Friday, February 29, 2008

How Not To Mock Hopementum (JM)

'Hope' is politics, not real Iran, Iraq policy

Hello, welcome to the next eight months. May I take your coat?

February 29, 2008

STEVE HUNTLEY shuntley@suntimes.com

The political salvos over Iraq between Barack Obama and John McCain the other day made for good political theater. More important, the exchange offered a revealing contrast between the politics of realism and the politics of hope.

Look, I have sympathy for mocking Hopementum. I have often found Obama lacking in realism. But his foreign policy is not any more na├»ve than faith in the magical surge. The truth is that foreign policy questions rarely makes any sense in elections as decisions on this front are often incredibly specific and contingent and can turn on a dime. Could you imagine in the Nixon-Kennedy debates if the crazy antecedent to crazy ole’ Tim Russert asked, “John Kennedy, what if you were to find evidence of nuclear weapons placed by the Soviet Union in Cuba. You then track ships that may be coming to supply these missile bases…” We can have an idea if a candidate is interventionist or not, their stand on multilateralism vs. unilateralism (a question which hasn’t popped up in 2341423454363256 debates) and several other singular issues, but it is nearly impossible to gauge a person’s foreign policy acumen by anything but their previous work. Of course, that would be a legitimate criticism of Obama, we have no idea what he’d be like, but not this inanity.

It began with a question to Obama during the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday. Obama has pledged to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and was asked if he reserved the right to go back into Iraq. He responded that "if al-Qaida is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad."

The next day McCain mocked Obama, ''I have some news. Al-Qaida is in Iraq." Obama fired back, ''I do know that al-Qaida is in Iraq and that's why I have said we should continue to strike al-Qaida targets. But I have some news for John McCain. There was no such thing as al-Qaida in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."

So what is Obama's Iraq strategy? It seems to be that he knows al-Qaida is in Iraq but he's going to pull out anyway. But if al-Qaida establishes a base in Iraq, he will go back in. Does that sound confused to you? Me, too.

I mean seriously, is this all that confusing? First of all, there is a huge difference between a presence in Iraq (which al-Qaida clearly has) and establishing Iraq as a main base for al-Qaida operations. Currently al-Qaida is an operation spread out amongst many countries with no central focal point. If Iraq turns in to the new Afghanistan, then yes we might have to rereturn. Secondly, maybe I am just a cynic, but does anyone really believe we are actually leaving Iraq any time soon. Sure, I expect a troop drawdown, the end of stop-loss, and sensible policies to be put in to place, but I have no expectation we won’t be in Iraq for a very long time. I just hope our next president is intelligent enough to make such sufficient changes in our policy that we can seek and will receive the help of the international community in securing Iraqi territory.

His policy, in a nutshell, seems to be this: Pull troops out of Iraq and hope for the best. And anyway, the real issue is what cowboy Bush and McCain did five years ago.

Look the future matters, but past is the best set of data points to determine the future. Obama has almost no data points*, McCain has some and they’re not all that good.

Given the nation's weariness with the war, that message has proved to be appealing to Democratic primary voters. They want no truck with the grim realism of McCain's position that Iraq is part of the wider struggle against Islamist jihadism and will require a long-term U.S. commitment. Arguing over what happened in 2003 is a way to avoid facing today's realities, McCain reasonably argues.

Have you ever notice when people want to do really bad things they couch it as the realist position. Me, I’ll go for empirical evidence and a debate on actual merits, instead of assuming the worst possible scenario must be the correct one.

Hope also figures in Obama's willingness, as president, to meet, without preconditions, America's adversaries like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said he wouldn't "shake hands with people who refuse to recognize Israel." He didn't mention names but he meant the Iranian president.

What’s your point here? I am actually bowled over by the irony of a neo-con position being bolstered by the French President… I am sorry, the Freedom President. Look, there’s a difference between liking Ahmadinejad or even compromising with him and meeting with him. Ignoring our enemies is great playground politics, but terrible international politics.

Obama's position is cheered by his enthusiasts. They see his embrace of yes-we-can-talk diplomacy as a refreshing about-face from Bush's bellicosity. Hillary Clinton is the voice of realism this time. But her efforts to paint Obama's position as a naive one for a president in a dangerous world apparently aren't swaying many Democrats. Her cause wasn't helped when Bush chimed in Thursday, saying meeting with a tyrant like Ahmadinejad only buttresses an oppressive government, confuses U.S. allies and demoralizes reformers in Iran.

I am pretty sure Hillary Clinton would a better statesman than Barack Obama. However, you cannot discount the overwhelmingly popular overseas support that Obama seems to have. His popularity rating amongst European countries is insanely high. I have no idea why this is, and generally making the European public happy is not really a concern I have when choosing a president, but giving the low level of regard for the United States that exists throughout the world these days some good feeling is not a bad second prize.

Given the complexities of the world, a president occasionally does have to meet with unsavory characters in pursuing vital foreign policy initiatives. Even when you think you've laid the proper groundwork, disaster can follow. President Bill Clinton labored mightily to coax Yasser Arafat to a negotiated end of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict only to see his work and peace hopes atomized by Arafat's allegiance to terrorism.

So your solution was to do what? Not meet with Arafat? I fail to see how this was an argument in your favor. Moreover, it wasn’t just Arafat’s allegiance to terrorism. It was that as part of his coalition there were many more hardline splinter groups that were only quasi under the control of Arafat. These groups were less likely to acquiesce to the deal made by Arafat and that is why things fell apart. Which, of course, is an argument for negotiating with the most hardline parties in these sort of deals. Which, by the by, is the opposite of your point. To wit: You lose.

A President Obama would be taking a big gamble meeting with a rogue like Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Iran wants nuclear weapons, is a sponsor of terror responsible for mass murder as far away as Argentina, and has been at the heart of Islamist-inspired turmoil for nearly three decades. It stones women to death for adultery. It executes more children than any country in the world. Tehran lashes gays and kills them by public hanging. It jails, tortures and executes political dissidents.

Please explain the gamble. It’s not like Obama would meet up with him to have a round of golf and stone some women. We can have a meeting, it can be cold and awkward, that’s fine. It can be the foreign policy equivalent of running in to an ex-girlfriend on the street. Exchange some pleasantries, pretend you’ll get coffee sometimes soon and go home and complain to your friends. Meeting with someone is not endorsing someone, at least not in this case. The only time I would be inclined towards this argument would be meeting with a leader of a particular faction from a country involved in a civil war.

When Columbia University, to its shame, gave him a platform last year, Ahmadinejad used it, in effect, to advocate an end to Israel, deny the Holocaust and claim no homosexuals are in Iran.

In a recent speech, Ahmadinejad said Iran has two missions. One was to complete the Islamic revolution in Iran. "Our nation's second important mission," he said, "is introducing the Islamic revolution to the entire mankind."

Hope may make for a good American political campaign, but it's not the basis for foreign policy.

It’s adorable when people think they’ve proved points that they have failed, utterly, to make.

*I suspect someone is going to bring up a certain speech, which I just couldn’t care less about as evidence; he wasn’t in the Senate, he didn’t see the same intelligence they did, and there was little to no cost to repudiating the war in so far as it would distinguish him from the pack if he was right and if wrong there was no cost because he could always claim to have not seen the same intelligence as those who voted for the war.


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