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Obama's Sweeping Foreign Policy Critique

Democrats should not have to act like Republicans to pass some test on national security. It's time to end the politics of fear.
 
 
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When Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama met in California for the Jan. 31 debate, their back-and-forth resembled their many previous encounters, with the Democratic presidential hopefuls scrambling for the small policy yardage between them. And then Obama said something about the Iraq War that wasn't incremental at all. "I don't want to just end the war," he said, "but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place."

Until this point in the primaries, Clinton and Obama had sounded very similar on this issue. Despite their differences in the past (Obama opposed the war, while Clinton voted for it), both were calling for major troop withdrawals, with some residual force left behind to hedge against catastrophe. But Obama's concise declaration of intent at the debate upended this assumption. Clinton stumbled to find a counterargument, eventually saying her vote in October 2002 "was not authority for a pre-emptive war." Then she questioned Obama's ability to lead, saying that the Democratic nominee must have "the necessary credentials and gravitas for commander in chief."

If Clinton's response on Iraq sounds familiar, that's because it's structurally identical to the defensive crouch John Kerry assumed in 2004: Voting against the war wasn't a mistake; the mistakes were all George W. Bush's, and bringing the war to a responsible conclusion requires a wise man or woman with military credibility. In that debate, Obama offered an alternative path. Ending the war is only the first step. After we're out of Iraq, a corrosive mind-set will still be infecting the foreign-policy establishment and the body politic. That rot must be eliminated.

Obama is offering the most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we've heard from a serious presidential contender in decades. It cuts to the heart of traditional Democratic timidity. "It's time to reject the counsel that says the American people would rather have someone who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right," Obama said in a January speech. "It's time to say that we are the party that is going to be strong and right." (The Democrat who counseled that Americans wanted someone strong and wrong, not weak and right? That was Bill Clinton in 2002.)

But to understand what Obama is proposing, it's important to ask: What, exactly, is the mind-set that led to the war? What will it mean to end it? And what will take its place?

To answer these questions, I spoke at length with Obama's foreign-policy brain trust, the advisers who will craft and implement a new global strategy if he wins the nomination and the general election. They envision a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering "democracy promotion" agenda in favor of "dignity promotion," to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root. An inextricable part of that doctrine is a relentless and thorough destruction of al-Qaeda. Is this hawkish? Is this dovish? It's both and neither -- an overhaul not just of our foreign policy but of how we think about foreign policy. And it might just be the future of American global leadership.

***

When considering any presidential hopeful's foreign-policy promises, it's important to remember that what candidates say is, at best, an imperfect guide to their actions in office. What proves to be a more reliable indicator of presidential behavior is a candidate's roster of advisers. (If the press had paid better attention, the country would have seen through Bush's pitch about a humble foreign policy and realized that many of his advisers, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, were conspiracy-minded warmongers.) Obama's foreign-policy advisers come from diverse backgrounds. They are former aides to Democratic mandarins like Tom Daschle and Lee Hamilton (Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes, respectively); veterans of the Clinton administration's left flank (Tony Lake and Susan Rice); a human-rights advocate who helped write the Army's and Marine Corps' much-lauded counterinsurgency field manual (Sarah Sewall); a retired general who helped run the air war during the invasion of Iraq (Scott Gration); and a former journalist who revolutionized the study of U.S. foreign policy (Samantha Power). Yet they form a committed, intellectually coherent, and surprisingly united foreign-affairs team. (Shortly before this piece went to press, Power resigned from the campaign after making an intemperate remark to a reporter.)

They also share a formative experience with each other and with Obama. Each opposed the Iraq War at a time when doing so was derided by their colleagues, by journalists, and by the foreign-policy establishment. Each did so because they understood that the invasion and occupation ran counter to the goal of destroying al-Qaeda. And each bore the frustration of endless lectures on their lack of so-called seriousness from those who suffered from strategic myopia.

"There is a popular notion that Democrats have to try to appear like Republicans to pass some test on national security. The fact that that's still the case after Iraq is absurd," says one of Obama's closest advisers. "So you break from that orthodoxy and say 'I don't care if the Republicans attack me because I'm willing to meet with the leadership in Iran. We haven't for 25 years, and it's not gotten us anywhere.'"

Most of the members of Obama's foreign-policy team expressed frustration that they had taken a well-considered and seemingly anodyne position on Iraq and suffered for it. Obama had something similar happen to him in the spring and summer of 2007. He was attacked from the left and the right for saying three things that should not have been controversial: that if he had actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan but no cooperation from the Pakistani government, he would take out the jihadists; that he wouldn't use nuclear weapons on terrorist training camps; and that he would be willing to meet with leaders of rogue states in his first year as president. "No one [of Obama's critics] had thought through the policy because that was the quote-unquote naïve and weak position, so they said it was a bad position to take," recalls Ben Rhodes, the adviser who writes Obama's foreign-policy speeches. "And it was a seminal moment, because Obama himself said, 'No, I'm right about this!'"

Instead of backing down, Obama asked his foreign-policy team to double down. Rhodes wrote a speech that Obama delivered at DePaul University on Oct. 2, which criticized the boundaries of acceptable discourse set by the same establishment that backed the war. "This election is about ending the Iraq War, but even more it's about moving beyond it. And we're not going to be safe in a world of unconventional threats with the same old conventional thinking that got us into Iraq," Obama said. One of his advisers, recalling the fallout from Obama's comments about pursuing al-Qaeda in Pakistan, says, "He takes policy positions that are a break from both rigid orthodoxy and the Bush administration. And everyone says it's a gaffe! That just encapsulates everything that's wrong about the foreign-policy debate in Washington and in Democratic politics."

The Obama foreign-policy team describes it as "the politics of fear," a phrase most advisers used unprompted in our conversations. "For a long time we've not seen much creative thinking from Dems on national security, because, out of fear, we want to be a little different from the Republicans but not too different, out of fear of being labeled weak or indecisive," another top adviser says. Identifying that fear as the accelerant of the Iraq War mind-set is the first step to a new and innovative foreign policy. John Kerry was not able to argue for fundamental change in foreign policy because he was consumed by that very political fear. Obama's admonition to Democrats is much like Pope John Paul II's to the Gdansk shipyard strikers -- first, be not afraid.

***

Like Obama, his defense advisers have supplemented their American views with the perspectives of outsiders. Gen. Scott Gration, a retired Air Force jet pilot, says hello to me over the phone in Swahili. He learned about the crushing misery of the world's poor by growing up in Congo, where his parents were missionaries. After the violence following Congolese independence in 1960, Gration had an experience few Americans ever will: He became a refugee. "We lost everything we owned, and what we took with us, they confiscated," he remembers.

Sarah Sewall, a Harvard professor and another of Obama's closest advisers, also knows about stepping outside of her comfort zone. A longtime human-rights advocate with the disarmament organization, the Council for a Livable World, Sewall found herself in 2005 and 2006 with an unlikely partner: Gen. David Petraeus. He and two colleagues were rewriting the Army and Marine field manual for counterinsurgency and wanted Sewall's input on how to create a more just, humane, and successful doctrine. For agreeing to help, she was attacked by some on the left. "Should a human-rights center at the nation's most prestigious university be collaborating with the top U.S. general in Iraq in designing the counterinsurgency doctrine behind the current military surge?" Tom Hayden wrote online in The Huffington Post .

Sewall's involvement may have lost her some influence within the academic left, but she has become a hero to the military's growing circle of counterinsurgency theorist-practitioners. "Her impact on the thinking about the war and the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been significant and not without cost," says Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, one of the counterinsurgency community's luminaries. "She has shown, in my eyes, great moral courage. I think Senator Obama is listening to someone who has thought long and hard about the use of force and who understands the kinds of wars we're fighting today."

This ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. "I don't think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does," says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell . "Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking]," she says. "If you start with that, it explains why it's not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It's not a human way to live. It's graceless -- an affront to your sense of dignity."

During Bush's second term, a strange disconnect has arisen in liberal foreign-policy circles in response to the president's so-called "freedom agenda." Some liberals, like Matthew Yglesias in his book Heads In The Sand , note the insincerity of the administration's stated goal of exporting democracy. Bush, they observe, only targets for democratization countries that challenge American hegemony. Other liberal foreign-policy types, such as Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, insist the administration is sincere but too focused on elections without supporting the civil-society institutions that sustain democracy. Still others, like Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, contend that a focus on democracy in the developing world without privileging the protection of civil and political rights is a recipe for a dangerous illiberalism.

What's typically neglected in these arguments is the simple insight that democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen. Democracy, in other words, is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs. It is much harder to provide that sense of dignity than to hold an election in Baghdad or Gaza and declare oneself shocked when illiberal forces triumph. "Look at why the baddies win these elections," Power says. "It's because [populations are] living in climates of fear." U.S. policy, she continues, should be "about meeting people where they're at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That's the swamp that needs draining. If we're to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we're not [providing]."

This is why, Obama's advisers argue, national security depends in large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the U.S. will never be able to destroy al-Qaeda. Extremists will forever be able to demagogue conditions of misery, making continued U.S. involvement in asymmetric warfare an increasingly counterproductive exercise -- because killing one terrorist creates five more in his place. "It's about attacking pools of potential terrorism around the globe," Gration says. "Look at Africa, with 900 million people, half of whom are under 18. I'm concerned that unless you start creating jobs and livelihoods we will have real big problems on our hands in ten to fifteen years."

Obama sees this as more than a global charity program; it is the anvil against which he can bring down the hammer on al-Qaeda. "He took many of the [counterinsurgency] principles -- the paradoxes, like how sometimes you're less secure the more force is used -- and looked at it from a more strategic perspective," Sewall says. "His policies deal with root causes but do not misconstrue root causes as a simple fix. He recognizes that you need to pursue a parallel anti-terrorism [course] in its traditional form along with this transformed approach to foreign policy." Not for nothing has Obama received private advice or public support from experts like former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism advisers Richard Clarke and Rand Beers, and John Brennan, the first chief of the National Counterterrorism Center.

The Obama foreign-affairs brain trust balks at the suggestion that what it's proposing is radical. "He said we'd take out al-Qaeda's senior leadership in the Pakistani tribal areas if Pakistan will not. That's not, to me, a revolutionary policy," Rhodes says. "Watching him get attacked on the right is absurd. You've got guys who argued for a massive invasion and occupation of a country that had nothing to do with 9-11 criticizing him for advocating the use of highly targeted force to kill Osama bin Laden!"

Rhodes is referring, of course, to John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who recently asked of Obama, "Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan?" It's no secret that McCain, a war hero who is to the right of Bush when it comes to Iraq, hopes to make this a foreign-policy election. Conventional wisdom holds this would give him an advantage over Obama. A Feb. 28 Pew Research Center poll found 43 percent of respondents believe Obama is "not tough enough" on foreign policy. Thirty-nine percent believe Obama's foreign policy is "just right," while 47 percent say the same of McCain.

Even so, Obama's foreign-policy advisers are thrilled at the prospect of facing McCain. Had the GOP nomination gone to Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee, politicians who don't particularly care about foreign policy, an Obama victory would not provide a mandate for the sweeping foreign-affairs overhaul his campaign proposes. November's election could be, for the first time in a very long time, a choice between two radically different visions of U.S. global engagement. "We want to have this debate with John McCain," a close Obama adviser says. "[Obama] will offer this clear contrast."

Susan Rice, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration and one of the few foreign-policy-establishment luminaries to sign on with Obama, explains what's at stake: "After eight years of George Bush, when the next president puts his or her hand on the Bible to be sworn in, the U.S. is going to get one brief second look [from the world] about whether the U.S. truly learned to change from its past mistakes, recent and historic, and whether we're again the kind of America people look to lead in a constructive fashion, or whether we're hopeless. In my opinion, they'll look at McCain and decide we're trapped in our old mistakes."

Of course, it remains to be seen how voters might look at an Obama-McCain race. "The important distinction will be, does Obama come across as saying he wants to make a break with the foreign policy of the last seven years, or does it sound like he'll take foreign policy in a fundamentally different direction than that of the last twenty, thirty, fifty years?" says Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster with Peter D. Hart Associates. Americans are eager to put the Bush doctrine behind them, Molyneux says, but there's a danger that voters will see Obama as a "young guy who's less experienced but sounds like he's taking off in a new direction."

***

In his focus on the importance of dignity in our policy toward the developing world, Obama sounds quite a bit like John F. Kennedy, who knitted together an argument for engagement with the "non-aligned" world and began the tradition of development assistance as a foreign-policy goal. However, Kennedy's basic foreign policy continued along the Cold War lines that had been laid down during the Truman administration.

Democratic presidential candidates since Kennedy have either downplayed foreign policy or simply argued for more competence in its execution, with two major exceptions: George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. In the popular imagination, based on the "Come home, America" line from his nomination acceptance speech, McGovern pivoted from a striking critique of the immorality of the Vietnam War to an indictment of U.S. involvement abroad. But McGovern purposefully left this broad criticism out of most of his campaign. "I concentrated on Vietnam," McGovern says in a phone interview, "because I thought it would be difficult to sell a comprehensive rewriting of American foreign policy." Carter is a more ambiguous case. In the wake of Watergate, he made a full-spectrum argument against the Washington establishment. Rethinking foreign policy was a part of that, and his aide Hamilton Jordan remarked, "If, after the inauguration, you find Cy Vance as secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of national security, then I would say we failed." Both men, of course, received precisely those posts.

Obama is doing something braver with foreign policy than McGovern or Carter. Much, of course, could go wrong. Right-wing demagogues are already implying Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Conservatives are using Obama's argument about the inextricability of international prosperity and U.S. national security to portray him as a "post-American globalist." Jewish right-wingers in the U.S. have begun a smear campaign not just about Obama, but also about Power, as writers for Commentary and National Review have baselessly implied that she is an anti-Semite. Expect more of this for the duration of the primary season, and, if Obama wins, beyond.

If he wins in the general election, he will face a crush of foreign-policy problems so enormous that they risk overwhelming even the most competent, experienced national-security team. Iraq is, of course, a nightmare, and al-Qaeda is not just sitting still in its Pakistani safe haven. To propose rebooting U.S. foreign policy now is, to say the least, ambitious. Many military leaders consider Obama an unknown quantity. At a recent talk, Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks said that officers and soldiers serving in Iraq thought that McCain and Clinton would both pursue a foreign-policy commensurate with Bush's, but Obama left them puzzled. Once in office, Obama might feel compelled to turn his back on the critique he makes on the trail.

But while the doubts about Obama contain fair points, they also, to a certain degree, reflect a triumph of the Iraq War mind-set. Why not demand the destruction of al-Qaeda? Why not pursue the enlightened global leadership promised by liberal internationalism? Why not abandon fear? What is it we have to fear, exactly?

"He goes back to Roosevelt," Power says. "Freedom from fear and freedom from want. What if we actually offered that? What if we delivered that in the developing world? That would be a transformative agenda for us." The end of the Iraq War mind-set, it turns out, may be the beginning of America's reacquaintance with its best traditions.

Reprinted with permission from Spencer Ackerman, "The Obama Doctrine," The American Prospect, Volume 19, Number 4: March 24, 2008. The American Prospect, 2000 L Street, Suite 717, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved.

Spencer Ackerman is an associate editor at The New Republic .

 
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