- In Berlin, Senator Barak Obama outdid himself and his
campaign managers with his speech at the wall. At the levels of global
issues and need for cooperativeness, the speech is a winner, at least in
a class with John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" ( I am
a Berliner ) speech in June 1963. (http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/berliner.htm)
Both Obama and Kennedy used the cold war struggle of West Berliners (a
struggle that lasted over two decades after Kennedy's death) as an object
lesson for seekers after freedom everywhere. Speaking to an outdoor audience
estimated at more than 200,000, Obama saw spread out before him the hope
of many people in the world that the next iteration of American political
leadership would be very different from the last. His strength lay in his
broad and articulate vision for the future, and that is what the crowd
loved. His weaknesses, and we must concern ourselves about them, were in
specific political and foreign policy arenas.
- In his plea for international cooperation Obama addressed
the central weakness of the Bush administration. Beginning promptly after
his election, Bush and his team sought to establish a unilateral, basically
militaristic US hegemony over the rest of the world. That has not gone
well even in the United States, but its neo-con and military-industrial
supporters remain hopeful. At best Obama seems fearful that he will be
labeled a coward or "soft on terrorism" if he moves too fast
or deliberately to call off the Bush call to arms. Here, Obama the young
but nonetheless perceptive statesman falls prey to the practical necessities
of Obama the presidential candidate.
- As he reads this situation, Obama is not a soothsayer.
In the exhausted tea leaves of recent American experience he will not find
answers to any of the hard questions: How can he protect his back on tough
issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, while demonstrating to the American
people that he will bring important changes that will assure America's
safety and improve America's posture while retrieving its image in the
world? The Berlin speech appears to contain some early and quite experimental
forays into this political swamp.
- His position on Iraq is both a little squirrely and Bushistic.
He says he would get us out of Iraq in 2010. However, he proposes what
amounts to a leisurely drawdown of combat forces, while he seems to be
prepared to keep us in Iraq militarily for an indefinite future. That is
necessary, he indicates, to help the Iraqis put their country back together
from the fractured remnants America has left it. The implicit assumption
that American troops, USAID and diplomatic personnel can do this better
than Iraqis is highly questionable.
- Frankly this squares badly with earlier promises to get
us completely out of Iraq. It collides head on with widespread Iraqi desire
for a complete American exit, sooner rather than later. It is notionally
in line with the reported views of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki
who nominally has endorsed his candidacy. But here Obama apparently is
dangling from the Bush administration hangup of how to leave Iraq without
it looking as if we lost. This part of the Obama platform, in short, requires
a great deal more work.
- No matter how he looks at it, Obama is likely to see
that Iraq is an albatross-from an American politicians viewpoint, a dead
object that is politically unsafe to unload. He has a track record of having
opposed the war, but as the American President he would have no choice
but to deal with the last stages of that war and America's disengagement
- On the other hand, he clearly sees Afghanistan as a sort
of opportunity, and here he and Bush seem to be on the same side. Obama
may think he can show he is not afraid of using America's military might
in pursuit of American objectives. Here, however, as an outspoken disciple
of international cooperation, he is proposing to continue, even to expand
an illegal war. In international law and practice, the United States had
no legal right to invade Afghanistan, and even with a host of European
allies, it has no legal right to continue making war there. How Afghanistan
and Pakistan handle the rough, mountainous, and bandit-ridden outback they
share is a problem for both of them, but it is not a problem on which American
blood and treasure should be expended. Obama needs to confront this fact.
- Obama and his political advisers may well be bogged down
in figuring out how to deal with Afghanistan and other military commitments
of the Bush administration without being accused of being soft on terrorism,
but they really need to reexamine this landscape. In his Berlin address,
- "This is the moment when we must defeat terror and
dry up the well of extremism that supports it. This threat is real and
we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it. If we could create
NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership
to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London
and Bali; in Washington and New York. If we could win a battle of ideas
against the communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims
who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope."
- Obama's choice of words leads to an inevitable judgment
that he sees world terrorism as basically a problem with Islam. His use
of the term "network" is disingenuous, because experts note that
even al Qaida is too loose to be a real network, while the great majority
of the world's dissidents are not allied with that group or any other international
"group". Since outside of Iraq and Afghanistan where the
Americans are leading illegal wars--and Palestine-where the Israelis with
American help are ethnically cleansing the Palestinian people-most of the
world's terrorism occurs in non-Muslim countries. Obama's statement therefore
was an unfortunate echo of the present administration contrivance of a
clash of civilizations.
- But Obama is not alone in failing-for some, refusing-to
see the terrorism problem as it actually is. In the hundred or more countries
(over 80% of them non-Muslim) where terrorism occurs, the absorption of
significant minorities into the mainstream of society has yet to occur.
To make that occur, those governments and their supporting elites have
the principal responsibility for opening their closed political and economic
ranks to their nation's ethnic, religious, economic and/or political minorities.
Those leaders and those elites face the common challenge of having to learn
to share with their out groups. There is little that outsiders can do about
this; yet terrorism would virtually disappear in those countries if these
problems were fixed.
- The Obama commitment to war in Afghanistan is also rooted
in fear. Bush set that Afghan agenda with his assertion that we would fight
the terrorists over there so they will not come over here. Obama knows
full well that if he did anything but "engage the enemy" in Afghanistan,
he would be accused of making Americans less safe.
- The principal illusion of this endeavor is that Osama
bin Laden, the Taliban, and the outback tribes of Pakistan are presented
as the core of world terrorism. That is simply nonsense, and the inherent
silliness of it can be cleared up instantly by consulting the published
data of the National Counterterrorism Center created by the Bush administration.
Those data indicate that in 2007 over 40% of the terrorist incidents (worldwide)
and 60% of the casualties (worldwide) occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If you add India, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Darfur (each in its own right
a persistent hotspot) to those numbers, the rest of the world is too quiet
to merit anything more than ordinary uses of police power to deal with
- In fact, a Rand Corporation study, undertaken for the
Pentagon and made public on July 31, 2008, sharply disagrees with current
Bush administration policy. It asserts essentially that the global war
on terrorism is ill-conceived, and it should be dropped in favor of "increasing
intelligence collection and partnerships with law enforcement agencies
around the world".
- Those judgments, and the terrorism data themselves, suggest
that the correct answers are (a) get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, (b) leave
resolution of the internal tribal differences in those countries to indigenous
leadership and the tribes, and (c) deal with terrorism on a case by case,
country by country basis through better intelligence collection and enhanced
law enforcement cooperation. Some UN assistance could help in both Iraq
and Afghanistan, but these are not America's wars.
- The Palestine gap in Obama's speech is both easily predictable
and inexcusably broad. Obama paid his obeisance to Israel with a call on
Jewish leadership in New York long before the campaign got off the ground
in 2006, and he reiterated that obeisance by pandering to the Israel lobby
in the AIPAC conference last month. In this he confronted, not terribly
gracefully, knowingly, or necessarily successfully, the threat that George
Washington warned about in his farewell address-a gross foreign entanglement
that may or may not be in the US interest. Apparently to be sure that no
one misread his posture, in his visit to the Middle East Obama spent roughly
32 hours in Israel and one hour in Palestine.
- Showing that he accurately-and maturely-understands the
unstable ground he treads as a presidential candidate, Obama gingerly touched
nuclear weapons policies. He told his Berlin audience: "My country
must stand with yours and with Europe in sending a direct message to Iran
that it must abandon its nuclear ambitions." But he did not suggest
that the same message should be sent to Israel to "abandon" its
nuclear arsenal, and he ended on a cautious note: "This is the moment
to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons."
That stopped well short of suggesting it was time for the United States
and the eight other nuclear weapons states to abandon their weapons and
- There was nothing in his address that was brutishly partisan.
His broad posture addressed the common struggles of humanity. And his take
on several leading US policy concerns in the Middle East was closer to
Bush positions than will make numerous Obama supporters comfortable. Thus
he managed to make the Bush decision to prohibit US diplomats from attending
the Berlin speech-on the grounds that the speech was a partisan political
event--look even more like the crass, extreme and perverse interpretation
of US law that in fact the Bush prohibition was. With the size and diversity
of the crowd, the Berlin speech was an event the US taxpayer employs diplomats
to observe and report. In a typically neo-con and politically partisan
gesture, Bush implied in effect that experienced American diplomats cannot
be trusted to report open-mindedly on events in countries where they serve.
That certainly was not the first time senior US politicians have belittled
professional US government officers, but it was certainly one of the most
flagrant. One can wonder whether Bush would have acted in this manner if
the speaker had been John McCain.
- On balance, the Obama Berlin speech was good for the
American image. It showed, for starters, that at least some leading American
politicians have a world view that is interested in and sensitive to the
views and needs of others. That speech occurred in a time of growing doubts,
both at home and abroad, about American capacity or will to lead. It signaled
a possible end to the Washington habit of bullying others into following
America's map, rather than leading by persuasion and pursuit of common
interests. At the same time, Obama left an impression that there are areas
of inertia in American policy that will require real commitment on his
part to overcome.
- The writer is the author of the recently published work,
A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist
on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US
Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman
of the Department of International Studies of the National War College
and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency
Planning. He will welcome comment at firstname.lastname@example.org