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Obama: Part hawk, part dove

Daniel Widome

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

After months of enduring repeated accusations that he lacked policy substance, Barack Obama now faces the opposite problem. In recent weeks, as the Illinois senator has fleshed out his foreign policy agenda, he has encountered increasing criticism from across the political spectrum. Liberal bloggers suspect Obama is a closet neoconservative, while conservative pundits declare him unsuited for the presidency. He has lately been called naive, irresponsible, unpredictable, confused and reckless - among other, less diplomatic labels.

In reality, most of these attacks have little substantive basis, and they simply represent the standard political give-and-take found in all presidential campaigns. But beyond that, the attacks are rooted in a basic misunderstanding of Obama's unconventional approach to politics and policy. In essence, they reveal something fundamentally unique about Obama's political character and his worldview.

Substantively, the specific questions about Obama's foreign policy proposals are not exactly unimportant, but they are off base. In a Democratic presidential candidates debate several weeks ago, Obama expressed his willingness to meet with unfriendly foreign leaders, such as those from Iran and Venezuela. Contrary to charges of "naivete" by Sen. Hillary Clinton, he actually made no commitment or pledge to hold such meetings. Forced into a political battle by Clinton's attack, however, Obama fought back, portraying his unvarnished emphasis on diplomacy as transparent, sensible and entirely uncontroversial. Indeed, each of Obama's fellow Democratic candidates has stressed a need for greater diplomacy throughout their respective campaigns, albeit in hazier terms. Obama's position, then, was notable more for its tone than for its substance, which itself was a relevant distinction. In politics as in diplomacy, style often is substance.

In a speech outlining his anti-terrorism proposals a week later, Obama suggested that he would attack high-value al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, if that country wouldn't do so itself. This assertion was welcomed with attacks from the political left, which seemed to confuse Obama's opposition to the Iraq war with an opposition to fighting al Qaeda. On its merits, Obama's statement was hardly scandalous. The area in which Osama bin Laden is suspected of hiding - in the rough terrain bordering Afghanistan - is a veritable no-man's land, nominally part of Pakistan, but in reality beyond any state's control. For more than a decade, U.S. policy has held that al Qaeda targets in such regions were fair game for attack. President Bill Clinton launched cruise missiles against al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, and President Bush used a missile-carrying drone to destroy a vehicle carrying an al Qaeda leader in Yemen in 2002. Obama's position, then, was more sensible than revolutionary, as the subsequent concurrences of his fellow Democratic candidates only confirmed.

Finally, in a recent interview, Obama ruled out the use of nuclear weapons against al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, raising suspicions that he was somehow "weak" in his determination to defend the United States. But like Obama's other statements, the controversy surrounding this one was more contrived than useful. Al Qaeda is, by definition, a non-state actor. It does not wield any degree of territorial sovereignty, and it will never offer targets so large, so fixed, or so hardened as to justify a nuclear strike. As Obama limited his statement to al Qaeda-related targets only, his assertion had no bearing on the grisly, but necessary, deterrent role played by the U.S. nuclear arsenal against potential state-based threats. As several foreign policy experts subsequently noted, Obama's sin (if any) was one of excessive honesty, not of policy impropriety.

Even beyond the substance or the politics of these recent spats, and essential to understanding their real significance, Obama presents a fundamental challenge to the reigning political orthodoxy. This challenge is rooted in his political upbringing as a pragmatic community organizer, not as an ideological street fighter. Obama's instincts emphasize results, consensus and transparency over doctrinal loyalty, needless conflict and self-serving obfuscation. His more myopic critics deride this emphasis on pragmatism over ideology as a kind of soft bipartisanship. To be sure, compromise for its own sake - bereft of independent principle - can be as useless and damaging as ideological artifice. But this has never been Obama's political strategy. Instead, he regularly attempts to transcend the self-limiting political constructs of "left," "right" and "centrist" with an approach that emphasizes results.

These political instincts were best demonstrated in 2002, with Obama's succinct explanation of why he opposed the impending invasion of Iraq: "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." At that time - in the wake of 9/11 and before the quagmire of Iraq - political passions were uniquely inflamed. For many, the choice was stark: support the Bush administration's aggressive policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, or oppose them. Defenders of the reigning political orthodoxy portrayed these policy options as a binary choice, on opposite ends of a linear scale, with seemingly little tolerance for a position that didn't fit into their prescribed framework. Obama's position - in support of the effort in Afghanistan, but opposed to an invasion of Iraq - seems strikingly sensible today. But in 2002, it was something of a heretical view on the national stage, and it flouted the political orthodoxy ensconced in Washington.

Obama's critics, then as now, are unable to pin him down ideologically. They find themselves unwittingly confounded by his refusal to play the traditional games expected of a national political figure. The choice that Obama implicitly offers to voters is not between competing ideologies, which is the choice traditionally presented in presidential elections and was the one provided prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Rather, the choice offered by Obama is between pragmatism and ideology. Lacking the appropriate political vocabulary, and threatened by Obama's campaign success thus far, his critics mistake his unconventional thinking for naiveté, his nuance for inconsistency and his clarity for obfuscation.

Contrary to the assertions of many of his critics, the policy positions revealed by Obama in recent weeks are part-and-parcel of an entirely consistent worldview. In April, Obama delivered a comprehensive foreign policy speech that was peppered with just the kind of sensible, pragmatic and straightforward ideas that have come to define his politics. Although he reiterated his initial opposition to the Iraq war and his desire for a U.S. withdrawal from that country, he resisted the impulse from the political left for a U.S. disengagement from the world, asserting that, "the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people." Although he called for the renewal of diplomatic partnerships and alliances, he also spoke of rebuilding and expanding the U.S. military, "to protect ourselves and our vital interests when we are attacked or imminently threatened." This was all topped off by a strong emphasis on stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, a niche issue of limited visibility, but tremendous importance that Obama has quickly made his own during his brief Senate tenure.

Such a plan is very characteristic of Obama's political instincts. He has just as little patience for the principled gridlock that comes from ideological artifice as he does for the unprincipled compromise that comes from self-serving bipartisanship. In other words, Obama regularly gives ample fodder for political extremists of all stripes to both praise and criticize. Ideological purists loathe it. Many voters seem to love it.

Daniel Widome is a San Francisco-based writer and foreign policy analyst.

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