Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Breaking the Commander-in-Chief Chokehold: Obama maps a strategy

Obama has pitched two perfect games in a row. His speech on foreign policy, delivered today in Fayetteville, NC, had all the conceptual clarity and layered complexity of his speech on race, delivered yesterday.

The speech accomplishes several interlocking goals. It yokes McCain and Clinton together (with Bush) as blinkered tacticians who lacked the judgment and the strategic breadth to recognize our main enemy. It delivers a series of hammer blows that lay bare the blind alley of our current course. It explains how the debate about the past frames our decisions about what we do next. It lays out a coherent strategic vision that shifts our emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan. Finally, it delves into the mindsets of masses throughout the world who regard the U.S. as an enemy and outlines how to turn those minds around.

In his critique of McCain and Clinton, Obama differentiates as well as equating the two. In Obama's telling, McCain was Bush's fellow ideologue, and Clinton was the fellow traveler who went along for political expediency:
History will catalog the reasons why we waged a war that didn't need to be fought, but two stand out. In 2002, when the fateful decisions about Iraq were made, there was a President for whom ideology overrode pragmatism, and there were too many politicians in Washington who spent too little time reading the intelligence reports, and too much time reading public opinion. The lesson of Iraq is that when we are making decisions about matters as grave as war, we need a policy rooted in reason and facts, not ideology and politics.
Make no mistake, for Obama it's McCain who's rooted in 'ideology' and Clinton in 'politics.' And it's because Hillaray went along, Obama argues, that politics as well as policy dictates that he will be the stronger candidate:
It is time to have a debate with John McCain about the future of our national security. And the way to win that debate is not to compete with John McCain over who has more experience in Washington, because that's a contest that he'll win. The way to win a debate with John McCain is not to talk, and act, and vote like him on national security, because then we all lose. The way to win that debate and to keep America safe is to offer a clear contrast, and that's what I will do when I am the nominee of the Democratic Party – because since before this war in Iraq began, I have made different judgments, I have a different vision, and I will offer a clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past
The promised "clear contrast" structures the speech. It starts with the initial decision to go to war, the point onPublish Post which Obama has largely based his claim to good judgment. But before dissecting that error, Obama pauses to rebut McCain's complaint that Obama just wants to talk about the past. How we view the decision to invade Iraq, he argues, determines how we conceive our strategy going forward:
...the judgment that matters most on Iraq – and on any decision to deploy military force – is the judgment made first. If you believe we are fighting the right war, then the problems we face are purely tactical in nature. That is what Senator McCain wants to discuss – tactics. What he and the Administration have failed to present is an overarching strategy: how the war in Iraq enhances our long-term security, or will in the future. That's why this Administration cannot answer the simple question posed by Senator John Warner in hearings last year: Are we safer because of this war? And that is why Senator McCain can argue – as he did last year – that we couldn't leave Iraq because violence was up, and then argue this year that we can't leave Iraq because violence is down.
That last bit of mockery recalls the oft-repeated point that Bush justified his tax cuts first by surplus, then by recession, then by recovery (and now McCain is justifying them by impending recession). This drives home his point that for Bush and McCain "ideology overrode pragmatism" and our policy was not (and will not be with McCain) "rooted in reason and facts."

The past is prologue for Obama because he wants to turn our foreign policy inside out. His core argument is that Afghanistan, not Iraq, is "the central front in the war on terror," and we can't win in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) unless we divert resources for Iraq. Hence the heart of his critique drives home with anaphoric hammer blows the ill effects of our inverted strategy, in ascending order of priority:

The war in Iraq has emboldened Iran, which poses the greatest challenge to American interests in the Middle East in a generation, continuing its nuclear program and threatening our ally, Israel. Instead of the new Middle East we were promised, Hamas runs Gaza, Hizbollah flags fly from the rooftops in Sadr City, and Iran is handing out money left and right in southern Lebanon.

The war in Iraq has emboldened North Korea, which built new nuclear weapons and even tested one before the Administration finally went against its own rhetoric, and pursued diplomacy.

The war in Iraq has emboldened the Taliban, which has rebuilt its strength since we took our eye off of Afghanistan.

Above all, the war in Iraq has emboldened al Qaeda, whose recruitment has jumped and whose leadership enjoys a safe-haven in Pakistan – a thousand miles from Iraq.

Having laid out the damage and brought us to the present, Obama reminds us of a reality that Kerry, to be fair, stated forcefully almost four years ago. Since then there's been a seismic shift in perception, so perhaps we're ready to hear this:

The central front in the war against terror is not Iraq, and it never was. What more could America's enemies ask for than an endless war where they recruit new followers and try out new tactics on a battlefield so far from their base of operations? That is why my presidency will shift our focus. Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This is the area where the 9/11 attacks were planned. This is where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants still hide. This is where extremism poses its greatest threat. Yet in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have pursued flawed strategies that are too distant from the needs of the people, and too timid in pursuit of our common enemies....

It is not too late to prevail in Afghanistan. But we cannot prevail until we reduce our commitment in Iraq, which will allow us to do what I called for last August – providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our efforts in Afghanistan.
The speech is packed with detailed argument over about policy specifics -- about why Iraq is likely to do better if we withdraw troops steadily (I confess to serious doubts about that), about how to regain credibility in Pakistan, how to go after al Qaeda. But there's one more piece to the large strategic sweep, and that's a vision for winning, to lapse into a tired phrase Obama avoids, the battle for hearts and minds. Just as in the speech on race Obama sketched in a couple of paragraphs the mindset of blacks embittered by discrimination and whites embittered by affirmative action, here Obama takes a swift flyover the world's interior landscape:
What lies in the heart of a child in Pakistan matters as much as the airplanes we sell her government. What's in the head of a scientist from Russia can be as lethal as a plutonium reactor in Yongbyon. What's whispered in refugee camps in Chad can be as dangerous as a dictator's bluster. These are the neglected landscapes of the 21st century, where technology and extremism empower individuals just as they give governments the ability to repress them; where the ancient divides of region and religion wash into the swift currents of globalization.
It is hard to imagine a more, er, nuanced depiction of the challenges of asymmetrical warfare. The common theme in Obama's prescriptions for the broader contest is leading by example -- by focusing aid to countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan in large part on education and welfare; by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and returning to Reagan's goal of "a world without nuclear weapons"; by restoring habeas and other civil liberties and banning torture; by doubling foreign assistance aimed at poverty and disease; by leading world efforts on global warming; and by investing in education at home to maintain our competitiveness.

There's broad consensus on some of these goals, but the strategic framework in which Obama places them raises the hope once again that the force of his words can build a working majority that will enable meaningful action on all or most of these fronts.

Related Posts:
Audacity of Obama: Embracing Wright and Grandma
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama's Metapolitics
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Truth and Transformation
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him
Obama: Man, those Clinton Kids are Something

1 comment:

  1. I've got to say, you're really good at breaking down arguments and examining all the parts.