The Obama Doctrine, Take 2 [hilzoy]

Oh dear: it's only my second day as a guest-blogger, and I'm already getting into a disagreement. Jamie links to an article he wrote in the Providence Journal about something he calls the Obama Doctrine. From his article:

"Judging from his statements thus far, it appears that Illinois Democratic senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama though many steps away from becoming leader of the Free World has presciently formulated his own doctrine: The United States will remain impassive in the face of genocide."

This would be strange if it were true -- after all, one of Barack Obama's foreign policy advisors is Samantha Power, a human rights activist and scholar best known for her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Luckily, however, it's not. I'll try to explain why, and provide evidence, below the fold.

Jamie (can I call you Jamie?) cites as evidence of his take on Obama's views an article that the AP published about a month ago. The relevant passage:

"Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.

“Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife which we haven’t done,” Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done. Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea,” he said.

Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, said it’s likely there would be increased bloodshed if U.S. forces left Iraq.

“Nobody is proposing we leave precipitously. There are still going to be U.S. forces in the region that could intercede, with an international force, on an emergency basis,” Obama said between stops on the first of two days scheduled on the New Hampshire campaign trail. “There’s no doubt there are risks of increased bloodshed in Iraq without a continuing U.S. presence there.”

The greater risk is staying in Iraq, Obama said.

“It is my assessment that those risks are even greater if we continue to occupy Iraq and serve as a magnet for not only terrorist activity but also irresponsible behavior by Iraqi factions,” he said."

This is one of those articles that makes me want to call up the author and ask to listen to the original interview. The writer is the one who comes up with the claim that Obama doesn't want to use the military to address humanitarian problems, and that preventing genocide is not a good enough reason to stay in Iraq. What Obama is actually quoted as saying, however, is somewhat different. First, he says that if the mere fact of genocide were a sufficient reason to keep armed forces in a country, we would now have forces in the Congo and Darfur. Second, he says that he wants to keep some troops in the region, just in case. Third, and most importantly, he says that he believes that the risks of "increased bloodshed" would be higher, not lower, if our forces stay in Iraq.

That last point is crucial. Suppose you believed that the best way to reduce the chances of a genocide in Iraq was to withdraw our armed forces. You didn't want to withdraw them precipitously, and you planned to keep some residual forces nearby, perhaps in Kuwait or Kurdistan. Nonetheless, you believed that their presence in Iraq was making the fighting worse, not better. Now suppose that someone asked you whether you thought preventing genocide was a good reason to keep our army in Iraq. Of course not, you'd say. That would only make things worse. That's like asking whether my  I care enough about global warming to swap my Prius for a Hummer.

That's how I read Obama's answer, in this interview. And I read the headline over it -- Obama: Don’t stay in Iraq over genocide -- as the equivalent of: Hilzoy: Don't change cars to stop global warming!

That's just my take on one interview, of course. Obviously, there are others. Which is right? The best way to answer that question, I think, would be to examine Obama's record on genocide. Just to provide a bit of background, however, consider this excerpt from a profile of Obama in Rolling Stone:

"One of the biggest names to work with Obama is Samantha Power, the scholar and journalist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. "In 2004, I came out of election night just completely depressed," Power says. "We thought Kerry would win and we'd all get a chance to change the world. But then it was like, 'Nah, same old thing.' " Obama gave her a place to channel her energy. She advised him on the genocide in Darfur, an issue that most politicians at the time were studiously avoiding. "He's a sponge," Power says. "He pushes so hard on policy ideas that fifteen minutes after you've started talking, he's sent you back to the drawing board. He doesn't get weighted down by the limits of American power, but he sees you have to grasp those limits in order to transcend them."

Power is part of a generation of thinkers who, like Obama, came of age after the Cold War. They worry about the problems created by globalization and believe that the most important issues America will confront in the future (terrorism, avian flu, global warming, bioweapons, the disease and nihilism that grow from concentrated poverty) will emanate from neglected and failed states (Afghanistan, the Congo, Sierra Leone). According to Susan Rice, a Brookings Institution scholar who serves as an informal adviser to Obama, their ideas come from the "profound conviction that we are interconnected, that poverty and conflict and health problems and autocracy and environmental degradation in faraway places have the potential to come back and bite us in the behind, and that we ignore such places and such people at our peril."

Over the past two years, Obama has come to adopt this worldview as his own. He came back fascinated from a quick trip to a U.S. project in Ethiopia, where American soldiers had parachuted in to help the victims of a flood: "By investing now," he said, "we avoid an Iraq or Afghanistan later." The foreign-policy initiatives he has fought for and passed have followed this model: He has secured money to fight avian flu, improve security in the Congo and safeguard Russian nuclear weapons. "My comment is not meant to be unkind to mainstream Democrats," says Lugar, "but it seems to me that Barack is studying issues that are very important for the country and for the world.""

As I understand it, Obama's basic position is this: the need to work against humanitarian crises, like the genocide in Darfur, is first and foremost a matter of conscience. He discusses this in his speech "A Politics of Conscience":

"And until we stop the genocide that's being carried out in Darfur as I speak, our conscience cannot rest. This is a problem that's brought together churches and synagogues and mosques and people of all faiths as part of a grassroots movement. Universities and states, including Illinois, are taking part in a divestment campaign to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the killings. It's not enough, but it's helping. And it's a testament to what we can achieve when good people with strong convictions stand up for their beliefs."

But besides being a matter of conscience, dealing with humanitarian crises is also, on Obama's view, essential to our security. When those problems fester in neglected corners of the world, it provides an opportunity for hatred to flourish, and for terrorists to point to our neglect and define us through it. Obama believes that we should not grant them that opportunity. Here's a crucial section from his recent speech on fighting terrorism:

"When you travel to the world's trouble spots as a United States Senator, much of what you see is from a helicopter. So you look out, with the buzz of the rotor in your ear, maybe a door gunner nearby, and you see the refugee camp in Darfur, the flood near Djibouti, the bombed out block in Baghdad. You see thousands of desperate faces.

Al Qaeda's new recruits come from Africa and Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Many come from disaffected communities and disconnected corners of our interconnected world. And it makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?

We know where extremists thrive. In conflict zones that are incubators of resentment and anarchy. In weak states that cannot control their borders or territory, or meet the basic needs of their people. From Africa to central Asia to the Pacific Rim -- nearly 60 countries stand on the brink of conflict or collapse. The extremists encourage the exploitation of these hopeless places on their hate-filled websites. (...)

We know we are not who they say we are. America is at war with terrorists who killed on our soil. We are not at war with Islam. America is a compassionate nation that wants a better future for all people. The vast majority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims have no use for bin Ladin or his bankrupt ideas. But too often since 9/11, the extremists have defined us, not the other way around.

When I am President, that will change. We will author our own story.

We do need to stand for democracy. And I will. But democracy is about more than a ballot box. America must show -- through deeds as well as words -- that we stand with those who seek a better life. That child looking up at the helicopter must see America and feel hope.

As President, I will make it a focus of my foreign policy to roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate. Freedom must mean freedom from fear, not the freedom of anarchy. I will never shrug my shoulders and say -- as Secretary Rumsfeld did -- "Freedom is untidy." I will focus our support on helping nations build independent judicial systems, honest police forces, and financial systems that are transparent and accountable. Freedom must also mean freedom from want, not freedom lost to an empty stomach. So I will make poverty reduction a key part of helping other nations reduce anarchy.

I will double our annual investments to meet these challenges to $50 billion by 2012. And I will support a $2 billion Global Education Fund to counter the radical madrasas -- often funded by money from within Saudi Arabia -- that have filled young minds with messages of hate. We must work for a world where every child, everywhere, is taught to build and not to destroy. And as we lead we will ask for more from our friends in Europe and Asia as well -- more support for our diplomacy, more support for multilateral peacekeeping, and more support to rebuild societies ravaged by conflict. "

These are not the words of someone who would not act in the face of genocide, but of someone who believes that our fate and that of people far away in places we have never heard of are bound together, both by conscience and by interest, and that we will never be the country we truly want to be unless we recognize that fact.


Obama does have a track record on issues of genocide. He has written about Darfur, spoken about it, and introduced legislation to help deal with it., which rates members of Congress on their work for Darfur, gave him an A+. From his website:

"Senator Obama wrote and passed legislation to build on this historic election and promote stability in the country. Senator Obama revamped U.S. policy in the Congo to include a commitment to help rebuild the country, develop lasting political structures, hold accountable destabilizing foreign governments, crack down on corrupt politicians, and professionalize the military. The bill also authorizes $52 million in U.S. assistance for the Congo, calls for a Special U.S. Envoy to resolve ongoing violence, and urges the administration to strengthen the U.N. peacekeeping force. (...)

Senator Obama has been a leading voice in Washington urging the end of genocide in Sudan. He worked with Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) on the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, a version of which was signed into law. Senator Obama has traveled to the United Nations to meet with Sudanese officials and visited refugee camps on the Chad-Sudan border to raise international awareness of the ongoing humanitarian disaster there. He also worked with Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) to secure $20 million for the African Union peacekeeping mission."


Jamie notes that Obama opposed sending US troops to Darfur unilaterally. He writes>

"Like every other presidential candidate save Joseph Biden, Obama also believes that the United States should not use military force to stop the genocide in Darfur, which has already claimed over 200,000 lives. “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done,” he said, in further explanation of his doctrine. “Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea.” But “occupying the Sudan” is not what’s needed to stop the genocide. A few thousand Marines to protect the Darfur region would suffice. And Obama’s presumptuous claim to speak on behalf of “those of us who care about Darfur” ignores many people who have long been calling for unilateral U.S. military intervention, Senator Biden chief among them."

Luckily, Obama explained his position on this, and someone caught it on video. The YouTube is here; it's not the best quality, but it's audible. I've transcribed it below (sorry in advance if I got anything wrong):

"I actually visited some of the displaced persons in Chad. The Sudanese government wouldn't let me in because I had been such a fierce critic of what they've done and what's taking place in Darfur. It's hard to describe what it's like to sit and talk to a woman who has witnessed her children being slaughtered, and has been raped, and has seen her husband killed and her village burned. Those stories are all throughout the region as people have fled from these militias that were financed and supported and instigated by the Sudanese government.

I've been a leader in trying to pass legislation to tighten up economic sanctions on Sudan. We are way late in the toughest economic sanctions that we could apply. We have not applied the kind of pressure on China, which is one of Sudan's main patrons, that we should have applied. And there are some unilateral steps that we could take just on the economic front that need to be pursued more vigorously.

Ultimately, though, what we need is a no-fly zone which basically says that if you've got helicopter gunships that are supporting militias in their slaughter, then we are going to shoot those gunships down. And maybe we just shoot one down, or two down, we take out their airfields: whatever it is to stop permitting the Sudanese government to provide air support on these activities. That would be step number one. Step two is getting a protective force on the ground. And that requires us mobilizing the international community to be as outraged by this as they should be. And when we say 'Never Again', we should mean it. And we haven't meant it.

But this is an example of where us losing legitimacy as a consequence of our invasion of Iraq really hampers our ability to act diplomatically. Because if we start -- I know that a couple of people have suggested, maybe we should just send US troops in alone. Right now the Sudanese government would say: you already have invaded one Muslim country, now you're invading another Muslim country, and would further fan anti-American sentiment. That's why it's so important for us to send a signal to the world that we want to act in concert to end these kinds of horrible activities..."

Whether you agree or disagree with this position, it's hard to see it as reflecting a lack of concern, or an unwillingness to do anything to help the people of Darfur. Obama thinks that we should not put our own troops into Sudan not because he is opposed to taking action of any kind, but because he thinks that we have squandered our credibility in Iraq. Similarly, when I was in college and the facts about the Khmer Rouge began to come out, I thought: here is a situation in which all the arguments for invading Vietnam actually work, and yet we cannot possibly invade Cambodia to topple the Khmer Rouge. Not in 1977 or 1978. Not after Vietnam.

I think the same is true now -- and it's something we should never forget when we consider going to war: that if we go to war for the wrong reasons, the casualties are likely to include not just the people we kill and those of our soldiers who are killed, but also the people in the next crisis that comes around, people we cannot help because we have thrown away our standing to do so.

Interestingly, Obama also makes a point of the need to restore our moral standing and our good name, not by talking about it but by doing good. From yet another speech:

"There are compelling moral reasons and compelling security reasons for renewed American leadership that recognizes the inherent equality and worth of all people. As President Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address, "To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." I will show the world that America remains true to its founding values. We lead not only for ourselves but also for the common good. (...)

It was not all that long ago that farmers in Venezuela and Indonesia welcomed American doctors to their villages and hung pictures of JFK on their living room walls, when millions, like my father, waited every day for a letter in the mail that would grant them the privilege to come to America to study, work, live, or just be free.

We can be this America again. This is our moment to renew the trust and faith of our people -- and all people -- in an America that battles immediate evils, promotes an ultimate good, and leads the world once more."

Sounds good to me.

(Cross-posted to Obsidian Wings.)