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Barack Obama’s Worldview

Top advisers offer glimpse into Obama presidency

Oct. 1, 2008
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The Sept. 26 presidential debate was intended to focus on the candidates’ views on national security and foreign policy. But those topics were pushed into the background after President Bush proposed a $700 billion Wall Street bailout to prevent a potential economic meltdown. So while debate watchers got a glimpse of how Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain would handle foreign policy, they didn’t get a full debate.

But two of Obama’s foreign policy advisers—retired Adm. John Nathman and national security expert Sarah Sewall—visited Wisconsin before the debate to discuss how the Democrat would lead the United States in war and in peace.

Before retiring, Adm. Nathman was the commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, a distinguished end to a 37-year career in the Navy. Sewall served in the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration, but is now focused on counterinsurgency and terrorism while serving as the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. Nathman and Sewall spoke to the Shepherd about what we can expect from a potential Obama presidency.

On Obama’s Worldview:
“I know how rare it is to find a political leader who starts from positions of principle as opposed to politics,” Sewall said. “One of the joys of working on behalf of Barack Obama is that he has a worldview that really is consistent across the different spheres of policy. For example, his views about the importance of human dignity at home are mirrored by his views about the importance of human dignity as a part of our foreign policy. His views about how to strengthen America, not simply by relying on military power but on economic opportunities, are consistent with his message internationally.

“But the principles that guide him as a leader are ones that are consistent and connected, so that [he has] the chance to do policy not a la carte by interest group, not by virtue of what you’ve inherited from your political legacy and your big donors. His worldview is driven by what he believes is the right way to secure America and the way to shape the world.”

On Judgment vs. Experience:
“We keep talking about experience,” Nathman said. “But if you really want to talk about the first echelons of leadership, [what’s important is] judgment and integrity. And the judgment that I see in Sen. Obama is the fact that he can recognize good advice as well as reject bad advice.”

On the Differences Between Obama and Bush and McCain:
“I do think that a McCain presidency would be much like the Bush presidency and would be guided by over-reliance on military force, presumption toward unilateral action and an effort to be pre-emptive in a very destabilizing way without regard to the second- and third-order consequences,” Sewall said. “Barack Obama’s view about how to secure America and operate in the world is fundamentally at odds with those things. He wants to harness all of the tools of American power. He wants to harness other nations’ [cooperation] where we have common interests. He wants to find ways to devolve responsibility to regions so the United States would not be doing everything. And he wants to find ways of strengthening the sources of American power, from our ideals to energy independence, that would give us a much more diversified portfolio, if you will, as a leader in the world. And most of all he wants to restore American leadership with a different sensibility toward others.”

On Obama’s Foresight:
“One of the things I find very interesting is that this administration rushed into Iraq, it ignored the war in Afghanistan and it’s said that we won’t deal with folks like Iran,” Nathman said. “But Sen. Obama says that the real war on terror is in Afghanistan. That’s how you’re going to secure America, because you’re going to go after the Taliban that were behind the safe haven for a re-emergence of Al Qaeda. That’s very clear.

“And isn’t it very odd, now, that this administration— which made those really rush-to-judgment decisions and really didn’t want to listen to a criticism of the path that they’re on, didn’t want to listen to other voices about being careful about going into Iraq and paying attention to Afghanistan and dealing somewhat diplomatically with Iran—this administration is now starting to deal with Iran diplomatically, particularly on the nuclear issue, and they’re starting to recommend timelines on a withdrawal from Iraq. This is what Sen. Obama has been saying for more than a year. … “It’s odd how it’s kind of flipped on itself. And it means that Sen. McCain, frankly, doesn’t get it. He’s missing the point. He’s back into overt activity, striking out, fight, fight, fight.”

On Obama’s Decision-Making Process:
“In a conversation with Sen. Obama he always wants to know, ‘How does this issue connect to that issue? What are the second- and third-order consequences if we do this?’” Sewall said. “He thinks holistically.”

On Obama’s Investment in America’s Security:
“We need to start investing in America and Americans,” Nathman said. “As an example, while we’ve been investing $10 billion a month rebuilding Iraq, Sen. Obama has made the point that they’re enjoying this wonderful windfall of $80 billion simply because of what happened to the price of oil—$80 billion that the Iraqis are not spending because they’re not politically organized enough to do it. So there has to be a governmental change.

“That $10 billion that we have been spending in Iraq isn’t an investment in America. The current administration has actually under-invested in the United States Air Force and the United States Navy, because in the future those two services will have larger and larger roles in deterrence and dissuasion and influence on new, emboldened states. Like a Venezuela. Like a North Korea. Like a Russia. Like an Iran. So that’s got to be a part of your tools to use to shape the way people act and the way they think.

… “That’s why I think Sen. McCain gets us in trouble. It’s more of the same. There isn’t a plan under Sen. McCain to end the war in Iraq. It’s called ‘we’re going to win.’ I’m not sure what we’re winning.”

On Restoring America’s Moral Authority:
“Obama is probably the only person on the planet who gets huge applause from the line ‘I taught the Constitution, I understand the Constitution, I will obey the Constitution,’” Sewall said. “He will make sure that our comportment at home and overseas is consistent with the values of the Constitution and the law, where the law is applicable. Things like making it clear that he would close down Guantanamo, guarantee basic rights and habeas corpus for detainees, and making it clear that we’re not going to torture people—full stop, no excuses, no crossed fingers, no signing statements. Those are very straightforward kinds of activities that we would expect to see from Sen. Obama right off the bat.” What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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