When first learning to fly, it is important to understand not to "get behind the power curve." This refers to putting yourself in a position, usually at low altitude and nose high, where there is not enough power to recover the aircraft. The only recourse is to lower the nose to pick up airspeed, a maneuver constricted when close to the ground. So safety and survival necessitates keeping "ahead of the power curve" by being aware of the realities of the situation and the capabilities of you and your aircraft. So it is with statecraft.
Over the past year, it is clear that Senator Obama has been ahead of the national security power curve and President Bush and Senator McCain have been consistently behind and scrambling to catch up. Specifics?
Senator Obama's long-standing plan for Iraq included two elements opposed by Senator McCain and President Bush. The first was a timetable for redeployment, which they described as "surrender." The second was an emphasis on the need to send more troops to Afghanistan. Now, many months later Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has insisted in a timetable for withdrawal as a condition for any agreement for continued U.S. troop presence. Indeed, the White House recently produced a tortured position of agreeing with Maliki to a "time horizon" to meet "aspirational goals." And, according to a Reuters report, Maliki told the German magazine Der Speigel "U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."
Senator Obama has advocated adding two or three additional brigades to Afghanistan and President Bush and Senator McCain have, until very recently, preferred to ignore the worsening situation. Now, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has admitted that more troops are needed in Afghanistan but that they are not available because of Iraq, thus affirming Senator Obama's long held position.
How about the idea of direct talks with Iran without Bush Administration pre-conditions that would require Iran to agree in advance to accept the U.S. desired outcome? Senator McCain echoed President Bush's characterization of such a move as "appeasement." Now, in another piece of language torture, the administration is trying to sell a distinction without a difference as under secretary of State, William Burns, has traveled to Europe for "pre-negotiation" with the head of Iran's nuclear program. But the administration will not admit any policy change.
And what about Pakistan? Several months ago Senator Obama suggested that, if the U.S had actionable intelligence about high-value targets in Pakistan and the Pakistan government would not act, he would undertake unilateral action. This position was describes as naïve and a sign of inexperience. Today, several months later when U.S. deaths in Afghanistan are about to exceed those in Iraq for the second month, we have started to do what Senator Obama suggested and may be on the verge of larger operations. Again, the administration and Senator McCain have been behind the power curve.
Finally, Senator Obama was accused of "September 10th" thinking for emphasizing that we must deal with terrorism with the whole range of our power, intelligence, economic and diplomatic, not just military power. Now Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made the same point arguing that the State Department should lead our international efforts with support from the Defense Department. He has advocated greater funding for the State Department and other international efforts. He realizes the limits of military power in our complex world as well as the need to act with our allies, another standard point of Senator Obama's national security proposals.
To be sure, Senator Obama has not always seen ahead totally clearly. He underestimated the effect of the surge, when combines with the pre-surge Suni Awakening and the lull in intra-Shia militia violence, to so improve the security situation in Iraq. But he rightly notes the failure so far to achieve the goals of the surge, political reconciliation.
There is a broader point here. Senator McCain and President Bush have been consistently behind the power curve because they have stubbornly clung to their old beliefs that, because the U.S. is the only super power, our military power is always the most effective response to international problems. They are reluctant to see reality when it is not what they would like it to be. Senator Obama has, by contrast, talked about new ways of thinking about military power and international relations and has more clearly seen world realities and possibilities for creative ways to deal with those realities.
The problem with getting too far behind the power curve is that at some point your only choices are to bail out or crash with the airplane..