Asia-Pacific, Headlines, North America

POLITICS-US: Obama Takes Offensive in Foreign Policy Speech

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jul 15 2008 (IPS) - Setting the stage for his upcoming trips to Europe, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, Sen. Barack Obama Wednesday strongly denounced the Iraq War and re-affirmed his intention to withdraw U.S. combat troops from there by mid-2010 if he is elected president in November.

In a major foreign-policy address here, Obama repeatedly charged that the war, including President George W. Bush’s 18-month-old "Surge", had dangerously diverted the country from the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban which, he added, would be given ‘’top priority’’ under his presidency.

‘’This is a war that we have to win,’’ he declared, adding that he would send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan – where a NATO outpost was almost overrun by Taliban insurgents Sunday in an attack that claimed the lives of nine U.S. soldiers – to add to the 65,000 U.S. and NATO troops already there.

He also called for tripling non-military aid to Pakistan to support its democratic institutions but warned that he will not ‘’tolerate a terrorist sanctuary’’ along its border with Afghanistan.

‘’We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets if we have them in our sights,’’ he said in an echo of a threat he made earlier this year that provoked outrage in Pakistan.

Tuesday’s speech appeared designed both to put to rest recent suggestions by Republicans and the media that Obama was wobbling on his pledge during Democratic primaries earlier this year to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, and to go on the offensive against his Republican foe, Sen. John McCain, on key defence-related foreign-policy issues.

Indeed, Obama’s focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan as the ‘’central front in the war on terror’’ already appears to have put McCain on the defensive. McCain said Tuesday for the first time that he favoured sending three brigades to Afghanistan, and his campaign announced that he would devote a speech to the situation there Thursday.

While Obama has held a modest lead over McCain – from two percent to nine percent – in recent polls, respondents have expressed greater confidence in McCain’s national-security credentials. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday, for example, 78 percent of respondents said McCain ‘’would be a good commander in chief of the military,’’ while only 48 percent said the same about Obama.

At the same time, however, the electorate remains largely disillusioned with the war in Iraq, for which McCain has been a long-time booster. Despite the apparent success of Bush’s 17-month-old Surge – which added some 30,000 more troops to Iraq to the 140,000 already there in early 2007 – in reducing sectarian violence and U.S. casualties, around two thirds of respondents in most recent polls have said the war has not been worth the sacrifice, while only about a third agree with McCain that it has.

More of the public also agree with Obama’s argument that Afghanistan should be given a higher priority in the ‘’broader war on terrorism’’, according to the Post-ABC survey. Sixty percent of respondents said Washington could still win the war on terrorism without prevailing in Iraq, while only a third of respondents echoed McCain’s view that victory in Iraq was indispensable to winning the larger war.

On the other hand, 51 percent of respondents said victory in Afghanistan was essential, while only 42 percent disagreed.

Obama’s remarks Tuesday appeared carefully crafted not only to underline his differences with McCain on those two wars, but also to highlight other key foreign-policy concerns that, according to polling over most of the Bush administration’s tenure, have provoked both considerable anxiety among the general public and dismay at the way the administration has handled them.

Thus, Obama pledged to pursue ‘’a tough, smart and principled national security strategy – one that recognizes that we have interests not just in Baghdad, but in Kandahar and Karachi, in Tokyo and London, in Beijing and Berlin. And I will focus this strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.’’

He promised to lead a ‘’a global effort to secure all loose nuclear materials around the world’’ and repeated his pledge to pursue ‘’aggressive, principled and direct diplomacy – diplomacy backed with strong sanctions and without preconditions’’ – to ensure it does not obtain a nuclear weapon. In that connection, he commended the work of Washington’s European allies in achieving that end, adding, ‘’we should be full partners in that effort.’’

He also depicted both the U.S. ‘’addiction to oil’’ and the ‘’long-term threat from climate change’’ as a ‘’national security crisis’’ and pledged to invest 150 billion dollars over ten years to achieve ‘’true energy security’’ that is environmentally sustainable.

But he devoted most of the speech to reasserting his positions on Iraq and Afghanistan and contrasting them with McCain’s. He is expected to visit both countries later this month with two Senate colleagues, Democrat Jack Reed and Republican Chuck Hagel -, both strong critics of the Iraq War and Vietnam War veterans who will undoubtedly add credibility to Obama’s stance.

‘’What’s missing in our debate about Iraq – what has been missing since before the war began – is a discussion of the strategic consequences of Iraq and its dominance of our foreign policy,’’ he said.

‘’This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize. This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century,’’ he declared. ‘’By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.’’

While praising the Surge’s success in reducing violence, Obama rejected McCain’s argument it was a justification for sustaining an open-ended military commitment there, particularly given the failure so far of the strategy’s principal aim – to achieve national reconciliation among the various sectarian and ethnic groups.

‘’That’s why I strongly stand by my plan to end this war,’’ he said, noting that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki himself has also called for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.

‘’George Bush and John McCain don’t have a strategy for success in Iraq,’’ he said. ‘’They have a strategy for staying in Iraq… Theirs is an endless focus on tactics inside Iraq, with no consideration of our strategy to face threats beyond Iraq’s borders’’ of which ‘’the greatest’’, he said,…lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan.’’

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at

Republish | | Print |

the boys complete collection