Obama Take One: Game Changer

Democrats have been told for years they can’t seize the initiative on national security. Obama is changing all that.

It's a truism that for decades the Democratic Party has been on the defensive when it comes to foreign policy. Whether it was George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, or John Kerry, Democrats were, we're reminded again and again in the press, unable to counter the charge that they were squishes when it came to dealing with America's foes. With his speech yesterday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, however, has begun to put an end to that tradition. Obama hasn't simply launched a broadside against Bush- administration foreign policy. He's also started to make the case for reviving American power.

This is new. Rather than allowing himself to be painted as too weak to stand up to terrorism, Obama is redefining the terms of debate that have prevailed in recent decades. His most fundamental point is that the Iraq War isn't simply a sideshow, but worse than that. It's a ruinous conflict that is inimical to America's true interests. Even the surge has been met with something of a yawn by a public that discounted any progress in Iraq several years ago. Obama thus got it exactly right when he declared, "This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the twenty-first century. By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe."

By contrast, Obama correctly noted that the war in Afghanistan is, by any measure, going badly. Numerous press reports indicate that al-Qaeda is regrouping in the remote and barren tribal areas of Pakistan and that it poses a potent threat to Europe and the United States. As Bruce Hoffmann and Seth G. Jones sagely note in the latest issue of The National Interest, "If the United States wants to prevent a doomsday scenario from occurring, it needs to start making the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan a higher priority." Obama agrees. He is calling for adding as many as ten thousand troops to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces lurking on the Afghan border. Obama will have to spell out his program in coming months. It's easy enough to talk about addressing nuclear proliferation, energy dependence and global warming. But what policies will he endorse? Until recently, Obama has been longer on exhortation than on specifics. That shouldn't be surprising. But his speech today marked a decisive shift from the havering that has marked his public pronouncements in the past weeks. Obama has made it abundantly clear that there is no alternative to leaving Iraq and that he is espousing this position because it would strengthen, not weaken, the United States.

His position could not be more welcome and will force Republican candidate John McCain to sharpen his own stance. McCain has, by and large, appeared to adopt the World War IV approach to terrorism championed by many neoconservatives. But at a time of economic distress and public distaste for crusades abroad, McCain's adoption of the neocon program would spell disaster for his campaign. A fiscally crippled America is hardly in a position to continue its exorbitantly expensive efforts to shape Iraq in its own image, let alone expand the conflict to Iran by bombing its nuclear facilities. McCain should reassess.

America's difficulties have hardly gone unnoticed abroad. Indeed, in a recent appearance at the Nixon Center, Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin made several analogies to America's plight and that of the British Empire. In my view, however, Rogozin was being too mild. Were the Bush administration's policies to be continued by McCain, the United States would not resemble the British Empire. Instead, it would have numerous and unsettling parallels with the Soviet Union: contempt for human rights abroad and civil liberties at home even as it professes a universalist liberation ideology, a bloated military, a crumbling economy and a sclerotic leadership that has mired its country in feckless conflict abroad. The proposed construction of anti-ballistic missile radar sites in Eastern Europe is simply the most recent and shocking sign of a superpower glutted on its past triumphs and unable, or unwilling, to recognize that it's not only heedlessly antagonizing Russia, but also becoming a reckless spendthrift, blackmailed by its putative allies for greater funding of a chimerical project.

Will Obama change all this overnight? Maybe not. But his latest speech suggests that he, not McCain, is laying out the terrain for the foreign-policy battleground in the 2008 election. Unlike George McGovern or other Democrats from yesteryear, Obama isn't flaying America for its sins. Instead, he's appealing to its best traditions to make a fresh start. Obama' s stress on restoring America's alliances, then, could not be more timely. He's trying to make it respectable to respect America's allies and neighbors. By focusing on the future rather than the past, Obama is sidestepping the sterile and old formula that force, and force alone, is the only true measure of American might.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.