The 47 year-old junior senator from Illinois emerged as a powerful figure after he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention while he was still a state legislator. A charismatic speaker whose half-African half-American heritage seem to represent the reality of multi-racial America and the future of the Democratic Party, Obama’s current ascendancy appears to reside in the fact that not only did he not approve the Iraq War but he wasn’t even a member of the Senate when the 2003 vote was called. He was elected to the Senate in 2004.
Obama is where the fantasies of the left wing and the center of the Democratic Party seem to converge. The left never wanted the war to begin with and the center wishes it had never happened this way. Obama, the untainted one, is the candidate who allows them to imagine Iraq back into never-never-land. He is not the anti-war choice as much as he is the non-Iraq candidate.
Nonetheless, the Democratic front-runner is still New York Senator Hillary Clinton, whose most obvious liability is that she voted for the war, a mark on her record that Obama has been eager to exploit. Finally, after the latest debate between the Democratic candidates, Clinton struck back, targeting the principles of her opponent’s foreign policy. In the debate, Obama welcomed the opportunity to meet with world leaders hostile to the US, and Clinton later said that this strategy “was irresponsible and frankly naïve.”
Obama, whose inexperience at the national level means he has no foreign policy credentials to speak of, justified his position by favorably comparing his willingness to engage enemies with the ethos of the current White House. “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — and this is the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.”
Here Obama is not irresponsible and naïve, but ignorant. The Bush White House does not withhold diplomacy as a form of punishment, but rather contends that engagement with radical states legitimizes and rewards outlaw behavior. The actions, for example, of Syria and Iran offer sufficient evidence to justify the White House’s rationale.
Obama may be the non-Iraq candidate, but he also seems to have been in a deep sleep the last five plus years, snoring through not only 9/11, but everything else the region has revealed about itself since then. In addition to the timeless clichés of Washington foreign policy circles — like the signal importance of the Arab-Israeli crisis and trying to separate Syria from Iran — Obama also subscribes to the innocent realism of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report. The junior senator calls for a “comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative to help broker an end to the civil war in Iraq.”
The international actors who might make a difference in Iraq — like France, Germany and Russia — have been transparently clear over the last several years they have no interest in tying themselves down in Iraq to suit US strategic goals. As for the significant regional players who could help, they have either distanced themselves from the project or have done everything in their power to subvert it. Saudi Arabia is uncomfortable being the meat squeezed between the ascendant Shia sandwich of Iran and Iraq and has no Iraq policy. And Iran and Syria obviously have no stake in a stable Iraq, or else they would not have nurtured chaos in the land of the two rivers so assiduously over the last four years. Tehran and Damascus want the US out of the Middle East and will understand any invitations to a US-led conference as a ceremony to accept Washington’s terms of surrender.
Elsewhere, Obama’s Iraq policy is being criticized not for its naiveté but rather its cynicism. In an interview with the Associated Press, Obama argued that, “preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there. If genocide,” said Obama, is “the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now … We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done. Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea.”
Obama’s all-or-nothing interventionism as an excuse to ignore a potential full-blown civil war may seem amoral to some, but it illustrates an important development in US thinking. In a long essay outlining his foreign policy positions for the July/August Foreign Affairs, “Renewing American Leadership,” Obama writes, “After thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars spent, many Americans may be tempted to turn inward and cede our leadership in world affairs. But this is a mistake we must not make.”
Even if most of the candidates who have virtually talked themselves out of contention the 2008 elections will depend very much on what the electorate thinks about Iraq. And yet as Obama’s AP interview obliquely suggests, the real consequences of Iraq will not be understood for years to come. Obama’s Foreign Affairs essay essentially argues that liberal interventionism is the right idea, even if the Bush team got it wrong. The big question looming in America’s strategic future is: What if liberal interventionism is not the right idea, no matter who’s running the show?