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Obama’s Foreign Vision Is Exciting — And Also Naive

The foreign policy offered by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is bold, idealistic, muscular, expansive, Kennedy-esque.

It also is, as his Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) charges, naive and irresponsible. It sounds like the vision of a freshman Senator. Or, possibly, a Texas governor with no foreign policy experience. [IMGCAP(1)]

Obama promises that, as president, he will do it all — visit on an unconditional basis with five of the world’s worst dictators in his first year; get out of Iraq and fight harder in Afghanistan and, maybe, Pakistan; rebuild old U.S. alliances and establish new ones; and double U.S. foreign aid and improve U.S. intelligence-gathering while abandoning nasty means like warrantless wiretapping.

He will “not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened.” And he also would use force “beyond self-defense … to support friends, participate in stability and reconstruction operations or confront mass atrocities.”

And that’s not all. He also will get control of the world’s loose nukes, reach out to the Muslim world in his first 100 days, close down Guantanamo Bay and give full constitutional rights to enemy combatants, rally the world to address global climate change, and kill and capture terrorists anywhere on the globe, but never, ever kidnap or torture any.

Of course, it’s perfectly legitimate for a presidential candidate to lay down a broad foreign policy vision, as Obama did in his terrorism speech Wednesday and in a Foreign Affairs article earlier this year.

But completely missing from Obama’s breathtaking agenda is any sense of priorities, limits, difficulties — or humility. His pronouncements exude hubris and inexperience.

Obama cannot speak or write without excoriating President Bush. His deepest dig on Wednesday was “because of a war in Iraq that should never have been authorized and should never have been waged, we are now less safe than we were before 9/11.”

Besides being untrue — most Americans hardly knew there was an al-Qaida threat before Sept. 11, 2001 — his unremitting criticism of Bush will make it difficult for Obama to do what he says he wants to: reunite the nation behind difficult common purposes.

He accused Clinton, in their testy exchanges after the July 24 CNN-YouTube debate, of pursuing a foreign policy that is “Bush lite.” In fact, it’s Obama who most recalls Bush, notably his overambitious, we-can-implant-democracy-anywhere 2004 inaugural address.

Clinton, by contrast, conveyed a sense — well-earned — of having been around the Oval Office when hard choices had to be made. She had to know from her husband’s bitter experience convening a last-ditch Mideast summit at Camp David in 2000 that it’s dangerous for a president to undertake personal diplomacy “without preconditions.”

Any Democratic president — and any smart Republican, too — will abandon Bush’s first term policy of non-negotiation with adversaries. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in fact, has abandoned it already.

But Obama seems to think it would be useful to, as he said, “sit down with” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and “send a strong message that Israel is our friend, that we will assist in their security and that we won’t find nuclear weapons acceptable.”

That intention recalls President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 effort in Vienna to convince Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that capitalism was superior to communism, which resulted in a summit disaster, an intensified Cold War and, perhaps, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Obama and his advisers argue that President Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev despite calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” But Reagan’s first summit was in 1985, nearly five years after he took office and after he had acquired the leverage of the Star Wars program and Pershing II missiles in Europe.

Another flaw in Obama’s inveterate Bush-bashing — Clinton’s, too — is that they set themselves up to make a key Bush-like error. On taking office, Bush rejected everything Clintonian — including Bill Clinton’s concern about terrorism — leading to disastrous consequences.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an earlier debate, at least had the grace to say that America “is safer than it was before 9/11, although not as safe as it should be.”

The good news in Obama’s terrorism speech yesterday was that he actually shares Bush’s sense of the menace presented by global terrorism. “Just because the president misrepresents our enemies does not mean that we don’t have them,” he said, and promised to “wage the war that has to be won.”

The most arresting item in the speech was his vow that “if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets [in Pakistan] and President [Pervez] Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

That’s bold, but also possibly destabilizing for Pakistan. And why, by the same logic, would Obama not be willing to bomb factories in Iran that produce explosively formed projectiles used against U.S. troops in Iraq, or send commandos in to attack terrorist base camps in Syria?

He might, but I doubt it. Why? Because that would be in support of the Iraq War, which Obama (and Clinton) want to get out of. Even though al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, says that Iraq is “the place of greatest struggle” against the U.S., Democrats want to abandon it and move to what they think will be an easier conflict in Afghanistan.

It may not be so easy, as the British and the Soviets discovered. And it may be even harder if they leave behind a regional calamity in Iraq. Obama says he would withdraw “carefully,” but he wants no combat forces left by March 31, 2008. Who will fight al-Qaida in Iraq after that?

There are many attractive ideas in Obama’s agenda, including a new language-savvy Americas Voice Corps to work in the Muslim world and programs to fight poverty and ignorance. Obama wants America to be “the relentless opponent of terror and tyranny and the light of hope to the world.”

It all echoes John F. Kennedy — “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” — and Obama clearly means to be the torchbearer for a new generation. But America also needs a president with the experience to avoid a Bay of Pigs, a Vietnam or an Iraq War.

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