The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

Obama Lays Out His... (Yawn) Foreign-Policy Vision


A reader writes in, pointing out that some members of the netroots were unhappy with Barack Obama’s recent big foreign-policy speech.

I’m not really surprised by it; clearly Obama is not pursuing the netroots’ support the way Edwards is. But I am a little surprised that I agree with the heart of their critique – it’s underwhelming for what was supposed to be a major address that lays out his vision on so many of the biggest issues facing the country.

Lefty Matt Stoller called it “awful” and summarized it as, “Isolationists are bad, we need a bigger military, some troops should stay in Iraq to fight Al Qaeda, and we have to deal with loose Russian nukes, pandemics, global warming, all through corporate channels. Also, 9/11 changed everything, trade agreements are complicated, Iraq was a dumb war. Oops, our bad, can we get a do-over? Kissinger told me we could.”

Even the most passionate Obama backer would have to concede there’s a lot of… “well, yeah” moments in the speech. Not bad parts, just somewhat underwhelming recitations of the obvious. For example:

In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people. When narco-trafficking and corruption threaten democracy in Latin America, it’s America’s problem too. When poor villagers in Indonesia have no choice but to send chickens to market infected with avian flu, it cannot be seen as a distant concern. When religious schools in Pakistan teach hatred to young children, our children are threatened as well. Whether it’s global terrorism or pandemic disease, dramatic climate change or the proliferation of weapons of mass annihilation, the threats we face at the dawn of the 21st century can no longer be contained by borders and boundaries.

Well, yeah. The real question is, what do you want to do about it?

Obama calls for a withdrawal from Iraq, and then concludes:

Burdened by Iraq, our lackluster diplomatic efforts leave a huge void. Our interests are best served when people and governments from Jerusalem and Amman to Damascus and Tehran understand that America will stand with our friends, work hard to build a peaceful Middle East, and refuse to cede the future of the region to those who seek perpetual conflict and instability. Such effective diplomacy cannot be done on the cheap, nor can it be warped by an ongoing occupation of Iraq. Instead, it will require patient, sustained effort, and the personal commitment of the President of the United States. That is a commitment I intend to make.

I’m getting a vibe of John Kerry, who seemed to believe that we could get greater help from our allies if we just tried harder.

At first glance, Obama’s gifts as a politician might make him a better diplomat and arm-twister on the world stage than, say, Kerry. And he wouldn’t face the visceral, knee-jerk opposition that Bush stirs up in Europeans. But there seems to be a dangerous naiveté in believing that the primary obstacle on these fronts is a lack of diplomatic effort. The primary problem is that Assad, Ahmedinijad, etc. have very different interests than we do, and they’re willing to “fight dirty” – assassinating Lebanese leaders, running guns to Hezbollah, supplying explosives to militias in Iraq, invade Iraqi waters and kidnap British soldiers, etc.

In the section on building up the military, Obama says he “strongly support[s] the expansion of our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines.” I doubt he’ll find much opposition from the right for this proposal, and I applaud him for the dog that didn’t bark, the now-standard Democratic call to “double the number of special forces”, a simple matter of finding more of the best of the best. Michael Fumento laid out how most backers of that proposal often have no idea what they’re talking about.

Anyway, Obama goes back to stating the obvious:

In order to advance our national security and our common security, we must call on the full arsenal of American power and ingenuity. To constrain rogue nations, we must use effective diplomacy and muscular alliances. To penetrate terrorist networks, we need a nimble intelligence community – with strong leadership that forces agencies to share information, and invests in the tools, technologies and human intelligence that can get the job done. To maintain our influence in the world economy, we need to get our fiscal house in order. And to weaken the hand of hostile dictators, we must free ourselves from our oil addiction. None of these expressions of power can supplant the need for a strong military. Instead, they complement our military, and help ensure that the use of force is not our sole available option.

In order to improve our health, we’ll need to eat healthy food and exercise. To get up early, we must set our alarm. In order to… Sorry, got lulled into a trance there.

Next up is securing weapons of mass destruction in Russia, a perennial that whoever is out of power claims is dangerously underfunded. My understanding is that the U.S. government has been dumping money into these programs since the Cold War ended, and that in the end, the primary obstacle is a lack of accountability among our Russian partners…

Moving along, I give Obama a half a point for recognizing the problems with international institutions… but I’m left underwhelmed by his proposed solution: we have to work hard at persuading other countries that reforming these institutions is important.

Today it’s become fashionable to disparage the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international organizations. In fact, reform of these bodies is urgently needed if they are to keep pace with the fast-moving threats we face. Such real reform will not come, however, by dismissing the value of these institutions, or by bullying other countries to ratify changes we have drafted in isolation. Real reform will come because we convince others that they too have a stake in change – that such reforms will make their world, and not just ours, more secure.

Blah. And his section on NATO is more of the same – other countries aren’t pulling their own weight in the alliance, so we have to… try hard to “rally” them.

Today, NATO’s challenge in Afghanistan has become a test case, in the words of Dick Lugar, of whether the alliance can “overcome the growing discrepancy between NATO’s expanding missions and its lagging capabilities.”

We must close this gap, rallying members to contribute troops to collective security operations, urging them to invest more in reconstruction and stabilization, streamlining decision-making processes, and giving commanders in the field more flexibility.

The section on China just leaves me cold. It’s so bland, innocuous… there’s nothing to object to, and there’s nothing resembling a sense of how Obama would achieve the goals he lays out:

And as we strengthen NATO, we should also seek to build new alliances and relationships in other regions important to our interests in the 21st century. In Asia, the emergence of an economically vibrant, more politically active China offers new opportunities for prosperity and cooperation, but also poses new challenges for the United States and our partners in the region. It is time for the United States to take a more active role here – to build on our strong bilateral relations and informal arrangements like the Six Party talks. As President, I intend to forge a more effective regional framework in Asia that will promote stability, prosperity and help us confront common transnational threats such as tracking down terrorists and responding to global health problems like avian flu.

Mm. A more active role. More effective regional framework. Stability and prosperity. All good. Terrorists and bird flu bad.

He moves on to environmentalism, calling for “a cap and trade system that will dramatically reduce our carbon emissions. And we must finally free ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil by raising our fuel standards and harnessing the power of biofuels.” Is anybody in the 2008 race going to run in opposition of biofuels?

And Obama also wants “binding and enforceable commitments to reduce emissions by the nations which pollute the most – the United States, the European Union, Russia, China, and India.” I’ll award Obama a quarter of a point for recognizing that India and China are big pieces of the puzzle, a factor some Kyoto-loving environmentalists don’t want to acknowledge, but good luck on getting those countries to restrict their own economic growth. I know, I know, that attitude isn’t very audacious or hopeful.

He calls for more foreign aid, which is mildly gutsy, since it usually polls so poorly with the public at large. I suspect certain segments of Democratic primary voters like it.

As far as foreign-policy visions go, Obama offers a plate of mashed potatoes. Nothing really objectionable in his goals, not much specifics in how he wants to get there, and the overall aftertaste is just kinda bland.

Tags: Barack Obama , Bill Richardson , Chris Dodd , Fred Thompson , Hillary Clinton , Horserace , Joe Biden , John Edwards , John McCain , Mike Huckabee , Mitt Romney , Newt Gingrich , Rudy Giuliani , Sarah Palin , Something Lighter , Tommy Thompson


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