Today's date:
Spring 2008

Only a Political Solution for Iraq

Barack Obama is a Democratic candidate for the US presidency. Beverly Davis spoke with Obama earlier this year on the campaign trail for her "OffTheBus" column for The Huffington Post.

NPQ | What would you do to reduce the oil dependency in the country?

Barack Obama | I've been a strong promoter of increased fuel-efficiency standards in cars. If we were able to just increase our fuel efficiency to just 40 miles per gallon we would end up saving the equivalent of all the oil we import from the Persian Gulf.

I think we should combine that with what I call a national low carbon fuel standard, where we're encouraging a greater use in clean energy blends. Those two things alone would save us enormous amounts of oil and would also make significant reduction in greenhouse gasses.

I gave this speech to a group of carmakers in Detroit. There wasn't a lot of applause.

NPQ | Many in this country and others around the world are skeptical about the United States going out and talking about human rights when we see what's going on in our own country.

In Bernard-Henri Levy's book "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville," he noted the danger of the tyranny of the majority in America's version of democracy -- the majority overwhelming and denying the rights of the minority -- and now we have the suspension of habeas corpus, Guantanamo, CIA spying on US citizens. As president, what are you going to do about these issues?

Obama | A lot of the encroachments on civil liberties have been done not by legislation but through executive order, so one of the things I want to do is first of all have an attorney general that believes in protecting constitutional rights and the separation of powers and have him or her and the Justice Department engage in a thorough evaluation of our executive orders. Restoring habeas corpus, closing Guantanamo, strengthening the role of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court in reviewing wiretap requests -- those are all areas where we can more rapidly roll back some of the more damaging aspects of President Bush's approach.

NPQ | If you become president, you would take office in January '09. How soon would you withdraw troops in that case, and how many troops would you leave?

Obama | I would begin immediately an orderly withdrawal, one to two brigades per month. At that pace, we would have our combat troops out the next year. We would still have a force in the region, although how many in Iraq proper versus outside of Iraq would be in part determined by recommendations by the commanders. Their function would be to carry out protective measures for our embassy and our diplomats and civilians there.

We would also want to have a strike force capable of going after al-Qaida in Iraq and we would be open to providing training to a non-sectarian Iraqi security force. But what we can't do is to train sectarians who are essentially just fueling civil war. None of this makes any sense. The premise of drawing down troops is not just that America can't continue to finance this war, it's also that it's the only way to bring about security long-term in the region, based on political accommodations among the various factions there. It's my strong belief that until we get political accommodation we're not going to see any real stability inside Iraq and we'll continue to see instability in the region.

NPQ | What part do you see the neighboring states playing in a political solution?

Obama | I think they're going to be critical. We've got to talk directly with Iran and Syria as well as our friends such as Jordan in the region and insist that they all have a stake in stabilizing Iraq.

Iran and Syria have been destabilizing influences, but part of the reason they have been able to engage in this destabilizing behavior is that the US is there to keep a lid on things. They can't afford to have Iraq collapse into an all-out civil war that potentially spills over into their nations and they know that.

They already have huge numbers of refugees, certainly Syria is already housing hundreds of thousands of refugees, and it's putting a strain on them. Jordan is potentially a destabilizing situation. So, we've got to convene a robust diplomatic effort in the region and that includes the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

NPQ | At the same time Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Is there enough being done to prevent Iran from doing that and bringing Iran into compliance?

Obama | No. Our phased withdrawal from Iraq will facilitate better relationships with our allies such as France, and we need to work with Russia and China and India and other countries that have more influence over Iran than we do to tighten up sanctions. But it's hard for us to do that when our position in Iraq so dominates how people view this country.

NPQ | You mentioned Russia. Do you perceive a cold peace, if not another cold war, with Russia, given the deterioration of democracy in that country and constraints on the media?

Obama | Obviously, the direction that (Russian president Vladimir) Putin has taken the government has been discouraging and, in part, it's been facilitated by an over-optimistic view of the transition both under (Boris) Yeltsin and then under Putin. We didn't get in there early enough and shore up some of the democratic forces there.

I think there was a toleration of corruption, and it's been unfortunate that George W. Bush turned a blind eye and sent signals early on that there would be no consequences for (Putin's) anti-democratic behavior.

Now, at this point, flush with petro-dollars, Putin is largely ignoring any human rights imperatives, and probably the best thing we can do is to try to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, soften up the oil market and work in coordination with our European allies to find areas where we can cooperate with Russia on such issues as anti-terrorism, Iran and non-proliferation.

But (we need to) send a clear signal to (the Russians) that the direction they are moving in when it comes to civil society, cracking down on journalism, for example, is contrary to becoming a part of the community of nations that is in their long-term self-interest.

NPQ | George Bush looked into Putin's eyes and said he saw his soul. Are you going to be an emotional president like that? What is your process of actually building relationships? What values do you take into that process?

Obama | I don't think foreign policy is the place to be emotional and try to look into the souls of people. Foreign policy is the area where you have to be clear-eyed and realistic in your approach. But I do think that our foreign policy should also be driven by a broader set of values and ideals, a belief in liberty and human rights and the dignity of all people.

We have to understand that there are limits to our ability to project those values through coercion. Rather they should be projected through example and through diplomatic pressure, economic, political and cultural influence. That is how we can make a difference.

You start with the principle that you listen to everyone, that you talk to your friends as well as your foes. I'm not a believer that somehow we are punishing countries by refusing to talk to them. I think you also, though, understand that not all countries are going to share our values. We have to be clear about what we stand for and what we believe in, and have a healthy skepticism about the motives and interests of many of the countries with which we're dealing. But that doesn't mean we can't make hardheaded assessments about areas of cooperation and mutual self-interest.