Memo: Power On "CW V. CWN"

Yesterday, I wrote that the Obama campaign might use Wednesday's news cycle debate about nuclear weapons to "draw distinctions between the Old Ways Of Washington and the New Way Of Obama."

Lo and behold: the campaign released a memo today that compares Obama's elaborations on foreign policy with his judgment about the Iraq war, and describes his approach as a "Change We Need" from "Conventional Washington."

"Conventional Washington" in the body of Iowan David Yepsen fundamentally disagrees. The co-dean of the Iowa political press corps believes that Obama blundered.


Obama was roundly denounced by the other Democratic candidates and, once again, has said something that makes him look not ready for the White House. He’s been battling that image problem since the beginning of the race and this comment does nothing to instill confidence. While pacifist Democrats might like it, it’s doubtful it would play to a larger general election electorate that expects an American president to use all tools in the toolbox to defend the country.

Here is the full Powers memo.

August 3, 2007

To: Interested Parties

From: Samantha Power -- Founding Executive Director, Harvard University Carr Center for Human Rights Policy

Re: Conventional Washington versus the Change We Need


It was Washington’s conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy. The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress. Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced, and even naïve.



Barack Obama defied conventional wisdom and opposed invading Iraq. He did so at a time when some told him that doing so would doom his political future. He took that risk because he thought it essential that the United States “finish the fight with bin Laden and al Qaeda.” He warned that a “dumb war, a rash war” in Iraq would result in an “occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”



Barack Obama was right; the conventional wisdom was wrong. And today, we see the consequences. Iraq is in chaos. According to the National Intelligence Estimate, the threat to our homeland from terrorist groups is “persistent and evolving.” Al-Qaeda has a safe-haven in Pakistan. Iran has only grown stronger and bolder. The American people are less safe because of a rash war.



Over the last few weeks, Barack Obama has once again taken positions that challenge Washington’s conventional wisdom on foreign policy. And once again, pundits and politicians have leveled charges that are now bankrupt of credibility and devoid of the new ideas that the American people desperately want.



On each point in the last few weeks, Barack Obama has called for a break from a broken way of doing things. On each point, he has brought fresh strategic thinking and common sense that break with the very conventional wisdom that has led us into Iraq.



Diplomacy: For years, conventional wisdom in Washington has said that the United States cannot talk to its adversaries because it would reward them. Here is the result:



* The United States has not talked directly to Iran at a high level, and they have continued to build their nuclear weapons program, wreak havoc in Iraq, and support terror.
* The United States has not talked directly to Syria at a high level, and they have continued to meddle in Lebanon and support terror.
* The United States did not talk to North Korea for years, and they were able to produce enough material for 6 to 8 more nuclear bombs.



By any measure, not talking has not worked. Conventional wisdom would have us continue this policy; Barack Obama would turn the page. He knows that not talking has made us look weak and stubborn in the world; that skillful diplomacy can drive wedges between your adversaries; that the only way to know your enemy is to take his measure; and that tough talk is of little use if you’re not willing to do it directly to your adversary. Barack Obama is not afraid of losing a PR battle to a dictator – he’s ready to tell them what they don’t want to hear because that’s how tough, smart diplomacy works, and that’s how American leaders have scored some of the greatest strategic successes in US history.



Barack Obama’s judgment is right; the conventional wisdom is wrong. We need a new era of tough, principled and engaged American diplomacy to deal with 21st century challenges.



Terrorist Sanctuaries: For years, we have given President Musharraf hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, while deferring to his cautious judgment on how to take out high-level al Qaeda targets – including, most likely, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Here is the result:



* Bin Laden and Zawahiri – two men with direct responsibility for 9/11– remain at large.
* Al Qaeda has trained and deployed hundreds of fighters worldwide from its sanctuary in northwest Pakistan.
* Afghanistan is far less secure because the Taliban can strike across the border, and then return to safety in Pakistan.



By any measure, this strategy has not worked. Conventional wisdom would have us defer to Musharraf in perpetuity. Barack Obama wants to turn the page. If Musharraf is willing to go after the terrorists and stop the Taliban from using Pakistan as a base of operations, Obama would give him all of the support he needs. But Obama made clear that as President, if he had actionable intelligence about the whereabouts of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan – and the Pakistanis continued to refuse to act against terrorists known to be behind attacks on American civilians – then he will use highly targeted force to do so.



Barack Obama’s judgment is right; the conventional wisdom is wrong. We need a new era that moves beyond the conventional wisdom that has brought us over-reliance on an unreliable dictator in Pakistan and an occupation of Iraq.



Nuclear Attacks on Terrorist Targets: For years, Washington’s conventional wisdom has held that candidates for President are judged not by their wisdom, but rather by their adherence to hackneyed rhetoric that make little sense beyond the Beltway. When asked whether he would use nuclear weapons to take out terrorist targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Barack Obama gave the sensible answer that nuclear force was not necessary, and would kill too many civilians. Conventional wisdom held this up as a sign of inexperience. But if experience leads you to make gratuitous threats about nuclear use – inflaming fears at home and abroad, and signaling nuclear powers and nuclear aspirants that using nuclear weapons is acceptable behavior, it is experience that should not be relied upon.



Barack Obama’s judgment is right. Conventional wisdom is wrong. It is wrong to propose that we would drop nuclear bombs on terrorist training camps in Pakistan, potentially killing tens of thousands of people and sending America’s prestige in the world to a level that not even George Bush could take it. We should judge presidential candidates on their judgment and their plans, not on their ability to recite platitudes.



Vision: American foreign policy is broken. It has been broken by people who supported the Iraq War, opposed talking to our adversaries, failed to finish the job with al Qaeda, and alienated the world with our belligerence. Yet conventional wisdom holds that people whose experience includes taking these positions are held up as examples of what America needs in times of trouble.



Barack Obama says we have to turn the page. We cannot afford any more of this kind of bankrupt conventional wisdom. He has laid out a foreign policy that is bold, clear, principled, and tailored for the 21st century. End a war we should never have fought, concentrate our resources against terrorists who threaten America. End the counter-productive policy of lumping together our adversaries and avoiding talking to our foes. End the era of politics that is all sound-bites and no substance, and offer the American people the change that they need.



Barack Obama’s judgment is right. It is conventional wisdom that has to change.
Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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