Election 2008  
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In This Era of Hope, Obama Must Embrace a Genuine Agenda of Peace

Obama’s election was in substantial part a mandate for ending the war and demilitarizing U.S. foreign policy; now it's time to hold him to it.
 
 
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To those who would tear this world down -- we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security -- we support you ... tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope. 

                  -- Barack Obama, Nov. 4, 2008 

Dramatic new opportunities for international peace have opened with the election of Barack Obama. Whether these hopes will be realized, however, depends upon the continued commitment of those of us who helped to elect him. An unprecedented grassroots mobilization of millions of people propelled Obama into office. That same movement must now remain engaged to promote a more peaceful, less militarized U.S. foreign policy.

While economic issues dominated the campaign in the final weeks and clinched Obama’s victory, his improbable candidacy was rooted from the beginning in opposition to the Iraq war. Obama’s declared determination to end the war inspired millions of people to support the campaign and gave his candidacy a critical advantage when it was most needed in the Democratic primaries. His election was in substantial part a mandate for ending the war.

This is true despite the fact that Obama’s views on foreign policy generally conform with conventional thinking. His selections for secretary of defense and national security adviser suggest continuity with current policies rather than change. Yet core elements of Obama’s agenda reflect a genuine peace agenda. Three stances are particularly important -- the commitment to military withdrawal from Iraq, his promise of diplomatic engagement with Iran and support for the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. These positions can serve as the basis for reorienting U.S. foreign policy away from military unilateralism and toward a more cooperative approach to international affairs. 

Precisely because of this, attempts to implement these positions will be resisted by powerful vested interests. The war system is deeply entrenched in Washington and will not be uprooted by the results of a single election. Conservative and right-wing political forces are down but not out, and they have wasted no time strategizing on how to return to power. They are likely to challenge the new administration on national security issues. Progressives must be prepared to defend the new administration as it pursues a peace agenda. Citizen activism remains as necessary after the election as it was before.

Exiting Iraq

The top priority will be bringing the war in Iraq to a responsible end. Candidate Obama called for the withdrawal of combat forces, but his plan would leave in place tens of thousands of American troops and bases. The Baghdad government and the Bush administration have trumped this position by adopting a security agreement that calls for all U.S. forces to leave the country within three years. The pact, described officially as the withdrawal agreement, gives Iraqi officials greater control over U.S. operations and forbids the use of Iraqi territory or airspace for attacks against other countries. The exact legal status of the security pact is uncertain, but its political significance is undeniable. A timetable for the removal of U.S. troops and bases is now official policy in Baghdad and Washington, and can be rightly portrayed as fulfilling the wishes of both American voters and the elected leaders of Iraq.

Opponents of the war must insist that the process of military withdrawal begin immediately and that the new administration commit itself to removing all troops and bases. The exact timeline for withdrawal is less important than the necessity of early action and an unequivocal commitment to begin an irreversible process of military disengagement. If the president adopts such an agenda, we should mobilize to support him. If the administration fails to act, or offers only a limited withdrawal, we must be prepared to exert pressure.

Engaging Iran

Diplomatic engagement with Iran is another major peace priority. The success of any plan for military withdrawal from Iraq depends upon the cooperation of neighboring states, especially Iran, which has significant influence with the Baghdad government. Cooperation with Iran is also needed to address mounting security challenges in Afghanistan, where Washington and Tehran share common objectives. Diplomatic engagement is the key to constraining Iran’s nuclear program and stemming nuclear proliferation in the region. All of these issues are interconnected. They require for their solution a fundamental break with the past policies of hostility and isolation and a vigorous commitment to diplomacy and mutually beneficial cooperation.

A number of former U.S. officials have proposed a comprehensive diplomatic strategy that offers Iran a grand bargain. The United States and its European allies would agree to a normalization of relations, including security assurances and an end to sanctions and military threats. In return, Iran would accept more rigorous controls on its nuclear program and would support regional stabilization and a Middle East peace process that guarantees Israel’s security alongside a viable Palestinian state. A commitment to diplomacy would mean abandoning regime-change policies, which Shirin Ebadi and other respected Iranian democracy advocates have condemned as counterproductive and strengthening repressive tendencies in Iran. It is proper to criticize Tehran's human-rights abuses, but this does not justify attempting to overthrow the regime.

Successful diplomacy with Iran will require modifying the current insistence that Iran abandon its uranium-enrichment program. As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Tehran is legally entitled to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. Iran has already developed rudimentary enrichment capabilities and is unlikely to abandon a program in which it has invested so much political and economic capital. A compromise solution might be the creation of a multinational enrichment consortium, as proposed by former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering and endorsed by former International Atomic Energy Agency Director Hans Blix. Uranium enrichment would proceed on Iranian soil, but the facilities would be owned and operated by a consortium in which France, Germany and other countries might participate, with all operations subject to strict international control. Tehran has suggested a similar arrangement in the past and might be willing to support such a proposal again now. Negotiation of the proposed agreement would help to resolve the nuclear standoff and could open the door to cooperation on other issues.

Eliminating Nuclear Weapons

The effectiveness of U.S. nonproliferation policy in Iran and other countries depends on Washington’s willingness to reduce and eliminate its own nuclear arsenal. This is the opinion not only of the peace community but of former senior officials George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and William Perry. The four have publicly committed themselves to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons and in the process have transformed the nuclear debate. For the first time in the Atomic Age, the goal of nuclear abolition has broad bipartisan credibility. Obama has expressed public support for the Shultz initiative and has vowed to take action for nuclear weapons reduction and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. These goals exactly match the priorities of the peace community.

Agreement with Russia is needed by the end of 2009 to extend current weapons reductions and inspection protocols. This provides an opportunity to negotiate a new, more comprehensive treaty that reduces nuclear stockpiles to 1,000 weapons or below. As Moscow and Washington negotiate a new nuclear treaty, they should be urged to commit publicly to the goal of global zero, which is steadily gaining international support.

Ratification of the test ban treaty has been, and remains, an essential international security objective. A global ban on nuclear testing helps to prevent the development of new weapons and contributes to the mutual obsolescence of those that remain. When the United States ratifies the treaty, China will likely follow suit, which will put enormous pressure on India, and then Pakistan to do likewise. This would establish a pattern for global denuclearization that could become a template for achieving comprehensive disarmament.

Taming Terrorism

While the Obama administration is likely to offer progressive leadership on Iraq, Iran and denuclearization, its approach toward the global struggle against al-Qaida is more problematic. The deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan is unlikely to bring lasting security to the region or stem the flow of recruits and support to  al-Qaida. The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is the problem, not the solution. Political opposition to foreign military operations has grown in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the deployment of additional troops will only make matters worse, fueling further resistance and terrorist attacks.

War and military occupation are not an effective strategy against al-Qaida. The concept of a "war on terror" is misguided and counterproductive. Utilizing the rhetoric and policy of war turns the criminals who commit mass murder into warriors and presumed heroes within their communities. When the United States bombs and invades Muslim communities, this undermines our moral standing and validates Osama bin Laden’s warped image of America waging war on Islam. Polls in Muslim countries have shown as much as 80 percent of the population agreeing with the view that American policy is directed against Islam. As long as these attitudes prevail, there will be no end of would-be recruits willing to blow themselves up to kill Americans and our allies.

The 9/11 Commission argued that the campaign against terrorism is primarily a political struggle for hearts and minds. The goal is "prevailing over the ideology that contributes to Islamic terrorism," which means separating al-Qaida from its social support base. This requires policies that rely not on military force but on political and economic measures that reduce support for violent extremism. The solution in Afghanistan is not more troops but a greater commitment to diplomacy and development. Security experts and senior military officers have called for power-sharing negotiations with local Taliban elements as a way of peeling away support from al-Qaida's globalist agenda. This approach should be combined with major investments in economic development and support for human rights. These are strategies that will be more effective, and less costly, over the long term in reducing the global terrorist danger.

In his Nov. 4 acceptance speech, Obama vowed to "defeat" those who would "tear down this world" and to support those who strive for peace and security. This lofty ambition will require a global security strategy that emphasizes cooperation over unilateralism and peaceful diplomacy over military action -- an approach based on the force of law rather than the law of force. The new administration can move decisively in this direction through military disengagement from Iraq, negotiations with Iran, action for nuclear disarmament, and a commitment to diplomacy, development and democracy in the fight against al-Qaida. These changes could pave the way toward more comprehensive transformations of U.S. policy -- strengthening the United Nations, reducing military spending, increasing diplomatic and peace-building efforts, expanding support for economic development, defending human rights, acting against mass violence in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo and facilitating a just settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. All are elements of a cooperative security strategy that reduces support for violent extremism and helps to realize a more peaceful future.

David Cortright is a research fellow with the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
 
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