Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Park Land | All I Ever Needed! Was the Mus... »

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Obama’s Got a (Foreign Policy) Posse

posted by on July 16 at 12:15 PM

Last week was spent trying to find a new conventional wisdom on where Obama and McCain actually stand on Iraq and Afghanistan—with surrogates for both sides engaging in questions of whether Obama will weep under his desk as Iraq falls to Iranian troops and conjuring visions of a wild-eyed John McCain dropping from a B-52, whooping it up on a nuclear bomb bound for Tehran. Perhaps now some sanity is in order.

Way back in March, Spencer Ackerman wrote a piece in The American Prospect assessing what an Obama foreign policy would actually look like. After rolling out the brightest minds—an odd mix of creaking Mandarins (Lee Hamilton), an activist-turned-counterinsurgency-expert (Sarah Sewall), and a mix of dogooder-leftwing-policy-types (Susan Rice)—he gets to the core of the ‘new’ philosophy:

This ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. “I don’t think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does,” says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. “Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking],” she says. “If you start with that, it explains why it’s not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It’s not a human way to live. It’s graceless—an affront to your sense of dignity.” …

What’s typically neglected in these arguments is the simple insight that democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen. Democracy, in other words, is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs. It is much harder to provide that sense of dignity than to hold an election in Baghdad or Gaza and declare oneself shocked when illiberal forces triumph. “Look at why the baddies win these elections,” Power says. “It’s because [populations are] living in climates of fear.” U.S. policy, she continues, should be “about meeting people where they’re at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That’s the swamp that needs draining. If we’re to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we’re not [providing].”

This is why, Obama’s advisers argue, national security depends in large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the U.S. will never be able to destroy al-Qaeda. Extremists will forever be able to demagogue conditions of misery, making continued U.S. involvement in asymmetric warfare an increasingly counterproductive exercise — because killing one terrorist creates five more in his place. “It’s about attacking pools of potential terrorism around the globe,” Gration says. “Look at Africa, with 900 million people, half of whom are under 18. I’m concerned that unless you start creating jobs and livelihoods we will have real big problems on our hands in ten to fifteen years.”

Or, in other words: If you have a home, a job, and enough to feed your family, the chances that you’ll be swayed by a man who would like you to blow up both yourself and a bus full of strangers diminish greatly. If this sounds like familiar territory, it should—it was at the core of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program to end the social problems caused by poverty, and has been the foreign policy solution urged by the Chomsky-spectrum of the left for the better part of three decades. Isolated from their recruitment pool, extremists depend more and more on their own hardened ideologues, and become both less relevant to their home populations and easier to capture.

This is an insanely simplified version of Ackerman’s essay, and it’s a best case scenario that may never happen: Even since the writing of the piece, Obama has been forced into rhetoric that is far to the right of what it previously was in order to assuage fears that he’s a secret Muslim terrorist. But what the piece does offer is a clear look at where Obama wants to take the world, and certainly the contrast to what a President McCain might propose.

RSS icon Comments


We won't support ball-less NO-Bama and will re-defeat him in November!!!

Posted by clintonsarmy | July 16, 2008 12:54 PM

Isn't there some sort of provision for blocking spammers like the above?

Posted by Greg | July 16, 2008 1:06 PM

This is interesting ... but strikingly at odds with the entire corpus of empirical study of extremism and terrorism.

Maybe it's just somebody's misunderstanding of somebody's misunderstanding of something somebody said.

Posted by RonK, Seattle | July 16, 2008 1:37 PM

I've read Ms. Power's book "The Problem From Hell". Very good. But, I highly doubt her approach to Foreign Policy would work in the real world. Allieviating poverty and ignorance ("dignity promotion") are honorable goals but they won't stop Al-Qaeda from operating. The Clinton Administration had an engaging policy. It didn't prevent at least two genocides and the Somalia debacle. It takes a generational change in attitudes about female empowerment, democracy, human development and religion/culture. It's not just poverty and ignorance that's creating jihadists. Never forget about 1/3 of the 9/11 bombers came from wealthy, cultivated and educated families.

Posted by lark | July 16, 2008 1:46 PM

@2 - no, they can't block the McSame office apparently ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 16, 2008 2:33 PM

Part of respecting a people is not empowering their oppressors. When the aide we send goes to the corrupt and never reaches the people, they suspect we are not respecting them. Combine that with resentment for our satiated lifestyles and you get a class dedicated to our destruction.

Posted by Vince | July 16, 2008 2:53 PM

Yuo poverty does not cause terrorism. OBL very, very rich, and many of the ones we caught were highly educated.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh very poor and produces no terrorists.

this is not to say we shouldn't use our sfoter power of doing right in the Muslim world of course.

Oh and Obama's speech didn't focus on ending poverty but on building up our military strength in Afg. to beat the fuckers with violence and force.

Posted by PC | July 16, 2008 4:25 PM

um, actually, having spent a bit of time in the middle east I can confirm that there is something to this dignity idea. The countries that are stable are countries where the gov't (not always a democracy, by the way) has decided that it is really important to make sure people have jobs and security and can feed their families (Jordan, for example. Whose stability is being challenged as the influx of wealthy foreigners forces the cost of living higher and higher). And yes, Osama bin Laden was from an extremely wealthy family, but he didn't get on our terrorist list until after he had a falling out with our friends in the Saudi Royal Family. You also may have noticed that he wasn't on any crashing planes. And it was only AFTER the falling out with the Sauds that he started to target the US. As for the identities of the people involved in the WTC attacks, I remember reading that nearly all of them were Saudi, and 1 from Lebanon. Even if you are wealthy and from KSA, you still don't have a lot of opportunities, the power distribution there is very very bizarre, and religion and drifting are among the only real hobbies available to an 18-25 year old guy. And let's just say the fellow from Lebanon was not from the Hariri family.

Posted by nicole | July 17, 2008 6:40 AM

I don't disagree with you. I, too spent time in the Near East and 3 years in a predominately Muslim country. I am merely saying "soft power" or "killing 'em with kindness" doesn't necessarily work. There is an entrenched culture that even with the great wealth of the few doesn't auger change for all. Turkey, Jordan and perhaps Dubai are relatively progressive in that order. But, Iran, KSA, Yemen and others are not. Of them, KSA is probably the most reactionary conservative country on earth. And, one of the wealthiest.

Posted by lark | July 17, 2008 7:57 AM

Comments Closed

Comments are closed on this post.