Obama, an Opportunistic Hawk?

When Barack Obama was criticized as dovish because he declared himself willing to sit down with the enemies of the state, he responded by turning suddenly hawkish -- calling for U.S. military strikes within Pakistan. If even small drops in his approval rating can lead Obama to re-invent himself, he will have a hard time keeping his supporters. A policy of talking to one and all fits well into the overarching community-building, unifier theme of his campaign, but not a policy of invading nations. Also, to bomb anyone to show that one is tough has some very unfortunate neocon overtones. That is the way Bush was egged on early in his term to seem tough by beating up on Saddam's Iraq.

Obama was asked during the Democratic candidates debate on July 23 whether he would "commit to meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, without preconditions, within one year [of his election]."

He responded, without any qualification: "I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous."

This was no one day slip-up. Obama reiterated this position on the campaign trail in the following days, although occasionally toughening up a bit this conciliatory position, asserting: "I am confident we can go before the world and talk to the worst dictators and tell them we don't believe in your values...but if you are willing to work with us in a better direction then we're willing to talk." Obama's campaign staff continued to push the point. Samantha Power, a key Obama campaign adviser, wrote a memo to the press, noting "by any measure, not talking has not worked... 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."

Critics jumped all over these dovish statements. Hillary Clinton labeled them "irresponsible and frankly naive." Her campaign issued a statement declaring that they believed it was "a mistake to commit the power and prestige of America's presidency years ahead of time by making such a blanket commitment." The Economist, along with several other publications, saw this debate as a clash of "innocence" (not a flattering term for a potential global leader) and "experience." General Wesley Clark commented: "When you meet leaders of foreign governments, you have to know what you're going to be talking about. And it generally helps if there's the kind of buildup where the staffs can resolve things." Other leading opinion makers joined in along similar lines.

Worse, from Obama's viewpoint, he stumbled onto the wrong side of the growing consensus that the nation cannot afford another president who will learn the job while in office. Indeed, Hillary's lead over Obama increased in the days that followed his dovish statements, up to a substantial 14 points among Democrats. Respondents ranked "her experience and competence" as the single most significant factor out of six in determining their preference.

Unfortunately, in response, Senator Obama, who has shown up to this point that he possesses a firm inner core of values that one seeks in public leaders -- a core that many of his opponents clearly are lacking -- suddenly turned hawkish. On August 1, just a week after his statement at the Democrats' debate, Obama called for military action inside Pakistan: "There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. ... If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act, we will."

Samantha Power, Obama's leading foreign policy adviser, added "...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."

Soon thereafter Obama mucked things up even further. First, he ruled out the use of nuclear weapons in the region as part of the effort to defeat terrorism and root out Osama bin Laden, a position that all doves and even most hawks would agree to. He then retreated from this position: "Let me scratch that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table." Still later, he clarified this clarification, leaving in the air the very dangerous notion that somehow nuclear arms may be considered.

One can argue the merits of sending American troops into Pakistan to fight terrorists. As a former commando I can tell you that sending special forces into the very treacherous terrain of the areas at issue, dominated by fierce tribes hostile to the U.S. and who know the lay of the land, would be a very risky mission. An alternative to ground forces -- targeted bombing -- would have limited success, because it's very difficult to track down the locations of the terrorists. Also it is hard to undermine the infrastructure of stone-age economies. Moreover, such unilateral U.S. actions would inflame the already mounting opposition to the U.S. in Pakistan. An American attack inside Pakistan could lead to the formation of a government that is much more favorable to the Taliban than the current one, and which would be in control of that nation's nuclear weapons. Finally, such unilateral military action would further embitter the majority of citizens of the world who are already offended by U.S. military interventions elsewhere. In his hawkish pronouncement last week, Obama neglected to address any of these significant geo-political challenges that his new position calls forward.

What troubles me is not only the idea of invading terrorist havens in Pakistan, but the sudden change of heart from the normally steady Senator. I met Senator Obama in a private home in Bethesda, MD, and was very taken with his emphasis on community-building as a key theme. (I admit that I was unduly flattered when he mentioned my books on the subject.) I stand with Senator Obama in favoring in principle the extension of this key idea beyond our borders, both in working with our allies and in trying to bring our adversaries into at least some kind of dialogue (although, under what conditions and how one proceeds requires some deliberation). Since he launched his presidential campaign earlier this year, and even before that in both of his books, Senator Obama has stuck consistently to this communitarian message. It is hence quite disconcerting when he suddenly flashes some claws, especially since they are such a sudden and unbecoming acquisition. Such out of character toughness makes him seem like an opportunistic hack.

The notion that the U.S. president should sound and act tough evokes a very unhappy memory of the early days of the neocons, when they pushed Governor Bush to go to war in Iraq.

We can only hope that Obama and his advisers will let Obama be Obama, a community builder, not a bomb thrower.

Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at the George Washington University and, most recently, the author of Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy.