Obama’s Iraq speech

Obama has made a series of major speeches this week:  one on race and religion and two on Iraq.

I haven’t listened to the race and religion speech in its entirety yet, and I want to do that before I offer a detailed response. But, in brief, I will say that I had mixed feelings about it.

I think it’s great that Obama didn’t handle the issue (his former pastor’s anti-American pronouncements) like a typical politician. Most politicians would try to present as small a target as possible — like a boxer in a crouch, with his chin tucked into his chest and his gloves up. Instead, Obama offered an intelligent, wide-ranging speech which gave lots of material to supporters and detractors alike. He took a risk, which is a political no-no. But I’m glad he did.

However, I’m not sure what Obama’s overall message was. If your audience can’t summarize your core message in a sentence or two, you haven’t delivered an effective speech.

Mind you, the chattering classes don’t see it that way. The speech received very positive reviews from the major newspapers and most political leaders.

But let’s turn to the other topic:  Iraq. Today is the five-year anniversary of the war. Obama didn’t just criticize Bush (and McCain and Clinton), he also laid out his own policy prescriptions.

Do you think Obama is all rhetoric, no substance? Do you think he lacks foreign policy chops? Here’s my bullet-point summary of his policy prescriptions:

  • Begin immediately to remove the troops from Iraq, at the rate of 1 or 2 combat brigades per month. Almost all of the troops would be out within 16 months.
  • Leave enough troops in Iraq to guard the American embassy and U.S. diplomats; also a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy.
  • Help Iraqis reach a meaningful accord on national reconciliation. Engage every country in the region, and the United Nations, to support the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq. Launch a major humanitarian initiative to support Iraq’s refugees and people. “It is precisely this kind of approach – an approach that puts the onus on the Iraqis, and that relies on more than just military power – that is needed to stabilize Iraq.”
  • Shift the military focus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “This is the area where the 9/11 attacks were planned. This is where Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants still hide.” … “We have a security gap when candidates say they will follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, but refuse to follow him where he actually goes.”
  • On Afghanistan:  “We cannot prevail [in Afghanistan] until we reduce our commitment in Iraq, which will allow us to do what I called for last August — providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our efforts in Afghanistan. This increased commitment in turn can be used to leverage greater assistance — with fewer restrictions — from our NATO allies. It will also allow us to invest more in training Afghan security forces, including more joint NATO operations with the Afghan Army, and a national police training plan that is effectively coordinated and resourced.”
  • Also, provide an additional $1 billion in non-military assistance to support education, basic infrastructure, human services, and alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers (i.e., alternative to the opium trade).
  • On Pakistan:  “If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot. Senator Clinton, Senator McCain, and President Bush have all distorted and derided this position, suggesting that I would invade or bomb Pakistan. This is politics, pure and simple. … It was months after I called for this policy that a top al Qaeda leader was taken out in Pakistan by an American aircraft.”
  • Restore “the rule of law that helps us win the battle for hearts and minds. This means closing Guantanamo, restoring habeas corpus, and respecting civil liberties.”
  • Double America’s foreign assistance while demanding more from those who receive it. Build the capacity of regional partners in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and the reconstruction of ravaged societies.
  • Lead collective action on the global climate crisis, thereby ending America’s dependence on oil-rich states (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela), and creating millions of new jobs in America.
  • Make better use of diplomacy:  “It is time to present a country like Iran with a clear choice. If it abandons its nuclear program, support for terror, and threats to Israel, then Iran can rejoin the community of nations — with all the benefits that entails. If not, Iran will face deeper isolation and steeper sanctions. When we engage directly, we will be in a stronger position to rally real international support for increased pressure. We will also engender more goodwill from the Iranian people.”
  • Reduce the strain on U.S. troops “by completing the effort to increase our ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines,” and ensuring adequate training and time home between deployments.
  • Undertake a National Strategy and Security Review, to help determine an integrated, 21st Century inter-agency structure.
  • Double the size of the U.S. Peace Corps:  “Instead of letting people learn about America from enemy propaganda, it’s time to recruit, train, and send out into the world an America’s Voice Corps.”

In a word, this is a strategy. That is, Obama has multiple, specific proposals which cohere around a unifying theme. Obama introduces a distinction between strategy and tactics as a key criticism of McCain:

If you believe we are fighting the right war, then the problems we face are purely tactical in nature. That is what Senator McCain wants to discuss — tactics. What he and the Administration have failed to present is an overarching strategy: how the war in Iraq enhances our long-term security, or will in the future. That’s why this Administration cannot answer the simple question posed by Senator John Warner in hearings last year: Are we safer because of this war? And that is why Senator McCain can argue — as he did last year — that we couldn’t leave Iraq because violence was up, and then argue this year that we can’t leave Iraq because violence is down.

When you have no overarching strategy, there is no clear definition of success. Success comes to be defined as the ability to maintain a flawed policy indefinitely.

I think that’s an excellent characterization of the issue:  McCain offers tactics whereas Obama offers a strategy.

All style, no substance? — hardly!

Too inexperienced to be Commander-in-Chief? — I’ll take less experience with sound judgment over more experience with unsound judgment any day.

It’s a compelling, brilliant speech. Read the whole thing.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    Mar 20, 2008 @ 23:30:24

    However, I’m not sure what Obama’s overall message was.

    My pastor said some hateful things that I do not agree with. Like many blacks, particularly blacks of his generation, he is angry, and he hasn’t always directed that anger very well. Similarly, some whites are angry for example when they see a black person or an immigrant getting “their” job. All of this anger on both sides is understandable, although misguided and counterproductive. We can do better.


  2. Stephen
    Mar 21, 2008 @ 08:52:19

    Thanks, JA. I agree that Obama said that; and perhaps that’s the key take-away from the speech.

    But I wonder whether every part of the speech fits within that rubric. My analysis of his foreign policy prescriptions is that they cohere around a unifying theme. If you perform a similar analysis of his race and religion speech, does every part of it cohere with the summary you offered?

    I have the impression that there are other threads which potentially spin off in other directions. However, I still haven’t had a chance to listen to the speech in its entirety. (I was out of town for three days this week, attending meetings.) It’s possible that my reservations will evaporate when I can give some focussed attention to the speech.


  3. Jack
    Mar 27, 2008 @ 01:18:57


    I find his excuses for Wright to be unacceptable. There comes a point in time when you stop making excuses for people to behave badly.

    If I had a friend who went around using racial epithets I would not sit back and make excuses for it. I’d make it clear that it is wrong and unacceptable.

    If they didn’t change, I wouldn’t be their friend.

    The U.S. has challenges, but let’s look at what is happening. A Black man and a Woman are within spitting distance of becoming POTUS.

    We have had two Black Secs of State, a Latino A.G. There are many, many examples of successful minorities.

    It is beyond time to stop pretending to be a victim and start demanding more.

    I find it distasteful, disgusting and disappointing to try and make race a factor in the election.


  4. Stephen
    Mar 27, 2008 @ 06:55:38

    • Jack:
    I still intend to post on the race relations speech. (I have finally listened to it in its entirety.)

    For now, I’ll just say that the speech doesn’t make race a factor in the election. In fact, the speech is an appeal for Americans — white and black — to move beyond their bitter racial history, and come together to tackle the core challenges facing the middle classes.

    So if you think the speech is intended to make race a factor, you’ve misunderstood it. Other people — the Clintons and the Republican right — are making race an issue, and trying to marginalize Obama as the black candidate.


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