Obama's foreign policy likely to be pragmatic, inclusive

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 7, 2008 

WASHINGTON — If he's elected president, Barack Obama promises to bring a new tone and more inclusive approach to American foreign policy, reaching out to adversaries and giving greater weight to the views of U.S. allies.

Obama, who's running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, says that in his first 100 days in office, he'd travel to a major Islamic forum to give a speech redefining the struggle against terrorism, making it clear that it isn't a crusade against Islam.

Obama also has said he's willing to hold talks — what he calls "tough-minded diplomacy" — with leaders of countries such as Iran and Cuba, with which the Bush administration has refused to negotiate.

"The lesson of the Bush years is that not talking does not work. Go down the list of countries we've ignored, and see how successful that strategy has been," he said in a speech last August.

His background as an African-American community organizer and his activities as a junior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suggest that he'd place a high priority on humanitarian issues, including HIV/AIDS and ethnic violence in Sudan's Darfur region.

The Illinois senator's foreign policy credentials and views have risen to the fore of the presidential campaign, as Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain have hammered his relative lack of foreign-policy experience.

Clinton's campaign ran an ad suggesting that Obama as president wouldn't be ready for a middle-of-the-night crisis phone call. McCain mocked him for seeming to suggest that al Qaida isn't in Iraq, a jab that overlooked the fact that the group al Qaida in Iraq didn't exist until after President Bush's invasion.

Obama's advisers strive to turn the criticism of inexperience on its head. Their candidate, they say, is unburdened by rigid ideology and carries no baggage from the Cold War or Vietnam. "Pragmatic" is the word that comes up over and over in their descriptions of his approach.

Some outsiders agree.

"It seems to me he's really receptive to good ideas no matter where they come from, including his opponent," said Michael Glennon, a professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School. Obama has signed on to several Senate bills and resolutions that Clinton co-sponsored.

Given Obama's short track record, intense interest has focused on his team of foreign policy advisers. Here, too, he's eclectic. His advisers are a mix of new faces and Democratic national-security veterans.

The latter include Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton's first national security adviser; Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs; and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.

The newcomers include Denis McDonough, an aide to former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle and the campaign's foreign-policy coordinator; and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration.

One close adviser, Harvard University professor Samantha Power, resigned from Obama's campaign Friday after telling a Scottish newspaper, in remarks she said were supposed to be off the record, that Hillary Clinton is a "monster."

Gration, a fighter pilot and veteran of the Persian Gulf war, bonded with Obama when he accompanied the senator on a trip to Africa in August 2006. Before that, Gration said, he was "a standard religious-conservative Republican kind of guy."

"Tenure is not a characteristic of leadership. Making willing followers is," he said.

Obama stepped into the national debate in October 2002 with a speech opposing war in Iraq, which began nearly six months later.

Invading Iraq without a clear rationale and international backing, he warned, would "fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaida."

"I'm not opposed to all wars," he said. "I'm opposed to dumb wars."

The war in Iraq is one of the principal policies that Obama says he'd change. He's pledged to bring all U.S. combat brigades home in 16 months, while pressing Iraq's politicians to reconcile. He's hedged, however, saying that he'd keep some troops in or near Iraq to carry out strikes on al Qaida on Iraq, and would listen to advice from his military commanders.

Obama also has said he'd shift more military resources to Afghanistan, close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and enact a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions thought to be responsible for global climate change.

On many other issues, he promises few drastic departures. He says he strongly supports Israel as part of his Middle East strategy, would place a premium on halting the spread of nuclear weapons and sees China as neither enemy nor friend.

"The similarities (in policies) are more striking than the differences," Glennon said.

It's principally in tone and style — which can be crucial in foreign affairs — that Obama promises a change from the Bush years.

Aides describe him as a multilateralist who believes in American primacy but wants to lead by example rather than hectoring.

"He's not afraid of using military force," said Danzig, a lawyer who was the Navy secretary under President Clinton. But in crises requiring humanitarian intervention, "his first instinct will be multilateral and coalitional."

Danzig traces Obama's willingness to talk to adversaries — such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — to his early experiences as a young black man whose father was from Kenya and whose mother was from Kansas.

Talking to those with different views and experiences "is rooted in his identity," Danzig said.

Despite his relative newness to the issues, Obama has a reputation for voracious interest in foreign policy.

On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "the consensus view was that he was a serious guy, who asked very good questions, who didn't talk just to hear himself," said Norm Kurz, a former Democratic committee aide.

Aides say the joke inside Obama's campaign is that the advisers who deal with foreign policy and national security have the best access to the candidate. Said Danzig: "He loves to read our stuff."


McClatchy's report on John McCain's foreign policy: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/staff/warren_strobel/story/27096.html

Obama's Oct 2, 2002, speech on the Iraq war: http://www.barackobama.com/2002/10/02/remarks_of_illinois_state_sen.php

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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