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Obama Tends Toward Mainstream on Foreign Policy

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

While he has described a residual U.S. force "over the horizon," Obama indicated in response to questions that Iraq withdrawal would not be total. "There will be far fewer Americans in Iraq conducting a much more limited set of missions," he said. "The precise size . . . will depend on consultations with our military commanders and . . . the circumstances on the ground, including the willingness of the Iraqi government to move toward political accommodation."

He would give "great weight" to the recommendations of the military, Obama said, but would "make my own assessment of the situation." Asked if he would replace uniformed leaders in the Pentagon and overseas who are closely associated with current Iraq policy, he said such assignments would be based "on performance alone." He added that he would also listen to the counsel of "other senior military leaders" known to be concerned that Iraq has overstretched the Army and undercut overall security.

Obama repeated his pledge to end the Bush administration's "politicization of intelligence" and said he would give the director of national intelligence -- who currently serves at the pleasure of the president -- a fixed term, similar to that of the Federal Reserve chairman.

In the past, he has said that he would send at least two additional U.S. combat brigades to Afghanistan. In the written responses, Obama pledged to "focus more Special Operations resources along the Afghan-Pakistan border, including intelligence-gathering assets," presumably to position them to act on terrorist intelligence if Pakistan's effort was deemed insufficient. He said he would increase nonmilitary assistance to Afghanistan by $1 billion and "condition elements of our aid to the Pakistani government on their actions to pursue al-Qaeda [and] . . . to fully restore democracy and the rule of law."

Obama said reestablishing diplomatic relations with Iran, North Korea and Cuba is "one carrot I might consider," in addition to talking to their leaders without preconditions. But normalization, he said, "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" -- President Bush's baseline for initiating talks.

Along with other Democrats, Obama has rejected all forms of torture "without equivocation" and has pledged to close the prison for alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He has said he would restore the right of habeas corpus, dismantle the special military commissions established by Bush and try the remaining detainees in regular military courts. In his written responses, however, Obama said that either "our civilian courts or our traditional system of military courts-martial" could undertake the task.

On Cuba -- where Bush tightened earlier limits on family visits and remittances -- Obama said he would lift all restrictions on both.

Obama has pledged to give a speech in a "major Islamic forum" to "redefine our struggle" against fundamentalism within his first 100 days in office. Aides have said the speech would take place in an unspecified Muslim-majority country. Asked what form the redefinition would take, Obama differed little from standard Bush rhetoric on the subject, saying he would "make it clear that the United States is not at war with Islam . . . [and] stands ready to support those who reject violence with closer security cooperation . . . [and] increased foreign assistance."

Highly critical of the administration's public diplomacy efforts, he has called for opening new U.S. consulates and cultural centers -- many of which were closed under Bush for budgetary and security reasons. In a plan reminiscent of the Peace Corps, he has said he would establish an "America's Voice Corps" of "talented young Americans" to spread a positive image overseas.

He has pledged to provide $5 billion over three years to improve international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation; double U.S. aid to develop fair and accountable law enforcement and financial systems overseas; fully fund lagging debt relief to the poorest nations; and spend $2 billion on education to counter fundamentalist Islamic madrassas in countries such as Pakistan.

Like other Democratic and Republican leaders, Obama has called for expanding the foreign service and the military, and for improving cooperation between them. He has emphasized safeguarding international nuclear stockpiles and strengthening ties with the United Nations, and has said he would start a "rapid response fund" to provide aid, debt relief and technical assistance to "newly hopeful countries."

Support for Israel

Obama's support for withdrawal from Iraq has already come under fire from McCain and his Republican allies. Another campaign flashpoint is likely to be Israel.

Postings on some conservative Internet sites suggest Obama is "anti-Israel" because of his openness to talks with Iran, and because of "anti-Semitic" statements by the pastor of his Chicago church, his associations with prominent U.S. Palestinians and his early upbringing in Indonesia, a majority Muslim country. His recent omission of Israel as one of the closest U.S. allies brought a new round of assaults.

In late January, Obama held a conference call with reporters from American Jewish and Israeli media so they could hear his commitment to Israel expressed "from the horse's mouth." He denounced what he called a "constant and virulent smear campaign . . . that I know has been particularly targeted towards the Jewish community." In statements last week, Obama suggested that some of the attacks have come indirectly from Clinton supporters.

But overall, he has reacted cautiously. The campaign has solicited statements from prominent Jewish Americans and major organizations. In carefully worded speeches to American Jewish groups, he has stressed an absolute commitment to Israeli security and played down anything remotely likely to cause controversy.

Rashid Khaliki, a prominent Palestinian who once held a Chicago fundraiser for Obama, recently decried his position on Arab-Israeli issues as "almost indistinguishable from all the other candidates."

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