Politics & Government

Obama to McClatchy: Goals in Afghanistan should be modest

Senators Obama and Hagel ride with General Petraeus (middle) over Baghdad.
Senators Obama and Hagel ride with General Petraeus (middle) over Baghdad. SSG Lorie Jewell / US Army / MCT

In an interview with McClatchy Saturday night as he returned from his overseas trip, Sen. Barack Obama answered questions about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and other issues in his campaign against Republican Sen. John McCain.

Q: Afghanistan is something you've spoken a lot about...Take us to the next level, why, as you've said, and how, we need to put more U.S. forces into Afghanistan. To the Soviets it became a quagmire. How do you avoid that? How do you measure success? If you could give us a little more detail about what you think you'd like to do.

A: I'm not here to lay out a comprehensive military strategy. That's the job of our commanders on the ground. I can tell you what our strategic goals should be. They should be relatively modest. We shouldn't want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security. Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that I think we need more troops. I also think that we need to deal with the situation in Pakistan and the fact that terrorists are able to operate with relative freedom of movement there right now.

Q: Do you have an idea of how long it might take?

A: A lot of it depends on not only our military actions but on our diplomatic initiatives with countries like Pakistan. And it also depends on how quickly we can get the Afghan government to cut down on corruption, take seriously the problem of the narcotics trade. So there are a lot of moving parts there. You don't know until you know.

Q: Your trip caused a wide discussion among minority ethnic groups and blacks especially in France and England, about why this hasn't happened there yet (a minority with a good shot at the presidency) and whether it could. Is this something you've talked about with your friend David Lammy (the skills minister in Britain, who is black) or with other black leaders?

A: I haven't had extensive conversations... you've got a new generation of leadership in these countries that are coming to the fore. I think they're taking inspiration not just from my race but from the political progress that's being made by African Americans and Latinos in the United States and I think we should be proud that for all our problems with race there are certain things that we've done very well over the last 40 years in incorporating or helping to provide avenues for political integration.

Q: Do you think that the systems in those countries, the political structures, realistically allow minorities to rise through the ranks?

A: I'm not such an expert on it that I'd want to characterize it. I will say that a country like France, for example, the process of assimilation for immigrants has in some ways been more difficult than in the United States. Obviously they're not burdened by the history of slavery and Jim Crow. On the other hand, they have less of an immigrant tradition than the United States does.

Q: When you get home you have a vice president (running mate) to name before you head into the convention.

A: You'll get nothing out of me.

Q: How's the process going?

A: Going great.

Q: When do you think we'll know?

A: That's all you're going to get.

Q: Despite a coup for you on this trip and Sen. McCain's obvious frustration with how the coverage of this campaign has gone, the polls suggest that the race is still within the margin of error. Do you believe that that's the case, that this is still within the margin of error, and if so, why?

A: Absolutely, I think this race is close. I think it's going to stay close throughout the election. And I think the reason is that the American people know we have to change, I think they are much more aligned with my agenda. But this is a leap for them to elect somebody with my profile, who hasn't been on the national scene that long and I think they're going to take as much time as they can to take full measure of me before they make a final decision - and rightfully so. I will make one comment and that is about this notion of unfair coverage. Sen. McCain spent an awful lot of the week not presenting his own agenda but working the refs and attacking me. If he puts forward a positive agenda, he might get more coverage. It's how you use your time.

Q: Tony Blair (the former British prime minister and now a Mideast envoy) was a political rock star in England and his decision to align strongly with President Bush on the Iraq war cost him a lot of support with his own people... I want to ask you whether you take any lessons away from his experience and whether he offered any insights (during a breakfast meeting Saturday morning in London)?

A: Although constitutionally I'm prevented from serving as long as Tony Blair did, if I have the run he had, reinvigorating Britain's economy, being a major actor in promoting the interests of his country around the world, I'll feel pretty good. We had a great discussion and I've been a longtime admirer of his. And he absolutely had advice - which I'll keep to myself.

Q: An Israeli newspaper published your prayer note (tucked into the Western wall during the Jerusalem visit).

A: (To his adviser Robert Gibbs) Have we confirmed that it was my prayer note?

Gibbs: We have not and we will not.

Q: I'll try the question anyway. To what extent have you come to expect and accept that anything you do might end up in the public eye? To what extent does that shape your ability to leave a note to a higher power, eat a waffle at a shop and it (the uneaten portion) ends up on e-Bay?

A: It's not something that inhibits my behavior. So I'm not going to spend my time worrying about it. Some good advice I got when I was relatively young is that the mark of someone's character is not what you do when somebody's watching, but when nobody's watching. If I'm acting in a way that is consistent with my values and beliefs then I shouldn't have anything to worry about. Now, having said that, the fact that I can't take a walk in Berlin or a stroll in my own hometown without a press pool following me does wear on me. Not because I'm worried about any reports of what I do. My life's pretty boring at this point as you can see. But being able to slip into the anonymity of a crowd, of watching the world as opposed to be being watched, that's a profound change.