Tag Archives: Diplomacy

Obama Defines the Middle

For all the hand wringing on the left about Obama’s supposed rush to the center, people seem to be really missing what has happened, especially on foreign policy. Obama hasn’t moved to the middle. He has redefined it. When the history of the 2008 campaign is written I have a feeling that the last couple of weeks will loom large in the story. Slowly but surely, the positions Obama has held for most of the campaign, if not for years.

It started around the beginning of July, when Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came out and said

“I don’t have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq,” Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon. “Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there.”

In some ways Mullen was just acknowledging reality. But it is a reality that Obama has acknowledged for a long time. On September 12, 2007 Obama said

When we end this war in Iraq, we can finally finish the fight in Afghanistan. That is why I propose stepping up our commitment there, with at least two additional combat brigades and a comprehensive program of aid and support to help Afghans help themselves.

Then, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki came out for a timeline for American withdrawal from Iraq and against permanent American bases, a position Obama has held since he entered Congress. Obama then turned around and argued in a New York Times op-ed this week that when should embrace his and Maliki’s plan for withdrawal.

The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States.

Then, we got word that a Pentagon study on the future of Iraq would recommend an even faster withdrawal than Obama has proposed

Expected to be completed in about a month, it will recommend that U.S. forces be reduced to as few as 50,000 by the spring of 2009, down from about 150,000 now. The strategy is based on a major handoff to the increasingly successful Iraqi Army, with platoon-size U.S. detachments backing the Iraqis from small outposts, with air support. The large U.S. forward operating bases that house the bulk of U.S. troops would be mostly abandoned, and the role of Special Forces would increase.

Next, we got word that the Bush administration itself is considering further drawdowns of troops in Iraq.

Paradox #1: The Bush Administration’s is Embracing Obama’s Position on Iraq.

Yes, you read it here first: the Bush Administration is begrudgingly coming around to Barack Obama’s position on Iraq; namely supporting a timetable for withdrawal of troops. Now of course, the Bush folks have not adopted this position for all the same reasons that Sen. Obama did last year, but two points are particularly revealing:

The Bush administration is considering the withdrawal of additional combat forces from Iraq. One factor in the consideration is the pressing need for additional American troops in Afghanistan . . .

The desire to move more quickly reflects the view of many in the Pentagon who want to ease the strain on the military but also to free more troops for . . . other missions.

Of course, the need to send more troops to Afghanistan and deal with the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda (as well as relieve the burden on the military) are two of the key reasons why Obama has been calling for troop withdrawals from Iraq. The approach of the Bush Administration is moving closer to that of the Obama.

Then came yesterday, when two more bits of news broke that shifted the entire foreign policy debate in Obama’s direction. First, John McCain essentially adopted Obama’s Afghanistan policy, calling for more American troops.

Obama has been making this case for investing in Afghanistan and Pakistan for months. By calling for a surge in Afghanistan, McCain is essentially agreeing with him.

Secondly, we got the bombshell news that the Bush administration is sending the third ranking official in the State Department to negotiate with Iran over Iran’s nuclear program.

President Bush has authorized the most significant American diplomatic contact with Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, sending the State Department’s third-ranking official to Geneva for a meeting this weekend on Iran’s nuclear program, administration officials said Tuesday.

The decision appeared to bend, if not exactly break, the administration’s insistence that it would not negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programs unless it first suspended uranium enrichment, as demanded by three resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.

Still, after months of accusations and counteraccusations from the United States and Iran, the meeting raised the prospect of an intensified diplomatic push to resolve concerns over Iranian nuclear activity, not unlike the lengthy and painstaking talks that resulted in a deal last month with North Korea.

William J. Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, will attend a meeting on Saturday with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement on Wednesday.

Increased diplomacy with Iran has long been one of the defining elements of Obama’s foreign policy proposals. He took intense heat for his stand in the primaries, when Hillary Clinton attacked him as naive for his willingness to engage in Presidential diplomacy, and then again in the opening of the general, when John McCain went after him for “talking to dictators.” But now George W. Bush is the one radically increasing America’s diplomatic contact with Iran, moving towards Obama’s long standing position.

All in all the last couple of weeks have been remarkable. Far from being the foreign policy radical that McCain has attempted to paint Obama as, Obama has defined the middle. The administration, the Pentagon, the Iraqis and John McCain himself are all coalescing around Obama’s foreign policy positions. On Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, far from Obama moving to the middle, the middle has moved to Obama.

Then, yesterday, Obama further defined his positions in a remarkable foreign policy speech. The speech is worth reading in its entirety to get a full sense of Obama’s foreign policy program, but its essence is clear. Obama is making sure the middle of the American foreign policy debate revolves squarely around him. Whereas McCain has stayed focused on Iraq and to a small extent Afghanistan, Obama also addresses global terrorism, climate change and diplomacy, while putting the entirety of the foreign policy challenges we face in context.

Imagine, for a moment, what we could have done in those days, and months, and years after 9/11.

We could have deployed the full force of American power to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and all of the terrorists responsible for 9/11, while supporting real security in Afghanistan.

We could have secured loose nuclear materials around the world, and updated a 20th century non-proliferation framework to meet the challenges of the 21st.

We could have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in alternative sources of energy to grow our economy, save our planet, and end the tyranny of oil.

We could have strengthened old alliances, formed new partnerships, and renewed international institutions to advance peace and prosperity.

We could have called on a new generation to step into the strong currents of history, and to serve their country as troops and teachers, Peace Corps volunteers and police officers.

We could have secured our homeland–investing in sophisticated new protection for our ports, our trains and our power plants.

We could have rebuilt our roads and bridges, laid down new rail and broadband and electricity systems, and made college affordable for every American to strengthen our ability to compete.

We could have done that.

Instead, we have lost thousands of American lives, spent nearly a trillion dollars, alienated allies and neglected emerging threats – all in the cause of fighting a war for well over five years in a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

Our men and women in uniform have accomplished every mission we have given them. What’s missing in our debate about Iraq – what has been missing since before the war began – is a discussion of the strategic consequences of Iraq and its dominance of our foreign policy. This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize. This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century. By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.

I am running for President of the United States to lead this country in a new direction – to seize this moment’s promise. Instead of being distracted from the most pressing threats that we face, I want to overcome them. Instead of pushing the entire burden of our foreign policy on to the brave men and women of our military, I want to use all elements of American power to keep us safe, and prosperous, and free. Instead of alienating ourselves from the world, I want America – once again – to lead.

As President, I will pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy – one that recognizes that we have interests not just in Baghdad, but in Kandahar and Karachi, in Tokyo and London, in Beijing and Berlin. I will focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

That foreign policy platform is not the middle of the American debate. That is a remarkable position for Obama to be in. He is already strongly preferred by the electorate on domestic and economic policy. McCain’s positions on Iraq and Iran are be radically undercut by events. And now everyone is converging around Obama. As long as Obama doesn’t give the middle back he is in the drivers seat of this election.

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Talking to Iran

Perhaps the biggest point of contention thus far in the general election has been Barack Obama’s proposal to talk to Iran. McCain has consistently gone after Obama for his advocacy of diplomacy, claiming that Iran has no interest in negotiation or compromise:

European negotiators have proposed a peaceful endgame for Tehran, should it abandon its nuclear ambitions and comply with UN Security Council resolutions.  The plan offers far-reaching economic incentives, external support for a civilian nuclear energy program, and integration into the international community.  But Tehran has said no.

The Iranians have spent years working toward a nuclear program.  And the idea that they now seek nuclear weapons because we refuse to engage in presidential-level talks is a serious misreading of history.  In reality, a series of administrations have tried to talk to Iran, and none tried harder than the Clinton administration.  In 1998, the secretary of state made a public overture to the Iranians, laid out a roadmap to normal relations, and for two years tried to engage.  The Clinton administration even lifted some sanctions, and Secretary Albright apologized for American actions going back to the 1950s.  But even under President Khatami – a man by all accounts less radical than the current president – Iran rejected these overtures.

He even goes further, saying “it’s hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another.”

McCain’s rhetoric on Iran has been little more than fear mongering. He is wrong, both on the history of US-Iranian relations and on the policy going forward:

McCain argues that the Clinton Administration already tried engaging in 1998 and that the entreaties were rebuffed. He’s right.  Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vetoed any talks at that time.  But McCain is selectively cherry picking history.  The story of the last 15 years between Iran and the U.S. is one of missed opportunities on both sides.  The best example is from 2003, where right after the start of the Iraq War senior officials in the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent the “Grand Bargain fax” to the Bush Administration outlining what a deal between the U.S. and Iran might look like.  The Bush Administration decided not to respond because of its position of strength at the time and the belief that Iranian reformists couldn’t deliver on their promises. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Iran worked to have Hezbollah release all of the American hostages in Lebanon and in exchange expected greater engagement from the United States.  But while the first Bush Administration had signaled that it would in fact engage after the 1992 U.S. Presidential elections, when they lost, the Clinton Administration decided instead opt for a dual containment policy.  Elements in the Iranian government who had supported engagement with the U.S. ended up feeling spurned.  The story is much more complicated than: “the U.S. has tried talking and Iran has refused.”

McCain also portrays Ahmadinejad as the man to negotiate with in Iran. First of all, Obama is not proposing sitting down for direct talks with Ahmadinejad but with the Iranian government.  Second, as Joe Klein has pointed out – and McCain has refused to acknowledge – Khameini – not Ahmadinejad – runs Iran’s foreign policy.

The Democracy Arsenal piece even understates the prospects dialogue between the US and Iran, as it doesn’t mention the close cooperation between the US and Iran in the aftermath of 9/11.

2001: Post-9/11 Cooperation on Afghanistan

Like nearly all world leaders, Ayatollah Khamenei condemned the attacks of 9/11. After the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban government, American and Iranian diplomats met together in Bonn, with a handful of representatives from other UN members, to form a new government and constitution for Kabul. “None was more [helpful] than the Iranians,” said James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, writing in the Washington Post. “The original version of the Bonn agreement … neglected to mention either democracy or the war on terrorism. It was the Iranian representative who spotted these omissions and successfully urged that the newly emerging Afghan government be required to commit to both.”

Iran also cooperated with the United Nations to repatriate nearly one million Afghan refugees residing on its soil and—working with United States, Russia, and India—provided support to the Northern Alliance. Flynt Leverett of the Brookings Institution tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, “I think at least some Iranian officials were hoping could get leveraged into a broader strategic dialogue, but that channel was effectively foreclosed when President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address labeled Iran as part of the ‘Axis of Evil.’”

We really don’t know what Iran’s response to a new president would be. Ahmadinejad is a crazy person, but he doesn’t run Iran’s foreign policy. The Supreme Leader does. Khamenei has veered back and forth between being open to engagement and striking a belligerent pose. If he continues to follow the belligerent path McCain is probably right that talks would be of little value. But if he reacts like he did in 2001 and 2003 there is a real opening for negotiation. There is no good reason not to give it a shot and see if there really is an opening.

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Americans Get It

So it turns out that Barack Obama’s proposal to talk to countries like Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba turns out to be remarkably popular. His proposal draws 48 percent support among Republicans and 40-60 point margins among independents and Democrats. I’ve always been a little curious about why John McCain has chosen to make this such a major line of attack against Obama, but now I’m really confused. Its an argument that McCain can’t win. Not only is his position not at all popular, but it ties him to Bush, which is never good for him.

I’m really quite heartened by this result. Talking to countries that we don’t agree with makes a lot of sense. We obviously shouldn’t be giving up major concessions that are against our interests, but there are simply no major downsides to talking to our enemies. If Chavez, Castro, Kim and company really are as crazy as the right claims they are then they won’t give any concessions and we won’t be any worse off than before. In fact, we’d even be a little better, because the US would be seen as reaching out to find constructive solutions, in sharp opposition to the position we’ve taken under Bush. But if our enemies really aren’t as crazy as the crazies in the US discourse want us to think they are and in fact are open to bargaining in search of mutually advantageous solutions, then the US comes out massively ahead. Its good to know that Americans get it.

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