ON THE ISSUES
Obama Tends Toward Mainstream on Foreign Policy
Monday, March 3, 2008
When Sen. Barack Obama ruled out using nuclear weapons against terrorist targets during an interview last summer, several of his most experienced foreign policy advisers reacted with alarm.
The idea had never come up during their discussions or debate preparations; if it had, one adviser recently recalled, they would have told the candidate that U.S. presidents never take any options off the table. The statement was doubly problematic because only days earlier, Obama made headlines by vowing that if Pakistan "won't act" against al-Qaeda terrorists within its borders, "we will." In the space of a week, the first-term senator from Illinois was labeled both a peacenik and a war-monger.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has seized on such remarks -- along with Obama's pledge to meet with enemies such as Iran, North Korea and Cuba -- as proof that her rival for the Democratic nomination lacks the experience and judgment to lead in a dangerous world, and the two candidates engaged in a furious exchange over each other's foreign policy credentials over the weekend. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the war hero and likely Republican nominee who once dismissed Obama for misspelling "flak jacket," has also belittled his credentials, accusing him last week of making ill-informed comments about Iraq and al-Qaeda.
Far from backpedaling from his original comments on Pakistan, however, Obama incorporated the remarks into his "change" mantra and regularly uses them to highlight differences with his opponents. Their caution, he has said, stems from a "mind-set of fear . . . fear of looking weak, fear of new challenges, fear of the unknown."
Yet for all the criticisms leveled at Obama, and his own professions of being the candidate of change, most of the policies outlined in his speeches, in the briefing papers issued by his campaign and in the written answers he gave to questions submitted by The Washington Post fall well within the mainstream of Democratic and moderate Republican thinking. On a number of issues, such as the Middle East peace process, Obama advocates a continuation of Bush administration policies but promises more energetic and intense presidential involvement.
His eclectic group of senior foreign policy advisers includes former Clinton administration officials such as Anthony Lake and Susan Rice, as well as outsiders drawn to him by his unusual biography and his willingness to break with orthodoxy on what they see as "common sense" issues, including talks with Iran and the effectiveness of nuclear weapons against terrorism.
Among the most influential are Samantha Power, a Harvard professor who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration. The general, a former fighter pilot, was assigned to accompany the senator on a 2006 trip to Africa, and after retiring he changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and joined Obama's campaign.
Early last year, as Obama's formal campaign structure was being developed, these "personal" advisers, with no official standing or government experience, clashed repeatedly with the more traditional members of the team. By numerous inside accounts, the writing of Obama's first major foreign policy address, delivered in Chicago last April, was a painful process in which Lake, a former national security adviser, and other more seasoned counselors felt they were not given due deference.
"People like Sam Power are important to [Obama's] thinking, and he hadn't worked with Tony and Susan a lot," said one member of the team, who declined to discuss internal campaign deliberations on the record. While Obama's statements about nuclear weapons and attacks inside Pakistan made some of the more experienced members of the team recoil, the newcomers watched with admiration as the candidate "stuck out his chin and got hit and just kept going forward," this source said.
Obama's success since then has calmed the nerves of the old hands, even as the demands of the presidential campaign have imposed far tighter discipline on both policy and process. Although advisers such as Power and Gration retain unlimited access to Obama and have served as speechmaking surrogates in several primaries, the campaign has adopted a traditional structure to churn out position papers on a range of policy issues.
Obama declined requests for a face-to-face interview on foreign policy and national security issues, but did answer written questions and made his staff available.
Withdrawal From Iraq
Iraq has been Obama's signature foreign policy issue, although both he and Hillary Clinton have called for early U.S. withdrawal. Under Obama's plan, all combat troops would leave Iraq within 16 months of his inauguration, at a rate of one or two brigades a month. He has said he would keep some forces in the region to protect U.S. civilians, train Iraqi security forces and fight al-Qaeda, but he has not specified how many or where they would be based.