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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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February 26, 2008 10:41 AM

A little substance on the campaign trail

Posted by David Postman

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Covering a campaign can be a bit like binging on junk food. (I have experience in both.) A snarky press release or the latest candidate’s mishap is as alluring as a glazed, old-fashioned doughnut. But just as man cannot live on sugar alone, reporters cannot thrive for long riding the waves of charges and counter-charges of who did the latest flip or flop. So maybe it was a bit of penance that brought me to Ohio State University yesterday.

Four of Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisors appeared at the Michael E. Mortiz College of Law. It was the same day that Hillary Clinton delivered a major foreign policy address in Washington, D.C.

This really was about as far as you could get from the screaming crowds Obama and Clinton have been drawing in Ohio. The auditorium was maybe a quarter-full with about 60 people at most. They were there to hear from Susan Rice, a former Clinton White House advisor and assistant secretary of state for African affairs; former Navy Sec. Richard Danzig, Ret. Air Force Gen. Scott Gration and Denis McDonough, a top foreign policy advisor to former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.

The four began by making fairly standard campaign pitches for Obama, although with a foreign policy slant. Gration, for example, talked about accompanying Obama on a tour of Africa that included a visit to the site where South African leader Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned. Gration said:

What Nelson Mandela could do in his country, Barack Obama could do in ours.

But they then took two hours of questions from the audience. A young woman said she was asking her question on behalf of her brother who was serving in the Israeli Defense Force. She wanted to know how Obama could envision a Palestinian state adjacent to Israel at the same time he says he has a “zero tolerance policy for terrorism.”

McDonough said Obama sees no contradiction in the two goals.

He starts with a very simple premise that any agreement has to guarantee security for the Israelis and peace and security for the Palestinians.
He said Obama will not deal with Hamas until it renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel’s right to exist and agrees to abide by any peace agreement. Until then “Hamas is not a reliable partner for any kind of peace process.”

The next questioner saw the problem from the other side. He wanted to know what Obama would do about what he termed illegal Israeli settlements designed “to ensure a viable Palestinian state never exists.”

Does Barack Obama have the moral courage to denounce them for what they are and incur the wrath of AIPAC? I know it’s a sensitive issue. But that issue needs to be addressed and the public-financed occupation of Palestine is a black eye for the United States.

McDonough handled that one, too, acknowledging the depth and breadth of feelings represented by the two questions. He said that Obama won't dictate the final details of a settlement as it relates to borders.

“These are final status issues that the parties need to work out themselves,” he said.

Obama does believe that for a viable Palestinian state to survive, Israel will have to “come to terms with the settlements.” At the same time, Palestinians will have to “come to a reinterpretation of the right of return.” That’s the belief that Palestinian refugees can return to the land their families held prior to Israeli independence.

There were fewer questions about Iraq than I would have expected. But it did come up, with specific questions about what Obama’s plan calls for in case of a genocide in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“We’ll have to go back in there if there is a genocide,” McDonough said. But he said Obama would work to build an international force.

Rice said that a return to Iraq “would not be the Occupation, Phase Two.”

It will be a very brief, very time-limited, mission-specific effort to protect innocent citizens.

Some of the questioners were undecided about who to vote for in Ohio’s March 4 primary, and others seemed to be looking for assurance that their vote for Obama was the right one to see progress with their particular world concern.

Danzig ended with a note of reality about what Obama can accomplish and cautioned about the “tendency to look at him in messianic terms.”

There are plenty of uncertainties and risk, he said.

This is not the coming of the messiah and we are not going to be able to convert loaves into fishes. And as Barack Obama says himself repeatedly, it will be hard, I want to add, risky. The odds are that some of the things that are envisioned will not be able to come to pass.

This is not a messianic being or a perfect strategy. You have to ask yourself which of the candidates affords the greatest likelihood of pointing us in the right direction.

Rice argued that one difference in an Obama administration would be a more open process of deciding foreign policy. In D.C. that is historically decided “behind closed doors with so-called experts and with very little regard for the perspectives and concerns of the American people.”

She said Obama wants the “American people engaged in the decision-making and to frankly diminish the power of conventional wisdom which has so often led us in the wrong direction.”

How does that happen in real life, though? It’s one thing to hold a campaign-season forum with top advisors. But can foreign policy and national security be shaped by public comment? That sounds a bit more like city hall than something Foggy Bottom could ever be convinced to do.

Rice said Obama’s pledge that all his cabinet officers would hold online “fireside chats” and the televising of policy discussions would go a long way to making the public feel connected. And she said that she could envision town hall meeting like the one here that would deal with foreign policy.

Everywhere I go I find audiences asking incredibly intelligent and hard questions. They know what’s going on. They’re following it in many different media now. And every one of them has a useful perspective to bring to the debate.

If we didn’t have arrogant politicians and policymakers and a process that was designed to be exclusive and dismissive, we’d be able take better account of this. And then we have to give the people confidence that their opinions matter and that they have an opportunity to be heard.

Does Rice think career diplomats, military leaders and White House advisors can be made to listen to average people?

It depends on what kind of leadership you have. If there’s a message from the president that ‘My cabinet and my national security advisors, my military leadership, will be open and available to talk to the American people about this,’ then they’ll do it.

And some of them may even want to do it.

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