Senator Obama's Foreign Policy Judgment

Senator Obama's foreign policy views and staff of advisers has generated a degree of controversy culminating this week with the resignation of his closest foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power, in the wake of a series of shocking comments made while on a book tour overseas. Nevertheless, problems with his policies and his team of advisers remain and promise to vex him in the days ahead.

Why we should focus on foreign policy

Presidents have vast powers in the realm of foreign policy. Congress exercises little oversight over the President's formulation and carrying out of foreign relations.  Voters prefer to see candidates with a healthy exposure to foreign affairs and with the experience of dealing with diplomatic issues because the executive role is so central to diplomacy and national security, and we live in an age of peril. Challenges in the years ahead include:
  • the return of Russian absolutism:
  • trade issues in the face of a weakening world economy;
  • problems in South America from Hugo Chavez and his allies in the region;
  • Islamic extremism around the world;
  • The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran with its long history of support for terror and its apocalyptic fever for destroying ally Israel and wreaking havoc on America.

Michael Oren recently wrote a column regarding the likelihood of an international crisis breaking out under a new President’s watch  This should not surprise anyone; new Presidents are often tested by foreign foes that want to get a measure of the new President. We voters also need to test them -- but before we pull the lever in November.

The issue of Senator Obama's experience

Some supporters note that Senator Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, implying that his pre-adolescent experience somehow vests in him the wisdom to deal with foreign policy challenges. But others -- particularly in the Hillary Clinton camp -- disagree. Her now-famous 3 A.M. phone call commercial symbolized this view: Barack Obama has not yet earned his spurs and is unprepared to the rigors of the Presidency. They have their reasons to believe so.

As an adult, Barack Obama focused his efforts in community organizing in Chicago and local and state issues when he became a member of the Illinois State Senate. Since he became a U.S. Senator, his foreign travel has been severely limited and sparse. His supporters tout his role on the Foreign Relations Committee but neglect to note that he has yet to convene a policy-oriented hearing of the Subcommittee on Europe -- which he chairs. As the New York Times notes, Senator Obama seems to have focused on his Presidential campaign rather than on the duties of his office. .

Senator Obama realizes that his lack of experience and track record are liabilities in his quest for the Presidency.  His campaign instead touts that he has superior judgment and that this judgment trumps experience. In his own words, "foreign policy is all about judgment"

This has been a signal message of his campaign, placing the question of his judgment squarely in the center of the campaign debate. Of course his claim to good judgment relies almost solely on his opposition to the launch of the Iraq War, first articulated in a speech he made in Chicago while running for the U.S. Senate.

Since that speech he has moved toward a more, shall we say, nuanced view of the Iraq war than many of his supporters would want us to appreciate. Since the initial 2002 speech his views have evolved over the years (he is the "change" candidate, after all). This is a history of change regarding the Iraq War that the campaign obscures.

But the liberal and Obama-supporting New Republic has gone back and looked, into "The Cinderella Story". His views on the Iraq War have not been quite as principled as his campaign wishes voters to believe.

Even before candidate Obama first spoke of his opposition to the war, he fretted to his political advisers regarding whether his speech opposing the war might hurt him politically . That shifting of positions to suit the political tenor of the times has continued over the years.

A timeline of Obama wavering

Here is a convenient timeline of his changing positions (in his own words):

October 2, 2002, Chicago Wearing a war is not an option pin, he thrilled the anti-war rally by disparaging the Iraq war as a "dumb war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle, but on politics." 

The Audacity of Hope   When America was obtaining clear victories on the ground in Iraq, Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope,  "I began to suspect that I might have been wrong [about the war]"

March 28, 2003, on CNN, Obama claimed that he, "Absolutely want to make sure that the troops have sufficient support to be able to win." He was invested in winning at that point.

Democratic National Convention July 2004 His only mention of the war was, "There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it." The day after his speech, Senator Obama told reporters that the United States had an "absolute obligation " to remain in Iraq long enough to make it a success. He stated that failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster and would be a betrayal of the promise that we made to the Iraqi people, and it would be hugely destabilizing from a national security perspective".  (This history is beginning to get more attention -- see below).

Same month  He was no longer certain how he would have voted. "I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports. What would I have done? I don't know." (The New York Times on July 26.)

2004 election  To keep in line with his party's candidates Kerry and Edwards, who had voted for the Iraq War, he told The New York Times, "I'm always careful to say that I was not in the Senate, so perhaps the reason I thought [the war] was such a bad idea was that I didn't have the benefit of U.S. intelligence,"

After the election  Obama regained his certainty on the Charlie Rose Show. When Rose asked him if he would have voted against the Iraq War resolution had he been in Congress, Obama's answer was a simple, "Yes." 

July 2004  Obama told the Chicago Tribune "[t] here's not that much difference between my position [on the war] and George Bush's position at this stage." 

As for the troop withdrawal,

November 2005 speech    He called for a gradual withdrawal of forces. "Notice that I say 'reduce,' and not 'fully withdraw'"

December 2005   He told the Chicago Tribune, "It is arguable that the best politics going into '06 would be a clear, succinct message: 'Let's bring our troops home...But whether that's the best policy right now, I don't feel comfortable saying it is."

January 2007 (just before announcing his run for the Presidency), for example, he outlined a plan to begin "redeployment of U.S. forces no later than May 1, 2007" and "remove all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008."

Today, he vows to "immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq."

The AP reported it this way in July 2007:

"Presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn't a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there." .

Obama and obligations

The following is a statement startling in its implications, and gives us insight into Barack Obama's reliability.  In 2004, according to the Boston Globe, he stated:

...that the United States had an "absolute obligation " to remain in Iraq long enough to make it a success. He stated that failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster and would be a betrayal of the promise that we made to the Iraqi people, and it would be hugely destabilizing from a national security perspective.

That was a commitment to the Iraqi people -- an "absolute" promise that we would hold paramount our obligation to provide them security, to protect them from the ravages that would flow from a failed state. Yet a mere three years later he was ready to throw them to the wolves, genocide be damned.

This willingness of Senator Obama to turn his back on something he proclaimed an "absolute obligation" should be particular concern to the millions of supporters of Israel in America. When campaigning, Senator Obama has made similar promises regarding the safety and security of Israel? How long will those promises last? Until January, 2009?

Relying on Rockefeller

On March 2, 2008 in Ohio, Obama blasted Hillary Clinton for her vote authorizing the war. Obama criticized Clinton for failing to read the classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons capabilities. "She didn't give diplomacy a chance. And to this day, she won't even admit that her vote was a mistake -- or even that it was a vote for war."

He said that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (who is supporting Obama's campaign) had read the intelligence estimate as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and had voted against the war resolution.  Obama concluded that a careful reading of the NIE Report would have resulted in a vote against the war.

Unfortunately for Senator Obama, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, after careful reading of the Intelligence information, voted for the war.

Both the New York Times and its sister publication the Boston Globe have begun questioning Barack Obama's shifting positions on the Iraq War. The New York Times wrote this last weekend:

"He was cautious (during his early days in the Senate) - even on the Iraq war, which he had opposed as a Senate candidate, he voted against the withdrawal of troops. He proposed a drawdown only after he was running for president and polls showed voters favoring it."  [emphasis added] 

(Is the suspension of disbelief, the credulity, that has powered the media lover affair with Barack Obama, coming to an end? Will the seeming opportunism behind Senator Obama's shifting stances on the Iraq War take some of the shine of his ascent? John McCain in the general election will use some version of this timeline of "change" for his talking points should he face Barack Obama in the general election. These issues go to Senator Obama's resoluteness, principles, and judgment.)

Obama's Judgment on the war

Candidate Obama's initial opposition in the war did not necessarily show independence or wisdom. Opposition to the war was quite widespread among those on the left-end of the political spectrum, where Senator Obama has made his home for years. He was judged judged by the National Journal to be the most liberal member of the Senate .

He himself admitted that he might have considered his position differently had he been a Senator and had access to the information supplied to other Senators that led them to vote to give President Bush the authority to go to war. In any case, ever since his 2002 speech about Iraq, his views have shifted with the political winds. In light of this, as William Katz has observed in his fine blog Urgent Agenda, this is not judgment -- it was guesswork.

Here is but a sample of other pronouncements of Senator Obama that should give one pause come November and that bear on the issue of his judgment:

He disparaged Senator Clinton as the Senator from Punjab (thereby alienating a key ally and the largest democracy in the world-India).  He later apologized, but damage had been done.

When criticized by Hillary Clinton for naiveté regarding the need for a President to be forceful, his knee-jerk response was not to dispute the charge but to strike out instead at an ally. He stated that he would be willing to bomb Pakistani Al Qaeda targets with or without the approval of Pakistan, another key-if frustrating-ally in our anti-terrorism efforts.  He thus managed to accomplish a rare feat in the annals of America's dealing with South Asia: he alienated both India and Pakistan.

He has called for withdrawal from Iraq within 18 months, thereby empowering radicals within the region and emboldening Iran; he has said that he would strike Al Qaeda targets in Iraq if Al Qaeda became established there. Of course, he was widely criticized for failing to recognize that Al Qaeda was already in Iraq!  Leaving Iraq in haste will erode any support we have from moderate Arab nations, who will fall into the deadly embrace of the newest hegemon -- Iran.

As noted above, genocide might very well result from our departure -- a prospect that Senator Obama recognizes but one that will not influence him (paradoxically, he has called for American troops to be inserted into Darfur to prevent a genocide there-wouldn't the world blame us for leaving Iraq and in doing so precipitating a genocide there?).

To add yet another twist to the ever evolving Iraq War narrative, his top foreign policy adviser (until she left in the wake of a series of comments that embarrassed the campaign) Samantha Power admitted in an interview that a President Obama may very well not keep the commitments regarding withdrawing from Iraq made by Senator Obama on while campaigning. Similar to the promises made regarding reopening NAFTA, such campaign promises are political "vaporware" -- never meant to be enacted but nevertheless damaging to our international standing.

He opposed the surge that has been dramatically successful in the last year in improving security, reducing casualties, and damaging Al Qaeda in Iraq. Similar to some other Democratic leaders, he has struggled to deny or deal with this success. Senator Obama certainly had a creative take. He claimed that the reduction in violence was not due to the valor and sacrifice of our soldiers but to the success of Democrats in the mid-term elections ! This is certainly appropriate for a man who gladly accepts the endorsement of MoveOn.Org; a group that viciously slurred General Petraeus, the architect of the surge (and one our most decorated soldiers), as General Betray us.

He has stated that leaving Iraq will give us more power to influence Iran -- but his reasoning remains opaque on why this would be so. Some might remark that having troops on both sides of Iran (Afghanistan and Iraq) gives us more influence over Iran. He has stated that he believes that our "occupation" of Iraq has led to attacks from the Iranians -- which seems to absolve them of responsibility.

He was absent when his fellows Senators voted by overwhelming margins (across party lines) to designate the Iran Revolutionary Guards (IRG) as a terror group, and then he criticized other Senators for voting to so designate them. This is telling: it is common knowledge that the IRG is a terror group-responsible for the deaths of many innocent civilians around the world. Designating the IRG as a terror group was an important step in helping to weaken them -- permitting a range of sanctions to be applied against this group.


He has opposed a series of trade agreements with a number of key allies:

South Korea (which faces, lest we forget, the dictatorial and nuclear-arming North Korea) ,

Columbia (a solid ally facing terrorism sponsored by the anti-American leader of neighboring Venezuela -Hugo Chavez and his Marxist anti-American ally -Ecuadorian leader Evo Morales). This is not a good message: we will not help friends who are battling terror.

Canada and Mexico Senator Obama also has called for renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, thereby alienating our two key trading neighbors and sending a message to our allies that America is an unreliable partner (almost a trillion dollars of trade is transacted between America and Mexico and Canada).  As is now widely known, his key economic adviser Austan Goolsbee was reported to have told the Canadians this was just campaign pander. For a politician who promises to tell voters "not what they want to hear but the truths they need to hear" this is a jarring degree of hypocrisy.

Senator Obama is sending an even more problematic message to our allies and neighbors. This sequence of events can hardly be reassuring to those nations. Leaders of foreign nations have reacted harshly to calls for changing our trading policies (see, for example, the Danish Prime Minister's comments regarding trade proposals by Senators Clinton and Obama  )

Obama and Muslim Regimes

Senator Obama has stated that one of his first acts should he assume the Presidency would be to call for and attend a summit of Muslim nations to listen to their concerns. One of these concerns will of course be the support we extend to the only democracy and true ally we have in the Middle East-Israel. As Paul Mirengoff observes on  Powerline, either President Obama caves on Israel or he refuses demands to pressure Israel -- thereby frustrating and alienating the very Muslim nations he has reached out to in hopes of improving relations. In other words, President Obama will have boxed himself in very early in his presidency.

His calls for meeting with Iran and Syria sends a message: the President of the United States is ready to engage with a regime that has ruined Lebanon and to shake hands with the Holocaust-denying president of a regime that threatens and boasts of its plans to commit a second Holocaust. He seemingly is prepared to ignore UN Security Resolutions that require Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment program as a precondition for talks at the highest level. By refusing to place any conditions on these meetings, he is left with no chance to extract any concessions beforehand. Michael Gerson's "Obama's First 100 Days" portrays the Pandora's Box of horrors that would arise from this meeting:

The New York Post runs a front-page picture of the Obama-Ahmadinejad handshake under the headline "Surrender Summit!" The story notes another of Obama's historic firsts: the first American president to meet with a Holocaust denier. The Israeli prime minister publicly asks, "Why is the American president meeting with a leader who calls us 'filthy bacteria' and threatens to wipe us 'off the map?'" Tens of thousands protest in Tel Aviv, carrying signs reading "Chamberlain Lives!"

America's moderate Arab allies in the region also feel betrayed, assuming that America is cutting a bilateral deal with Iran that accepts its nuclear ambitions, while leaving the Sunni powers out in the cold. The Egyptian press notes that President Obama's motorcade in Tehran passed near a street named in honor of Khaled al-Islambouli, the assassin of President Anwar Sadat.

A President Obama's engagement with these regimes will have a demoralizing effect on Muslim reformers throughout the region; he would implicitly be granting respectability to these dictatorships and undermine reform efforts throughout the region.

Anti-terror measures

Barack Obama would close Guantanamo Bay, a unique and irreplaceable asset of the United Sates that gives our nation flexibility in dealing with terrorists and terror suspects. He would also grant a wide range of legal protections to terror suspects (even if they are not American citizens) that would make prosecutions far more arduous.

Senator Obama voted against extending immunity to telecom companies who abide by government requests to turn over intelligence involving suspect terrorists -- a vote to hinder the gathering of intelligence. His own intelligence adviser disagrees with him and publicly stated so (there go those advisers again)  as did the majority of the Senate, including many members of his own party .

He has stated when he appeared before pro-Israel groups that he will not talk to Hamas. He stated on the campaign trail "You can't negotiate with somebody who does not recognize the right of a country to exist so I understand why Israel doesn't meet with Hamas" and he has ruled out talks himself with Hamas 

But there is a logical conundrum: how can he agree to talk with Iran and not Hamas and Hezb'allah? After all, all three advocate and plan for the destruction of Israel and Iran is a prime sponsor of Hamas and Hezb'allah. How long will this logical inconsistency persist? Until January 20th of next year?   Remember Senator Obama's willingness to break a promise to the Iraqi people (July 2004: "we have an absolute obligation to remain in Iraq long enough o make it a success... the failure of the Iraqi state would be a disaster and would be a betrayal of the promise we made to the Iraqi people". . He already seems ready to break that promise. Will he break other promises concerning the support and safety of other allies that he has made on the campaign trail?

Intelligence and politics

Senator Obama also seeks to use intelligence data for political ends, and it is startling to see how he seems willing to do so to harm an ally and help a foe. A few months ago, Israel attacked what was widely reported to be a nuclear facility in Syria. Most of the rest of the world supported this action, including much of the Muslim world. Senators in both political parties also offered support.

However, Senator Obama had a different perspective on our ally's actions. Tim Russert asked him about the action during one of the Democratic candidate debates. He avoided expressing support for Israel's action but did question the intelligence behind the attack -- veering away from a straight-talk answer and casting doubt on intelligence, since the intelligence behind the Iraq war was faulty. 

However, how does he treat intelligence when it supports his political agenda? He accepted with alacrity the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report that appeared to absolve Iran of charges it was developing nuclear weapons. This interpretation of the NIE report was widely criticized across the political spectrum and across the world, but not by Senator Obama. When the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell backed away from this faulty interpretation of the NIE and stated that Iran could very well be on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, Senator Obama remained silent and held to his original view that gave Iran a pass. (John McCain was skeptical of the validity of the first NIE interpretation, and he was correct; he also supported the revised interpretation .

The lesson: Senator Obama did not give the benefit of the doubt to an ally but did so for a foe.

This is merely a sample of Senator Obama's views on foreign policy. They reveal a disconcerting pattern of alienating our allies and appeasing our enemies, and reflect a view more akin to those of Jimmy Carter rather than those of John F. Kennedy. Senator Obama is showing his inexperience in the realm of foreign policy, as evident to  liberal Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

Voters should also be wary of relying upon Senator Obama's judgment to compensate for his lack of experience. When foreign policy adviser Susan Rice ("neither Democratic candidate is ready for the 3 A.M. phone call") peremptorily dismissed questions about Senator Obama's experience as being "specious" she said "He's shown the judgment that's necessary, and that's what we need", blogger William Katz had a superb response:

I guess she means Obama's "judgment," rendered when he was in the Illinois state legislature, and had no actual information, that going into Iraq would be wrong.  That's not judgment.  That's guesswork.  Judgment is when you say you'll sit down with the world's dictators, without preconditions.  Judgment is when you announce you'll have an international conference with Muslim nations so they can give us their complaints, allowing them a field day in the press.  

I can add judgment is when you pick Samantha Power as your top foreign policy adviser, a nd have a group  of advisers who cause so much damage to Senator Obama that one wonders if they are double agents for Senator Clinton. Judgment is central to the selection and management of your team.

Judgment is surely one of the qualities we need in our next President. We are all called upon to make our own judgments in the months leading to the November election. One judgment we need to make is whether we want the Oval Office to be the world's most dangerous classroom?

Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.