Foreign Policy - Why Obama?

02/25/2008 03:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

As a long time friend of the Clintons and a member of President Clinton's foreign policy team, I naturally assumed I'd be firmly in Senator Clinton's camp in 2008. Instead, by last fall I'd become an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama. Why?

There are two good reasons: The first comes from who Barack Obama is.

It will take at least a generation to repair the damage to U.S. international interests inflicted by George Bush and the far-right ideologues whose pet theories became his lodestars. After the debacle in Iraq, hawked through exaggerated intelligence and minimized dangers, we'll have to struggle uphill just to regain American credibility, so other nations and institutions will at least trust what we say. Then we'll need to rebuild alliances fractured by Bush's arrogant go-it-alone mentality, and forge new friendships and coalitions effectively to address challenges as diverse as climate change and radical Islam, which even the world's strongest nation can't resolve by itself. In short, we'll have to re-connect with the world, through means other than arms and bluster.

The election of Barack Obama will, in and of itself, jump-start those endeavors. His heritage and extraordinary life story will capture the imagination of people all over the world, and be seen as a confirmation, more powerful than any words, that America has returned to our best ideals. In one stroke, it will propel us out of the hole Bush has dug for us and onto the high ground, where we can engage from strength and respect.

The second reason for supporting Obama is change -- a word lately so widely cribbed and overused as to be nearly drained of meaning. But in Obama's case it carries profound content -- indeed, on some of the very issues on which he's been assailed, he's shown a way of looking at foreign and national security policy that breaks through tired old talking points and opens up new avenues for progress. Some examples:

When Senator Obama said in a debate he'd be prepared to talk directly with the heads of rogue states such as Iran, North Korea and Cuba, it was widely described as a mis-step. Senator Clinton, instinctively lining up with settled precepts, called him naïve, a charge recently echoed by the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain. Obama is the only one prepared to look at things in a new way.

When Obama suggested he wouldn't brandish nuclear weapons against Osama bin Laden, Senator Clinton chastised him again, declaring that we shouldn't signal the circumstances in which nuclear weapons might be used. That's the old formula, all right, but to adhere to it blindly in this case is both unrealistic and foolish, conveying the message that we place no value on the tens of thousands of other lives that would be extinguished if we decided to "nuke" one despicable person.

There was more tut-tutting when Senator Obama said if we knew where bin Laden was hiding and Pakistan's leader wouldn't allow us to go after him, the U.S. would act on its own. Then the bipartisan co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, said the same thing, and soon the other Democratic candidates were following suit -- although Senator McCain still thinks otherwise.

On the spread of nuclear weapons, Senator Obama has grasped the core truth that to enforce the global agreement against proliferation, the U.S. must live up to our side of the bargain and move toward a world entirely free of such weapons. That, too, challenges much orthodoxy, and it's a pledge Senator Clinton has not yet made. But it's where a wise President must lead if we are to avert an even more dangerous world.

On each of these issues the other candidates and foreign policy experts have become increasingly receptive to Senator Obama's views. But as with his 2002 opposition to the Iraq war, it has been Barack Obama demonstrating the judgment, foresight and courage to lead the way.

In sum, because of both who he is and what he believes, Senator Obama offers the hope of a rapid recovery from the Bush years, and a liberation from the foreign policy conformity that too often holds us back. He is our best hope for not just the terminology of "change," but the reality -- and embodies an opportunity America cannot afford to pass by.

John Holum served all eight years of the Clinton Administration, first as Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and then as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.