At 46, Democratic Sen. Barack Hussein Obama of Illinois is the youngest of the 16 Republican and Democratic candidates for the 2008 presidency. (The next-youngest are Mike Huckabee, the 52-year-old GOP candidate and former Arkansas governor, and John Edwards, the 54-year-old Democrat, former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate in 2004). Obama is also a first-term senator with just two years’ service (he previously served eight years as a state senator in Illinois). His father is black, making Obama the only black senator currently in the Senate. Obama’s middle name, which means “the good, handsome one,” is of Arab origin, making him the only presidential candidate even remotely connected to anything Middle Eastern or Arab, although his father is actually Kenyan.
With so many unconventional characteristics in his profile, Obama has made conscious efforts to appear nothing like a dove, especially when it comes to Middle Eastern issues. At times, especially in his discussions of the “war on terror,” Iran and the U.S. military, he can sound more hawkish than Hillary Clinton or the rest of the Democratic field, and as hawkish as some Republicans.
The often-repeated criticism of Obama as long on rhetoric and short on ideas is more often justified than not. Obama also tries to have it both ways on many issues—withdrawing from Iraq but not entirely, negotiating with Iran but with bombing Iran always in mind, pledging to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but firmly maintaining an Israel-first approach.
Obama frequently refers to the fact that unlike Sens. Clinton, Edwards, Joe Biden, Christopher Dodd and most of the GOP candidates, he did not support Congress’ 2002 authorization for war on Iraq. Obama, however, was an Illinois state senator at the time. Still, he’s taken a decidedly and consistently anti-war stance based on the assumption that Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis are more likely to settle their differences without an American presence than under American occupation—especially if they are pressured into doing so by the threat of an imminent American withdrawal. “And the only effective way to apply this pressure,” Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs, “is to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces, with the goal of removing all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008—a date consistent with the goal set by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.” Nevertheless, Obama is opposed to a complete withdrawal: “We should leave behind only a minimal over-the-horizon military force in the region to protect American personnel and facilities, continue training Iraqi security forces, and root out al Qaeda.” Yet Obama wants to “make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq.”
Obama won plaudits and criticism for two major stands on Iran. He said the nuclear option against Iran should not be on the table even as the conventional-attack option does remain there. And he maintains that negotiating directly with Iran is a must: “Although we must not rule out using military force,” Obama wrote, “we should not hesitate to talk directly to Iran. Our diplomacy should aim to raise the cost for Iran of continuing its nuclear program by applying tougher sanctions and increasing pressure from its key trading partners. The world must work to stop Iran’s uranium-enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” In exchange, Obama offers diplomatic relations with Iran, “economic engagement” and “security assurances,” removing the notion of “regime change” from America’s Iran policy.
Obama is an unabashed hawk on the war on terror, as well as on further building up the U.S. military (he wants to add 65,000 soldiers to the army and 27,000 marines). “To defeat al Qaeda,” he says, “I will build a twenty-first-century military and twenty-first-century partnerships as strong as the anticommunist alliance that won the Cold War to stay on the offense everywhere from Djibouti to Kandahar.” The comparison of the war on al-Qaeda to the Cold War is a page out of the foreign policy books of GOP candidates John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani. Obama adds: “I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary.” Unlike his willingness to negotiate with Iran, Obama does not say that he would negotiate with al-Qaeda’s leadership. Nor does he say whether he would use pre-emptive force, following the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack.