My living room, like many I imagine, fell silent after last Friday's presidential debate ticked to a close. The question on everyone's mind: Why had Obama not delivered the knock-out punch?
Here's my take, even though it pains me to say it: On foreign policy, Obama appears to have no new ideas. He is partially recycling his past eureka moments, while partially aping some of the Bush administration's recent successes. After all, he still hammers us with his shrewd foresight on the Iraq war. But that was a decision he made over six years ago -- why hold that up as your main qualification to be president? He talks on end about negotiating with any head of state without preconditions (but with preparations) -- a pronouncement that was groundbreaking when he first made it over a year ago. And he loves to mention his foresight on the hubbub in Pakistan, and Washington's right to pursue terrorists there if Islamabad is unable or unwilling to take them out. But again, this was last summer's news (and besides, Sarah Palin seems to support your policy, so how wise can it be?).
These ideas have lost their oomph among discerning voters. No one is likely to vote for you because you want to break bread with Hugo Chavez or bomb the bejesus out of Waziristan. How have your thoughts evolved? Or maybe they haven't? To say that you will sit down with the Iranians is nothing short of the status quo (we are already talking with the Iranians).
Moreover, to keep beating the Iraq-is-distracting-us-from-capturing-bin-Laden drum is the same dull beat we heard from John Kerry in 2004. If Americans were unconvinced then, when the Iraq war was a shambles, why would they soak up this Democratic talking point now? Plus, every terrorism expert I talk to says capturing Bin Laden will do next to nothing to cripple al-Qaeda -- so why this obsession over offing him, at the expense of addressing other serious issues? Plus, while I'm happy you are not blindly kneeling before the David Petraeus-is-god altar, your plan to just send more U.S. forces to Afghanistan is not sufficient. More troops in harm's way, after all, would just mean more American and Afghan civilian casualties, which would translate into greater anti-U.S. sentiment and more terrorists in the long run. That is not to say more troops are not needed, but how will you, Obama, specifically cajole our NATO allies to join the cause in greater numbers? You were mum on this issue in Berlin, you were mum on this issue last Friday night. Speak up.
On the Caucasus, you appear to be drinking from the same pro-Georgia punch bowl as the neocons. Just curious: How will that help you win swing voters again? Listen, you cannot upset Russia at the expense of recklessly enlarging NATO, or just let anyone into the alliance willy-nilly, as McCain wants. That would destroy the central tenets upon which NATO was founded and force the Russian Bear into the corner. It's an idea hatched in a few think-tanks stuffed with conservatives who think Misha Saakashvili's mug should be carved into Mount Rushmore. The smoke emanating from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's normally cool head last week in New York should have been a hint.
Finally, Obama, I'd tone down the America-is-unexceptional rhetoric. I agree with you in principle, especially given the latest bout of bad news from Wall Street and Washington, but you come off sounding too Jimmy Carter-like when you say "We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens." You might as well don a sweater and hector us about America's "malaise" in the world. It takes true talent to turn McCain into the shiny optimist in this campaign but that is what you will do if you don't project an air of optimism and unfurl some of those our-best-days-are-ahead-of-us lines that Americans love.
We need to hear more from you, Barack -- more ideas, more energy, more optimism. You are at your best when you speak off-the-cuff. Your answers as of late are too measured, too calculating -- your ideas, especially on foreign policy, lack newness. You exude confidence but not wisdom. Yes, you were against invading Iraq. But besides supporting a withdrawal, what else do you stand for today? Sorry to say, but just repeating the same old gobbledygook--we need to "have a broader strategic vision about all the challenges that we face"--is not going to get you into the White House. Think outside the Beltway.
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