Center Field: Walk in the footsteps of JFK

Obama needs to work harder articulating a sophisticated, realistic foreign policy vision.

Gil Troy (photo credit: )
Gil Troy
(photo credit: )
Clarifying Barack Obama's stance on Israel is secondary to figuring out how he understands the world. As the Obama Phenomenama grows, many who are not completely starry-eyed fear his foreign policy may be too starry-eyed. The 46-year-old senator's foreign policy can best be summarized in two words: "Leave Iraq." Echoing the 1960s' get-out-of-Vietnam movement, this approach risks perpetuating the delusions of the Clinton 1990s he usually rejects, ignoring the ugly realities facing post-9/11 America. As a former community organizer, Obama cares most about domestic issues. His experience overseas is limited - beyond his oft-distorted Indonesian sojourn when young. Like most Ivy League-educated idealistic Americans, he assumes compromises can be found for every foreign conflict, while viewing "evil" as a right-wing Republican spectre not a force in today's world. And considering how high he has soared with his charisma and eloquence, he naturally assumes he can handle any world leader, one on one. The transcripts of his recent speeches and his Obama '08 Web site indicate he and most Democrats prefer ignoring the world beyond America's borders. He even turns most references to Iraq into a domestic critique, lamenting that the money wasted could rebuild America. Such neo-isolationism offers cheap populist applause lines not serious policy analysis. George W. Bush's staggering budget deficits will swallow up any Iraqi war savings. EVEN MORE sobering, Obama most frequently mentions 9/11 by complaining about using it "to scare up votes." This posture blasts President George W. Bush without engaging the Islamist terrorist challenge. In fact, Obama's world rarely links the words "Islam" or "Islamist" with terrorism. In his few major foreign policy addresses during 2007 he preferred affirming the 1.3 billion Muslims' peaceful intentions rather than tackling the challenge the rabid minority of Islamist jihadists pose. In fairness, Hillary Clinton's campaign also downplays the terrorist threat as an ideological challenge, mentioning "terrorists" or "extremists" without acknowledging Islam's centrality in their identities. By contrast, Senator John McCain emphasizes the fight against what he calls "global terrorism and Islamist extremism." On his Web site, in the section "Election 2008: What's at Stake?" the first answer warns, in boldface: "America faces a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists." McCain has other flaws but he recognizes that terrorism cannot be stopped without confronting its underlying ideology. This divide is less about personalities and more about the Republican-Democrat split following Bush's polarizing approach to fighting terrorism. Rather than building on the national consensus forged in the fires of September 11, Bush allowed the war on terror to become a partisan flashpoint. In fairness, Democrats are also guilty, frequently allowing their hatred of Bush to blind them to the Islamist threat. "The villains are no longer the terrorists," New York's Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler claimed at a news conference in 2007. "The villains live in the White House." IF ELECTED president, Barack Obama will have to govern as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist. He will have to show that behind his fine words and high ideals lies a savvy leader who can fight Islamist terror, Iran's nuclear-driven genocidal aims, North Korea's saber-rattling, Venezuela's anti-Americanism. He will have to repudiate the Clinton administration's delusional holiday from history. He will have to learn from his hero John Kennedy, a Cold Warrior with no illusions about Soviet aggression. At his best, Kennedy understood how to export American values through programs like the Peace Corps while confronting the Soviets when they snuck missiles into Cuba. President Bush recognizes the seriousness of the Islamist threat. His failures to export American ideals or eliminate these serious existential threats, cannot be repaired with a naïve worldview. PRESIDENCIES are full of surprises. Campaigns churn out superficial applause lines not detailed plans candidates follow if elected. But the dangers facing America and all Western democracies, combined with his thin foreign policy resume, make it incumbent on Obama to work harder articulating a sophisticated, realistic foreign policy vision. Michelle Obama's admission that only her husband's success has made her proud of America, makes it even more important for Barack Obama to show he is a tough, proud, patriot who will govern in the assertive but inspirational foreign policy tradition of liberal Democrats such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy. Obama should deliver some speeches advocating "tough-minded diplomacy" while addressing America's external challenges more regularly when campaigning. He should remind fellow Bush critics: "Just because the president misrepresents our enemies does not mean we do not have them." He should reassure his fellow Americans that he knows "The terrorists are at war with us" and "the threat is real." He must reaffirm Americans' historic understanding that "we cannot win a war unless we maintain the high ground" and that we need not make "a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand." And yes, he should boldly proclaim that "Iran's President Ahmadinejad's regime is a threat to all of us," that America has "a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel," that "when Israel is attacked, we must stand up for Israel's legitimate right to defend itself," and that America needs "to finally end the tyranny of oil, and develop our own alternative sources of energy to drive the price of oil down." Wouldn't it be great, if he sprinkled some Obama rhetorical magic around, saying "We will author our own story," rather than being defined by our enemies. Actually, all these quotations came from speeches Obama delivered in 2007. Obama has written the right lyrics to a strong, effective foreign policy song. Will he showcase them when campaigning? And if he becomes president will he turn them from beautiful words to guiding principles, from political postures to effective policies? The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents will be published in the spring.