07/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama: Selling Us On Strategy

Barack Obama is waging a strategic effort this week to shore up his credentials: between his impending trip to Europe and the Middle East, Monday's op-ed on withdrawing from Iraq, a new TV ad touting his bi-partisan bill to lock down loose nuclear weapons, and now Tuesday's speech on national security in Washington, DC, Obama seems to be telling those who doubt his ability to lead on the world stage, "Yes I can."

Even the podium at his national security address said it. Sitting just below the candidate's chest, in the familiar font of Obama's campaign paraphernalia, a placard read, "Judgment to lead."

"Judgment" was Obama's rejoinder to Clinton's "experience" in the primaries; and the messaging of the last few days suggests "judgment" might also be a defense against the septuagenarian McCain, although it's not the campaign's strongest suit. Rather, Obama seems to be floating the idea of "strategy" as the way to distinguish his thinking from his opponent's. It's an esoteric argument. In essence, strategy concerns thinking about how one will approach the game as a whole; tactics involve the individual decisions that move the pieces in the desired direction.

Obama is a strategic thinker. He famously out-maneuvered Hillary and her top Democratic Party advisers to win the primaries, following a strategy no one at the time guessed could win, focusing on all fifty states, running hard in the caucus contests, seeing beyond Super Tuesday, raising vast sums from small donors on the web. Obama is also the author of a bestselling and crtically acclaimed book, no small strategic victory. Writing a book requires the author to imagine the logical sequence of events and ideas to get from the first page to the last. The exact words or scenes are the result of tactical decisions. The arc of the story is its strategy.

The arc of Obama's foreign policy strategy is to go from focusing primarily on Iraq to spreading our attention to the rest of the world -- and thus expanding our influence, security, and prosperity. It's like his fifty-state campaign strategy, spread to all four corners.

To get there, Obama suggests five points:

1) End the war in Iraq responsibly
2) End the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, especially in Iran and Pakistan
3) Secure nuclear materials and weapons from rogue states
4) End the tyranny of oil
5) Re-build our alliances to meet the common challenges of the 21st century

I can already hear the clamoring: How are we going to end the war in Iraq? End the tyranny of oil? What will we replace it with?

These are tactical questions. Obama is in a Big Thinker moment, comparing himself to George Marshall after World War II. To paraphrase the candidate, the Marshall Plan responded to the United States' need to contain the threat of communism while expanding freedom's frontier. Likewise, Obama identifies the challenge of the current moment -- post 9/11, post-George W. Bush -- as the need to restore our might and moral sway.

Obama is defining where we are and where we need to go, with a few rough guide posts along the way; a first step. A leader, as he sees it, needs to establish the big picture persuasively as a starting point. Note his encouraging words to soldiers: "...on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war." In other words, what our brave men and women in uniform need is a strategy!

I may be that many people, especially those who deal with the mechanics of getting stuff done -- engineers, businesspeople, former first ladies who run for president, and especially soldiers, former or otherwise -- will be frustrated with the lack of specific tactics articulated in Obama's platform.

My brother, a soldier in Iraq, was "unimpressed and even a little turned off" with the Democratic candidate's plan to leave Iraq -- it completely overlooked whether Iraqi security forces would be ready, how long it takes to redeploy not just combat brigades but assets, and the process for establishing a stable political environment in Baghdad.


...are where the devil is. If the Republicans are going to put up a good defense in November, they must show either that tactics matter -- not only for themselves, but insofar as they influence strategy -- or challenge the Democratic strategy. Obama will not get bogged down in the hows, but continue to soar high in the whats and whys. That soaring strategizing might be strengthened in the mind of critics by a list of potential cabinet selections that includes the names of strong tacticians and evidence that a president Obama will really listen to them.