Blogs > HNN > Obama Should be a Muscular Moderate Overseas

Mar 2, 2008 6:55 pm


Obama Should be a Muscular Moderate Overseas



Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.

As the Obama Phenomenama grows, many who are not completely starry-eyed fear his foreign policy may be too starry-eyed. The 46-year-old Senator’s foreign policy can best be summarized in two words: “Leave Iraq.” Echoing the 1960s’ get-out-of-Vietnam movement, this approach risks perpetuating the delusions of the Clinton 1990s he usually rejects, ignoring the ugly realities facing post-9/11 America.

As a former community organizer, Obama cares most about domestic issues. His experience overseas is limited – beyond his oft-distorted Indonesian sojourn when young. Like most Ivy League-educated idealistic Americans, he assumes compromises can be found for every foreign conflict, while viewing “evil” as a right-wing Republican construct not a force in today’s world. And considering how high he has soared with his charisma and eloquence, he naturally assumes he can handle any world leader, one on one.

The transcripts of his recent speeches and his Obama ’08 Website indicate he and most Democrats prefer ignoring the world beyond America’s borders. He even turns most references to Iraq into a domestic critique, lamenting that the money wasted could rebuild America. Such neo-isolationism offers cheap populist applause lines not serious policy analysis. George W. Bush’s staggering budget deficits will swallow up any Iraqi war savings.

Even more sobering, Obama most frequently mentions 9/11 by complaining about using it “to scare up votes.” This posture blasts President Bush without engaging the Islamist terrorist challenge. In fact, Obama’s world rarely links the words “Islam” or “Islamist” with terrorism. In his few major foreign policy addresses during 2007 he preferred affirming the 1.3 billion Muslims’ peaceful intentions rather than tackling the challenge the rabid minority of Islamist Jihadists pose. In fairness, Hillary Clinton’s campaign also downplays the terrorist threat as an ideological challenge, mentioning “terrorists” or “extremists” without acknowledging Islam’s centrality in their identities.

By contrast, Senator John McCain emphasizes the fight against what he calls “global terrorism and Islamist extremism.” On his Website, in the section “Election 2008: What’s at Stake?” the first answer warns, in boldface: “America faces a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists.”

McCain has other flaws but he recognizes that terrorism cannot be stopped without confronting its underlying ideology. The distinction shouldn’t need emphasizing but let us be clear – no, most Muslims are not terrorists, but all Jihadist terrorists are Muslims. Ignoring that unhappy fact blinds us to the threat we face. This divide is less about personalities and more about the Republican-Democrat split following Bush’s polarizing approach to fighting terrorism. Rather than building on the national consensus forged in the fires of September 11, Bush allowed the war on terror to become a partisan flashpoint. In fairness, Democrats are also guilty, frequently allowing their hatred of Bush to blind them to the Islamist threat. “The villains are no longer the terrorists,” New York’s Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler claimed at a news conference in 2007. “The villains live in the White House.”

If elected President, Barack Obama will have to govern as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist. He will have to show that behind his fine words and high ideals lies a savvy leader who can fight Islamist terror, Iran’s nuclear-driven genocidal aims, North Korea’s saber-rattling, Venezuela’s anti-Americanism. He will have to repudiate the Clinton administration’s delusional holiday from history. He will have to learn from his hero John Kennedy, a Cold Warrior with no illusions about Soviet aggression. At his best, Kennedy understood how to export American values through programs like the Peace Corps while confronting the Soviets when they snuck missiles into Cuba. President Bush recognizes the seriousness of the Islamist threat. His historic failures to embody, elevate and export American ideals while fighting against these serious existential threats, cannot be repaired with a naïve worldview.

Presidencies are full of surprises. Campaigns churn out superficial applause lines not detailed plans candidates follow if elected. But the dangers facing America and all Western democracies, combined with his thin foreign policy resume, make it incumbent on Obama to work harder articulating a sophisticated, realistic foreign policy vision. Michelle Obama’s admission that only her husband’s success has made her proud of America, makes it even more important for Barack Obama to show he is a tough, proud, patriot, who will govern in the assertive but inspirational foreign policy tradition of liberal Democrats such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy.

Obama should deliver some speeches advocating “tough-minded diplomacy” while addressing America’s external challenges more regularly when campaigning. He should remind fellow Bush critics: “Just because the President misrepresents our enemies does not mean we do not have them.” He should reassure his fellow Americans that he knows “The terrorists are at war with us” and “the threat is real.” He must reaffirm Americans’ historic understanding that “we cannot win a war unless we maintain the high ground” and that we need not make “a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand.”

And yes, he should boldly proclaim that “Iran's President Ahmadinejad's regime is a threat to all of us,” that “when Israel is attacked, we must stand up for Israel's legitimate right to defend itself,” and that America needs “to finally end the tyranny of oil, and develop our own alternative sources of energy to drive the price of oil down.” Wouldn’t it be great, if he sprinkled some Obama rhetorical magic around, saying “We will author our own story,” rather than being defined by our enemies.

Actually, all these quotations came from speeches Obama delivered in 2007. Obama has written the right lyrics to a strong, effective foreign policy song. Will he showcase them when campaigning? And if he becomes President will he turn them from beautiful words to guiding principles, from political postures to effective policies?






comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Raymond Turney - 3/5/2008

Afraid I have to disagree.

Both the US left and the US right make a big deal about US defense spending. We spend an amount comparable to most of the rest of the world on weapons and the military.

But everyone seems to assume that we have half the world's military power. Our problems conquering Iraq, and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, suggest that we don't. Strategically, we're overextended. We're spending money we're borrowing from the Chinese, on military adventures that are not working out well. We need to cut our borrowing from the Chinese, reform defense procurement, etc. We need to back away from trying to remake the world, and get our act together.

This will annoy both conservatives and liberals. Both groups want to use our military power in support of exporting aspects of the US system. It is true that they favor different aspects of the system for export. Still, we need to stop being the Trotskyites of neoliberal capitalism.

You are right that our enemies threaten us. One of the few constants in history is that it is a threatening world. We're highly unlikely to be able to eliminate the state of being threatened. So we'll have to live with the risks of terrorism.


Raymond Turney - 3/5/2008

Afraid I have to disagree.

Both the US left and the US right make a big deal about US defense spending. We spend an amount comparable to most of the rest of the world on weapons and the military.

But everyone seems to assume that we have half the world's military power. Our problems conquering Iraq, and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, suggest that we don't. Strategically, we're overextended. We're spending money we're borrowing from the Chinese, on military adventures that are not working out well. We need to cut our borrowing from the Chinese, reform defense procurement, etc. We need to back away from trying to remake the world, and get our act together.

This will annoy both conservatives and liberals. Both groups want to use our military power in support of exporting aspects of the US system. It is true that they favor different aspects of the system for export. Still, we need to stop being the Trotskyites of neoliberal capitalism.

You are right that our enemies threaten us. One of the few constants in history is that it is a threatening world. We're highly unlikely to be able to eliminate the state of being threatened. So we'll have to live with the risks of terrorism.


Gil Troy - 3/5/2008

For the record, I'm an American citizen, and an American voter. Your "you're a Canadian" riff sounds dangerously xenophobia and unwelcoming -- especially to an academic who has lived in Canada because that's where the job was. And as for your neighbors driving those gas guzzlers - don't you yearn for a President who could make us all feel constructively guilty about our indulgences and seek to sacrifice a bit to make the world better and America safer?


Carol Hamilton - 3/3/2008

I care most about domestic issues too. For example, the bridges in the city where I live, which depends upon bridges, are all in substandard condition. One of them was recently shut down for more than a month after a sudden subsidence of the asphalt. Meanwhile, a book is coming out entitled the Three Trillion Dollar War.

You're up there in Canada, with your health care system. Your grandchildren will not be paying off that $3 trillion dollar war debt (which only gave us Americans higher gas prices and more enemies.)

Ahmadinejad is known to to be a figurehead, not the powerful leader of a "regime."

The "tyranny of oil"? My neighbors are driving Hummers, dinosaur-sized pick-up trucks, and Cadillac Escalades. They could care less.

And we hear plenty about terrorism down here in the States, thank you very much. Unlike in Britain, our local Muslims have not been attacking us, so never mind advising our candidates to invoke Islam in their speeches about terrorism.