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The Pragmatic Obama
He's Shaping the Debate on Foreign Policy

By David Ignatius
Thursday, August 23, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sen. Barack Obama is getting polite applause at best when he tells the delegates at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention here this week that in running for president, "I know I am running to become commander in chief." And then he tries to convince this intensely skeptical audience that he's the right man for the job.

Obama reminds them that he opposed the war in Iraq, even though most of the delegates doubtless supported it. He lauds the soldiers fighting there even as he criticizes the Bush administration civilians who have managed the war. He says that we have "no good options in Iraq" and that the United States must be careful about how it withdraws. He warns that when a president sends soldiers to war next time, the country must be united enough to sustain the fight.

The vets certainly aren't cheering wildly when Obama is done, but to judge from the dozens who rush up to meet him, he seems to have reassured this conservative audience that he's not a left-wing devil. When a local reporter asks him if he's surprised by the "warm response" he got, Obama displays the almost eerie self-confidence that has marked his rise as a candidate.

Obama has indisputable star power. Travel with him on the campaign trail and you see the high-voltage connection he can establish with people. When he walks through a hotel lobby or jumps out of his motorcade in shirtsleeves to greet an impromptu crowd, the persona is closer to a rock star than a typical politician. And for all the loose talk about whether Obama is "black enough," I saw many dozens of African Americans here crowd around him with obvious pride and passion.

Obama is now attempting to translate this charisma into a serious political movement -- one that would allow him not simply to win the Democratic nomination but also to govern effectively as president. He is emphasizing defense and foreign policy, where voters have often not trusted Democrats to protect the country. And as he did in his speech here, he's putting more substance into his pitch than candidates often do.

Indeed, you can argue that over the past month, Obama has been shaping the foreign policy debate for the Democrats -- and getting the best of the arguments. By last Sunday's televised debate in Iowa, nobody else seemed eager to challenge Obama's postulate that "strong countries and strong presidents meet and talk with our adversaries." And there was little repetition, either, of the tut-tutting that greeted his statement that he would be prepared to go after al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan, with or without President Pervez Musharraf's blessing.

Sen. Hillary Clinton's stance has been more cautious, seeking to convey a general but vaguely defined sense that her toughness and experience would make her a strong president. Obama is taking the opposite tack.

Obama added some new (and potentially controversial) foreign policy details in an interview Tuesday afternoon, before he hopped a plane for his next stop, in New Hampshire. He said he expects there will still be U.S. troops in Iraq when the next president takes office, and he is discussing with his advisers how this residual force should be used. "For getting out in an orderly way, withdrawing one to two brigades a month is realistic," he said. With 20 combat brigades in Iraq, that would imply a withdrawal schedule of at least a year.

So what should the remaining troops do? Obama says he would support keeping U.S. forces in and around Iraq for protection of U.S. personnel there, for counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda, for protecting Iraq's borders and perhaps for continued training of Iraq's military if that country's political situation permits. He also said U.S. troops should be available to help stop any future "bloodbath" in Iraq, but only as part of a wider international effort.

And what of diplomatic contacts with America's adversaries, such as Iran? Obama said he would talk to Iranian leaders about stabilizing Iraq, where he says they have a common interest; about halting Iranian terrorist activities in Iraq; and about the Iranian nuclear program. He said he would make suspension of nuclear enrichment by Iran a topic for discussions rather than a condition for talks, as it is for the Bush administration.

Obama is deftly managing to outflank his Democratic rivals on both the left and right on key foreign policy issues. That may be a piece of political opportunism on his part, but a top Obama adviser gives it a different spin, which may reveal the essence of the man: "He is totally pragmatic. He asks what would work and what wouldn't."

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

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