Defending Obama’s Foreign Policy

Defending Obama’s Foreign Policy

When Robert Dreyfuss attacks Obama’s policies on Afghanistan, it’s not helpful to the progressive cause.


I’m sorry to disagree with my respected friend Robert Dreyfuss, but his recent attack on Barack Obama’s hawkishness shows a real bias in his usually objective approach. I think of it as differences between the pro-Obama left, the anti-Obama left, and the indifferent-to-Obama left. Based on his writing, Dreyfuss belongs somewhere in the latter categories and so do those who welcome his views.

First, there is a tell-tale imbalance in his thinking. Dreyfuss denounces Obama’s views on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Georgia and the general “war on terror.” But in his sweeping criticism, he completely omits Obama’s repetitive attack on John McCain for being wrong on Iraq, and his defense of dialogue with enemies–two positions consistent with the stance Obama took in 2002. Dreyfuss may consider the Iraq difference a minor matter, but it’s the issue that has driven Obama and divided him from McCain all along.

What is the Iraq difference? Two differences are paramount: first, antiwar activists and antiwar opinion from below made Obama’s campaign viable from the beginning, at a time when McCain was lobbying to bomb Baghdad and many Democrats were going along; second, Obama’s pledge to withdraw combat troops in sixteen months, while not the “out now” demand of the antiwar movement, is generally supported by most Americans and most Iraqis, and leaves Bush-McCain isolated in their opposition to deadlines. So a victory for Obama means a peace mandate, while a victory for McCain-Palin means a defeat on this central issue. A peace mandate matters.

Belittling the Iraq difference reflects a much greater omission, ignoring the gaping differences between the two candidates with thirty-six days until the election. On the basis what he’s written, Dreyfuss ignores this context. He simply wants Obama to move further left, beyond positions Obama has taken since last year. No other litmus test of legitimacy is offered. No important differences with McCain-Palin are mentioned.

It is as if frustration with Obama is greater than anything some people on the left feel towards McCain. I feel their pain, but let me offer this formula: no candidate will move further left than their base demands and public opinion allows.

And for the record: I have voiced and written criticisms of Obama on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Georgia, Colombia and Cuba. But I always have done so in the context of being a progressive for Obama, not a progressive against Obama or a progressive who doesn’t care much who wins this election. There are too many on the left who, while acknowledging they will vote for Obama, are more comfortable in opposition or abstention.

I personally wish he hadn’t, but Obama has decided to close off any possible attacks from the right or the media on his national security policies and credentials. I believe that this stance will have serious consequences, like John Kennedy encountered at the Bay of Pigs. But I also know that his position is a political one, and can be (and should be) taken up by the left after election day.

There’s a genuine movement out there, Nation readers. Out where I live, 600 Latinos went to Nevada this weekend to campaign for Obama, and that’s a tiny example of what is going on. In the days ahead, the Republicans will attack Obama for being “too liberal” and his “ties to the left,” while doing everything possible to block the unprecedented voter turnout coming on November 4. The left should be among those defending the vote and, in doing so, will find itself aligned with the Obama voter base.

It’s been my experience that the American left should be deeply involved when the united African-American community is on the rise, when unprecedented numbers of young people are mobilizing, when the poor, the working class and the middle-class are on the receiving end of the shock doctrine. I come out of the Deep South civil rights experience, which perhaps explains the depth of feeling that I have towards this election. The primary reason this election remains close at all is racism, whether open, covert or simply the racism of the perplexed.

But when the faith-based right has been promised a Supreme Court majority by McCain-Palin, I think the left should be in full battle mode. Dreyfuss should know this, too–based on his long-ago involvement in the Indochina Peace Campaign, which committed civil disobedience in Saigon, organized in Middle America, lobbied Congress and supported George McGovern. I hope he puts up an Obama lawn sign now. We both can take up picket signs later.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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