By Michael Contarino, Ph.D. - 02/05/08 05:36 PM EST
Last month, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico withdrew from the presidential race. I was Bill’s senior foreign policy adviser, and I will always be grateful for the confidence he showed in me as we crafted his New Realism foreign policy. I also am grateful for the characteristic respect he showed all of us who served him, when he urged us to listen only to our own consciences as we chose which, if any, of the remaining candidates to support.
The Richardson campaign website is still up, and frozen in time as if the world had ended the day after the New Hampshire primary. The e-mails and phone calls that were my life for two years have stopped. But the issues that drove Bill Richardson to run, and that led me to work for him, remain. Our national security has been gravely damaged by the poor judgment, misplaced priorities, divisive partisanship and serial incompetence of the Bush administration. It will take a great president to reverse the damage, to restore our shared sense of national purpose, to rebuild our alliances, and to rehabilitate America’s image and efficacy in a dangerous world.
In my judgment, the candidate most likely to rise to such greatness is Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). As a political scientist, I see Sen. Obama as the candidate who appeals to swing voters, with an inspiring message of inclusiveness.
He clearly understands the need to work with the other party to reunite our divided nation. As a foreign policy analyst, I also believe that Sen. Obama is the candidate best equipped to lead us out of the dark forest that President Bush led us into.
Uniting the nation and reversing America’s global decline are closely related tasks. As Gov. Richardson said in his recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, we need a realistic, principled and bipartisan foreign policy again. To restore our international reputation, our influence and our capacity to lead others toward shared goals, we need a realistic foreign policy based upon the ideals of our nation, and not upon the mere ideology of a president. We prospered and prevailed in the Cold War precisely because we had such a foreign policy. Both our friends and our enemies knew that containment of Soviet power and the promotion of democratic values was not a Democratic or a Republican policy — it was the very essence of what America was.
Everything that Sen. Obama has said and done suggests that he fully understands the importance of realism, principle and bipartisanship. He opposed the Iraq war from the beginning because he saw the unreality of expectations that this war would be easy. He also opposed the war because he saw President Bush’s rush to employ military force, and to do so without the support of most of our allies or the sanction of international legality, as counter to our democratic values.
And he saw the war also for what it so quickly became: a terrible source of partisan political division, and a catastrophic distraction from the war that had united us against the real threat posed by al Qaeda.
Sen. Obama had the wisdom that many others lacked in that critical moment, when President Bush took us into a disastrous war for which so many good people have paid with their lives, their limbs and their minds — and for which the American taxpayer will pay for many years to come.
Sen. Obama has shown realism, principle and bipartisanship in every phase of his political career. Like Bill Richardson, he understands that adversaries are not necessarily enemies, that finding common ground is the essence of leadership, and that, as JFK said, we must never negotiate out of fear, but we must never fear to negotiate.
Bill Richardson and Barack Obama share other traits whose importance should not be underestimated: Both come from complex cultural backgrounds and both have lived in foreign countries. These traits enable them to transcend our tendency to project our own cultural assumptions onto others. This, in my judgment, has been one of President Bush’s greatest and most damaging flaws. After eight years of a president who embodies for so many foreigners some of their least-loved stereotypes of Americans, we should not underestimate the restorative potential of a charismatic, articulate, mixed-race president. While virtually any new president will pursue wiser policies than those of the Bush administration, Barack Obama, because of his background, his demonstrated sound judgment and his instinct for seeking consensus, is the candidate whom the rest of the world will not question when he tells them that cowboy diplomacy is over, and that America is ready to listen and to lead again.
Contarino is an associate professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester.