Obama’s Terrorism Speech
[This post reviews the President’s 2007 speech as candidate. For reaction to his May 2009 speech on terrorism and the rule of law, click here.]
Today Senator Barack Obama (D. Ill.) delivered a major foreign-policy speech focusing on terrorism. It was a masterful speech, well worth reading.
The venue for Obama’s speech was the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It was perfect for him. As past President of the Harvard Law Review and a former professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, he has a more distinguished academic and scholarly record than most of our presidents. After Woodrow Wilson himself, who was a professor at Princeton, only Jimmy Carter (a nuclear engineer) and Bill Clinton (a Rhodes Scholar) can compare with Obama.
The speech’s substance and tone reflected Obama’s distinguished background. If there remained any doubts about who is best qualified to raise us out of the hole dug by George W. Bush, it should have dispelled them. Whether you want toughness, brains, pragmatism or idealism in a leader, they were all there, all in their proper place, and all in perspective.
Obama reserved his toughest stance for the people responsible for killing 3,000 of us on September 11. He would deal with bin Laden, Zawahiri and their terror schools in three ways. First, he would wind down our combat role in Iraq and divert two brigades to the war in Afghanistan. Second, he would lean hard on Musharraf to go after bin Laden and Zawahiri in the tribal badlands. If Musharraf didn’t do so, Obama would send in our own forces for a surgical strike. Third, Obama would give Afghanistan an additional $1 billion of non-military aid, to deprive Al Qaeda of the fertile fields of poverty and hopelessness that it needs to grow. If Obama becomes president, you can be pretty sure that bin Laden and Zawahiri will not survive his first term—at least not in freedom.
Obama also saved some toughness for his opponents in the presidential race. He pointed out how Congress rubber stamped the war in Iraq, which has diverted so much effort, money and planning from the fight with Al Qaeda. He didn’t mention that Senators Clinton and Edwards both assisted that rubber stamping, but he didn’t need to.
Obama is a polite and diplomatic guy who knows where the bodies are buried. He promised that “my Administration will not permit more lives to be lost because emergency responders are not outfitted with the communications capability and protective equipment their job requires.” He didn’t mention Rudy Giuliani’s failure to make sure the 9/11 fire fighters had radios that work. Nor did he mention Giuliani’s failure to make sure they wore their respirators. But he didn’t have to.
We can be confident that Obama will actually do what he says, as well as take precautions that others might neglect. Why? Because he’s less a politician and much, much more a realist than his rivals.
Any decent politician, including Senator Clinton, understands political cause and effect. Even Rudy Giuliani knows that his “pro-choice” stance on abortion will lose him some votes among religious conservatives. What’s unique about Obama is his understanding of cause and effect in the real world, apart from politics. That’s where his unmatched training and brains come in, and that’s where he shines. Let’s take a few examples.
First, consider Al Qaeda. Obama understands the difference between the recent “franchise” in Iraq, which calls itself “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” and the real thing—the “mother movement” of bin Laden and Zawahiri. It was the mother movement that pulled off 9/11; the franchise didn’t even yet exist. And it’s the mother movement, stronger than ever, that is still working somewhere in Pakistan to train more recruits for similar attacks. Our most recent National Intelligence Estimate says as much. If not stopped, Al Qaeda will continue to train, arm and send fanatics against us at home for the foreseeable future.
Obama knows that even complete “victory” in Iraq, whatever that means, will not stop the mother movement in Pakistan or reduce the growing threat that it poses to our homeland and our interests abroad. That’s why he wants to wind down our combat role in Iraq and address the primary threat.
Obama also showed understanding of cause and effect in threatening incursions into Pakistan to wipe out Al Qaeda. The Bush Administration fears impairing our close relationship with Musharraf and so does little in this regard. Yet, like most of Bush’s relationships, this one is based on his “gut feeling” for Musharraf as a person. Unfortunately, Bush’s gut feeling for Musharraf is about as reliable as his well-publicized glimpse into Vladimir Putin’s “soul.” (No doubt Putin, one of the smartest politicians on the planet, has chuckled to himself and his old KGB colleagues many times about getting our gullible president to “fall in love” with him through simple expedient of wearing a crucifix at their first meeting.)
Obama is much smarter. He knows a little about history and how to calculate real national interest. He understands that Pakistani toleration for Islamic extremism has much more to do with Kashmir and Pakistan’s historical blood feud with India than it does with any real sympathy for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He knows that Musharraf would just as soon be rid of the extremists in Pakistan’s mountain territories, which threaten his own rule and the stability of his country.
So Obama calculates that a thrust by us to exterminate Al Qaeda, if made quickly and effectively and covered by good diplomacy, would leave our general cooperation with Pakistan largely intact. He also understands that, by removing an internal threat, that thrust might even facilitate Pakistani democracy and encourage Musharraf to foster it. He also knows that Musharraf is not likely to reject a longtime, vital alliance that gives him hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid, including vital military aid, and supports many of his nation’s important values, including the English language. Unlike Bush and the other presidential candidates, who appear to follow conventional wisdom derived largely from Bush’s gut, Obama is smart enough to think for himself about Pakistan.
Obama’s understanding of cause and effect also extends to the long term. He knows, for example, that northwestern Pakistan is a fertile recruiting ground for Al Qaeda precisely because its extremist madrassas, financed largely by Saudi money, teach nothing but hate.
A couple of years ago, a Wall Street Journal reporter visited one of these schools and asked children there what they had learned. Having spent most of their time memorizing the Koran, they couldn’t even do simple arithmetic. Asked what dinosaurs were, one student said they are monsters created by Jews to devour Muslims. (Apparently this student had seen or heard about Jurassic Park.)
Obama understands how important it is that children like these be taught things other than religion and hate, things they can use to make a living. “As the Pakistani government increases investment in secular education to counter radical madrassas,” he said, “my Administration will increase America’s commitment.”
When it comes to pragmatism, Obama is by far the best candidate. His mind is not troubled by ideology, religion, or obsessive political calculation. He knows how to solve real problems, and he is not afraid to propose practical solutions, like going after Al Qaeda in the border areas if Pakistan won’t.
Obama’s pragmatism was on best display in the matter of homeland security. To improve our safety at home, he would take six steps. First, he would implement the military’s new counter-insurgency manual. Second, he would make our military “more stealthy, agile, and lethal in its ability to capture or kill terrorists[.]” Presumably he would increase the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, one of our nation’s unique technological advantages. Third, he would bolster human intelligence with training in foreign languages and cultures. Fourth, he would allot homeland-security money strictly by risk, not by pork, as determined by a quadrennial high-level review. Fifth, he would “create a Shared Security Partnership Program to forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks[.]” Finally, he would require recalcitrant private firms to harden our dangerous chemical and power plants, and our vulnerable ports, against terrorism.
In short, Obama would get moving on all the things that the Bush Administration, through inertia, incompetence, or ideology, has too long left undone. This is not rocket science. It’s practical, tedious, necessary stuff. But Obama is the only candidate who has proposed doing all of it and appears to understand its importance and urgency.
As smart and pragmatic as these things are, the most impressive thing about Obama’s speech was not programs or policies, but idealism.
Obama’s speech tapped into the wellsprings of American idealism as no one has done since Jack Kennedy. He proposed an “America’s Voice Corps,” like Kennedy’s Peace Corps, to spread America’s story abroad, including the fruitful lives of Muslims here. He even quoted Kennedy’s famous admonition, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
But while Obama borrowed a bit from Kennedy, his inspiration derived from no one else. It was purely his own and original. Throughout his speech, he relied on a metaphor from his senatorial trips abroad: a desperate foreigner looking up at an American helicopter. Does that foreigner, he asked, feel hope or fear?
So much of what we have done in the last seven years inspires only fear abroad. The “shock and awe” over Baghdad, the mess we’ve made in Iraq, our tolerance for torture, Guantánamo, our refusal to talk with anyone who won’t meet our terms first, and our own spying on ourselves—all these things undermine the world’s traditional view of what Americans stand for. Obama excoriated these deviations and consistently reaffirmed our basic values.
- “The America I know,” he said, “is the last, best hope for that child looking up at a helicopter. It’s the country that put a man on the moon; that defeated fascism and helped rebuild Europe. It’s a country whose strength abroad is measured not just by armies, but rather by the power of our ideals, and by our purpose to forge an ever more perfect union at home.”
No other candidate, let alone Senator Pothole, can write that sort of soaring prose or command that sort of inspiration. Unlike the others, Obama has the ability to push a nation that once was great to achieve great things again. That quality alone should insure his election. When combined with his toughness, brains and pragmatism, it ought to make him unbeatable.