Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Barack Obama

Let me be clear, I don't mean to spend very much time on this blog writing about the U.S. Presidential election. For one thing, it is still more than a year away, for another, this blog is meant to be about global politics writ large, not the slings and arrows of American electoral wrangling. Still, the President of the United States remains by almost any reasonable estimate the most powerful individual on Earth, thus it seems reasonable to devote a bit of space musing about how the various candidates would handle themselves in office. Barack Obama, evidently making an effort to dispel the notion that he is all fluff and no substance, recently gave a foreign policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. I must say I'm fairly impressed, though the speech does not appreciably add to his thoughts on international affairs outlined in the Senator's most recent book The Audacity of Hope. Obama seems to be, at least in rhetoric, a sensible leader in the making. Seth Weinberger gives the Senator's speech mixed reviews, in particular on Iraq and military reform, but I take serious issue with some of his criticisms:

First, there is increasing evidence that the surge is paying dividends. It's too early to claim that it's working, but it does seem to be creating the possibility of success in the future. It's clear that Congress is not going to stand up to the president's veto and try to enforce a hard withdrawal deadline. What's not so obvious is how the tune changes when a presidential candidate becomes president... Candidate Obama may want to bring the boys home, but President Obama will see that decision in a different light.

Paying dividends? Hardly. It is instructive that the first article Dr. Weinberger cites to support his case, from the Washington Post, paints a picture far more grim than positive. The one American strategy the article cites as creating some progress - that of walling off neighborhoods - has recently been roundly rejected by the local population and Iraqi government (such as it is). The grizzly details, the killings, the suicide bombings, have not appreciably slowed down, certainly not when Iraq is taken in aggregate rather than reduced to events in Baghdad. A somewhat more sobering assessment was offered recently in a Washington Post op-ed by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. A few highlights:

The problem is that for every welcome development, there is an equally or even more unwelcome development that gives lie to the claim that we are making progress. For example:

  • While violence against Iraqis is down in some Baghdad neighborhoods where we have "surged" forces, it is up dramatically in the belt ringing Baghdad. The civilian death toll increased 15 percent from February to March. Essentially, when we squeeze the water balloon in one place, it bulges somewhere else.
  • It is true that Sadr has not been seen, but he has been heard, rallying his followers with anti-American messages and encouraging his thugs to take on American troops in the south. Intelligence experts believe his militia is simply waiting out the surge.
  • Closing markets to vehicles has precluded some car bombs, but it also has prompted terrorists to change tactics and walk in with suicide vests. The road from the airport to Baghdad may be safer, but the skies above it are more lethal -- witness the ironic imposition of "no-fly zones" for our own helicopters.

The second article Weinberger cites is taken from The Weekly Standard. Enough said. The fact is, there is simply no way our military or citizenry can or will countenance a large troop presence in Iraq for years to come. The United States will be out of Iraq shortly into the next presidency, the only question is how we will leave.

I certainly don't think Obama's approach to Iraq is perfect. For one thing, while he acknowledges that a political solution is necessary in order to leave Iraq in a state of something other than genocidal anarchy, he offers no such solution. I happen to believe that a loose federal arrangement, what David Brooks has called a "soft-partition," presents the best chance for success, but irrespective of whether or not the Illinois Senator agrees, he needs to present something.

As for Obama's proposal to increase the size of our military, it is not a bad idea per se, though once again I must vehemently disagree with Dr. Weinberger's comments:

...the military doesn't just need to grow, it needs to do so smartly. The US military is clearly sufficiently large and well-equipped and trained to deal with a traditional military threat. Now, the US military needs to develop a nation-building capability. The needs of nation-building are not the same as combat, and the US needs to be capable of both.

The only reason the United States would need to transform its military into a "nation-building" institution (by which I assume Dr. Weinberger means a military capable of fighting large-scale counter-insurgencies, propping up governments, building national infrastructure at high speed, winning the trust of the local population in the context of a long occupation etc.) would be if we were planning on repeating the Iraq experience. While I strongly agree with Senator Obama that Americans must not turn inward in disgust from the Iraq experience - the world needs responsible U.S. leadership more than ever - we ought not focus on increasing our capacity to act as a nineteenth century colonial power. Our military must be able to respond to large scale conventional threats, and it must have the kind of flexibility to conduct low-level special forces operations and play advisory roles against shadowy terrorist networks (as it is currently doing with little fanfare in the Philippines), but the army's post-Vietnam decision to turn away from counter-insurgency and large-scale occupations was the right one, and it ought to be reinforced by the Mesopotamian debacle.

Overall, Obama (along with several other Democratic candidates) seems ready to revive the kind of muscular, pragmatic liberalism that the United States sorely needs to embrace in the coming years. I am impressed, though not awed, by Obama's vision. I hope elements of it make it into the White House, whoever its next occupant may be.

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