March 18, 2008 – Washington, DC — Scott Gration grew up in Congo as the son of U.S. missionaries in the 1950s, fled to Kenya as a war refugee in 1964 and lived on half a glass of water a day as a hospital volunteer in Uganda during the collapse of Idi Amin’s regime in 1979.
Now a retired air force major general and the veteran of 274 combat missions into Iraq, Gration, 56, is part of Barack Obama’s inner circle and shares with Obama’s other key advisers a worldview rooted in the traumas of failed states and transnational threats: nuclear proliferation, climate change, disease, poverty, ethnic conflict and clashes over natural resources.
His advisers are helping the U.S. presidential hopeful shape a post-Cold War foreign policy that would address these cross-border problems while helping rebuild America’s global reputation and ensure its security.
“In different ways, we all have a 21st-century” concept of how U.S. power should be exercised after 9/11, said Susan Rice, a 43-year-old who was assistant secretary of state for Africa under President Bill Clinton and now advises Obama.
“We live in a world where globalization means threats can emanate from anywhere and flow anywhere,” Rice said.
Among the three leading candidates – Obama, an Illinois senator; Hillary Rodham Clinton, a fellow Democrat and a New York senator; and John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona – Obama’s team seems most attuned to “soft power,” says Joseph Nye, the Harvard University professor who coined the term for the use of economic and cultural persuasion, as opposed to military force, in international diplomacy.
“The election of Obama would do more to restore American soft power than anything else,” said Nye, a veteran of the Carter and Clinton administrations who is impressed by Obama and is not advising any campaign. “We need to export hope rather than fear.”
No matter how much Obama embraces a policy of confronting cross-border problems, he is likely to remain loyal to certain immutables, including support for Israel and military bases overseas. Still, Obama advocates positions that make it tough to label him a hawk or dove: While he would talk to enemies without preconditions, he also would destroy Qaeda targets in Pakistan if the U.S.-allied leadership in Islamabad refused to act.
In an April speech that laid out his foreign policy vision, Obama said that the ill-fated invasion of Iraq was “based on old ideologies and outdated strategies.” He wants to shift U.S. attention to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, target terrorists, secure nuclear arms in the former Soviet republics and rebuild alliances with the aim of arresting pandemics and containing ecological threats.
While President George W. Bush has invested billions of dollars in fighting AIDS in African nations, that initiative has been overshadowed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama wants to add more than 90,000 troops to the U.S. military and envisions expanding their mission to stabilizing and rebuilding nations or confronting mass atrocities, he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. He would double foreign aid to $50 billion by 2012.
For many U.S. allies and adversaries, the perspective of a biracial, half-Kenyan American who spent years as a child in Indonesia holds the promise of a departure from what they see as Bush’s unilateral policies. Obama’s approach is pragmatic, nonideological and open to critical voices, his advisers say.
“The idea of an African-American president who grew up playing in rice paddies,” Nye said, “who transcends some differences we have, who has relatives in Africa – that gives a very different image to the world than a preppie from Texas who had been abroad only a few times.”
Obama and his advisers will not deal only with “Brussels and Moscow – while that’s very important – but are also looking to Djibouti and Indonesia,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign-policy speechwriter, for help in rooting out terrorism and building bridges to Muslim nations.
Obama’s core team ranges in age from Rhodes, 30, to Anthony Lake, 68 and a former national security adviser to President Clinton. Lake is credited with laying the groundwork for peace deals in Bosnia and in the Eritrean-Ethiopian civil war. And until she resigned over critical comments she had made about Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of Obama’s closest advisers was Samantha Power, a 37-year-old Harvard professor whose focus is genocide.
The foreign policy teams for Clinton and McCain include many whose frame of reference was shaped by debates over deterrence and superpower struggles, including former the UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke for Clinton, and the former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft for McCain. Most of them supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Obama’s circle includes people who cut their teeth on post-Cold War problems like ethnic conflict, humanitarian interventions and Islamic extremism. A thread that unites them is their opposition to the Iraq invasion and support for withdrawing most forces.
In policy deliberations, outsiders, including Republican graybeards, are sometimes asked to offer opposing views. The senator comes to his opinion and then, true to his training as a constitutional law professor, “argues the other side,” to see if his position holds up, Rhodes says.
One Obama adviser, Greg Craig, a former director of policy planning at the State Department, says that style provides insight into how the candidate would act as president: “He would listen to the world.”