Monday, October 13, 2008

Obama, me and foreign policy

I’ve been having conversations with friends in the past few weeks on why I’m not more excited about Barack Obama, especially where foreign policy is concerned, and have been trying for weeks to boil all of those thoughts down into a column. That’s why I was happy to read this piece “Have No Illusions” by Justin Raimondo over at, which makes a pretty compelling case that Obama’s foreign policy wouldn’t look much different than McCain’s (or for that matter George W. Bush’s).

Now you’re probably thinking that’s ridiculous, but once you set aside the war in Iraq (more on that later) the positions of the two candidates start to look pretty similar. Consider:

Both candidates want to continue the War on Terror (though Obama considers Afghanistan the main battleground, while McCain thinks it’s Iraq),
Both candidates want to send more troops/resources to Afghanistan,
Both candidates support sanctions against Iran and think it’s vitally important to stop Iran’s nuclear program,
Both candidates are in favor of NATO expansion to include Ukraine and Georgia,
Both candidates condemned Russia and pledged unwavering support for Georgia after the August conflict,

Well, you get the idea.

In Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine last week, Noam Chomsky (hardly a neocon mouthpiece) said that Europe’s reaction to Obama – the belief that he would mark a sea change in US/European relations was “a European delusion” in reaction to his “soaring rhetoric”. It’s a harsh assessment from Noam, but also one with a ring of truth to it (which goes back to my lack of excitement). The reality of what Obama has said about foreign relations often doesn’t match up with the idea of him as a break from the cowboy diplomacy of the Bush era.

Take Iran for example. One of the many mini-controversies of this campaign has been Obama’s statement that he would meet with the leadership of Iran “without preconditions”. He may be willing to meet with them, but in the meanwhile he is pushing a course of action remarkably similar to the one the US is currently engaged in. He supports sanctions against Iran to get them to end their nuclear research program (even though the first three rounds of sanctions have failed to change their mind) and has said that it’s unacceptable for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. He’s been coy over whether that means the US ultimately taking military action to stop their program, though this summer on “Meet the Press” he did suggest that the United States put Israel under its “nuclear umbrella” – in other words to consider a nuclear attack on Israel like an attack on American soil and to respond accordingly.

One group Obama has steadfastly refused to talk with is Hamas. Obama said he would not meet with the leadership of Hamas because they are a terrorist organization, even though they also happen to be the elected government of the Gaza Strip (Palestine) and that a recent poll in Israel showed that a majority of Israelis supported negotiations with them as part of the peace process with Palestine. Obama has said that he supports the “two state” solution (Israel and Palestine), though how you can get a peace agreement when you refuse to talk to half the leadership of one side is a mystery.

I talked about some of these points with a friend who has been involved with more political campaigns than I can count. His opinion was that Obama was playing it safe for the campaign, that taking bold positions on Iran or Israel or other world hotspots would only open him up for critique from the Right and that he’ll be more innovative once he gets into office. Maybe he’s right, but then again what if Chomsky’s right? Obama himself did say early on in the campaign that he was a canvas onto which people projected their hopes.

I’ve just found little to get excited about when it comes to foreign policy. America’s standing in the world is changing. We’ve spent too long thinking of ourselves as the world’s lone superpower. This has been a bipartisan delusion going back to the Clinton era (when we were the benevolent hegemon) through the Bush regime (where the neoconservatives dubbed us the “new Rome” – as in empire). What’s happening now is what Fareed Zakaria dubbed “the rise of the rest”, other countries emerging as powers in their own right – China, Russia, the European Union (on those occasions when they can get their act together). The ongoing crisis on Wall Street is only casting doubt on the free market financial policies the United States promoted. The point is we can’t expect the countries of the world to ask “how high” when we say, “jump”. It’s going to be a real challenge for the next president to operate in a world like this, it will require some bold thinking, and leadership different from what we’ve been getting in recent years. It is the time for bold leadership, that’s why I’ve been so disappointed on what I’ve seen from Obama.

Getting back to Iraq, which has been the one foreign policy point that Obama and McCain have argued about repeatedly. McCain is in favor of an open-ended commitment to keeping our troops in Iraq, Obama has said that he wants a sixteen-month timeline for bringing our troops home. Though maybe there should be an asterisk after “home”, since Obama said that he would leave some troops in Iraq to defend American interests (like our embassy in Baghdad, which is the size of the Vatican) and for anti-terrorism operations. He gave a speech this summer where he gave numbers as to how many troops he would be withdrawing. I did the math and came up with roughly 40,000 to 50,000 staying behind in Iraq, and about 10,000 to 15,000 of those troops coming home by way of Afghanistan, since Obama is proposing using some of the Iraq-based troops to bolster our numbers in Afghanistan.

I can’t fault Obama for his plan, I think it’s rational to leave some troops behind in Iraq, and boosting the numbers in Afghanistan is what everyone – politicians and military leaders alike – seems to want at this point. But it’s not exactly “ending the war” and “bringing them home” like many of Obama’s supporters have been calling for.

Maybe Chomsky is onto something.
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