The Taliban? Kim Jong-il?
Now that Obama is the president of the United States, he is the power figure, not the supplicant or the protester. Certainly a president still needs to convince foreign leaders to give him what he wants, but when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world, Obama isn't the underdog. His years on the South Side are little help.
You can see Obama's community organizing approach at the White House every day, in the attempts to marginalize Republican opponents, or in the attacks on Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. But handling the life-or-death issues of America's relations with the world that's a new job entirely. And Obama has no experience that prepares him for it.