Journalist | Writer | Analyst
17 July 2008
Obama’s foreign policy speech serves notice on Pakistan
In perhaps his most comprehensive foreign policy speech to date, Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the job of U.S. President, has promised to move resources away from the war he says America should never have fought — Iraq — to the war he insists it must fight to the finish — Afghanistan. And if it is to do that successfully, he says, the United States must be prepared for a radical overhaul of its traditional policy of supporting the P akistani military at the expense of democracy in that country.
Indeed, so large does Islamabad loom in Senator Obama’s mind that he speaks of the “cave-spotted mountains of northwest Pakistan” in the same breath as “the centrifuges spinning beneath Iranian soil” as two of the most important threats against which the American people have to be protected. The message is stark and unmistakable, though its threatening import for the Pakistani army is moderated somewhat by his belief that the U.S. cannot be protected “by the sheer might of [its] military alone.”
While the bulk of his speech, delivered in Washington, D.C. on July 15, is devoted to attacking the Iraq policy of his Republican rival, John McCain, the Democratic Senator used the occasion to lay out a vision of the world that draws unabashedly on the legacy and constructs of the Truman era like the Marshall Plan and the imperative of alliance building to “contain threats.”
Senator Obama’s emphasis on economic aid and nation building for Afghanistan is a welcome departure from the priorities of the Bush White House but his foreign policy continues to be built around a discourse and world view in which “threats” are what the U.S. faces rather than causes and in which military force is a crucial though not singular tool in Washington’s armoury. This is hardly surprising. As the Bush era draws to an end, leading scholars of American foreign policy such as Professor Inderjeet Parmar of Manchester University have cautioned against assuming its excesses were simply the product of a neo-Conservative cabal. Rather, U.S. foreign policy as it exists today is a product of the fusion between liberal interventionists, conservative nationalists and neo-conservatives that occurred post 9/11. Elements of this mix existed even before, under Bill Clinton, but came into sharper relief under President George W. Bush. And what is certain is that this policy blend will continue to maintain its potency under either of the two contenders for the presidency.
This is already apparent from Mr. Obama’s July 15 speech. Of the five goals he identifies as the most crucial to the pursuit of a “tough, smart and principled national security strategy,” three are identical to those which the Bush administration, in its own way, has already flagged as critical: (1) Securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; (2) Achieving true energy security (the equivalent of Bush’s exhortation to ending America’s addiction to oil) by investing $150 billion in the “green energy business sector” over the next 10 years; and (3) Rebuilding [America’s] alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Here, the Senator repeats, inter alia, the Bush formulation of the need for the U.S. to “strengthen our partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Australia and the world’s largest democracy — India — to create a stable and prosperous Asia.”
On some of these goals, the policy tools are different — Senator Obama echoes President Bush’s pursuit of “diplomacy backed with strong sanctions” but says he is willing to meet with “the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing.” On others, the mix is the same. It is only in the remaining two goals — (1) ending the war in Iraq, and (2) finishing the fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan — that the Obama presidency promises a major change in emphasis. The U.S. must end the war in Iraq, the Senator said, but it “must be as careful getting out as [it was] careless going in.” If that formulation suggests the exit from there will be rather less precipitous than his earlier campaign rhetoric suggested, Mr. Obama wants an immediate military surge in the other theatre of America’s war on terror, Afghanistan. At the same time, he wants this stick to be accompanied by the carrot of enhanced aid to help the Afghans “grow their economy from the bottom up.”
In his speech, Senator Obama was blunt about the greatest threat to the security of America and Afghanistan lying “in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where terrorists train and insurgents strike” across the border. “We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary and as President, I won’t,” he warned. Calling for a more sustained partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO, the Democratic nominee said: “We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights.”
While Mr. Obama has said this in the past, the man who might be the next U.S. President is insistent in making the link between the Pakistani military’s questionable efforts in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and its hold over politics in the country. Serving notice of his intentions, he said: “We must move beyond a purely military alliance built on convenience or face mounting popular opposition in a nuclear armed-nation at the nexus of terror and radical Islam … Only a strong Pakistani democracy can help us move towards [the] goal … of securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states.”
The persistence with which Senator Obama has been conveying the same message over and over again should occasion some introspection at GHQ in Rawalpindi. Under an Obama presidency, the focus of America’s military presence in the region is going to be Afghanistan, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and Pakistan itself. The Pakistani military has a limited window for course correction.