Saturday, August 23, 2008

Obama's foreign policy is a strength not a weakness

So Obama's running mate is to be Joe Biden, a choice widely seen as a way of shoring up a weakness on foreign policy. The thing I don't understand is why this area is seen as a chink in Obama's armour. For me, far from being a weakness one of Obama's greatest assets is foreign policy. Not because I like it more than McCain's (I do, but I have a lot of problems with it too) but because if played right Obama's Presidential qualities can really shine through.

Let's compare the candidates for a moment. When Obama tours the world he is greeting by tens of thousands in cheering crowds. Poll after poll show that if the world had a vote they would landslide Obama. The Iraq and Afghan Presidents both favour Obama's policies toward "their" countries.

Who can McCain get to turn out for him in a world he wants to bomb to smithereens? When even the current administration is looking to roll back it's troop deployments McCain's vision of perpetual conflict seems bizarre and out of touch with even his core support. McCain's message to Afghanistan and Iraq is that we'll be there as long as we please and you've got no say in the matter. Even Bush doesn't go that far.

McCain's main message on foreign policy seems to be that he was held as a POW during the American war in Vietnam. In fact, his team areso wedded to that identity of McCain
the POW that it gets wheeled out on all sorts of odd occasions - like when he's trying to get out of the gaffe he made when he forgot how many houses he has (and who doesn't occasionally forget which house they've parked their second favourite SUV?). The theme appears to be "How many people has Obama killed?" because that's the only real question when dealing with foreigners isn't it?

Personally I don't think that being kept in a cage is the ideal way to prepare someone for negotiating trade deals or achieving strategic aims with the minimum loss of life. And,as it happens, the US armed forces agree with me on this. When you compare campaign contributions by deployed soldiers, who you might assume would be McCain's natural constituency, they are donating to Obama 6 to 1 in his favour. They understand which side their bread is buttered, as does the majority of the world - but McCain's shtick of belligerence and intolerance could gain the upper hand if the Obama camp is too defensive about it.

Partly that's because the the election isn't about McCain, he's just the other guy, the one who's running against Obama - which is both a strength and a weakness for the Democrats. Whilst Obama has consistently attempted to stay away from mudslinging and focused on a positive vision of the future, McCain's camp behaves like the two old gits up in the balcony on the Muppet show, whinging, griping and demonstrating just how bitter and twisted the Republicans have become after the disastrous Bush administration.

When you compare the general approach you also get a very different flavour of what kind of President will be elected in November. Hillary may have berated Obama for saying he favoured talking to regimes like those in Cuba and Venezuela but US foreign policy in regards these two countries has been completely ineffectual, counter productive even, and certainly not intended to produce a better, more peaceful world. Before Obama's even been elected his campaign has led to the US having its first ever talks with Iran. These are small steps - but they are steps in the right direction for a change.

Take Georgia - I think it's fair to summarise the candidates' positions as McCain giving clear backing to Georgia and Obama said "Woo there, let's find a way to talk this out". To reward Georgia's aggression in South Ossetia and destabilise relations with Russia is complete incompetence. On the conflict itself I agree with Dave Osler that we should not back either side, and it seems to me that US policy in the region has to recognise that a third world war is not simply a jolly good knees up.

The government in Russia is now determined to stop cooperation with NATO and the whole affair has made the world yet more dangerous. The McCain style strategy of Bush was a contributory factor to ratcheting up the damage this affair has caused - whilst an Obama strategy could have softened the worst excesses of the wider implications of the conflict. Obama isn't weak for refusing to take sides and calling for negotiations - he recognised the reality that there was little to be done from the West, after all South Ossetia is not about us - even if some people think everything in the world is directed from Bush's office in the White House.

Let's be clear, McCain is a total dunce when it comes to foreign policy. For instance, he seems to think Iraq and Pakistan have a common border - which seems like an area of the world that any future President should really be quite well acquainted with. When we compare the candidates Obama isn't just head and shoulders above McCain he's a damn giant. Obama's campaign doesn't need Biden to bolster that reputation, they just have to be confident enough to say belligerence and willful ignorance do not work.

We have an opportunity to pull the US back from the hardest, most reactionary elements of its foreign policy and whilst it's easy to criticise Obama for not saying things that he cannot say (and get elected) the Obama Presidency represents a chance to heal the rift that exists between the US and the rest of the world. If we actually want to change the course of US foreign policy one of the things we need to do is engage with this debate and ensure the right guy wins come November.

You might also like to check out Rayyan Mirza's recent post on Obama.


MC Fanon said...

Jim, I think this is a fantastic post and you hit on a lot of key areas. Picking Biden has given me a reason to vote for Barack Obama because I desire to see a federalist Iraq. Senator Biden is a foreign policy genius and his input will facilitate the emergence of a progressive Iraqi state out of the ashes of the old, war-torn county. I highly encourage you to look into Biden's plan that passed the Senate last fall. It's genius; easily the best proposal thus far.

Obama is becoming more hawkish by the day and had he chosen any other candidate than Biden as the VP candidate, I wouldn't have dreamed of giving him my vote. Biden however, has a long history of supporting the exhaustion of diplomatic relations before engaging in military conflict.

Anonymous said...

Biden as VP is not so much about covering up for Obama's perceived "chink" in his foreign policy, but about having someone on the ticket who can help him implement that strategy, and more importantly, tear McSame to shreds in the coming debates. I think Obama needs to learn how to respond to attacks a bit better (I've got a post coming up on that topic) but Biden knows how to.

Not sure a federalist Iraq is such a great idea, but it could be inevitable. I don't see how Obama is becoming more "hawkish" by the day - his foreign policy was always mostly progressive but with a few small oddities in it, and it has not changed one iota since he launched his campaign. Maybe that comment is riffing off the oft-repeated meme "Obama is becoming more right-wing/anti-progressive everyday". I wish people would actually follow the contest rather than pick up distortions from second- and third-hand coverage from badly informed media.

Anonymous said...

Obama looks good in comparison to McCain, but don't get too excited folks.
I obviously prefer Cynthia McKinney, but at least Obama has a good chance of winning.