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Does Obama stand for a different foreign policy?

July 20, 2007 | Page 9

LANCE SELFA looks at a recent Foreign Affairs article by Barack Obama that puts his ideas on display.

FOR MANY who are looking forward to the end of the Bush administration, Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination has seemed to promise a major change.

He is the only top-tier candidate (apologies to supporters of Rep. Dennis Kucinich) who opposed the Iraq war from the start. Largely for this reason, he has attracted early support from antiwar voters in the same way that Howard Dean did in 2003.

But like much of Obama's candidacy so far, his antiwar message remains vague, allowing supporters to project onto him their hopes and aspirations for a post-Bush era.

Until now, that is. Obama's article, "Renewing American Leadership," the headliner in the July/August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, puts his ideas about foreign policy out for all to see.

It's well worth paying attention to this article because Foreign Affairs, published by the ultra-establishment Council on Foreign Relations, is the chief organ by which the U.S. foreign policy elite talks to itself. A Foreign Affairs article by a presidential candidate has become part of the audition for winning a nomination and the election.

For someone who is positioning himself as an antiwar candidate, the article's main theme, "renewing American leadership," is quite striking. The entire article, while reading a lot like the text of a campaign stump speech, returns continuously to this theme.

The main aim of Obama's presidency, it seems, will be to regain the leadership of the world that George Bush's reckless and dumb foreign policy has squandered. "In the wake of Iraq and Abu Ghraib, the world has lost trust in our purposes and our principles," Obama writes. "We must lead the world, by deed and by example."

There's no disputing that the U.S. is more widely hated today than before Bush took office, and Obama's message recognizes that. And it's not surprising that Obama would urge "renewing American leadership," because "leading the world" has been the overriding U.S. foreign policy aim since at least the end of the Second World War.

Therefore, those expecting new and fresh ideas in the Obama essay will have to look hard to find them.

The ideas that will sound appealing--a shift of emphasis from Europe to the newly industrializing countries like Brazil and India, a commitment to fighting global poverty, and incorporating "green" themes into traditional foreign policy debates--feel more like window dressing than the bases of a new departure in foreign policy.

Even his discussion of global poverty stems from a commitment to preventing "failed states" that would be "optimal breeding grounds" for terrorism.

"This century's threats," he writes, "are at least as dangerous as and in some ways more complex than those we have confronted in the past," including "weapons that can kill on a mass scale," "global terrorists who respond to alienation or perceived injustice with murderous nihilism," "rogue states," "rising powers," "weak states that cannot control their territory" and global warming.

Leaving aside the question of whether al-Qaeda is really the equal of Nazi Germany or thermonuclear holocaust--the last century's major threats--except for his inclusion of global warming into the list, this is the standard issue from all sectors of the political establishment, including George W. Bush.

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WHAT ABOUT Iraq, the issue that Obama uses to distinguish himself from the rest of the Democratic field? Here again, we find pretty cautious and hardly visionary leadership.

While Obama supports bringing "the Iraq war to a responsible end" and backs the Iraq Study Group's peg of March 31, 2008, for the beginning of a "phased withdrawal," these pledges are hedged with all sorts of qualifications. "This redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the Iraqi government meets the security, political and economic benchmarks to which is has committed," he writes.

Obama says "we must make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq," but, like the hawkish Rep. John Murtha, he calls for an "over-the-horizon military force in the region to protect American personnel and facilities, continue training Iraqi security forces and root out al-Qaeda." One wonders whether "no permanent bases" and "American personnel and facilities" is a distinction without a difference.

In case anyone gets the idea that Obama would be a wimp in the White House, he stresses many times that he is committed to building up and using U.S. military force. He calls for adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 to the Marines. He says "we must not rule out using military force" against Iran while convincing it to give up its nuclear program.

"We must become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale," Obama writes. "I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened."

In other words, it seems that the Bush Doctrine of endless war and unilateral intervention would not disappear under an Obama administration. It will simply be "repurposed" and given more lofty-sounding justifications.

Lest anyone think that this kind of interventionism is just campaign rhetoric, one should consider who Obama's chief foreign policy advisers (and likely authors of the Foreign Affairs article) are.

They include Anthony Lake, a one-time protégé of Henry Kissinger. As Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Lake devised the main strategy for U.S. intervention in the Balkans, including NATO bombings of Serbia and aiding Croatia's ethnic cleansing of Serbs, which ultimately led to the 1999 NATO war.

Another is Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard history professor who is a leading advocate of "humanitarian intervention" around the world. Beyond them are a number of ex-Clinton advisers, including Gregory Craig, who oversaw State Department policy planning around the expansion of NATO and the decision by the Clinton administration to endorse "regime change" in Iraq.

After nearly seven disastrous years of the Bush administration, Obama's approach will sound appealing to millions. But his Foreign Affairs article shows he is less interested in challenging the American empire than in placing it under more competent management.

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