Obama looks more and more like any other US politician

Senator Obama is travelling to demonstrate he is a great international statesman in the making. The more he travels the more compromises he has to make, and the more hollow will seem his message of wonderful change.

Today in Berlin he has allowed himself to be billed to speak in front of the Victory Column or Siegessaule, a monument to Prussian militarism and their prowess in defeating European neighbours. It is not a wise backdrop for someone who wishes to send a message of peaceful change after the two Middle East wars of the Bush years.

More importantly, the message is no longer one of negotiate peace and withdraw American troops from far flung foreign lands. The pollsters and positioners that cluster around the big Obama cheque book have persuaded him to be tender and tough at the same time – tender on Iraq, tough on Afghanistan. They have even managed to persuade him of the Pentagon’s wish to widen the Afghan war to include the border lands of Pakistan, where terrorist now congregate beyond the reach of most American fire power. Just as Democrat Clinton became bomber Clinton under the advice of the Pentagon, reining bombs in many places in pursuance of US policy aims, so peacenik Obama is morphing rapidly into warrior Obama seeking to intensify the conflict in Afghanistan. The UK may still be in love with Obama because he is not Bush, but it is time as he approaches our shores to be more critical.

I liked his message of change and wrote favourably of his new approach to fund raising – asking for small sums from many rather than seeking big sums from the few – when he first appeared on the political radar. I thought he would do well and might go all the way to victory. I said at the time I did not think I would like his policies, although people ignored that and billed my piece as meaning Redwood wanted an Obama Presidency. I was predicting success, not backing him. I liked his use of words, his ability to reach out, and his ability to forge a new coalition of support – it was great politics. As I feared, what he is now offering should he come to power is altogether more disagreeable.

I have three charges against Obama the realist, three bones to pick with Obama the wannabe statesman. The first is I do not think he has shown a full understanding of the complexities of Middle Eastern politics. He is in danger of being neither effective peacenik nor effective warmonger, now he wants to widen the Afghan war but retreat from the Iraqi one. He has not explained how he would handle the relationship with Pakistan, and was uncomfortable in Israel. If he is unsure of the extent of his war aims and limited by positioning in how he can pursue them, it does not augur well. He will come to learn that Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are all linked – succeed it making it too hot for the terrorists in one of those, and they move to another base.

The second is his possible protectionism. His supporters often say he did not mean his protectionist sentiments, and would knuckle down like the Republican Presidents before him to try to make a success of the World Trade Talks and the latest round of reducing barriers to trade. If that is so, why can’t he bring himself to make the case for free trade? If he wants to remain new and fresh, he needs to be honest. If, on the other hand, he means what he says about protection, he will help make the world a poorer place.

The third is his likely support for higher taxes. His critics claim his social security taxes will mean a hike in the marginal rate of tax on higher incomes to 50% in the USA. That would be bad for business and bad for the USA as a place for business investment. If he is going to be yet another tax and spend Democrat it means he has not learned the lesson of Bill Clinton, who in his first term was fiscally more conservative to the benefit of the US and the world economies.

After high spend tax cutting Bush we need someone who will control spending and squeeze the size of government. The world needs a President who offers policies that encourage economic recovery. The fascinating political duel that has unfolded so far does not seem to have thrown up a candidate capable of doing what it takes to speed and broaden economic recovery. Both McCain and Obama favour more overseas expeditions by US forces, and both seemed wedded to high levels of spending. Both are concentrating more on the war on terror than the war on recession and Credit Crunch. There are probably more votes in the latter.


  1. DennisA
    July 24, 2008

    Obama has as his foreign policy advisor the still highly influential Zbigniew Brzezinski.

    He claims responsibility for entrapping the Soviets in Afghanistan and still influences US policy in the region.

    The CIA's Intervention in Afghanistan
    Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski,
    President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser

    Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998

    Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

    B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

  2. John Maszka
    July 24, 2008

    Senator Obama is a dangerous man. Moving the war on terror to Pakistan could have disastrous consequences on both the political stability in the region, and in the broader balance of power. Scholars such as Richard Betts accurately point out that beyond Iran or North Korea, “Pakistan may harbor the greatest potential danger of all.” With the current instability in Pakistan, Betts points to the danger that a pro-Taliban government would pose in a nuclear Pakistan. This is no minor point to be made. While the Shi’a in Iran are highly unlikely to proliferate WMD to their Sunni enemies, the Pakistanis harbor no such enmity toward Sunni terrorist organizations. Should a pro-Taliban or other similar type of government come to power in Pakistan, Al-Qaeda’s chances of gaining access to nuclear weapons would dramatically increase overnight.

    There are, of course, two sides to every argument; and this argument is no exception. On the one hand, some insist that American forces are needed in order to maintain political stability and to prevent such a government from rising to power. On the other hand, there are those who believe that a deliberate attack against Pakistan’s state sovereignty will only further enrage its radical population, and serve to radicalize its moderates. I offer the following in support of this latter argument:

    Pakistan has approximately 160 million people; better than half of the population of the entire Arab world. Pakistan also has some of the deepest underlying ethnic fissures in the region, which could lead to long-term disintegration of the state if exacerbated. Even with an impressive growth in GDP (second only to China in all of Asia), it could be decades before wide-spread poverty is alleviated and a stable middle class is established in Pakistan.

    Furthermore, the absence of a deeply embedded democratic system in Pakistan presents perhaps the greatest danger to stability. In this country, upon which the facade of democracy has been thrust by outside forces and the current regime came to power by coup, the army fulfills the role of “referee within the political boxing ring.” However, this referee demonstrates a “strong personal interest in the outcome of many of the fights and a strong tendency to make up the rules as he goes along.” The Pakistani army “also has a long record of either joining in the fight on one side or the other, or clubbing both boxers to the ground and taking the prize himself” (Lieven, 2006:43).

    Pakistan’s army is also unusually large. Thathiah Ravi (2006:119, 121) observes that the army has “outgrown its watchdog role to become the master of this nation state.” Ravi attributes America’s less than dependable alliance with Pakistan to the nature of its army. “Occasionally, it perceives the Pakistan Army as an inescapable ally and at other times as a threat to regional peace and [a] non-proliferation regime.” According to Ravi, India and Afghanistan blame the conflict in Kashmir and the Durand line on the Pakistan Army, accusing it of “inciting, abetting and encouraging terrorism from its soil.” Ravi also blames the “flagrant violations in nuclear proliferation by Pakistan, both as an originator and as a conduit for China and North Korea” on the Pakistan Army, because of its support for terrorists.

    The point to be made is that the stability of Pakistan depends upon maintaining the delicate balance of power both within the state of Pakistan, and in the broader region. Pakistan is not an island, it has alliances and enemies. Moving American troops into Pakistan will no doubt not only serve to radicalize its population and fuel the popular call for Jihad, it could also spark a proxy war with China that could have long-lasting economic repercussions. Focusing on the more immediate impact American troops would have on the Pakistani population; let’s consider a few past encounters:

    On January 13, 2006, the United States launched a missile strike on the village of Damadola, Pakistan. Rather than kill the targeted Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, the strike instead slaughtered 17 locals. This only served to further weaken the Musharraf government and further destabilize the entire area. In a nuclear state like Pakistan, this was not only unfortunate, it was outright stupid.

    On October 30, 2006, the Pakistani military, under pressure from the US, attacked a madrassah in the Northwest Frontier province in Pakistan. Immediately following the attack, local residents, convinced that the US military was behind the attack, burned American flags and effigies of President Bush, and shouted “Death to America!” Outraged over an attack on school children, the local residents viewed the attack as an assault against Islam.
    On November 7, 2006, a suicide bomber retaliated. Further outrage ensued when President Bush extended his condolences to the families of the victims of the suicide attack, and President Musharraf did the same, adding that terrorism will be eliminated “with an iron hand.” The point to be driven home is that the attack on the madrassah was kept as quiet as possible, while the suicide bombing was publicized as a tragedy, and one more reason to maintain the war on terror.

    Last year trouble escalated when the Pakistani government laid siege to the Red Mosque and more than 100 people were killed. “Even before his soldiers had overrun the Lal Masjid … the retaliations began.” Suicide attacks originating from both Afghan Taliban and Pakistani tribal militants targeted military convoys and a police recruiting center. Guerrilla attacks that demonstrated a shocking degree of organization and speed-not to mention strategic cunning revealed that they were orchestrated by none other than al-Qaeda’s number two man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri; a fact confirmed by Pakistani and Taliban officials. One such attack occurred on July 15, 2007, when a suicide bomber killed 24 Pakistani troops and injured some 30 others in the village of Daznaray (20 miles to the north of Miran Shah, in North Waziristan). Musharraf ordered thousands of troops into the region to attempt to restore order. But radical groups swore to retaliate against the government for its siege of the mosque and its cooperation with the United States.

    A July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concludes that “al Qaeda is resurgent in Pakistan- and more centrally organized than it has been at any time since 9/11.” The NIE reports that al-Qaeda now enjoys sanctuary in Bajaur and North Waziristan, from which they operate “a complex command, control, training and recruitment base” with an “intact hierarchy of top leadership and operational lieutenants.”

    In September 2006 Musharraf signed a peace deal with Pashtun tribal elders in North Waziristan. The deal gave pro-Taliban militants full control of security in the area. Al Qaeda provides funding, training and ideological inspiration, while Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Tribal leaders supply the manpower. These forces are so strong that last year Musharraf sent well over 100,000 trained Pakistani soldiers against them, but they were not able to prevail against them.

    The question remains, what does America do when Pakistan no longer has a Musharraf to bridge the gap? While Musharraf claims that President Bush has assured him of Pakistan’s sovereignty, Senator Obama obviously has no intention of honoring such an assurance. As it is, the Pakistanis do just enough to avoid jeopardizing U.S. support. Musharraf, who is caught between Pakistan’s dependence on American aid and loyalty to the Pakistani people, denies being George Bush’s hand-puppet. Musharraf insists that he is “200 percent certain” that the United States will not unilaterally decide to attack terrorists on Pakistani soil. What happens when we begin to do just that?

  3. Neil Craig
    July 24, 2008

    I can see no possibility Obama will get the American economy moving at remotely the rate China's is. This could be done but it would require rolling back the taxation & even more the regulatory powers of the state.

    I'm not particularly expecting McCain will either.

    And obviously the EU will do worse.

    In the 8 years of Bush Presidency the Chinese economy has grown to about 220% of what it was while the US has grown to 135% & places like Germany have barely grown at all.

    The eclipse of the western countries is probably as inevitable as the fall of the USSR was 30 years ago & for the same reason. Political leadership which puts an ideology of state control (in our case Greenery & nanny statism) ahead of economic progress.

  4. mikestallard
    July 24, 2008

    Senator Bob Dole is keeping very quiet. His comment (about the only time you leave a country is when you have won the war) resonates with me.
    I am about the same age and am, frankly, often quite surprised by younger people's ignorance and naivety, masquerading as charm and novelty.
    The only problem is whether the Senator's old body will hold up for four long, harrowing years.

    AND I liked George W Bush a lot. Why? He is Texan. He is charming. He is unflappable. He hit back hard after 9/11 and won hands down. He gave 9/11 the dignity of Pearl Harbor.
    I know this is a very unfashionable thing to say, but I hugely admire his employment of two outstanding black people – Condoleeza Rice, obviously, but also the honest soldier Colin Powell who would have made an excellent President.

  5. […] John Redwood has a good post up as Obama draws closer to our humble shores. Here’s a taster: I said at the time I did not think I would like his policies, although people ignored that and billed my piece as meaning Redwood wanted an Obama Presidency. I was predicting success, not backing him. I liked his use of words, his ability to reach out, and his ability to forge a new coalition of support – it was great politics. As I feared, what he is now offering should he come to power is altogether more disagreeable. Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  6. William B.
    July 25, 2008

    Senator McCain has, I believe, played his hand very well so far. While Senators Obama and Clinton were tearing each others hair out with vicious personal assaults Mr McCain did a little gentle touring around the country, pressing the flesh and being very careful not to give his opponents any ammunition.

    Mr Obama is at risk of trying to run before he can walk, but is doing so in a way that might not do him much harm. A speaking tour suitable for an incumbent president after 5 years in the White House cannot easily reap rewards for an inexperienced Senator. All that has happened is that he has tried to sound statesmanlike when he has not yet formed his policy on international affairs.

    He has left himself open to detailed questioning on very sophisticated issues. But does this matter in an American Presidential election? American politics is very American. The influence of foreign policy is minimal – the current President made a bit of a fool of himself when he could not remember the name of the President of Pakistan in the run-up to the 2000 election but he went on to win a second term.

    Mr Obama's more significant problem is, I believe, his current policy platform on domestic issues. The American audience is highly sceptical about big government for a simple cultural reason. The concept of "freedom" runs deep in the veins of Americans, it is reflected in their Constitution and taught in their schools. Freedom, as they see it, is the right of individuals to live their lives as they see fit without government interference unless government can prove the necessity for intervention.

    During the primary campaign Mr Obama appeared to feel the need to "out-government" Mrs Clinton: where she suggested government involvement he usually trumped her by arguing for greater governmental involvement. Each was arguing a case before a partisan audience which looks more favourably on government than does most of America. Pleas for more government were likely to sway the more extreme members of the Democratic party and these were the people they needed in the Primaries.

    It is a different game now. Mr Mcain will, I predict, continue his charm offensive while gently pressing for less government knowing he is armed at every turn by an Obama pledge for big government made during the Primary campaign. Mr Obama will also tone-down his calls for big government but, knowing how firmly he pinned his colours to the mast during the Primaries, can only go so far in this respect.

    Were I a gambling man I would have put my money on Mr McCain as soon as it was clear that Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton would fight it out to the death. Mr Obama can make speeches in every country in the world but America will vote on what he proposes for America. Mr McCain can defeat Mr Obama on domestic policy and, unless his age becomes more of an issue that it is now, I expect him to win in November.

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