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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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Posted by Paul

11:10 AM, Feb 26, 2008

Are they SERIOUS? REALLY? Holy cow! If Obama manges to convince the majority of the U.S. public how to think systemically, rather than selfishly, then maybe this crazy idea has a remote chance of success... but who am I kidding. 50% of my international systems class peers FAILED - and those were kids that already had a good idea about complex systems... to think that Obama can educate 300 million people about the most complex system imaginable, well then maybe he is the Messiah... or... not. Maybe he is just a guy that was a state senator two years ago and has no idea how systems theory works....

Posted by Particle Man

11:39 AM, Feb 26, 2008

That is a straw man Paul. A president need not be a professor to succeed in foreign policy. The skills in addition to high intellect (which Obama most certainly has) that trump knowing all, include good judgment in terms of who you listen to and who you bring close to advise you. How well you demonstrate for the American people what the best path forward is such that you can show broad support and how well you sell a policy abroad create great diplomatic advantage. Said another way, with clear support from the American people, and starting from a place of respect internationally, gaining support from other nations is will be far easier for President Obama than it ever was for GW and Clinton starts with Clinton baggage both in terms of policies past and in terms of being limited to the old team of advisers.

Posted by upchuck

11:47 AM, Feb 26, 2008

"How does that (American people engaged in the decision-making) happen in real life, though?"

This idea makes perfect sense and the notion that a president should follow the will of the people is at the very heart of how a real democracy should work. I don't suggest that public opinion should dictate who is appointed to ambassador positions or specific military maneuvers, but in the broader questions of whether to pursue war or negotiations, free trade or fair trade policies the president should be working for our interests.

Perhaps a good example is when Bush was about to attack Iraq and the biggest pre-war protest in world history was happening. He should have thought that maybe the American people want me to look at other options... Like making more time available for UN inspections, listening to other CIA and foreign policy experts who already were saying the WMD "intelligence" was faulty or dubious at best, or later on by listening to our military leaders (rather than firing them) who wanted to set up elections sooner rather then installing Bremmer to strip the Iraqi's public resources to go up on the corporate auction block.

Posted by outsider

12:50 PM, Feb 26, 2008

I applaud the concept of openness in government, although it may be practically impossible to achieve. America has real, dangerous enemies, and we can't show them all the cards in our hand. But Obama has energized the electorate, and if he becomes President, they'll expect him to follow through on his promises and respond to what the people want, instead of being the patsy of corporate leaders and oil men. it won't be easy to reverse the wayward Presidential path that's been followed the last eight years (and in truth for many years before that), but someone's got to try.

Posted by Paul

1:28 PM, Feb 26, 2008

Can anyone remember the silent majority of the 60's/70's? Just because there are lots of loud mouths making a ruckus doesn't mean that 'they' represent the will of the people.

To paraphrase Anton Ego - Do you have any perspective?

Posted by Particle Man

2:37 PM, Feb 26, 2008

So what is your point Paul? Is it that Obama is a loudmouth? And as for the silent majority, I always thought they grew in the 80's and 90's. This is the whole point in supporting a candidate who brings people back as voters as participants in our form of government. Do you see this as a negative?

Posted by CarolJean

7:06 AM, Feb 27, 2008

Obama's allegiance to his pastor who has traveled with the likes of Farrakhan makes me suspicious about his pro Israel/Jewish stance? Is Obama's Middle East foreign policy he has outlined as a presidential candidate for real? I am questioning his sincerity because of the people closest to him who have been his spiritual influences.

The Clintons have demonstrated their allegence to the Middle East by working toward peace in the region.

Posted by P

12:37 PM, Feb 27, 2008

It is hillarious watching the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot once again! Sen. Obama is a joke! A sad, really stupid joke. The man is a blank canvass upon which Democrats, especially the young ones, paint their hopes and dreams. He doesn't say anything, NOTHING! He simply strings a bunch of platitudes together and people go wild. At least he has done America a great favor; he knocked her holiness off in the primaries. We won't have to listen to her shrill screams any longer. For that, and that alone, he deserves our sincere thanks.

Posted by upchuck

10:28 PM, Mar 01, 2008

"The Clintons have demonstrated their allegence to the Middle East by working toward peace in the region"

...by carrying out the longest sustained bombing campaign since viet nam against iraq and a sanctions regime that killed hundreds of thousands in the 1990s.

Posted by athathyy

1:09 AM, Mar 02, 2008

Many of my friends had wanted to consider voting for Sen Obama but the media is not doing its job in following up with him about many questions that they (and I ) and other voters have on the following:

-Times UK investigation 2/26/08 article –did British Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi really lend millions of $ to Barack Obama’s fundraiser weeks before Mansion land deal in Chicago?-

-What is the true relationship (if any exists) between Mr Auchi, Mr. Rezko and Sen. Obama?

-How much $ does Sen. Obama receive from various industry sectors –not lobbyists? How does HE define a Lobbyist?
--How much does he receive from in-house lobbyists who work solely for one company, union,trade association, or other group? I understand that these people may lobby but their contributions are grouped in the totals (acc to a recent article posted in CJR)for the various industries they represent, along with contributions from other employees in the sector, their relatives, whatever PAC money has been raised, and donations from trade and professional associations.
-On what basis did the politically controversial former advisor to former president Jimmy Carter Zbigniew Brzezinski endorse Sen. Obama last summer, for president?
-Some claim that it was Brezinski’s misguided actions (during the 1960’s and ‘70’s in Afghanistan/Soviet Union conflict) that led to the present day military strength buildup of Osama Bin Ladin’s –including others- terrorist groups. Any comments from Sen. Obama about this?
-On what basis did Sen. Obama select Brzezinski to serve as a foreign policy advisor for him?
-During this weeks’ debate-Sen. Obama brought up his Terri Schiavo experience as one in which he regrets supporting the unanimously-arrived at decision of the Senate. How does he feel about the way in which the decision was arrived at (Voice votes because 97 Senators were out of town and only 3 were on the floor during the vote)
-What does Se. Obama think about the fact that the law which was "unanimously" approved by Voice Vote was a violation of the separation of powers. Many historians and constitutional lawyers argued that Congress had exceeded its powers by substituting its judgment for that of the courts and directing the courts . Judge Stanley Francis Birch Agreed.

-Who decided that there would be no formal record of this vote and what does Sen. Obama think about this? Does he view it as going against his position of supporting transparency and accountability in government? Why or why not?

-Sen Obama sponsored a bill in February 2007 which defined a legal structure to prosecute State Dept. contractor crimes in US courts. There is a good possibility it will not pass until the next pres. takes power. Even if it passes, there are serious unresolved questions about how contractor crimes can be monitored effectively. The US Embassy in Iraq is slated to become the largest embassy in the world. If Sen. Obama as president maintains that embassy (and its army of diplomats and US personnel going in and out of the Green Zone) a significant armed force will be required for protection. That job is presently being contracted out to private contractors including Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy. Based upon the wording of the sponsored bill (which is considered weak in the area of providing accountability measures ) some legal experts and Justice Department officials claim that the new president may be forced to continue using these “unaccountable” forces in Iraq. What is Sen. Obama’s opinion of this statement?

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