Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Obama on Foreign Affairs

Obama in Foreign Affairs

The current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine (July/August 2007; www.foreignaffairs.org) has articles by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, each giving their view of the lay of the land and outlining their foreign policy agendas.

The pictures each man had with his article were probably self-selected, since Foreign Affairs online has differently edited versions. Obama is pictured from the waist up, in shirt and tie, coat open, hands resting on his hips, in the midst of a huge crowd of people. He is listening, and smiling broadly at something 45 degrees to the left that genuinely pleases him.

Romney submitted a chest and head shot, in shirt, tie, and buttoned coat, standing in front of a dark drapery, his head and shoulders flanked by huge American flags, a large microphone below his mouth, which is caught open in mid-lecture, right hand raised and aggressively pointing at the audience. His face is forward but eyes are shifted to the left and his head is slightly tilted. A half smirk is his expression.

The two pictures pretty much tell you everything you need to know about the two characters, but what about their intellectual ideas? I assume both men have staffers who edited, if not produced the articles, but at least the ideas should fairly represent the candidates’ views. Here I review Obama’s article.

Obama’s essay is long on “the vision thing.” He uses terms like “vision” and “visionary leadership,” “new vision,” and so on, repeatedly. He focuses only on threats that confront us, not any opportunities. His whole essay is essentially a collection of lists of keywords loosely stitched into a rambling narrative. He provides very few actual ideas and virtually no pragmatic suggestions. His main theme: he favors “diplomacy,” “collaboration,” and “brokerage” to military force. His essay is full of high-minded rhetoric that could be unkindly considered empty.

The main threats Obama identifies are nuclear proliferation, terrorists, and, global warming. That is a plausible list in about the right order. He explicitly and repeatedly blames the current administration for misunderstanding these threats and for giving wasteful and ineffective responses.

Iraq: Obama sees the Iraq war as a diversion from the fight against terrorism. There is no military solution in Iraq. What should be done then? We should put “pressure” on the warring parties to reconcile. Good luck! The pressure is the threat of U.S. troop withdrawal, to be substantially completed by the end of first quarter, 2008 (long before he would ever be in the Oval office). Is there any reason to believe that threat would cause the groups to reconcile? If there is, he doesn’t mention it.

We should also “launch a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative to help broker an end to the civil war…” Good luck on that one, too.

In the broader Middle East, he states clearly that we will remain strongly committed to Israel, even while we “contend” with other threats in the region (List: Iran, Iraq, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah). We must “strive to secure a lasting settlement.” Again, good luck! Some operational suggestions are offered but these are hardly more specific. We should “talk directly” to Iran. We should use diplomacy and pressure to “reorient Syria”, and so on.

The Military: The military is underfunded, understaffed, and underequipped he says without giving any specific data. But that assessment is true. He would rebuild the military immediately by throwing piles of money at it. . He would recruit 65,00 soldiers and 27,000 marines right away, recruiting only “the very best.” Once again, good luck! The armed forces have not been able to meet existing recruitment quotas. What would he do differently? No clue is offered.

Nuclear Proliferation: This, Obama identifies as the most urgent threat to the security of America, and I agree. The problem is obviously related to the fight against terrorism, but is a different “front” in that struggle.

How would Obama tackle this threat? By “working with other nations to secure, destroy, and stop the spread of these weapons…” I wish him the best of luck in that effort!

Specifically, we must “work with Russia,” and “not rush” to produce new warheads of our own (which is not to say that we should not produce them, only that we should not be in a rush). He would provide $50 million to fund an International Atomic Energy Agency to update the nonproliferation treaty. That’s pretty specific, although it hardly grabs the bull by the horns. North Korea should be dealt with by “sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy…” although a military option is not “off the table,” he says.

Terrorism: Here, Obama says an interesting thing: We must refocus our efforts on Afghanistan AND PAKISTAN as central fronts against terrorism. Naming Pakistan in that context is not incorrect, in my opinion, but bold, and enigmatic. Pakistan is our putative ally in the “war on terror.” If Obama is ready to speak truth, why not name also Saudi Arabia? It seems odd that he would single out Pakistan like that without explanation.

Anyway, what should we do about Pakistan? Obama would “join with our allies in insisting…that Pakistan crack down on the Taliban... and Osama…” I wish him the best of luck in his international “insistence”!

Here at home, Obama would throw money at homeland security, screening all cargo, hardening mass transit, and so on. He would reorganize the intelligence community (again!) in unspecified ways. Finally, he would develop a comprehensive strategy to fight terrorism. He hints (only) that such a strategy might involve massive financial aid to grass roots people in Islamic countries. How that would be accomplished is not mentioned, unsurprisingly.

Rebuilding Partnerships: To combat global threats against America, Obama’s main strategy would be to develop international partnerships, that have, he says, been neglected under the present administration. That seems a fair assessment and a plausible strategy. He would rebuild ties to traditional allies and rally NATO especially to contribute more troops to collective security. Good luck with that!

As for China, he will “encourage” China to play a more responsible role. He will “collaborate” with Brazil, India, and others on “pressing global issues.” He will reform the United Nations (by unspecified means) to address the Darfur crisis.

On global warming he will enact a carbon emissions cap and trade system and throw money at renewables. He will use “assistance policies” to help developing countries leapfrog the carbon-intensive stage of development. Great trick, if that could be pulled off!

Spreading Democracy: Obama does not actually say he will “spread democracy.” I think he is savvy enough to realize that forcing democracy on other cultures who don’t care to have it, is ineffective and actually a form of intellectual colonialism. So instead he talks about “freedom on the march,” not “democracy on the march.” He will merely “help build accountable institutions” around the world. How? By spreading money. He heartily endorses foreign aid and will double our annual giving, focusing especially on AIDS programs, and global education.

Finally, Obama would restore other countries’ trust in America, reestablishing American values for the world to see, and he would restore the American people’s trust in government. Good luck with that!

Overall, Obama demonstrates that he is aware of the relevant issues and their importance and implications, as the present administration does not always seem to be, so that is a positive message from any candidate. However, most informed people, especially those who read Foreign Affairs, are already going to be aware of those issues and would be looking for specific ideas and directions in the candidate’s foreign policy agenda. Obama emphasized diplomacy over unilateral military force as the best way to confront threats to America, and I agree with that at a high level of abstraction. But as for how, specifically, that would be accomplished? I am not hearing anything but platitudes and wishful thinking. This is very disappointing, especially from such a likable candidate, but it is completely consistent with my experience trying to squeeze some ideas out of his two best-selling books.

It may be that he believes his main job right now is to not shoot himself in the foot. He is riding a tremendous wave of unexpected popularity, and all that goodwill is his to lose. So maybe his best strategy as a candidate is to not have a strategy. That’s smart for him, perhaps, useless for me.

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