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Q&A: Obama on Foreign Policy

Sunday, March 2, 2008 8:11 PM

Illinois senator responds to written questions submitted by the Washington Post.

Q. Do you believe democracy promotion should be a primary U.S. goal? If so, how would you achieve it? How would you balance democracy and human rights priorities against other strategic needs in the case of countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China and Russia?

A. We benefit from the expansion of democracy: Democracies are our best trading partners, our most valuable allies and the nations with which we share our deepest values.

Our greatest tool in advancing democracy is our own example. That's why I will end torture, end extraordinary rendition and indefinite detentions; restore habeas corpus; and close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

I will significantly increase funding for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other nongovernmental organizations to support civic activists in repressive societies. And I will start a new Rapid Response Fund for young democracies and post-conflict societies that will provide foreign aid, debt relief, technical assistance and investment packages that show the people of newly hopeful countries that democracy and peace deliver, and the United States stands by them.

I recognize that our security interests will sometimes necessitate that we work with regimes with which we have fundamental disagreements; yet, those interests need not and must not prevent us from lending our consistent support to those who are committed to democracy and respect for human rights.

Q. You have said that you will open talks with countries such as Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Are you willing to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran and Cuba as the logical extension of that policy, and open an embassy in Pyongyang?

A. I have said that we should consider carrots as well as sticks in our negotiations with these and other countries. Reinstatement of normal diplomatic relations is one carrot I might consider, but normalizing relations would require the countries meeting their requirements on key U.S. and international demands, which in the case of Iran, for example, would mean verifiably ending its nuclear program and its support for terrorism. On Cuba, I have made clear that I will authorize unlimited family travel and family cash remittances.

Q. You have said that as president you will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue "from the start." . . . How will you succeed where other presidents have failed? What, specifically, can you do to "insist" that good faith efforts are made? What leverage are you prepared to use?

A. The current administration has talked a good game on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, but until recently it has done very little. The Annapolis conference was a worthy, but late, effort, and already the follow-up has been lacking. As president, I will commit myself personally, and I will assign high-caliber diplomats, to be engaged with both sides on an ongoing basis -- encouraging communication, helping them develop and implement solutions, holding them accountable to their commitments by carefully monitoring and reporting on their implementation. I will also demand greater support for this process from the Arab world.

Q. You have said that within your first 100 days in office, you would give a major speech in a "major Islamic forum" in which you will "redefine our struggle." What is that redefinition? What would be the substance of that speech?

A. As president of the United States, I will directly address the people of the Muslim world to make it clear that the United States is not at war with Islam, that our enemy is al-Qaeda and its tactical and ideological affiliates, and that our struggle is shared. In this speech, I will make it clear that the United States rejects torture -- without equivocation, and will close Guantanamo. I will make it clear that the United States stands ready to support those who reject violence with closer security cooperation; an agenda of hope -- backed by increased foreign assistance -- to support justice, development and democracy in the Muslim world; and a new program of outreach to strengthen ties between the American people and people in Muslim countries. I will also make it clear that we will expect greater cooperation from Muslim countries; and that the United States will always stand for basic human rights -- including the rights of women -- and reject the scourge of anti-Semitism. Simply put, I will say that we are on the side of the aspirations of all peace-loving Muslims, and together we must build a new spirit of partnership to combat terrorists who threaten our common security.

Q. You have said you would close the military prison at Guantanamo. What would you do with the prisoners there? Would you try them in civilian courts?

A. I have been disappointed that the only conviction at Guantanamo to date has been a guilty plea of material support for terrorism -- a plea that led to a nine-month sentence. I believe that our civilian courts or our traditional system of military courts-martial can administer justice more quickly while also demonstrating our commitment to the rule of law.

Q. Your call to act on "actionable intelligence about high value terrorist targets" appears identical to current administration policy. Yet the problem seems to be less a willingness to act than the availability of "actionable intelligence." Do you advocate increasing that presence in Pakistan, regardless of whether the Pakistani government agrees? What type of increased U.S. presence would you like to see in both Pakistan and Afghanistan?

A. The problem goes beyond developing actionable intelligence. It is acting on it. The failure to focus on Afghanistan and the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] because our resources were diverted to Iraq has enabled al-Qaeda to develop a sanctuary for its core leadership, likely including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Bush administration has not acted aggressively enough to go after al-Qaeda's leadership. In 2002, their failure to use U.S. troops in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan allowed al-Qaeda's leadership to cross the border to Pakistan. The New York Times reported that in early 2005 an opportunity was missed to strike an al-Qaeda leadership meeting -- reportedly including Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to the Times, this decision, "frustrated some top intelligence officials and members of the military's secret Special Operations units, who say the United States missed a significant opportunity to try to capture senior members of Al Qaeda." Furthermore, the administration itself acknowledged that the strategy of working through Pakistani tribes to capture al-Qaeda leaders had failed.

As president, I would send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan. I would focus more Special Operations resources along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, including intelligence-gathering assets. I would condition some military assistance to Pakistan on their action in the FATA. And I would be clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not take out al-Qaeda leadership when we have actionable intelligence about their whereabouts, we will act to protect the American people. There can be no safe haven for al-Qaeda terrorists who killed thousands of Americans and threaten our homeland today.

Q. How would you balance the perhaps conflicting imperatives of taking U.S. action against presumed terrorists in the Pakistan border area and the possibility that such action could further undermine the ability of . . . the Pakistani government . . . in its own fight against domestic terrorism? You have called for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq "on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan." How, specifically, would you change current U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

A. I will deploy at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan to reinforce our counterterrorism operations and support NATO's efforts against the Taliban. I will put more of an Afghan face on security by enhancing the training and equipping of the Afghan army and police, including more Afghan soldiers in U.S. and NATO operations. I would increase our nonmilitary aid by $1 billion to fund projects at the local level that impact ordinary Afghans -- including the development of alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers. And I will put tough anti-corruption safeguards on aid, and increase international support for the rule of law across the country.

In Pakistan, I will reject the false choice between stability and democracy. In our unconditional support for [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf, we have gotten neither. I will condition elements of our aid to the Pakistani government on their actions to pursue al-Qaeda in the FATA, and their actions to fully restore democracy and the rule of law. I will increase assistance for secular education and for development of the border region so that we meet the extremists' program of hate with a program of hope. Our goal in Pakistan must not just be an ally -- it must be a democratic ally, because that will be a better ally in the fight against terrorism and that will represent a better future for the Pakistani people.

Q. In implementing your plan to immediately begin withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq and to complete the process within 16 months, what weight will you give to the counsel of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] commander, the combatant commander on the ground in Iraq and current intelligence chiefs on the ground in Iraq regarding an immediate phased withdrawal?

A. I will give their counsel great weight. But, as commander in chief, it is my responsibility to make my own assessment of the situation. We must send a clear signal to the Iraqi political leadership that we are leaving Iraq on a timeline. Doing so will put pressure on those leaders to begin to resolve the political impasse at the heart of this civil war.

But I also want to be clear about another thing. I am worried our Army is overstretched and that we have asked an awful lot from our military families. Many in our senior military leadership are worried about a plan that will keep 130,000 troops on the ground in Iraq for the foreseeable future. So, as commander in chief, I will also have to take into consideration the counsel of other senior military leaders who may be concerned that Iraq is undercutting our ability to confront other security challenges.

Q. Would you anticipate an early change in those [senior military] positions?

A. I have not begun planning for military leadership assignments. Such assignments, when I make them, will be based on performance alone.

Q. You have called for retention of a "minimal over-the-horizon force . . . to protect American personnel and facilities, continue training Iraqi security forces and root out al-Qaeda." How many troops does that involve and where would they be based?

A. The precise size of the residual force will depend on consultations with our military commanders and will depend on the circumstances on the ground, including the willingness of the Iraqi government to move toward political accommodation. But let me be clear on one thing: I will end this war, and there will be far fewer Americans in Iraq conducting a much more limited set of missions that include counterterrorism and protection of our embassy and U.S. civilians.

Q. You've said you want to strengthen the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] "so that nations that don't comply will automatically face strong international sanctions." What about those nuclear states that have refused to sign the NPT -- specifically Israel, India and Pakistan? Should they also be eligible for sanctions? If not, does that encourage countries like Iran simply to follow their example and withdraw from the treaty?

A. There's a big difference between countries that are members of the NPT and violate their obligations, and countries that have never signed up to these obligations. In the first instance, we need to enforce treaty obligations. Withdrawing from the NPT, after having violated its provisions, is contrary to international law and requires the strongest international response.

Q. Your policy on Iran calls for diplomatic engagement, and you have noted that we "haven't talked to Iran and they continue to build their nuclear program." Since you made that statement, the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] has indicated that Iran suspended its nuclear program in 2003 as a result of international pressure. Why do you think talking would be more successful?

A. The NIE makes clear that Iran responds to international pressure, and it suggests that a verifiable end to Iran's nuclear program can be reached if we use a strategy of offering both carrots and sticks. If we refuse to talk to Iran until they have met all of our conditions, then it is not likely that those conditions will be met. We have tried not talking to Iran for many years; it has not worked.

The Bush-Cheney Iran policy has by no means been successful. Iran still maintains an illicit nuclear program; still supports terrorism across the region; and still threatens Israel and denies the Holocaust. I do not believe that the United States can successfully pressure Iran by refusing to talk to them. If we engage in direct and principled diplomacy, combined with increased sanctions, we will create more opportunities to make progress, gain more support for our efforts in the international community, and we can reduce the risk of an inadvertent military escalation with Iran.

Q. The intelligence community has undergone significant reorganization over the past several years with the establishment of the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] and the Department of Homeland Security. Do you agree with the current structure? Would you replace the current heads of the intelligence agencies? Does it trouble you that virtually all of them are active duty or retired military officers?

A. I supported the intelligence reform that led to the current structure. I would improve the performance of the intelligence community in several ways. First, I have been troubled by both the politicization of intelligence in this administration, and the turnover at the top of our intelligence agencies. So I will make the Director of National Intelligence an official with a fixed term -- like the Chairman of the Federal Reserve -- to foster consistency and integrity in the office of the DNI. Second, I will make sure we go beyond reorganizing boxes on an organizational chart, so that we are strengthening our capabilities. To support information-sharing, I will pursue technology that allows us to efficiently collect and share information within and across our intelligence agencies. To prevent group-think, I will institutionalize the practice of developing competitive assessments of critical threats and strengthen our methodologies of analysis. To develop our human capacity, I will deploy additional trained operatives and train more analysts with specialized knowledge of local languages and culture. Third, I will restore the balance between the necessarily secret and the necessity of openness in a democratic society by creating a new national declassification center to set the rules of the road for declassification, and to put more information into the hands of the American people.

I will assess the leadership of each agency when I am elected president. I will look for the best person to do the job. I would seek a greater balance between military and civilian officials.

Q. You have said that your "shared security partnership program" would "forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks," and that you would provide $5 billion annually over three years to promote counterterrorism cooperation around the world. What specific infrastructure innovations would you propose? What would be different about intelligence and law enforcement relationships?

A. The U.S. is still poorly organized to assist, train and equip police forces in nations challenged by terrorism. We need to build the infrastructure within the State Department's Bureau of International Law Enforcement (INL) to deliver effective counter-terrorism training, and the shared security partnership program (SSPP) will be housed in INL.

Police and intelligence organizations in many countries still lack officers who have been trained in the tactics that have proven successful elsewhere and lack the basic equipment used in modern policing. The military frequently fills the gap and all too often relies on the blunt and counterproductive instruments of repression.

SSPP would teach police and intelligence agencies how to acquire information and disrupt terrorist operations through cooperative efforts, forensics and new technologies, rather than torture and harassment, which have proved counterproductive. The strengthened community-police relationships should aid local authorities in identifying terror cells and support groups.

INL will also work to create links between these foreign police forces and U.S. police agencies in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities that have developed these programs successfully. The two-way exchange of ideas and information at the metropolitan level, where terrorist attacks take place, will greatly aid global efforts in the fight against terrorism.

Q. The military is becoming ever more involved in state to state relations.

You, and many others, speak of the need to increase diplomatic and civilian resources and to integrate them more closely with the military as instruments of foreign policy and have called for "mobile development teams" for the military to carry out such functions. Some critics believe that the military is already too involved in diplomacy and that the image the United States presents to the world is already too identified with the armed forces. Does this concern you?

A. One of the greatest tactical failures in the occupation of Iraq was the inability to marshal the capabilities of American experts in the State Department and elsewhere to aid in the stabilization and rebuilding. Because of inadequate planning by civilian leaders, the military has been asked to carry this burden alone.

I will work with Congress to ensure that the State Department has the authorities and resources it requires to lead U.S. government efforts to prevent and respond to conflict. I will increase the size of the Foreign Service, fully fund the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization and create a new office of conflict prevention and resolution with senior ambassadors to support high-level negotiations and provide the expertise and capacity to seize opportunities or address crises as they arise. I will also build a ready reserve corps of private civilians that can participate in post-conflict, humanitarian and stabilization efforts around the globe.

At the same time, I will modernize our foreign assistance policies, tools, and operations into a restructured, empowered and streamlined USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development].

As the U.S. confronts new global challenges, greater cooperation between civilian and military agencies is essential. That is why, in my administration, the National Security Council will assert a powerful coordinating role, and a deputy national security adviser will be empowered to develop integrated strategies to build capable, democratic states and ensure policy coherence in the application of development and democracy programs as key elements of U.S. power.

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