October 5, 2008 – Barack Obama’s speech in Chicago late last night contained glancing references to the Middle East, the first glimpse into his mindset as the president-in-waiting, as he prepares to set up his transition team for taking office in January.
He referred to America’s “two wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan as among the top challenges that “are the greatest of our lifetime.” He paid tribute to the “brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us.” A supporter of the Afghan war and fierce critic of the Iraq invasion, he clearly understands that he has now inherited both.
Obama went on to make an eloquent promise to restore American leadership in the world, on the basis of a shared destiny with all of humanity, and emphasizing the power of American ideals rather than American gun power. “To those who would tear the world down”–an apparent reference to terrorists and their sponsors–he warned, “We will defeat you.” He added, “To those who seek peace and security, we support you.”
We’ll need to wait and see what policies Obama actually adopts and what actions he actually takes once he becomes president. But with the partisan politics of the campaign behind him, the international and Middle East references in the historic acceptance address seem to be a serious reaffirmation of some of his campaign stands.
Obama’s promise of leadership and support for peace and security is in line with his vow to reinvigorate the Arab-Israeli peace process and seek a negotiated solution to the Iran nuclear standoff. His warning “to those who would tear the world down” may have been aimed not only at al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups but at the Iranian regime as well–in keeping with Obama’s vow to get tough with Iran if it refuses to go along. The speech was not the place for proposing or reaffirming specific policies, but Obama was notably silent about Iraq. Perhaps his labeling it as one of the “greatest” challenges of our lifetime,” and his praise of U.S. troops there, are signs that President Obama will be more careful about the potentially explosive repercussions of a U.S. withdrawal than candidate Obama was able to be.