Obama's Candidacy Through A Foreign Policy Lens 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 supports Obama.
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Obama's Candidacy Through A Foreign Policy Lens

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Obama's Candidacy Through A Foreign Policy Lens

Obama's Candidacy Through A Foreign Policy Lens

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, broadcasting today from the new Newseum in Washington D.C. in the Knight Studios. And here are headlines from some of the stories we're following today at NPR News. The Federal Reserve has slashed a key interest rate by half a percentage point. The Federal Funds rate which is the interest rate banks charge each other for overnight loans was cut down to one percent and tonight on Prime Time television, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama airs a 30-minute ad called Barack Obama, American Stories. The campaign is buying the time from three of the four major broadcast networks for nearly a million dollars each. Details on those stories and of course much more later today on All Things Considered.

Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, superstitions. Barack Obama shoots hoop on Election Days when he plays, he wins. John McCain reportedly won't go anywhere without his lucky pen or feather or coin and his lucky friend will be on-hand Election Day. We'll talk about our superstitious minds. That's tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. As the presidential election approaches, we've asked four people to make the case for the two major Party candidates on foreign and domestic policy. Earlier this week, we heard from Michael Gerson and John McWhorter on domestic issues. In a moment, Sarah Sewall, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and a senior foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign will join us to tell us why she supports the Democratic candidate on foreign policy. On tomorrow's program, we'll hear from former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger for John McCain. Obama supporters make the case for your candidate on foreign policy.

Our phone number 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. And you can post your final argument on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Sarah Sewall is the faculty director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. A senior foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign. During the Clinton administration, she was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance and she joins us now from Cambridge, Massachusetts and it's nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.

Ms. SARAH SEWALL (Senior Foreign Policy Advisor, Obama Campaign): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: How would you describe Barack Obama's national security strategy and what appeals to you about it?

Ms. SEWALL: Well, Barack Obama starts from the premise that the 21st Century is a really different place than the world during the Cold War era and I think that's the fundamental point of departure for him both in terms of distinguishing him from the current Bush Administration and distinguishing him from his opponent in the general election. I mean, this is a 21st Century in which we have a really different set of challenges to face as a nation and the work of keeping Americans safe and keeping the country secure is more complex and much more of a challenge that requires really wise judgments.

The old approaches from the Cold War in which the world was divided into black and white and in which the use of military force was really how we thought about the kind of - the foreign policy simply won't wash it, it won't sustain American leadership, and it won't keep Americans safe. So, I think he starts from the premise that the world has really changed, and we need a leader that understands the world as it is today, not the world as they wish it were.

CONAN: He early on in the campaign said that he would meet with the leaders of rogue nations and the first year of his presidency and he's backed off some of that in more recent statements. Nevertheless, do you think it was rash for him to say that in the first year of his presidency, he would meet with people like Hugo Chavez or Mahmud Ahmadinejad?

Ms. SEWALL: You know, Neal what so interesting about the kinds of questions that I'm often asked about Senator Obama is people have an assumption that somehow he's taken this positions that were rash or naive, and I think it's worth really delving into the record. When you think about the decisions that he's made and the ways in which they were perceived at the time and then you look what has actually happened in terms of the Bush administration's actions, the rhetoric of his opponents, the conventional wisdom coming around. I would argue. He has influenced the foreign policy debate in ways that are really unprecedented. So start with his opposition to the Iraq war which at the time was a politically costly position to take. It was a position that he has sustained. He was the first to call for a time table and now, where are we? The Iraqi government and the Bush administration are working towards a time table for withdrawal.

When you think about Afghanistan, Barack Obama was one of the first to be pointing out that we had really lost our strategic focus as a country and the war on terror that we were neglecting Afghanistan and that border with Pakistan at our peril and that we really needed to keep our eye on the fight and we needed to send not only more troops but really re-craft a whole different strategy there. And now, that's what everyone including the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff is saying. If you look at Pakistan, Barack Obama pointed out the dangers of unqualifiedly supporting President Musharraf and ignoring the underpinnings of a Democratic society, he called for a new relationship, he said we should condition aid. Well where are we now, we have a new democratically-elected leader, Musharraf is gone. We're hopefully going to be rethinking our aid policy.

Finally, the peace about talking with Iran is part of a broader construct that Senator Obama has illustrated to be consistent with American foreign policy principles, that is to say you shouldn't be afraid to talk to those with whom you disagree when you know they may hate you. It's a very smart way to figure out what your options are, what motivates them and to strengthen your hands diplomatically when you pursue other options whether the sanctions are ultimately the use of force.

So you know, in all of these respects he was taking positions that people sort of suggested were naive and in fact, they've become as with the case of Iran and the administration beginning to begin that dialog, the change in Pakistan, the refocus on Afghanistan, the time table in Iraq, they've become the conventionalism and in some cases the policies of the Bush administration. So, I think the real question is why haven't people recognized the extraordinary judgment that this individual has shown in foreign policy?

CONAN: One of the criticisms in McCain campaign can make is that that - well, the beginning of the war - OK, he did oppose the beginning of the war. He also opposed the surge, argued humanly against it. Said it was the wrong policy at the wrong time and you can think of it what you will. It certainly not the only fact that has helped turned thing around in Iraq. But it is certainly one of the factors that helped turned this around in Iraq.

Ms. SEWALL: Well, you know, that's another interesting case where people have really redefined the bar for what success in the surge means. If you know, Barack Obama has said that General Petraeus had done a magnificent job with the help of incredible courage and tell him on the part of our forces in reducing civilian casualties in the Baghdad area. Absolutely. He's very proud of that. But if you remember the original emphasis for the surge, it was to enable a different method of reconciliation and to fundamentally change the political equation in Iraq and that hasn't happened.

So while he's very impressed by the role that American forces have played and impressed by the leadership that General Petraeus showed in turning that situation around as you said, there were many factors including Muqtada al Sadr's position, the sons of Iraq coming around and changing their role in the fight. But more importantly, the fundamental measure of merit which was political transformation hasn't occurred and the only way to do that, Senator Obama argues is to make it clear that we're going to be withdrawing U.S. forces but we have to do it as responsibly as possible and be as responsible getting out as we were irresponsible getting in.

CONAN: We've asked listeners to call and make their best case for Barack Obama, their final argument on foreign policy, 800-989-8255, you can also weigh in by email, talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Rich, and Rich is on the line with us from Rochester in New York.

RICH (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

RICH: I think the case - I think she's laid out a very good case for Obama, but I think also - I think Barack Obama's a very conciliatory person. George Bush came in to the White House with very strong and I think pretty ignorant views of the world. I think Barack Obama has a much more inclusive view of the world, he has the willingness to work with the U.N. and the U.N. is - if you ask me is only straightly directly proportional to the support that it gets from the U.S. and its allies. And also, I think his willingness to work very close with the Europe and to recognize when we should and should not be using preemptive force.

In fact, I think he's basically against preemptive force. I think those are some of the things that have been tossed to the side by the Bush White House, they've almost acted in a bully like fashion with the world. I mean they tell the world we don't need you until this assisted situation that we need them then we go begging. I think we should always start working the rest of the world. And if the situation wanted then we go on our own. But I think we go on really backwards, and I think that has hurt us standing in the world.

CONAN: Sometimes, Rich, the unilateralism of the Bush administration is a bit overstated and sometimes the multilateralism of Barack Obama campaign can be overstated but there's no question Sarah Sewall that Barack Obama much more of a multilateralistic.

Ms. SEWALL: Well I think you know, Rich is onto an even deeper point which really has to do with the temperament and judgment that Barack Obama brings to the position of Commander in Chief and he sees things in the long term, you know none of this short term feel-good you know, lash out but create a much bigger set of problems for the nation to deal with afterwards. He is fundamentally concerned with what will work in the long term not just what will satisfy domestic political sensibilities in the short term and he really thinks about problems in an integrated way which is I think why Rich was talking about pre-disposition to recognize the value of allies and partnerships in doing the very important security work that needs to occur on half - not just of Americans but of the larger community as well.

He's also someone who thinks about second and third order effects which is why you know he is concerned about energy not simply as a question of the health of the economy and that's indeed health of the economy, he's argued as a central part of the health of our security policy. But also because the dependents that we have on foreign oil fundamentally affects our foreign policy. So, these are all important aspects of how he looks at the world and makes his decisions that really I think gives him the tenure of judgment that we need and his temperament which is steady and focused and mature, and I think in stark contrast to some others on the political stage which tend to be erratic and distracted. I mean, he has a pragmatism and a sense of the grainiest and the nuance of the world that is precisely what we need in a leader for this century.

CONAN: Rich, thanks for the call.

RICH: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: So long. The United States government, this present administration has recently been launching a series of missile strikes on suspected terrorist bases in western part of Pakistan, you know excuse me across the border there was also one raid by U.S. forces carried in by helicopter there which prompted strong protests from Islamabad. Recently, the United States special forces apparently carried out a similar anti-terrorist raid into Syria. Barack Obama has said that he might be tempted to go into Western Pakistan, if necessary, go after Osama bin Laden if the Pakistani forces were unable or unwilling to do that themselves. How would an Obama administration be different from a policy that we're seeing now?

Ms. SEWALL: Well, what Senator Obama has said about Pakistan is more considerably more nuanced I think. I mean, it's very clear and he's reiterated the point that both Syria and Pakistan have obligations as nation states for the activity that occurs within their borders. But his view about Pakistan is really much more complex than simply seeing it as a question of strikes against the boarder. But I want to make a distinction. This is another point in which Barack Obama has been criticized, but I think, extremely, naively criticized which is he said that if we have actionable intelligence against senior leadership of al Qaeda and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to act, we will. And those kinds of criticisms levied against him for saying that he would act to take action against those who masterminded and carried out the 9/11 attacks.

I think this speaks of a fundamental oddity about the kinds of criticisms that are leveled at him. His view about Pakistan is one in which we have to forge a new partnership, one in which we don't provide blank check, some 10 billion dollars worth of aids since 9/11 and pursuing the strategic partnership without a lot to show for it. Senator Obama's views that Pakistan has to be reinvigorated and convinced of the need to take action to secure its boarders, that's a very important piece of securing American interests in combating Al-Qaida.

CONAN: We're talking with Sarah Sewall, senior foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign and the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University making her final argument for Barack Obama on foreign policy. Tomorrow, Lawrence Eagleburger, former secretary of state for John McCain. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Wayne on the line. Wayne with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

WAYNE (Caller): Hello. Hi.

CONAN: Well, thank you. Go ahead, Wayne.

WAYNE: Basically, my final argument is for actually leaving Iraq and that is the major focus of the foreign policy. Iraq is the major recruiting tool for those who would want to harm us around the world and our occupation there ending would be a great tool for ending that recruitment. Also, sitting down and talking with countries that are trying to acquire nuclear weapons. This administration took the stance that he wasn't going to talk to anyone and that hasn't worked in many efforts to quit nuclear proliferation. And then in the recent weeks, they actually did some talking with North Korea and we made some progress so that line of reasoning seems like it will increase our standing around the world.

CONAN: And Sarah Sewall, if you would. I would like to specifically get into Iraq where the Bush administration again is negotiating a status of forces agreement that would require the withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011. Is that a timetable that an Obama administration would be satisfied with? I'm sorry, we're looking for an answer from Sarah, Wayne, I apologize. Go ahead, Ms. Sewall.

Ms. SEWALL: Well, what Barack Obama has said is that we cannot solve the political problems in Iraq and that we need to focus their minds on doing precisely that. The only way to do that is to begin a draw down that in his view would be significantly faster than that but also a retain a residual force that would carry out core missions including the protection of embassies. And so, his view of the whole Iraq situation is one in which Iraq is not unimportant, but we have to recognize the limits of our ability to fix Iraq and as he said to General Petraeus, his responsibility as Commander-in-Chief is not to think simply about Iraq but to think about the overall strategic posture of the country and the overall security of the nation.

And by that calculation, the amount of treasure that is being spent in Iraq, even as the Iraqi sit on tens of billions of dollars of surplus for which they are not spending their own money on reconstruction, the amount of focus of our foreign policy and the amount of enmity that have incurred on the part of other states by virtue of our posture in Iraq all indicate that a strategic view of American interests demands that we begin our exit from Iraq immediately and the difference between Senator Obama and President Bush and John McCain is that they're tactical and they are willing to focus at this at the expense of our larger strategic interests.

CONAN: Sarah Sewall, thank you very much for your time today.

Ms. SEWALL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Sarah Sewall, faculty director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard and a senior policy adviser to the Obama campaign. Tomorrow, as we mentioned, Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, the former Secretary of State, will join us to make the case for John McCain based on his foreign policy agenda. And before we sign off today, this is our last regular broadcast from the Newseum. I want to take a minute to say thank you to all the people here for their hospitality and for making our weekly visits possible.

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