Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Obama Doctrine

Spencer Ackerman has written an important article in this month's edition of The American Prospect outlining Sen. Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy.

It is a very good summary of the differences between Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy and those of John McCain and Hillary Clinton. The whole article is worth reading. [Link]

A few of the more compelling points that stood out to me were:
When Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama met in California for the Jan. 31 debate, their back-and-forth resembled their many previous encounters, with the Democratic presidential hopefuls scrambling for the small policy yardage between them. And then Obama said something about the Iraq War that wasn't incremental at all. "I don't want to just end the war," he said, "but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place."

Until this point in the primaries, Clinton and Obama had sounded very similar on this issue. Despite their differences in the past (Obama opposed the war, while Clinton voted for it), both were calling for major troop withdrawals, with some residual force left behind to hedge against catastrophe. But Obama's concise declaration of intent at the debate upended this assumption. Clinton stumbled to find a counterargument, eventually saying her vote in October 2002 "was not authority for a pre-emptive war." Then she questioned Obama's ability to lead, saying that the Democratic nominee must have "the necessary credentials and gravitas for commander in chief."

If Clinton's response on Iraq sounds familiar, that's because it's structurally identical to the defensive crouch John Kerry assumed in 2004: Voting against the war wasn't a mistake; the mistakes were all George W. Bush's, and bringing the war to a responsible conclusion requires a wise man or woman with military credibility. In that debate, Obama offered an alternative path. Ending the war is only the first step. After we're out of Iraq, a corrosive mind-set will still be infecting the foreign-policy establishment and the body politic. That rot must be eliminated.

Obama is offering the most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we've heard from a serious presidential contender in decades. It cuts to the heart of traditional Democratic timidity. "It's time to reject the counsel that says the American people would rather have someone who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right," Obama said in a January speech. "It's time to say that we are the party that is going to be strong and right." (The Democrat who counseled that Americans wanted someone strong and wrong, not weak and right? That was Bill Clinton in 2002.)

But to understand what Obama is proposing, it's important to ask: What, exactly, is the mind-set that led to the war? What will it mean to end it? And what will take its place?

To answer these questions, I spoke at length with Obama's foreign-policy brain trust, the advisers who will craft and implement a new global strategy if he wins the nomination and the general election. They envision a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering "democracy promotion" agenda in favor of "dignity promotion," to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root. An inextricable part of that doctrine is a relentless and thorough destruction of al-Qaeda. Is this hawkish? Is this dovish? It's both and neither -- an overhaul not just of our foreign policy but of how we think about foreign policy. And it might just be the future of American global leadership.
So what does it mean to have a foreign policy focused on "dignity promotion"? Ackerman continues...
This ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. "I don't think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does," says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. "Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking]," she says. "If you start with that, it explains why it's not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It's not a human way to live. It's graceless -- an affront to your sense of dignity."

During Bush's second term, a strange disconnect has arisen in liberal foreign-policy circles in response to the president's so-called "freedom agenda." Some liberals, like Matthew Yglesias in his book Heads In The Sand, note the insincerity of the administration's stated goal of exporting democracy. Bush, they observe, only targets for democratization countries that challenge American hegemony. Other liberal foreign-policy types, such as Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, insist the administration is sincere but too focused on elections without supporting the civil-society institutions that sustain democracy. Still others, like Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, contend that a focus on democracy in the developing world without privileging the protection of civil and political rights is a recipe for a dangerous illiberalism.

What's typically neglected in these arguments is the simple insight that democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen. Democracy, in other words, is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs. It is much harder to provide that sense of dignity than to hold an election in Baghdad or Gaza and declare oneself shocked when illiberal forces triumph. "Look at why the baddies win these elections," Power says. "It's because [populations are] living in climates of fear." U.S. policy, she continues, should be "about meeting people where they're at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That's the swamp that needs draining. If we're to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we're not [providing]."

This is why, Obama's advisers argue, national security depends in large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the U.S. will never be able to destroy al-Qaeda. Extremists will forever be able to demagogue conditions of misery, making continued U.S. involvement in asymmetric warfare an increasingly counterproductive exercise -- because killing one terrorist creates five more in his place. "It's about attacking pools of potential terrorism around the globe," Gration says. "Look at Africa, with 900 million people, half of whom are under 18. I'm concerned that unless you start creating jobs and livelihoods we will have real big problems on our hands in ten to fifteen years."

Obama sees this as more than a global charity program; it is the anvil against which he can bring down the hammer on al-Qaeda. "He took many of the [counterinsurgency] principles -- the paradoxes, like how sometimes you're less secure the more force is used -- and looked at it from a more strategic perspective," Sewall says. "His policies deal with root causes but do not misconstrue root causes as a simple fix. He recognizes that you need to pursue a parallel anti-terrorism [course] in its traditional form along with this transformed approach to foreign policy." Not for nothing has Obama received private advice or public support from experts like former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism advisers Richard Clarke and Rand Beers, and John Brennan, the first chief of the National Counterterrorism Center.

The Obama foreign-affairs brain trust balks at the suggestion that what it's proposing is radical. "He said we'd take out al-Qaeda's senior leadership in the Pakistani tribal areas if Pakistan will not. That's not, to me, a revolutionary policy," Rhodes says. "Watching him get attacked on the right is absurd. You've got guys who argued for a massive invasion and occupation of a country that had nothing to do with 9-11 criticizing him for advocating the use of highly targeted force to kill Osama bin Laden!"
It would be nice if the media and political campaigns would focus more on the profound impact that such a policy of "dignity promotion" would have to transform our foreign policy.

But so far, we have not had that opportunity. Personally, I like what Obama's suggesting here and think the question of American foreign policy should be more than just who can get us out of Iraq the fastest. We need to address the fundamental problems that caused so many people (including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry) to make the wrong choice on Iraq in the first place.

As Obama said, we need to "end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place." Until we do so, we are destined to make the same mistakes again and again.

U.S. foreign policy should be more than maintaining our military strength. But instead how can we move forward to help all people and expand American prosperity around the globe (not to mention here at home too).

Finally, Democrats should not try to be Republican-lite, when it comes to foreign policy. Certainly the failures of the last 8 years have shown that those approaches don't work. We need a new direction - not a politics of fear (whether that be fear of foreign enemies or fear of conservative voters at the ballot box).


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