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The Foreign Policy Candidate


Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) (WDCpix)

It is one of the ironies of this election year that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is likely to be the Democratic presidential nominee thanks in large part to his foreign policy — the area in which he had least experience and most vulnerabilities. The key to his campaign has been his early opposition to the war in Iraq, and his consequent ability to question the judgment of older and more experienced Democrats who had voted to authorize the use of military force.

Personalities aside, this was the distinguishing feature of the Obama campaign that made all else possible. It gave him special access to the El Dorado of today’s politics — the ability to raise $1 million and more a day in small donations over the Internet. It gave his campaign the foot soldiers and volunteers his excellent field organization required in the new mass of primary states. And it gave him the campus buzz that brought out an unprecedented youth vote.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

There have been three foreign policy issues that made some stir in the campaign, two of which defined clear differences between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). The first was on unilateral strikes inside Pakistan, the second on talking to America’s enemies.

In a speech last August on the need to focus more on counter-terrorist operations against the Taliban and on the war in Afghanistan, Obama vowed to be far more aggressive in demanding support from Pakistan and in taking military action.

“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” he declared. The other Democratic candidates characterized this as naïve and Clinton chose to interpret the phrase as a ”threat to bomb Pakistan.”

In fact, as Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) noted, this has been the unstated U.S. policy for some time, as demonstrated by the use of a Hellfire missile launched from an unmanned Predator drone in January to attack and kill a high-ranking al-Qaeda leader, Abu Laith al-Libi. According to The New York Times, Predators are now stationed as a secret CIA base inside Pakistan.

In the same speech, Obama called for a marked shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, including the lifting of travel and remittance restrictions. In an Miami Herald op-ed article, he then called for direct dialogue. He wrote that he was prepared to start bilateral talks to make it clear that the U.S. was prepared to open diplomatic relations if Cuba made clear steps toward “a democratic opening.”

Then, during a virtual debate organized by MoveOn.org, Obama stressed the need to talk to America’s enemies: “It’s absolutely critical that in concert with my proposal for a phased withdrawal from Iraq of American combat troops that we talk to the Syrians and the Iranians about playing a more constructive role in Iraq, and those who say we shouldn’t be talking to them ignore our own history. Ronald Reagan during the Cold War called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire,’ but he consistently met with the Soviet Union because he recognized power without diplomacy is a prescription for disaster. So, I think we have to have serious conversations with them.”

This, too, Clinton labeled “naïve.” She said Obama under-estimated the symbolic importance of a president’s direct involvement in diplomacy. Obama did not back down, however, and went on to hail it as something that both distinguished him from Clinton and put him “ahead of the curve” in diplomacy.

“When I first said that there were these gasps and a bunch of the pundits wrote that this was a terrible gaffe and Hillary really put him in his place and this and that. And then they were shocked when I said the same thing the next day, and a week later and two weeks later,” Obama almost gleefully told New Hampshire voters in Exeter last December.

“Now I’m glad to see, now suddenly George Bush is writing letters to Kim Jung Ill, and North Korea,” Obama said. “So maybe I’m six months or nine months ahead of the curve. And I will keep on making these arguments and maybe other folks will decide they make sense.”

The differences here are symbolic rather than substantial. Clinton and Obama would both negotiate with America’s enemies and would both be ready to explore diplomatic openings, and would both be ready as president to enter the negotiations in person should acceptable conditions be agreed in advance.

The final foreign policy issue that has made a stir in this campaign is the North American Free Trade Agreement and the impact of free trade on U.S. jobs. This has now reached the point where the alarmed Canadian government has warned that U.S. access to Canada’s oil and gas could be at risk.

Obama and Clinton have simultaneously escalated their rhetoric on NAFTA, most powerfully ahead of the Ohio primary. Both are now demanding that the agreement be re-negotiated. Both said in their last TV debate that they would “opt out” of NAFTA unless it was modified to include job protection agreements.

Despite this common position, the sparring goes on. Obama has cited Clinton’s earlier support for NAFTA, both in her book and in speeches in the 1990s. Obama did, however, vote for the 2006 Free Trade agreement with Oman, and said he would support last year’s similar agreement with Peru.

It is an open question how far this demand for NAFTA’s re-negotiation would be taken should Obama become president. In 1992, Bill Clinton as a candidate was critical of the NAFTA negotiations unless adequate labor and environmental safeguards could be guaranteed. As president, he then split his party and worked with the Republicans to enact it.

With the glaring exception of their different position on the Iraq war in 2002, the differences between Hillary Clinton and Obama are more apparent than real. And Obama has never acknowledged one important fact of Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize the use of force: Hans Blix, chairman of the U.N. inspection mission, said the vote was instrumental in re-opening the inspections in November 2002.

One issue that has not emerged directly in campaign debates but has been given some prominence in specialist media, has been the suspicion that Obama’s support of Israel is open to question. Articles in Commentary and The American Thinker have criticized the views of some of Obama’s advisers, notably Samantha Power.

Ali Abunimah, publisher of the pro-Palestinian website The Electronic Intifada, has written sadly of his meetings with Obama before his 2004 Senate campaign when he had strong sympathies for the Palestinians, and his increasingly pro-Israeli positions since. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has firmly established Obama’s pro-Israeli credentials, saying he “sounded as strong as Clinton, as supportive as Bush, as friendly as Giuliani.”

Like all of them, Obama stresses, “I do not believe that the military option should be ruled out” when it came to Iran, and “the world must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Above all, his foreign policy is rooted in the long tradition of American exceptionalism, American special destiny, American leadership and the conviction that “we must maintain the strongest, best-equipped military in the world.”

“I reject the notion that the American moment has passed,” he declared in his major foreign policy speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last April. “ I still believe that America is the last best hope on earth. We just have to show the world why this is so.”

  • Martin Walker, senior director of the Global Business Policy Council, is chief global affairs columnist for UPI, He is senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the author of “The Cold War: A History” and “Makers of the American Century.“*

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