Obama In The International Political Arena

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In this week's edition of America in the World, Greg Craig, senior adviser to Sen. Barack Obama, and Ted Koppel, NPR news analyst, discuss Obama's foreign policy priorities. What might an Obama administration mean for international politics?

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The next president faces enormous challenges around the world: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the emerging power of Russia and China, the interlocked issues of energy and national security, trade and global warming, the Middle East, Cuba and many more. All, as we've learned, with limited resources and in many places, limited influence. Many Monday's, Ted Koppel joins us to help connect the dots of international news. This week and next, we'll talk with foreign policy advisers to the major party presidential campaigns about how they see America in the world.

Today, the Democrats. What do you think an Obama administration's top priority in foreign policy ought to be? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on the blogofthenation@npr.org.

Later in the program, we'll start a series of conversations during the conventions about "This American Moment." Our first guest is Loni Guinier.

But first, America in the world. Today, Ted Koppel's in Denver with Greg Craig, a senior adviser to Senator Barack Obama. He's been a foreign policy adviser to Senator Ted Kennedy and to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. He served in the State Department as director of policy planning. You may also remember him as one of the lawyers who defended President Clinton at his impeachment trial, and welcome to you both.

Mr. GREG CRAIG (Senior Foreign Policy Adviser for Barack Obama): Good to be here.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you.

CONAN: I know Ted has a lot of questions, but Greg Craig, let me ask you first. Would an Obama administration continue the fundamental policy - the so-called strategic posture of doing whatever is necessary to make sure the United States remains the preeminent military power on the planet?

Mr. CRAIG: Well, I think his view is that the first job of a president is to protect the United States and the American people. And so whatever is required to do that, he would do as president. I think he recognizes that to proclaim you as the preeminent power in the world invites competitors, it creates animosity, so I doubt you'd hear that kind of rhetoric coming out of a President Obama.

But he certainly would like to have this country focus on the real threats to the nation, and there are some serious threats to the nation that are posed now by - frequently by non-state actors, by terrorist organizations, by groups that are not bound by governments or by borders. And I think as president, he'd be focusing on these kinds of threats, in addition to the non-traditional threats, which would include global climate change, proliferation of nuclear weapons, the threat of pandemic. I think you'd find a much more nuanced and layered foreign policy presentation with President Obama.

CONAN: Ted?

KOPPEL: Interestingly enough, eight years ago, we were hearing much the same out of George Bush. He was talking about the need for the United States to show more humility, and of course, I think the judgment now, eight years later, is that we've done anything but.

If I may, I'd like to make a statement and then ask Greg to react to it. I think we make a mistake sometimes in looking at each party that comes in when one party replaces another. And assuming that there is going to be a radical change in foreign policy, basically, foreign policy tends to be guided by the strategic interests of the United States. So maybe the right question to pose to you, Greg, is in what fashion, if any, would an Obama administration see those strategic interests as being different than the manner in which the Bush administration has seen them?

Mr. CRAIG: Well, I think you'll find a change of approach in rather well-defined ways from the last eight years. And I think you have a - the American people have a very sharp choice in approach to our role in the world in the future when you stack up Senator McCain's approach to the world versus Senator Obama's.

If you look at Senator Obama's five strategic objectives as he defined them in the most recent speech that he gave on foreign policy, he said the first objective is to end the war in Iraq. Now, slowly but surely, over the last few months, it looks as though the Bush administration is moving in that direction, as well.

This morning we read that the prime minister of Iraq wants a clear-cut deadline for the withdrawal of American troops, and we now have essentially an agreement to do that. In other words, the Bush administration's policy in Iraq has come around to what Barack Obama has been proposing for two years.

KOPPEL: Although always with that little caveat, depending on the circumstances on the ground.

Mr. CRAIG: Well, that is what prompted, I think, Prime Minister Maliki's point this morning. He is saying, this is not without conditions. I mean, this has no conditions. We want all American troops out by 2011. And I think it's going to be a sort of sticking point for the Bush administration.

Whatever the Bush administration ends up agreeing with Maliki, the outliner here is John McCain. John McCain's position is that deadlines and timetables are plans for surrender and plans for defeat, and he is prepared to keep American troops there as long as need be. He doesn't give any timeframe and he resists the idea of a deadline. So that's Barack Obama's first strategic objective, and it's very, very different from where John McCain is coming from.

CONAN: Greg Craig, let me ask you. In the past, Senator Biden, now the vice-presidential - prospective vice-presidential nominee - has supported a plan to federalize Iraq into three different regions: Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish. Would that be part of Senator Obama's plan?

Mr. CRAIG: No, it wouldn't. You know, Senator Biden brought an enormous amount of intelligence and understanding and knowledge to the discussion about Iraq. I think he has openly stated his regret for voting for the authorization in 2002. But he also, with his plan of - to federalize on one of those lines of the three parts of the country - the Kurds, the Shiite and the Sunni - I think he educated the American people. That plan, as it was discussed and debated and presented by Les Gelb and Senator Biden, had an enormously salutary and educational influence on the American people. They found out exactly why we had so many problems in Iraq with these different groups that for hundreds if not thousands of years had lived in difficulty with each other.

But I think Senator Obama's plan is quite clear, has been consistent throughout the campaign. And he wants to shift responsibility and authority and accountability on the Iraqi government, and he says the best way to do this is over a period of 16 months - depending on the circumstances on the ground, but 16 months, he will bring out one to two brigades a month, and he thinks that timetable, which is consistent with what the Iraqi timetable is, will result with American troops and the war being over 14 to 16 months after he's inaugurated.

KOPPEL: Let me try a somewhat different approach. I think sometimes we make a mistake in focusing all the attention on Iraq. The real strategic interest of the United States lies not in Iraq but in the Persian Gulf. The United States has, for the past 60 years, always had a surrogate. At times it was Iran, at times it has been Saudi Arabia. The suspicion has been that the Bush administration wanted to turn Iraq into that kind of a surrogate. Whether or not it is Iraq, the United States would still have to have a presence in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. CRAIG: And that fits into your earlier point that we still have strategic interests and whether you like it or not, our economy does depend to have - depend upon having access to oil resources and energy resources which we heavily depend on, unfortunately, in that region of the world. But I think Senator Obama has made it clear that President Obama would execute on this thought, that the Iraq War has distracted us from pursuing those strategic interests successfully and effectively. And we have actually squandered an enormous amount of energy, an enormous amount of treasure, and our military has performed heroically, but the real threats to our strategic interests in that region lie elsewhere. Primarily, he would say, in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan where there are people still functioning, still planning, still organizing. These are the people that attacked us on 9/11.

KOPPEL: I'm sorry, Neal, if you'll permit to ask one more question because...

CONAN: Go ahead, Ted Koppel, of course.

KOPPEL: I just don't understand what it is that Afghanistan has to do regarding our oil and natural gas interests in the Persian Gulf. If we pull out of Iraq, my question to you was, would we still have a military presence in the Persian Gulf? Obviously, we have a naval presence in the Gulf itself. Would there be, under an Obama administration, a military presence, if not in Iraq, then somewhere else?

Mr. CRAIG: We have bases in Kuwait. We have a base in Bahrain. We have a presence also in Qatar.

KOPPEL: Would those be expanded?

Mr. CRAIG: They would remain there, whether they'd be expanded or - they would remain there. I mean, that is not an issue, Ted.

KOPPEL: But they might be expanded.

Mr. CRAIG: They may be - they make go bigger...

KOPPEL: Right.

Mr. CRAIG: Depending upon...

KOPPEL: Because you still have Iran as a looming problem...

Mr. CRAIG: That's right.

KOPPEL: So you have to maintain a significant military presence out there.

Mr. CRAIG: And that raises even another issue, which I think affects that whole region, which is the Middle East peace process. We've now had two presidents who have declined to engage or use the resources, the leadership, the energy, the power of our example, as well as our influence in the region to advance the Middle East peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis. I think, you know, we talk about Senator Obama's recent trip to the Middle East. He came away, I think, with two very strong conclusions.

One, the centrality of Pakistan to our interests and the importance of working through our relationship with Pakistan in such a fashion that it effectively prevents those regions from being used as safe havens for terrorists who want nothing more than to attack us.

And the second issue is the centrality of the Middle East peace process, the importance of getting that kind of process back on track. And so he will not wait until the 11th hour of his tenure as president of the United States to engage in that process and to use the diplomacy and the economic resources and whatever he can as president of the United States to bring that process to a successful conclusion.

CONAN: With Ted Koppel, we're talking with Greg Craig, the senior adviser to Barack Obama about how he sees America's place in the world. And just to illustrate some of the difficulties, we're not going to know next year who the president of Pakistan will be. We're not going to know next month who the prime minister of Israel will be. And of course, we don't have anyone who could speak for all of the Palestinians. These are just some of the challenges.

If you'd like to get in on the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR news.

(Soundbite of music)

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Speaking earlier today in Iowa, Barack Obama said it's time to pressure Iran in a quote, "serious way," unquote, over its nuclear program. My job as president would be to try to make sure that we are tightening the screws diplomatically on Iran, he said, that we've mobilized the world community to go after Iran's program in a serious way to get sanctions in place so that Iran starts making a difficult calculation.

Iran, of course, just one of the many challenges likely to face the next administration in the area of foreign policy and national security. Russia, Afghanistan, China, Iraq, there are any number of issues likely to test the next president. Today, we're talking with the senior adviser to Barack Obama. Next Monday, we'll hear from the McCain campaign. Ted Koppel is with us, managing editor at the Discovery Channel and our talk of the nation news analyst many Monday's. Also, Greg Craig, senior adviser to Senator Barack Obama, on issues of national security.

If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Let's get a caller on the line. This is Carlene(ph) with us, Carlene from Rochester, New York.

CARLENE (Caller): Yes. I would like to know how Obama is going to begin the dialogue with Iran. Does he plan to do this in the first month of his administration? We know that he wants to be firm about the nuclear development, but how - what is his real plan to get in there and sit down at the table and have serious dialogue with them?

CONAN: Greg Craig?

Mr. CRAIG: Well, the details, he obviously is working on and won't complete until after he's president of the United States and then will execute. But I will tell you one thing that I think is very much on his mind. And he said this during the campaign, that engaging with Iran across the board on a variety issues, including the nuclear issue, is absolutely vital to explore areas of common ground - which there are some, particularly on the issue of Afghanistan and there may be some areas of identity and common interest.

But I think the one way that occurs to me, and I can't speak for Senator Obama on this, that you might introduce and have a much more robust engagement with Iran is on the question of Iraq. And there's no way, I think, that you can have a successful withdrawal and wind-down of the military activity in Iraq without a robust diplomatic effort engaging the neighbors in the region, as well. That would include Iran. So I would think at a much higher level, on the subject of how the United States can withdraw in a responsible way and maximize that opportunity for stability rather than creating chaos as we withdraw, that would be a topic, I think, that would be on the table that Iran would welcome conversation to it.

KOPPEL: The interesting thing about that, Greg, is that as the United States withdraws from Iraq, the Iranian influence in that country, which is already huge - arguably in the south is as great as our own if not greater - it's only going to become more felt. Now, that's one of the problems with pulling out precipitously and at the same time trying to slap down the Iranians. You can't on the one say, we need your cooperation and collaboration in keeping things quiet in Iraq, and on the other hand be putting enormous pressure on them not to do something that they say they are committed to doing.

Mr. CRAIG: Well, agreed. But let me just take issue with one part of what you said. It's not self evident to me that the Arab Shiites, which are Iraqi, necessarily have affinity with Persian Shiites, who are Iranian. Many of them went to war and gave their lives in the Iraqi-Iranian war, and with the elimination of the American occupation, it may well be that the Arab/Iraqi nationalism reasserts itself and resistance to Iran will increase. So I'm not sure I accept the premise that that as we withdraw, Iranian influence increases.

The reality is, I think, as we withdraw, the Iraqi government is going to have to be much, much, much more effective, the Iraqi military, Iraqi security forces. And they will be running into Iranian interference. In fact, if you talk to Prime Minister Maliki about Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, he's very passionate about that. So I'm not - I don't just buy the premise that you just articulated.

CONAN: Carlene, thanks very much for the call. Now let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Joshua, Joshua with us from Denver, Colorado.

JOSHUA (Caller): Yes. Hi. I actually - I'm visiting my folks in Denver. I live in Jerusalem and I was - I had the opportunity to live at Bethlehem recently, and I listened to a Palestinian woman speak about why Hamas had the voice of the people more so than Fatah. And she - it was the first time I had heard an articulate argument about that topic, and I wanted to know how would Barack Obama deal with the fact that the Palestinian leadership recognized by the United States doesn't necessarily have mandate with the Palestinian people, and how would he deal with that sort of struggle in the leadership in Palestine?

Mr. CRAIG: Well - this is Greg again. He is aware of that problem and he's watching, for that reason, very carefully, the efforts to mediate that the Egyptians are engaged in between Hamas and the Israelis. It's a problem, and the deterioration of a single and unified Palestinian leadership makes it much more difficult to reach a result. And there's clear competition for the hearts and the souls of the Palestinian people between Fatah and Hamas. And there's not a whole lot we can do necessarily to change that other than to do what we can to strengthen the ability of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority to deliver services, education, economic development...

JOSHUA: Right.

Mr. CRAIG: And perform the functions that a real government can perform.

KOPPEL: You made the point a moment ago, Greg, that the Iranians, at one point, had mutual interests with us in Afghanistan. And indeed, earlier on, not too long after 9/11, many people don't know this, the Iranians were extremely helpful in the fight against al-Qaeda and in the fight against some of the fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan.

Is it not time to stop threatening the Iranians? Is it not time to stop warning the Iranians about what's going to happen or about sanctions? We have far more that we could get from them, I think, if we were to engage them, and ironically it - unless I'm forgetting some of these echoes from the past, I thought that's what Senator Obama had in mind earlier in the campaign.

Mr. CRAIG: Well, absolutely. I mean, look, but it's not an either/or thing, Ted. You cannot forget that the Iranian rhetoric coming out of the leadership of the government of Iran and the supreme leader, as well as Ahmadinajd, is very radical, violent, threatening rhetoric. You can't ignore that nor can you ignore the fact that they have engaged in the support of terrorism in the past. Not only Hamas but Hezbollah, and that they have engaged in activities that have cost American lives.

And I'll just relay to you very interestingly, a meeting that I had with a very high-positioned Israeli official prior to our trip to Israel, where he said, there are three things on the minds of Israeli citizens these days, you'll find when you get to Israel: Iran, Iran, Iran. And we have sort of been distracted a little bit by, quite seriously, by the Russian invasion of Georgia but I can assure you that everybody in that region wakes up every morning thinking about Iran.

Now, the fact of the matter is, it would be useful to try to identify those areas where we can work with the Iranians, and on that subject, I would strongly commend this book that Ambassador Jim Dobbins has just written called, "After the Taliban," which laid out a series of incidents where the Iranians came to us and offered to help us strengthen the Afghan army - this is after the Taliban had been driven out - strengthen the central government, and we turned our back on that and ignored it. That would not happen in an Obama administration.

CONAN: Joshua, thanks for the call.

JOSHUA: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's go next to Andre(ph), Andre calling us from Brentwood in California. Andre, you still there? Andre seems to have left us. So let's skip past that and go on to - this is Judy. Judy with us from Portland, Oregon,

JUDY (Caller): Hi. How are you? This is great to be able to hear Ted Koppel. I mean, why can't Ted Koppel run for president? But anyway, I just so want to see a change, but I'm like the little girl in "A Miracle on 34th Street," who doesn't believe in Santa until she finally sees Kris Kringle's cane in the house and finally goes, I believe, I believe.

And it's like, is he really going to be able to get partisan support, or are they just going to sit there - whoever it is, whether it's Republicans or maybe even some stupid Democrats - that are going to sit there and bite off their nose despite their face? Just because he's new and young, hey, we'll show him, we're just not going to go along with what he wants even though it's the best thing for us.

CONAN: On what - I understand the point about partisanship. Across the board or in terms of foreign policy - What issue are you worried about, Judy?

JUDY: I think foreign policy because right now, I mean, you know, we're in everybody's backyard, seemingly. I mean - and I think in general, just in general, it's just not foreign policy that we've got a problem with. I mean, it's everything. I just - thank you.

CONAN: OK, Judy. All right, thanks very much. Greg Craig, do you have a response to that?

Mr. CRAIG: Well, I would just - Judy, it's a good point, and I think a lot of American citizens share your concern, and I hope that the frustration doesn't overwhelm them and keep them away from participating in this election.

If we've learned anything over the last eight years, it is that presidential elections matter a lot. We would not be in this situation, in my judgment, today, if Al Gore had been elected in 2000, or John Kerry had been elected in 2004. I think that they have a different approach. They have - they are much more knowledgeable, much more curious about the world, much more willing to listen to allies, much more willing to work with multinational organizations.

CONAN: But Judy's point, you honestly think it would be less partisan?

Mr. CRAIG: Well, first of all, I think the president will chart a different course. And secondly, I think this president, if it's Obama, is going to go out of his way to include prominent Republicans in the administration. I think - for example, just yesterday, in a speech that he gave, he identified Senator Richard Lugar as one of the people that he would be closely consulting with. And that's not just a gesture. He's worked with Dick Lugar on non-proliferation issues from the day he arrived in the United States Senate. And it was not Obama that was knocking on Dick Lugar's door. Senator Lugar appreciated and enjoyed working with Barack Obama, and they actually made an enormous amount of progress and made contribution, passed laws that had an affect on non-proliferation.

So Senator Obama, I think, is comfortable working with Republicans. Chuck Hagel traveled with him to the Middle East. And I just believe you're going to have a much broader bipartisan engagement in an Obama administration.

KOPPEL: Obama supporters tend to like the analogy with Jack Kennedy. But one of the analogies that deserves attention is if elected, the Soviets, back in the early 1960s when Jack Kennedy was elected, thought they had a softy, an inexperienced man on their hands, and they tested him. They tested him in Berlin. They tested him in Cuba. And it seems reasonable to ask whether you are not afraid that the same kind of thing is going to happen in an Obama administration, that people will look at this young, relatively inexperienced in foreign policy terms, new president, if he is elected, that he will be tested.

Mr. CRAIG: I think we have to expect that. It's not a matter of fearing it is going to happen. And I think we - you recalled, Ted, I think, that it was at that Vienna meeting between Kruschof(ph) and...

KOPPEL: Kennedy.

Mr. CRAIG: And Kennedy, where obviously, Kruschof came and bullied him and intimidated him and shouted at him in these one-on-one conversations and absolutely astounded President Kennedy, who did not believe that that's the way international relations was conducted. He was surprised and he was not prepared.

I think you'll find that a President Obama will wake up every morning worried about that and will be sensitive to it. I think it could come from the Russians, it could come from the Iranians, it could come from variety of different locations.

KOPPEL: What that leads to, of course, sometimes, is overreaction in an effort to convince the world that he is as tough as he needs to be.

Mr. CRAIG: That's true. That's true. Well, look, as we've seen in the last eight years, the most experienced people, the Cheneys, the Rumsfelds, sometimes make mistakes. And what's really important is not just the amount of time you spend in Washington, D.C., but having some judgment. And I what we've seen in Senator Obama's career and his life, he has great judgment. I think what we've also got with Joe Biden as a vice-presidential candidate is we got someone who understands and has been in the midst of foreign policy, international relations, national security crises. And so you got that experienced element, you know, first-hand experience element in it, too. It's important, and it's not easy.

CONAN: You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan along with Ted Koppel, and we're talking with Greg Craig, a senior adviser to Senator Barack Obama, about America and the world. And as we talk about Georgia - obviously, the situation there, how would Senator Obama have handled the situation any differently than the Bush administration did, do you think?

Mr. CRAIG: Well, the first thing to be said about this is that this was an incident, a crisis waiting to happen. This was something that was predictable, that both the Russians and the Georgians had been threatening some kind of action with the Abkahzians or the South Ossetians for a matter of months. And it was brought to boil recently over the recognition of Kosovo.

So I think I would have said this: the Bush administration could have predicted this and didn't. And had they had people more focused on what was going on, that sort of 48-hour period - I think this was a crisis that perhaps could have been avoided. That's the first thing to be said.

KOPPEL: Can you give us a little bit of an insight? I have heard stories to the effect that Senator Obama has as many as 200 foreign policy advisers. Is that an exaggeration? He probably has 2,000, but the ones he actually wants...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRAIG: No, no. I think you should think of the campaign structure, when it comes to foreign policy, as a wheel with a hub and spokes. And at the hub, there's probably five or ten sort of key foreign policy advisers, core foreign policy advisers, that connect on a regular basis to the campaign, which has got some full-time people, two or three full-time foreign policy advisers that Senator Obama talks to every day.

The hub, then, of the foreign policy apparatus, then connects through a series of working groups, task forces that are regional as well as functional. We have one on non-proliferation, we have one on, you know, climate change. And so that's where you get the numbers. Each one of these working groups has 10 or 15, 20. Our Europe group now is up to 40 people. There's a lot going on in the European agenda, which includes Afghanistan because of NATO, which includes the ballistic missile defense system because of our recent agreement with Poland. And so that's how you build it up to 200, and not each one of those 200 advisers has direct, personal conversation with Barack Obama. They all contribute enormous amount of expertise and knowledge.

CONAN: And Greg Craig, I guess that would make you a foreign policy spokesman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRAIG: A hub.

CONAN: A hub. Thanks very much for being with us today. We appreciate it.

Mr. CRAIG: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Greg Craig is a senior adviser to Senator Barack Obama on foreign policy. Ted Koppel will be back with us next week as we talk with an equivalent from the McCain campaign. Stay with us for "This American Moment." Talk of the Nation, NPR News.

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