Barack Obama has given his first major foreign policy speech, and while trying to sound tough on terrorism, he’s demonstrated exactly how much of a foreign policy neophyte he is. (The full text is available here)
In a strikingly bold speech about terrorism scheduled for this morning, Democratic presidential candidate Illinois Sen. Barack Obama will call not only for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but a redeployment of troops into Afghanistan and even Pakistan — with or without the permission of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.
“I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges,” Obama will say, according to speech excerpts provided to ABC News by his campaign, “but let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”
In other words, the second Barack Obama takes the Oath of Office, the Pakistanis can know that they have no reason to continue the support they’ve given us during this war. Obama’s comments will probably end up creating a diplomatic row with potentially grave consequences, all because Obama wants to sound tough.
Obama forgets that a “democratic” Pakistan is all too likely to be an Islamist Pakistan. Obama also seems to forget that Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and not all that long ago there was a real concern of an Indo-Pakistani nuclear exchange that would leave millions dead. The price of going after one man is not worth the risk of inflaming regional tensions or risking the Pakistani nuclear arsenal going into the hands of terrorist groups — or even secular Pakistani ultra-nationalists who are willing to provoke a fight over Kashmir.
One of the diplomatic success stories of the Bush Administration has not only been in securing the help of Pakistan in fighting this war, but in also defusing the tensions between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. Those tensions nearly sparked a devastating war.
What Obama would do would be to signal to President Musharraf that the US is willing to violate Pakistani territory and give support to Musharraf’s political opponents — some of whom have direct ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Pakistanis would have no reason to assist the United States and would be likely to turn against us. The specters of Musharraf’s government failing, increased tensions over Kashmir, or worse are all likely scenarios under a President Obama. It was always the Democrats who claimed to be the party of nuanced diplomacy — now Obama is threatening one of our allies in a bid to make himself look strong on national security. It’s a foolish and dangerous thing to do, and Obama’s irresponsible comments demonstrate precisely why he’s not wise enough to lead.
Obama also gets it wrong about Iraq:
By refusing to end the war in Iraq, President Bush is giving the terrorists what they really want, and what the Congress voted to give them in 2002: a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.
The problem with that especially silly arguments is that the terrorists themselves don’t see it that way. Bin Laden believed that the US would respond to the September 11 attacks in the same way that we responded to al-Qaeda’s previous provocations — by launching a few cruise missiles and nothing else. Why did he believe that? Because he saw how the US reacted in Somalia in the early 1990s — how after just a few casualties we ran away from the fight. Bin Laden is famous for his statement that people fear and respect a strong horse but feel contempt for a weak one.
Obama has it backwards — a withdrawal from Iraq would prove to bin Laden and the rest of the terrorist networks that America does not have the stomach for a fight against the mujihadeen. Just as America’s weakness after Mogadishu, Khobar Towers, the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, the African embassy attacks, and the bombing of the USS Cole told al-Qaeda that they could launch yet bolder attacks, so to would a withdrawal from Iraq signal to al-Qaeda that they could freely escalate their attacks against the West without fear of long-term reprisal. Obama fails to understand the psychology of terrorism, and his signal of weakness would be seen for what it is.
Moreover, Obama gets al-Qaeda’s fears in Iraq wrong. While we’re feeling the strain of the war in Iraq, al-Qaeda has an even worse time. We know based on captured communications that al-Qaeda fears the rise of democracy in the Muslim world. As Ayman al-Zawahiri himself wrote, “Democracy is coming, and there will be no excuse thereafter.” The radical Islamists of al-Qaeda have every reason to fear — the recent Anbar Awakening demonstrates that one of al-Qaeda’s worst fears is coming to pass: al-Qaeda is losing popular support. As another Zawahiri letter attests, once that happens, al-Qaeda’s situation rapidly becomes untenable.
Senator Obama is apparently unfamiliar with these communications, as they show in the enemy’s own words precisely why his arguments don’t match the reality of the situation in Iraq.
Obama further demonstrates his lack of understanding with this statement:
Ending the war will help isolate al Qaeda and give Iraqis the incentive and opportunity to take them out.
Again, Obama’s assertions can be easily disproven. Iraq’s Sunni population is ~ 20% of the total Iraqi population. Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias such as the Jaish-al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) have been attacking and killing Sunnis for some time now. The US is one of the only forces strong enough to prevent these attacks. Without our support, who will the Sunnis turn to?
Obama has it exactly backwards — Iraq’s Sunnis, facing a deadly threat from Iranian-backed militias would have no choice but to ally themselves with al-Qaeda, who also oppose the Shi’ites. A premature withdrawal would leave the Sunnis with few choices — either be ethnically cleansed into submission, become refugees elsewhere in Iraq, or join with al-Qaeda and attack the Shi’ia before they can complete the job of killing Iraq’s Shi’ites. The argument that a US withdrawal would give the Iraqis any incentives to attack al-Qaeda is little more than a delusion. There’s no logical argument which supports such a position. Obama’s comment is breathtakingly non-sensical, a triumph of ideological naivete over any logical thought. If it were just a stupid political comment it would be one thing — the thought that such blindness could be shaping policy is downright frightening.
It’s ironic that later Obama states that “Above all, I will send a clear message: we will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal.”
Instead, he’d turn his back on Iraq, which would have even more dire consequences for the US than the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban did. But Afghanistan is the “popular” war and Iraq the “unpopular” one, and Obama is reading from a political script, not making reasoned and logically consistent arguments.
Obama’s rhetoric is good, but that’s all it is: empty rhetoric. Obama wants to argue that “hopelessness” and “poverty” are the root causes of terrorism — when it’s generally the middle class that ends up being members of al-Qaeda. He promises more foreign aid — foreign aid that invariably ends up fueling corruption rather than fighting it. He promises to reach out to the Muslim world and show them the best of American culture — forgetting that it was the founder of the modern Islamist movement, Sayyid Qutb who travelled to American, saw its culture, and believed it to be evil. “America Houses” are one of those programs that sounds good on paper, but ends up being little more than a rhetorical flourish with little actual value. Obama promises to share intelligence — yet opposes the measures like the Terrorist Surveillance Program that allows that intelligence to be gathered.
Barack Obama is a gifted rhetorician, that is to be sure. His speech sounds like it is a strong new direction on terrorism — but peer beyond the surface and there is nothing there. It’s the same old empty promises directly contradicted by Obama’s actual policy prescriptions. In this critical time in American history, we cannot afford a President who says the right words but has no idea of their meaning. We cannot have a President who fails to understand the basic psychology of terrorism. We cannot have a President who will turn his back on our most crucial allies in this fight.
Obama’s speech is ultimately what Cicero, the great Roman statesman and orator, would have called a triumph of oratio over ratio — rhetoric over logic. For all its eloquence, it truly says nothing.