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On Iraq and Iran, Obama Seems to Get It

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On the front page of the New York Times this week, readers were treated to snapshots of an interview with Barack Obama, in which the candidate laid out a thoughtful and calibrated approach to questions of Iraq and the potential for diplomatic engagement with Iran. At a time when the war and our troops are a daily a political football on the campaign trail, Obama took the time to actually speak of facts, strategy, and American interests. It's only a matter of time before rivals start pouncing on him.

While I'm hesitant to give too much credit to a political candidate doing the campaign rounds, Obama's positions seem to reflect a genuine thoughtfulness, as well as the advice of those top-rate experts he has chosen as his advisers. More importantly, these advisers, which include figures like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Clark, and Former Ambassador Dennis Ross, are recognized as the anti-sleaze: they are well-meaning public servants with nuanced views about national security.

Obama's sentiments, which include the thoroughly logical fact that one can't begin to speak of securing Iraq without first talking to Iran, certainly has the Brzezinski footprint all over it (Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, while associated with America's failed policy during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis, is incredibly well-versed in Iranian politics).

Reading the transcript of Obama's interview, a passage jumped out at me in particular. Obama explained the flaws in the current Bush approach without resorting to the platitudes or touches of most other Democratic campaigns. As if respecting the intelligence of the American people, Obama went into significant length and nuance to express his position:

You've got the Bush administration expecting [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan] Crocker to make progress on the very narrow issue of helping Shia militias [some of which Iran supports] at the same time as you've got Dick Cheney giving a speech saying it is very likely that we may engage in military action in Iran and the United States Senate passing a resolution, suggesting that our force structure inside Iraq is dependent in someway on blunting Iranian influence. You can't engage in diplomacy in isolation. There's got to be a broader strategic context to it.

The Iranians and the Syrians are acting irresponsibly inside Iraq. They perceive that it is a way to leverage or impact or weaken us at a time when they're worried about United States action in a broader context. I've already said, I would meet directly with Iranian leaders. I would meet directly with Syrian leaders. We would engage in a level of aggressive personal diplomacy in which a whole host of issues are on the table. We're not looking at Iraq, just in isolation. Iran and Syria would start changing their behavior if they started seeing that they had some incentives to do so, but right now the only incentive that exists is our president suggesting that if you do what we tell you, we may not blow you up.

At the risk of sounding like a political groupie (I'm still not sure who I'm voting for), Obama hit the nail on the head with this one. When a regime thinks it's in jeopardy, and it goes into something of a "regime survival mode" (the very corner we are now pushing Iran against), that regime will not adopt a wait-and-see strategy. Instead, it will do all it can to hamper its perceived aggressor, in this case the United States. It is no accident, then, that we are hearing of attacks on American troops by groups that receive arms from Iran. It's only strange that it's not happening more often.

Talking to Iran in the way Obama suggests should be something of a blueprint for our foreign policy in the region, not a punch-line for attacks against the Illinois senator, as it proved to be for Hillary Clinton, who once conveniently called Obama "naive" for saying he would meet with Iran's leaders.

In praising Obama, I am endorsing a style that I hope other candidates will adopt. It isn't enough to score points against the Bush administration with catchy phrases and applause-getters. Rather than pouncing on thoughtful policy proposals, the other candidates should put forth strategies that might actually move U.S. policy forward, and get us out of the current mess.