About a week ago, Katherine wrote that the issue she'd most like to ask the Democratic candidates for President about is the Bush doctrine of preventive war. It's important, in this context, to be clear on the distinction between preventive and preemptive war. Preemptive war is a war started when you know that an enemy is about to attack you, but has not yet done so; the standard description of preemption is Daniel Webster's: the "necessity of that self-defence is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation". Preventive war is a war started against an enemy who is not (as far as you know) actually about to attack you, but whom you regard as a threat for some other reason. Preemptive war has always been regarded as OK: if you see an enemy massing its troops at the border, entering the launch codes on its missiles, and so forth, you do not have to wait until that enemy actually strikes. Preventive war, by contrast, has not generally been regarded as OK. Nonetheless, it's one of the pillars of the "Bush Doctrine":
"If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. (Applause.) (...) The war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. (Applause.) In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act. (Applause.)" (emphasis added.)
I agree with Katherine that this is one of the most important questions facing Democratic candidates. Since I'm leaning towards Obama, I thought I'd see if I could figure out where he stood on this question. Short answer: He doesn't actually come right out and say "I oppose preventive war", but he comes pretty close. The longer answer is below the fold.
I should say, at the outset, that I have not read every interview Obama has given, and so there may be statements that are clearer than the ones I've found. That said, the clearest one I know of is from The Audacity of Hope (pp. 308-9). Having said that the United States has the unilateral right to defend itself against an actual attack, he writes:
"I would also argue that we have the right to take unilateral military action to eliminate an imminent threat to our security -- so long as an imminent threat is understood to be a nation, group, or individual that is actively preparing to strike U.S. targets (or allies with which the United States has mutual defense agreements), and has or will have the means to do so in the immediate future. Al Qaeda qualifies under this standard, and we can and should carry out strikes against them wherever we can. Iraq under Saddam Hussein did not meet this standard, which is why our invasion was such a strategic blunder." (Emphasis in text.)
As far as I can tell, this is a way of saying: I support preemptive war but not preventive war, without using those terms (which are technical and unnecessary in this context.) Obama supports a right to anticipatory self-defense that is restricted to imminent threats by an enemy who is actively preparing to strike, and either has the capacity to do so or will have it in the immediate future. It therefore does not include more speculative threats, like Iraq before the war.
Moreover, we know that he opposed the Iraq war back in 2002:
"I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. (...) I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.... The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him. But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors...and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.
I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda."
Note that in that speech, the fact that Saddam poses no imminent threat is one of the main reasons for not going to war against him.
On the other hand, in September 2004 he gave an interview in which he said this:
"U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama suggested Friday that the United States one day might have to launch surgical missile strikes into Iran and Pakistan to keep extremists from getting control of nuclear bombs. (...)
Obama said the United States must first address Iran's attempt to gain nuclear capabilities by going before the United Nations Security Council and lobbying the international community to apply more pressure on Iran to cease nuclear activities. That pressure should come in the form of economic sanctions, he said.
But if those measures fall short, the United States should not rule out military strikes to destroy nuclear production sites in Iran, Obama said.
"The big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures, including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point are we going to, if any, are we going to take military action?" Obama asked.
Given the continuing war in Iraq, the United States is not in a position to invade Iran, but missile strikes might be a viable option, he said. Obama conceded that such strikes might further strain relations between the U.S. and the Arab world.
"In light of the fact that we're now in Iraq, with all the problems in terms of perceptions about America that have been created, us launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in," he said.
"On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse. So I guess my instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran. ... And I hope it doesn't get to that point. But realistically, as I watch how this thing has evolved, I'd be surprised if Iran blinked at this point."
As for Pakistan, Obama said that if President Pervez Musharraf were to lose power in a coup, the United States similarly might have to consider military action in that country to destroy nuclear weapons it already possesses. Musharraf's troops are battling hundreds of well-armed foreign militants and Pakistani tribesmen in increasingly violent confrontations. (...)
Obama's willingness to consider additional military action in the Middle East comes despite his early and vocal opposition to the Iraq war. Obama, however, also has stressed that he is not averse to using military action as a last resort, although he believes that President Bush did not make that case for the Iraq invasion."
Personally, I tend to agree with him on Pakistan. If Pakistani Islamists toppled Musharraf and took control of the government, there would be nuclear weapons in the hands of a group of people with known ties to al Qaeda, and a track record of selling nuclear weapons to all sorts of people. If there were ever a case for preventive strikes, in my book, that would be it (assuming we knew where to find the Pakistani nuclear program, etc.)
Iran, of course, is another story. In this interview, Obama is plainly contemplating what would be a preventive war against Iran. One could say various things about this. When Obama gave this interview in 2004, Iran was not the issue it is today. Despite the talk about real men going to Tehran, it looked pretty unlikely that we were going to be in a position to think about striking Iran, and certainly the chorus of voices calling for military action against iran had not started up in earnest. And Obama is pretty clear that military action should be considered only after diplomacy and sanctions have been tried, and only as a last resort.
It's also possible that he wanted to keep all options on the table for negotiating purposes.
Most importantly, though, this interview was given before he became a US Senator sitting on the foreign relations committee. Since this interview, he has, by all accounts, been spending a lot of time learning about foreign policy. It's pretty safe to assume that his views have evolved during the intervening few years; since the quote from his book that I cited above is later, and contradicts this one, it presumably supercedes it. More recent quotes on Iran include this:
"Obama also cautioned against a US intervention in Iran, saying he was skeptical of reports by the Bush administration that Iran is helping to supply weapons to insurgents in Iraq.
"I don't doubt that there are some weapons coming over from Iran into Iraq. I have no doubt Iran has a history of sponsoring terrorism and doing mischief," Obama said. But "I am less persuaded by what we're seeing over the last couple of weeks, and that is that the intervention of Iran into Iraq somehow justifies what seems to be a mounting case for intervention or even forays into Iran," he said, drawing applause."
"KROFT: Would you talk to Iran or Syria?
OBAMA: Yes. I think that the notion that this administration has -- that not talking to our enemies is effective punishment -- is wrong. It flies in the face of our experiences during the Cold War. Ronald Reagan understood that it may be an evil empire, but it's worthwhile for us to periodically meet to see are there areas of common interest. And most importantly, those conversations allow the possibility that our ideas and our values gain greater exposure in these countries. The fact of the matter is that Iran currently is governed by an oppressive regime, one that I think is a threat to the region and to our allies, but there are a lot of people in Iran who potentially would like to be part of this broader community of nations. For us not to be in a conversation with them doesn't make sense. Now I don't think that that conversation should be conditioned on our accepting their support of terrorism or their building nuclear capacity and potentially sparking an arms race in the Middle East, any more than our conversations with the Kremlin presumed that we approved of their aggression around the world. You know, we can have a robust strategy of blocking and containing aggressive actions by hostile or rogue states, but still open up the possibility that over time those relationships may evolve and they may change. And there may be opportunities for us to resolve some of our differences, not all of them, but some of them in a constructive way."
Nonetheless, I cite this interview so that you can draw your own conclusions.
While I'm on the subject of Obama and foreign policy, I want to cite this passage from a really good profile of him in Rolling Stone:
"One of the biggest names to work with Obama is Samantha Power, the scholar and journalist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. "In 2004, I came out of election night just completely depressed," Power says. "We thought Kerry would win and we'd all get a chance to change the world. But then it was like, 'Nah, same old thing.' " Obama gave her a place to channel her energy. She advised him on the genocide in Darfur, an issue that most politicians at the time were studiously avoiding. "He's a sponge," Power says. "He pushes so hard on policy ideas that fifteen minutes after you've started talking, he's sent you back to the drawing board. He doesn't get weighted down by the limits of American power, but he sees you have to grasp those limits in order to transcend them."
Power is part of a generation of thinkers who, like Obama, came of age after the Cold War. They worry about the problems created by globalization and believe that the most important issues America will confront in the future (terrorism, avian flu, global warming, bioweapons, the disease and nihilism that grow from concentrated poverty) will emanate from neglected and failed states (Afghanistan, the Congo, Sierra Leone). According to Susan Rice, a Brookings Institution scholar who serves as an informal adviser to Obama, their ideas come from the "profound conviction that we are interconnected, that poverty and conflict and health problems and autocracy and environmental degradation in faraway places have the potential to come back and bite us in the behind, and that we ignore such places and such people at our peril."
Over the past two years, Obama has come to adopt this worldview as his own. He came back fascinated from a quick trip to a U.S. project in Ethiopia, where American soldiers had parachuted in to help the victims of a flood: "By investing now," he said, "we avoid an Iraq or Afghanistan later." The foreign-policy initiatives he has fought for and passed have followed this model: He has secured money to fight avian flu, improve security in the Congo and safeguard Russian nuclear weapons. "My comment is not meant to be unkind to mainstream Democrats," says Lugar, "but it seems to me that Barack is studying issues that are very important for the country and for the world.""
I think that this is incredibly good, and incredibly important. The US doesn't just tend to overreact to things we perceive as threats; we also underreact to foreign policy problems that are, for whatever reason, off our collective radar. Why, for instance, didn't we really spend some time trying to help Afghanistan after the Soviet Unon withdrew? Wouldn't that have been a good thing to do, in retrospect? And wouldn't it be a good idea to try, now, to identify failing states where problems can fester and terrorists or criminals can set up shop, and see whether there is anything we can do to help them out? At worst we'll spend some money and buy some good will; at best, we'll nip the next Afghanistan or Somalia or Sudan in the bud, before it has a chance to turn into a nightmare for its people and a danger to the world.
Likewise, for all his inexperience in 2004, he knew enough then not just to oppose the war in Iraq, but to make nuclear nonproliferation one of his main issues.
And while I'm on the subject of the Rolling Stone article, I can't resist citing this:
"Listening to a bloviating colleague at his first meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama slipped a three-word note to a member of his staff: "Shoot. Me. Now.""
UPDATE: On reflection, I thought I should add a bit more from The Audacity of Hope. This is from p. 309, and begins right after the end of the quote above -- the one about our having a right to preemptive, not preventive, war.
"Once we get beyond matters of self-defense, though, I'm convinced that it will almost always be in our strategic interest to act multilaterally rather than unilaterally when we use force around the world. By this, I do not mean that the UN Security Council -- a body that in its structure and rules too often appears frozen in a Cold War-era time warp -- should have a veto over our actions. Nor do I mean that we round up the United Kingdom and Togo and then do what we please. Acting multilaterally means doing what George H. W. Bush and his team did in the first Gulf War -- engaging in the hard diplomatic work of obtaining most of the world's support for our actions =, and making sure our actions serve to further recognize international norms.
Why conduct ourselves in this way? Because nobody benefits more than we do from the observance of international "rules of the road." We can't win converts to those rules if we act as if they apply to everybody but us. When the world's sole superpower willingly restrains its power and abides by internationally agreed-upon standards of conduct, it sends a message that these are rules worth following, and robs terrorists and dictators of the argument that these rules are simply tools of American imperialism."
He also argues that acting multilaterally lowers the costs of action to us, forces us to listen to other points of view and to ask hard questions about whether war is worth it, and gets our allies invested in the success of any action we undertake; but typing that part in would take forever ;) I did want to add this bit, though.