Obama's Candidacy Through A Foreign Policy Lens

Sarah Sewall

hide captionSarah Sewall is the senior foreign policy adviser for the Obama campaign.

Harvard University

As the presidential election approaches, Talk of the Nation asks guests to make the case for McCain or Obama on the basis of foreign and domestic policy credentials. Sarah Sewall, senior foreign policy adviser for the Obama campaign, explains why she thinks Obama is the right choice in 2008.

Sewall was formerly the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance under Bill Clinton. She is faculty director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.

Obama Adviser Outlines Foreign Policy Views

The first presidential debate is still scheduled for Friday — and although the news may be focused on the economy, the topic is foreign policy.

Alex Chadwick spoke with Susan Rice, Barack Obama's foreign policy adviser, about the Democratic presidential nominee's plans for Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea and Russia, as well what she sees as the biggest policy failures of the Bush administration.

Rice, who also served as assistant secretary of state for President Bill Clinton, explained that Obama's top foreign policy priority is getting U.S. troops out of Iraq.

"His view is that the first thing we have to do is to responsibly and safely redeploy our forces from Iraq, so that we can be in a position to put ... at least two additional combat brigades into Afghanistan," Rice said.

In addition to redeploying forces to Afghanistan, Obama would offer economic and political support to the country in order to counteract "Taliban and al-Qaida, who hit us on 9/11, and who are resurgent in Afghanistan and Pakistan," she said.

She said Obama would aim to redeploy the troops from Iraq over 16 months at a pace of one to two combat brigades per month. If the Iraqis agreed, the U.S. would leave behind residual forces, she explained, which would be focused on three missions:

To "protect our embassy and civilians operating in Iraq; continue any operations that may be necessary to target remaining al-Qaida remnants; and finally, continue the mission of training the Iraqi security forces."

Working With Pakistan

The Bush administration is currently sending strike teams into Pakistan to combat the threat from Taliban and al-Qaida forces along that country's border with Afghanistan. Pakistan strongly objects.

If Obama were to take office, "his aim would be to cooperate to the maximum extent with Pakistan to take out Taliban and al-Qaida elements inside their territory that threaten both Pakistan and the United States and, indeed, our forces inside of Afghanistan," Rice said.

If Pakistan's government does not cooperate, however, she says Obama is not opposed to other action.

"If there are high value al-Qaida targets like Osama bin Laden that we have actionable intelligence about — meaning that we know where they are and when they will be there — and the Pakistani government is unwilling or unable to act on that intelligence, a President Obama will," she said.

North Korea

When it comes to policy on North Korea, the Bush administration has failed, she said. She attributes this to President Bush's unwillingness to engage directly with North Korean leaders.

"When the Bush administration took office, our intelligence community estimates that North Korea had enough material to make one to two nuclear weapons," she said. "Now they estimate that North Korea has enough for some eight to 10 nuclear weapons."

Should Obama become president, he would combine stronger sanctions with "diplomatic means to the maximum extent possible."

Iran

Rice faulted President Bush for refusing to negotiate with Iran directly and insisting "that Iran suspend its nuclear activities before we sit down and talk to them." This, she argued, "has enabled Iran to pursue its nuclear program without any impediment."

She said that Obama believes there is "every indication" that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear bomb. And she credited the Bush administration with the "useful step" of sending "Undersecretary of State Bill Burns to join with our European partners, the Chinese and the Russians in sitting down at the table with the Iranian negotiator." Burns attended those Geneva talks in July.

Obama would continue these efforts and implement "tougher sanctions than the administration has pursued to date," she said.

Russia

On Russia, she said Obama believes the U.S. needs "to have the strongest possible cooperation with our partners and allies in Europe to send a very clear message to Russia that their actions have consequences [and] that their current behavior will not be tolerated."

If Russia were to isolate itself further, she said, "we will be united with our European partners in confronting that reality and working to turn Russia around."

She criticized Republican presidential nominee John McCain's approach. "[McCain] advocated and continues to advocate throwing Russia out of the G8, a move that our European partners in the G8 strongly oppose," she said.

Such a move, she said, could have drastic consequences: "With this kind of leadership and that kind of approach, we are not going to be in a position to muster the kind of cooperation that we need and expect from our allies ... to effectively confront a Russia that seems at least to be testing a very unsettling course."

Read Madeleine Brand's interview with Sen. McCain's foreign policy adviser.

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