Tag Archives: Foreign Policy

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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Biden for Veep?

I think Ezra Klein is largely right in his case for Joe Biden as Vice President.

In the 2008 election, he was the only Democrat who really figured out how to talk about Republicans and foreign policy. All the other candidates on the stage started from the presumption that Republicans were strong on national security, and voters needed to be convinced of their failures and then led to a place of support for a Democratic alternative. Biden dispensed with all that. He started from the position that Republicans had been catastrophic failures on foreign policy, and their ongoing claims to competence and leadership should be laughed at, and even mocked.

When Rudy Giuliani said, simply, “America will be safer with a Republican president,” Obama responded with a traditional, more-in-sadness-than-in-anger statement. “Rudy Giuliani today has taken the politics of fear to a new low and I believe Americans are ready to reject those kind of politics. America’s mayor should know that when it comes to 9/11 and fighting terrorists, America is united.” The release goes on in this way for eight more lines.

Biden, by contrast, laughed at Giuliani. He mocked him. “The irony is, Rudy Giuliani, probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency, is here talking about any of the people here,” said Biden at one of the debates. “Rudy Giuliani… I mean, think about it! Rudy Giuliani. There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence — a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There’s nothing else!”

That’s Biden’s great strength. He’s the single best foreign policy advocate the Democrats have. Obama has some of these strengths as well. He’s the most confident Democratic presidential candidate on foreign policy issues in a generation, perhaps since Johnson. But its is hard for Obama to be an attack dog. It just isn’t his personality.

But it is Biden’s. He’s made a point of it recently, going after McCain on warrantless wiretapping, Lieberman on the Democratic foreign policy tradition and Bush on appeasement. He revels in being an attack dog. He skewers Republican foreign policy arguments with gusto and is completely comfortable doing it. Plus, as Ezra points out, he has a long, and mostly positive, relationship with the press, who universally regard him as a foreign policy expert.

To me, the case for Biden boils down to the fact that the only real chance McCain has at winning the general election is making it all about foreign policy. Biden helps neutralize that. He allows Obama to outline his own positive vision of American foreign policy, while outsourcing the most virulent attacks to Biden, who is better than any other Democrat at it.

Biden does have downsides. His plagiarism of Niel Kinnock would inevitably come up, he is old, he has a reputation as being gaffe prone, he wouldn’t do anything to help expand the map and he isn’t the greatest campaigner. But Biden has a single big strength, which may well overwhelm all his weaknesses; his ability to attack on foreign policy.

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Obama and McCain on the Issues

Image by Flickr User Rob Goodspeed

This is a really interesting graph comparing what Obama and McCain talk about on their websites. The immediate thing that strikes me is how much more policy is on Obama’s website and how many more issues he discusses. Does McCain really have no positions on technology, urban policy, science, social security, civil rights or any of the other issues that he doesn’t have anything written on his website about? On some of them, such as social security, I seriously doubt it. But does anyone think that McCain or his campaign have given any serious thought to urban policy or poverty? I certainly haven’t seen any evidence of it.

What this really comes back to is Tyler Cowen’s observation of a couple of weeks ago:

Trade aside, so far I’ve yet to see many actual policy proposals from the McCain camp. Mostly I’ve seen attempts to signal that they won’t do anything too offensive to the party’s right wing. Very few of these trial balloons seem to be ideas that McCain had expressed much previous loyalty to. I don’t even think we should be analyzing these statements as policy proposals. We should be wondering why the Republican Party has given up on the idea of policy proposals.

The graph didn’t even mention trade as an issue, so I hopped on over to McCain’s website and sure enough, I didn’t see anything at all about trade. It’s not listed on his issues page but as a part of his economic page he includes this statement under the banner of promoting trade and global competitiveness:

John McCain Will Lower Barriers To Trade. Ninety-five percent of the world’s customers lie outside our borders and we need to be at the table when the rules for access to those markets are written. To do so, the U.S. should engage in multilateral, regional and bilateral efforts to reduce barriers to trade, level the global playing field and build effective enforcement of global trading rules. These steps would also strengthen the U.S. dollar and help to control the rising cost of living that hurts our families.

John McCain Will Act To Make American Workers More Competitive. We must prepare the next generation of workers by making American education worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves. We must be a nation committed to competitiveness and opportunity. We must fight for the ability of all students to have access to any school of demonstrated excellence. We must place parents and children at the center of the education process, empowering parents by greatly expanding the ability of parents to choose among schools for their children.

Thats it. Nothing more than some boilerplate about how trade is good and “leveling the playing field.” He’s got nothing about how he envisions trade deals be structured, who they should be with and how he’s going to build political consensus about trade, either here or abroad. But that’s not even the worst part. McCain doesn’t even begin to grapple with US farm subsidies and agricultural policy, which, along with European reticence about the same issues, are the major things holding up the Doha round of multilateral trade talks. McCain talks a lot about trade on the stump, so it’s not like he hasn’t thought about the issue. Its just that his campaign doesn’t seem to have any plans about it.

It’s not as though McCain just got in the race. He’s been actively running for President for over a year now. Yet somehow, he hasn’t articulated much of anything about what he’d like to do as President. I’ve got a great idea of what Barack Obama’s priorities would be as President. He’d push for a universal healthcare plan without individual mandates but with generous subsidies for low income individuals. He’d push for a cap and auction system to address global warming. He’d set about pulling American troops out of Iraq. He’d reorient America’s diplomacy and foreign policy around leveraging our soft power and work within international institutions. With McCain, who knows. He’s made people believe that he’d want to push immigration and global warming legislation, but he’s never explicitly said it. We know he’d keep troops in Iraq throughout his presidency and would run a foreign policy that broadly similar, or, as in his approach to Russia and China, even more radical than Bush’s.

But there are no details. McCain has simply never addressed a lot of these issues. Frankly, it’s hard to see how McCain could have gotten this far without addressing a lot of this. But given the way policy has been covered throughout this campaign, I’d be quite surprised if he was forced to address any of this before November.

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