Mr. Obama's Worldview

Saturday, April 28, 2007

BARACK OBAMA, who has been chided for failing to supplement his inspiring rhetoric as a presidential candidate with substantive stands on issues, took an important step this week toward correcting the deficiency. In a 40-minute address to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Mr. Obama described a foreign policy that centers on continued American leadership in the world and a strong defense but that sharply differs with the Bush administration on Iraq and, at least in tone, on the fight against terrorism. The speech didn't cover some important areas, leaving the Illinois senator much more to explain as the campaign progresses. For example, he said next to nothing about trade -- a glaring omission in a speech that purported to outline a foreign policy for the 21st century.

Mr. Obama nevertheless made a worthy start at something we'd like to encourage: a vigorous debate on the issues during this extended presidential primary season. So far the race has been more about fundraising targets than the challenges President Bush's successor will face. To help balance the scale (even if only slightly) we will publish a series of editorials examining the policy proposals of the Democratic and Republican candidates. They will appear intermittently and be collected online at the Ideas Primary page.

As an opening statement of Mr. Obama's philosophy, there is much that we found significant -- and encouraging -- in the Chicago speech. Acknowledging that "many Americans may find it tempting to turn inward" after the failures in Iraq and elsewhere, the senator quoted Franklin Roosevelt in saying the United States nevertheless must continue to "lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good." Mr. Obama called for a sizable increase in the size of the Army and for the reinforcement of NATO forces in Afghanistan. He said that "no president should ever hesitate to use force -- unilaterally if necessary -- to protect ourselves and our vital interests when we are attacked or imminently threatened."

Mr. Obama would not retreat from the Middle East: "Our interests are best served when people and governments from Jerusalem and Amman to Damascus and Tehran understand that America will stand with our friends, work hard to build a peaceful Middle East, and refuse to cede the future of the region to those who seek perpetual conflict and instability." Yet it's not clear how this principle can be reconciled with his plan for Iraq: Mr. Obama supports a "responsible" withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by next March. Could this be done without abandoning Iraqi friends and without ceding Iraq's future to al-Qaeda and other extremists? If so, we'd like to know how.

Many of Mr. Obama's proposals are similar to those advanced by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. He would step up efforts to secure nuclear materials and work for multilateral steps against global warming. He would support continued negotiations with North Korea and Iran while seeking to induce other nations to "ratchet up the economic pressure" on Tehran. "We must never take the military option off the table," he added. He would launch a global education program. He would double U.S. foreign aid to $50 billion by 2012. Though he didn't offer many details, he did say that "we must couple our aid with an insistent call for reform." He said he agreed with President Bush that "America's larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom."

Much of the Bush administration's usual depiction of the world after Sept. 11, 2001, is nevertheless missing from Mr. Obama's speech. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he does not use the phrase "war on terrorism." More remarkably, he doesn't mention Islam, much less Islamic extremism -- which Mr. Bush has described as a critical ideological threat to freedom inside and outside the Muslim world. Mr. Obama's advisers point out that much of the speech is directly or indirectly devoted to strategies to combat terrorists, counter their recruitment, and rescue failed or failing states. Still, Mr. Obama ought to explain more directly how he views jihadism. Is it an ideological challenge comparable to communism and fascism, as Mr. Bush contends, or merely an esoteric dogma held by bands of criminals, like the anarchism of the early 20th century? Is terrorism the central threat of the early 21st century, or, as some Democratic strategists argue, merely one of a panoply of challenges that include global warming, pandemics and the rise of China?

More than semantics are at stake. Mr. Bush has defined the era after Sept. 11 as one dominated by a "generational" struggle against extremist Islam, both by military means and through efforts to spread democracy. For the next president to set aside that policy would be akin -- at least within Mr. Bush's conception -- to a rejection, by the successors to President Harry Truman, of a U.S. foreign policy defined by the Cold War. If Mr. Obama, or the other presidential candidates, see the world very differently, now is the time to make that clear.

Click here for other editorials in the Ideas Primary series.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company