Obama & McCain

Barack Obama, upstart Democrat

Could we expect a wiser foreign policy agenda from a young liberal Democrat as president of the United States after January 20? Europeans seem to think it. Polls this summer showed, for instance, that Obama would win a presidency in Germany over McCain with 70% of the vote, and polls in Britain showed Obama with a five-to-one rating over McCain.

So what’s the appeal? It’s both professional and personal. Regarding the former, Obama graduated with honors from Harvard Law School (constitutional law), and he has worked (primarily in Chicago) as a business consultant, community organizer, and civil rights lawyer. He served as an Illinois state senator for seven years before being elected to the U.S. Senate, November 2, 2004. Although he has had no military service, he serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affair and the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has promised an international agenda that prioritizes initiatives such as renewed American diplomacy and strengthened partnership with Europe, presidential engagement with Iran, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by summer 2010, increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, restoring U.S. leadership on the climate change, and strengthening NATO and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.Obama became a Christian while struggling with life’s “big questions” during his college years

That he is both black and the son of Muslim, however, makes Barack Hussein Obama a double anomaly in a U.S. presidential race, one that has become personally appealing both at home and overseas. His mother, a white American from the Midwest, was an anthropologist, and his father was a Kenyan. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes that his father “had been raised a Muslim, [but] by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist.” It was his father who gave Barack his middle name, but the couple divorced when he was two. His mother married an Indonesian when Barack was six, and the family lived in Jakarta, where the young Barack “was sent first to a neighborhood Catholic school and then to a predominately Muslim school.” His mother, however, was no fan of organized religions, and his stepfather was “a man who saw religion as not particularly useful in the practical business of making one’s way in the world.” His mother was more concerned that he learn about grammar and the multiplication tables than religion, Obama writes, while noting that she did provide him with an experiential knowledge of the world’s great religions. He was sent to Honolulu to live with his grandparents when he was ten. He writes that he became a Christian while struggling with life’s “big questions” during his college years. He was baptized in the early-1990s at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

This unusual multiethnic, interfaith, and secular rearing plays well enough in the States and has not detracted from the 47-year old senator’s rock star status in Europe and the Middle East, where he was warmly received during his high-profile trip in July. But personal appeal and amped-up international stages do not a foreign policy make.Obama has been calling for “new direction” in international relations

Obama’s brain trust – 300 advisors divided into two dozen groups, each with its purview for the candidate – is sans neoconservatives. His top national security and foreign policy advisors include five figures from President Clinton’s administration: Anthony Lake, a National Security Advisor during several of Clinton’s foreign policy crises; Richard Danzig, former Navy Secretary; Susan Rice, a former Assistant Secretary of State; Gregory Craig, an aide under Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; and Sarah Sewall, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. According to Joanna Klonsky of the Council on Foreign Relations, “those advisors tend to be more independent of party orthodoxy.” It is upon advice from this crowd that candidate Obama has been calling for “new direction” in international relations and, in both substance and style, represents himself as a clear break from the Bush years.

Although his emphasis on multilateralism through reinvigorated diplomacy resonates with the desire of Europeans to see the trans-Atlantic rift healed, Obama has made clear that his foreign policy will not be a de-militarized one. During his speech in Berlin, for instance, Obama let it be known that America and Europe “cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat terrorism,” and that in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda, “the Afghan people need our troops and your troops.” And though he has promised to start talking directly with Damascus and Tehran, he talks tough about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and he has repeatedly said that he would order attacks on al Qaeda operatives along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border if intelligence was convincing.

Regarding Iran, an Obama presidency may have something going for it (and the world) that a McCain presidency cannot. What’s in a name? Evidently quite a lot, according to Iran expert Karim Sadjapour, who sees much intrigue in Iran for Obama because his middle name is Hussein, the paramount figure in Shiite history. Because of this, Sadjapour told Foreign Policy magazine, “If Obama were to win, it would be much more difficult for Iran to constantly paint the United States as this grand oppressor. [It] would tremendously change the dynamics in U.S.-Iranian relations.” But this kind of relaxing of tensions, if not an opening up of relations, would be strongly resisted, Sadjapour believes, by “a small but powerful minority [in Tehran] who survive in isolation, much like Fidel Castro in Cuba. They see Iran opening up to the world as a threat to their interests, and I’m sure they would much prefer John McCain to be president.”

On Israel and the Palestinians, Obama, like McCain, has spoken to key Jewish lobbies, promising his strong support. And although he also promises “to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a key diplomatic priority,” it will unlikely that an Obama administration, due to powerful domestic ideological constraints, would be as even-handed in ending the conflict as justice warrants. His schedule during his July trip symbolized the imbalance. During a 24-hour period, he spent just an hour with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Salam Fayyad, the prime minister. The rest of the time was spent in meetings with high-level Israeli officials, where the purpose seems to have been to leave unquestioned back home a firm commitment to Israel. “The most important idea for me to reaffirm,” Obama said, “is the historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel. [It] cannot be broken [and it will] not only continue but actually strengthen under an Obama administration.” How wise this position would be in an Obama White House seeking an equitable end for the trauma of ‘48 begs many questions.

Also, some analysts have seen in Obama more of a drift toward foreign policy realism than his liberal internationalist colleagues and supporters would like. For instance, he speaks of his “enormous sympathy” for the foreign policy of the first president Bush, and he admires people like Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Reinhold Niebuhr, “all of whom,” writes Fareed Zakaria, of Newsweek International, “were imbued with a sense of the limits of idealism and American power to transform the world.” What the world may get in an Obama presidency, Zakaria muses, is not so much the foreign policy of a typical liberal but something closer to that of a traditional realist. Perhaps. But it seems unlikely to me. I suspect it speaks more about Obama’s openness to learn wisdom from wherever he can on political compass, rather that letting himself get pinned down as a realist.

After the inauguration?

The heated public quarrel between McCain and Obama on Iran may provide the best forensics about their divergent approaches. Obama has taken to heart Moshe Dayan’s advice: “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to you friends. You talk to your enemies.” If McCain could get this piece of wisdom worked into his bloodstream, he could find any number of seasoned, high-level advisors to assist him in articulating and developing a foreign policy sans neoconservatism. If he remains a fan of the League of Democracies, however, don’t bet on it.This would be the start of an international polarization between “democracies” and “the rest.”

Obama, at least to the time of this writing, has been curiously silent about the league; but Anthony Lake was honorary co-chair of the Ikenberry and Slaughter report and co-author of its Foreword. If Obama eventually signs off on the league, then his administration, like McCain’s and perhaps many administrations to come, would by default largely run its foreign policy agenda through that paradigm. This would be the start of an international polarization between “democracies” and “the rest.” It would have potential to make the bipolar Cold War era seem sane by comparison. It would, I believe, inflame, rather than wisely seek to undo, conditions for what international relations theorist Samuel Huntington has provocatively called a looming “clash of civilizations.”

Even if Obama rejects creation of the league, a negative choice has no power to prevent his White House from making foolish decisions about U.S. international relations, and the fact remains, as it does for any U.S. president, that he will be forced time and again to conform his overseas policies to the absolutized ideological interests of American exceptionalism. How either man as president will control, or be controlled by, this controlling principle will help determine how wise or foolish his international agenda will be. And for American Christians? The crucial question will be to what faith are they ultimately responding?

Note: Since this article was written (July 2008), the first presidential debate has occurred (Sept. 26, 2008). Its primary theme was foreign policy. In the debate, McCain made a very brief comment in support of a league of democracies, but offered no backing argument. The presenter, Jim Lehrer, failed to ask Obama where he stood on such a league. Obama did not mention the league. But his response immediately after McCain’s brief mention of the league, when he said that both Russia and China were essential in helping the U.S. in the Middle East, could be taken to indicate that he (Obama) is no fan of the league. (As far as I am aware at this time, end of Sept. 2008, Obama has made no public statements about the league, per se.)

(Charles Strohmer has written about politics, religion, and international relations for the BBC and many print and web publications. He is a visiting research fellow of the Center for Public Justice and is writing a book on wisdom-based U.S.-Mideast relations. See Wisdom Project Précis.)

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