THE SPINE AUGUST 3, 2007
Barack Obama may not be, as he appears to think he is, the savviest foreign policy type among the Democratic aspirants for the presidency. But it's hard to think of someone else who's savvier. Yes, I understand: Joe Biden knows more about general aspects (and also many specific details) of diplomacy and diplomatic strategy. But the mandate of heaven will not fall on him.
Barack got into trouble, justifiably, when he abjured America's obligation even to prevent genocide wherever it can, in Iraq and Darfur...and presumably other places where the instinct of mass murder will raise its head. (I wonder what Samantha Power thinks of this defection from the anti-genocidal persuasion.) I've written about this with a heavy heart since I believe the senator to be a morally serious person. I liked him very much when we met. I like how he disciplines and restrains his figure as a star. I would like to return to his fold.
Now, Hillary Clinton is 21 points ahead of him in the Democratic polls. In a certain way, I suppose I am closest to her (though, in fact, not really close at all) on the Iraq war. But I do not really know whether she is coming or going. I guess I was closest to her some months ago. Right now she wants to suck up to the Democratic primary voters, and there's apparently no way to do that except by making all kinds of symbolic gestures demanding congressional involvement in actual war planning. How's that for handing the Bush administration an inevitable constitutional victory?
Then there was the silly donnybrook over whether the next president should talk to ugliest leaders of the ugliest states. Well, in retrospect, certainly, Chamberlain shouldn't have spoken with Hitler. But the Brit spoke with the Nazi because the prime minister was willing to give the chancellor parts of Czechoslovakia. Under the right circumstances, any political leader would talk with a swine, like Yitzhak Rabin did with Yassir Arafat. The question is not to whom you'd talk; it's about what you'd say. In any case, Obama positioned himself as the guy willing to talk with anyone. Hillary positioned herself as the woman willing to confer, but only under the right circumstances. These are actually abstractions. Maybe Obama won some more votes on the left. The left is always willing to talk with people who hate America. Maybe Hillary won some votes in the center or right. They surmise that there are some leaders with whom she wouldn't sit down at a table.
Barack Obama made his next contentious splash with his assertion that he might actually go after Al Qaeda in Pakistan with U.S. troops. Not, by the way, to invade and fight the Pakistani army. The right exploded. And so did the left. It was the strangest congealment of enemies. The most preposterous volleys came from the right. Pakistan is an independent sovereign state. As if independence and sovereignty ever should restrain justified American force. What is particularly intriguing is that Obama's notion derives from the critiques, implicit and explicit, of the 9/11 Commission. The Commission came down very hard on the Clinton administration for not having the courage and developing the skills to go after Bin Laden in Afghanistan.
The fact is that Pakistan is also not a nation-state. Its population is so riven, historically and by interest, by tribe and sect that it can never function as a legitimate entity with responsibility and dignity. Pakistan remains a glimmer in the eyes of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In the real world, it is a contradiction of its weathered aspirations.