In Tuesday’s column, I write about Barack Obama and argue that it’s a canard that he is too inexperienced to be a good president. I quote briefly in the column from an interview I did with him in his Senate office on Feb. 27, but here are highlights from the transcript as a whole.
Q. Let’s start with Iraq. What happens if we do pull out troops from Iraq and then everybody just starts massacring each other and we have a genocide there?
A. Look, I think that the trajectory that we’re on is unsustainable and untenable. But I’ve been very clear that we need to be as careful of getting out as we were careless getting in….. Beginning a withdrawal and redeployment doesn’t mean that we are abandoning the field. Some of those folks need to go to Afghanistan and I think the reports that have been coming out of Afghanistan . . . the last several weeks confirm that we have a lot of unfinished business there. Some of those troops could be deployed in Kuwait or in various — around the region that would still allow us to respond in cases of an emergency.
Now, having said all that, is there a risk of a temporary spike in violence in the event of a phased redeployment? Absolutely. I don’t think that — anybody who suggests that we can guarantee success or stability in Iraq at this point is not being realistic — not being honest. I think there are risks in all the options we have available to us. I simply think that the only way to change the dynamic fundamentally on the ground involves us sending a signal to the Iraqi government that we’re not going to be there in perpetuity, sending a signal to the regional powers that we’re not going to be there forever and putting the onus on them.
Q. Tell me about Iran. I saw some sort of hawkish quotes that you gave, I think in 2004, to The Chicago Tribune. [He was quoted then as saying, “My instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran.”]
A. Yeah. You know, they — I have to say they got painted as much more hawkish than they were intended. I mean essentially what is said, which I think would be incontrovertible, is that, you know, Iran’s a developing country. A nuclear weapon is a problem for the future. And that we should preserve our military options. And I think the exact quote at the time was, you know, If there was a way of disabling a nuclear facility without any collateral damage, then that would certainly be an option we’d want to take into account. You know, I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial statement. But the — but those options don’t exist. And I said in the very same article that every assessment that I’ve seen suggests that even if you are predisposed to military action, those options are extraordinarily dangerous….. More to the point, in light of what’s happening in Iraq, I would hope that the administration has learned its lesson. I certainly hope Congress has learned its lesson — that being trigger happy or having a quick trigger finger when it comes to military actions without having exhausted our diplomatic options, and without, you know, I think, having a very clear sense of what outcomes we’re looking for is a recipe for disaster. So I’ve been consistent throughout this process in saying we should talk to Iran. I think we should talk to Iran without conditions….
Q. I think it was the same article — maybe a different one — where you also sounded a little hawkish on Pakistan….[The Tribune paraphrased him on Sept. 25, 2004: “Obama said that if President Pervez Musharraf were to lose power in a coup, the United States similarly might have to consider military action in that country to destroy nuclear weapons it already possesses.”]
A. It’s a situation where I was simply saying things that I think, in Washingtonspeak, you use code for….What I said with respect to Pakistan was that, given that they’ve got a proven nuclear arsenal and that there’s been a history of their military not being as cautious as we would like them to be with respect to nuclear proliferation issues, and given the history of A.Q. Khan and what’s happened there, that you know if you had a coup in which Islamic extremists took over the Pakistani government, that would be a significant threat to U.S. security and we would want, again, to keep all our military options open. Now my hope is that we prevent that from happening or that we do everything we can to strengthen the forces of democracy and maintain good relations with Pakistan. Now, it’s a difficult thing because we have a genuine ally in Musharraf. It’s an imperfect partner. And. . . there are aspects of the Pakistani government and its relationship to its own people as well as its approach to dealing with al Qaeda and the Taliban that are real problems. And you know I guess I would probably like to see the administration send clearer signals to Pakistan that we want to work with them, we want to cooperate with them, we want to help them build their economy. We’re willing to put resources into Pakistan to improve the daily life of Pakistanis, which I think will in the long term strengthen Musharraf’s power. But in exchange, we have to be attentive to human rights, women’s rights. And we have to ask them to take issues like terrorism, nuclear proliferation, more seriously than they . . .
Q. How much difference does it make in dealing with Pakistan or Islamic rulers generally that you have a Muslim grandfather? Does that give you maybe less credibility in Alabama perhaps but more in Pakistan?
A. Probably my family background in and of itself may be less relevant, because the truth is my grandfather was Muslim but I never knew him. My father was basically an atheist or agnostic and I didn’t really know him either. But the connection that’s more direct is the four years I spent in Indonesia as a child — in a predominantly Muslim country. And although my stepfather wasn’t a practicing Muslim either, you know, I obviously was immersed in the culture that, you know, in which Islam played a role. I think it does make a difference. I think it makes people feel that I am less likely to engage in stereotypes and that I’m less likely to respond out of fear toward the Muslim world. That I’m willing and able to listen. And most importantly, I think, in our foreign policy, that I’m dealing with people on the basis of mutual dignity and respect. . . . one of the biggest problems with the Bush administration’s . . . foreign policy is a general dismissiveness, a sense that we will do what we please and we expect the world to align itself with whatever decisions that we make. And the degree to which not just the Islamic world . . .finds it to be myopic because it doesn’t recognize all the shifts of power that have taken place around the world, I think is important. But the last thing I’d — the last point I guess I would make about this, you know, my experience growing up in Indonesia or having family in small villages in Africa, I think it makes me much more mindful of the importance of issues like personal security or freedom from corruption or freedom from arbitrary violence. Because I’ve witnessed it in much more direct ways than I think the average American has witnessed it. You know, when I was growing up, and I write about this in my first book, you know, seeing beggars on the streets in front of the homes of generals who, you know, have a monopoly on all wheat imports . . . Right? And seeing the very real consequences of corruption. Or, you know, the fear that my own stepfather experienced when his visa was revoked and he was called back from studying in Hawaii because there’d been a military coup. And understanding that, you know, what we should be importing is not just an electocracy, not just sort of the form of democracy but that there’s — that the substance of electricity and water and freedom from disease and freedom from arbitrary arrest and the host of issues that people every day are struggling with, you know, for me to be attuned to that, I think, would make me a much better president.
Q. And your grandfather was Sunni?
A. No, I have no idea because my grandfather, I mean he grew up in traditional Luo culture. But fascinating, how he became Muslim was he actually was a cook for with the British army. And they then took him overseas. He initially converted to Christianity, and so I think was a Christian probably as long as he was a Muslim. And then at some point I think they may have gone to Saudi Arabia, I mean the stories are somewhat vague, he converted to Islam because I think he liked the — he was a very stern character and I think he just liked the idea that somehow, I think in the end Christianity seemed a little soft to him, the whole turn-the-other-cheek thing. So it appealed to his temperament more. I mean this is the story, I never met him, but this is the stories that I get.
Q. He had multiple wives?
A. Oh, yeah. Well, ultimately he only had two.
Q. Simultaneous though?
A. Let me think. You know, actually — no, no, I mean the Luo were polygamists, as were a lot of cultures at that time. So he would have viewed nothing wrong with having multiple wives, but I actually think he ended up having — no, I take — I think he would have had — I’m trying to just remember if they were consecutive or overlapping. His first wife, who was actually my blood grandmother, was — actually my, the woman who I call granny I see is actually a step-granny, so that’s actually his second wife. These things get a little fuzzy.
Q. Tell me about your anti-poverty work in Chicago, to what extent does that actual frustrating experience on the ground, to what extent does that inform your stance on poverty issues?
A. It informs it in a couple of ways. One, it confirms my deep-seated belief that most Americans want the same thing. It basically confirms my deep-seated belief that most people in the world want the same thing, which is shelter, the basics, necessities in life — they want their kids to succeed, they want some dignity and respect. …. It made me probably more modest in understanding that change does not happen quickly, that you have to have sustained effort over time to bring about significant change. It probably makes my views on how to bring that change about more complex than I think the ideological debates would present. Because I actually think that the interaction between government or social institutions and culture in economic development and making people’s lives better is integral. Schools being a great example. I’m a firm believer that we need to put more money into the inner-city schools. I’m also a firm believe that money alone without changes in attitude and how people think about learning, the commitment of parents to pushing their kids and the lifting of sort of anti-intellectualism, that is not unique to the inner city, it actually pervades a lot of America culture….those are all critical factors.
And so one of the interesting things when I think about the power of the presidency, I would see my role not only as somebody who’s pushing broadband into the classroom and higher teacher pay and early childhood education, but also somebody who’s using the bully pulpit to exhort our kids to take more math and science classes, and our parents to turn off the TV sets…..Just to tie it back to your original question, a lot of that comes from that experience.
Q. And your fatherhood initiative, the emphasis on family, I wondered if that was something that actually —
A. Absolutely. Same kind of thing. And I think one of the opportunities for Democrats in this election is to shed some of the constraints that we may have had from talking about what had been deemed family values. I think there’s no reason why that should be cornered by the conservatives. There’s nothing incompatible with talking about those issues and still being a strong supporter of women’s rights and still being a strong supporter of civil liberties and being forward-looking. We’re not going to replicate the 50’s, nor would we want to. But I think creating a life for children that is stable and in which they have reliable, regular adult figure in their lives that they can look up to is important.
Q. What about Darfur?
A. You know, I continue to be frustrated with our inability to act forcefully. The fact is that as long as we are still bogged down in Iraq, we have used up so much political capital and military firepower that it’s very difficult — it curtails the number of options that are available to us. But I would say that we have reached the point where a no-fly zone is probably warranted — if nothing else, just to disable the helicopter strafing or the janjaweed moving in with impunity. But doesn’t solve the long-term problem.
Now, again, this is where us having acted so unilaterally over the last six years is a real impediment to us being able to gather an alliance around a no-fly zone strategy. Because it would be very easy for Sudan to play the Muslim card to say here’s, once again, the U.S. attacking a Muslim country without the support of the world community. And al Qaeda will use it in their propaganda . . .It’s not clear to me that we’re going to get a significant amount of movement out of the Security Council for us to actually get a protective force on the ground . . . And I have to say this is where the Europeans have been very disappointing. For all the problems of the Bush administration, on this issue they’ve been better than anybody else. And it’s distressing to see the European countries that are often critical of our disregard for the underdeveloped world to see the callousness with which they’ve treated this issue.
Q. Talk about that a little bit. I asked Mark [Lippert] how an Obama administration would be different than the Bill Clinton administration, for example. And the thing that he emphasized was soft power and humanitarian efforts to boost our political capital..
A. Well, look, it’s not just humanitarian efforts. The argument I think we are going to be making in this campaign is that these investments are part of our national security strategy and that if we don’t get a handle on the ungoverned spaces around the world, if we are allowing anarchy and chaos and genocide to fester, if we are seeing the fastest growing populations end up uneducated and without prospects and without hope, and you’ve got millions of young men with caches of weapons ready to be mobilized by whatever hateful ideologies are out there, we’ve got problems. And for us to devote a portion of our security budget and strategy to investing in boreholes and schools and the training of police to obey the rule of law in countries and expanding the education of women and young girls in villages around the world, and giving them access to markets, if we can’t take what, relative to our military hardware and defense budgets, are a pittance and put some resources into these areas, we will not be secure…..Traditionally foreign aid has always been viewed — well, not always — I mean recently it has always been viewed as an afterthought. And I say more recent because George Marshall understood this. And the Marshall Plan was part of a security strategy, it wasn’t simply charity. We have to broaden that conception.
Q. One last question. Cuba. Is the embargo a failure?
A. Well, I think we’ve got a potential opportunity with Castro’s health waning to reopen the debate. We probably shouldn’t be overly optimistic that it’s going to change overnight. And I think it’s important that the United States isn’t too heavy-handed post-Castro in swooping and suggesting that somehow Cuba’s going to change immediately. I do think that it opens up the conversation among not just the United States but among Cubans both in the U.S. and in Cuba about breaking down some of the restrictions on travel and commerce….I don’t think we automatically ease those restrictions simply because Castro has died. What I think is that with Castro’s death there are going to be a new set of players, I think it’s going to be important for us to do an entire reevaluation of our strategy towards Cuba. And I think the aim should be to create a more open relationship….But that is still going to be contingent on having some desire on the part of the Cuban government to initiate that process as well.