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Obama's Berlin Speech
Strong On Posture ­ Weak On Policy

Terrell E. Arnold
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 from it.
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, Obama said:
"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 terrorism.
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 nuclear ambitions.
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 wecanstopit@charter.net
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