Q&A: Obama's View of the World

His travel dossier was unusual already, with his school years in Indonesia and family ties in Kenya, but last week Barack Obama revealed another distinctive page: a stay at a college friend's home in Pakistan in the early 1980s. He spoke later to NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe about how his travels have shaped his views on global hot spots. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What particularly stuck with you from the Pakistan trip?
Sen. Barack Obama:
There were a couple of things … You had at that time a military government, you had a lot of problems with corruption, a lot of unemployed young men on the streets, a very wealthy ruling class that was plugged into the international economy but that in some ways wasn't woven into the larger economy … There were a lot of trends that were similar to what I saw in Indonesia and what I would later see in Kenya. Part of the most memorable portion of the trip was … seeing what was essentially a feudal life, not just in terms of the economy but the political structure … You had [peasants] who were still functioning as indentured servants, effectively. And the equivalent of feudal lords who still were essentially the law of the communities in which they lived. You have modernity standing side by side with ways of life and economies that have been unchanged for centuries.

Did that inform your approach to Pakistan?
What it tells me is that the most important aspect of our foreign policy is not simply our relations with the rulers of these countries, but also our appreciation and understanding of the challenges, the hardships and the struggles that ordinary people are going through there. Because in a country like Pakistan, if we are not thinking about that [peasant] that's working in the fields, or the young man who is a day laborer in Karachi, [if] we think that interactions with the Oxford-educated Pakistani in Parliament somehow gives us an insight into the country, we can be really mistaken and can make a series of misjudgments.

There is a sizable middle class [in Pakistan] that believes in rule of law and believes in a government that is accountable to the people. So our willingness to put all our eggs in the Musharraf basket without understanding this other tradition, and without understanding that our choice in a place like Pakistan is not simply [between] military dictatorship or Islamic rule, led us to make a series of miscalculations that has weakened our fight against terrorism in the region.

But you're not just talking about "understanding," are you? You've said you'd hit Al Qaeda if opportunities arise and the Pakistanis aren't taking action.
Absolutely. The point, though, is that to the extent that the people of Pakistan broadly believe that America isn't seeing them simply as a tool to carry out our foreign policy and meet our self interest, but rather see [their] aspirations as legitimate … and part of a broader set of aspirations in improving the quality of life in Pakistan and opening up opportunity to people, the more likely we are to get cooperation when it comes to dealing with terrorists, and the more likely we are to have legitimacy when we need to take military action.

You've talked about having a global summit of Muslim leaders early in your presidency.How much of your message to them is going to be drawing on a personal understanding or experience?
I think that it helps. Look, I said this earlier in the campaign. If I go to a poor country and speak about both the U.S. obligation to work with poor countries to relieve suffering, but also the responsibility of poor countries to clear up corruption and increase transparency and rule of law and build their civil service, I do so with the credibility of someone with a grandmother who lives in an impoverished village in Africa. In the same way, if I had a Muslim summit, I think that I can speak credibly to them about the fact that I respect their culture, that I understand their religion, that I have lived in a Muslim country, and as a consequence I know it is possible to reconcile Islam with modernity and respect for human rights and a rejection of violence …

That doesn't mean that Muslim leaders will automatically act on the American agenda if it's contrary to what they perceive to be their self-interests. But at least there's, I think, an added element of trust.

You've said before that having family overseas and having lived overseas helped inform your decision to oppose the Iraq War in 2002. Can you flesh that out?
I'll give you a very concrete example. Both as a consequence of living in Indonesia and traveling in Pakistan, having friends in college who were Muslim, I was very clear about the history of Shia-Sunni antagonism. And so this notion that somehow we were going to be able to create a functioning democracy and reconcile century-old conflicts, I always thought was a bunch of happy talk from this administration.

Is there an "Obama doctrine"?
I think that I am the anti-doctrinaire candidate. I don't believe in abstractions when it comes to foreign policy. I think that decisions have to be made based on an understanding of our power and our limits and an understanding of history, a detailed understanding of how the world sees us and that peoples around the world have a whole series of conflicts, grudges, hopes that are in some ways universal but are also very culturally specific ... We have to make decisions based on a very clear-eyed view of what we can do at any given time.

Now, I think that I am driven by a set of core values and principles. So at the top of that pyramid would be … a willingness to do whatever is required to keep the American people safe. But it also includes a belief that America can be a force [for] good in the world, as long as we are sufficiently modest about how much we can do at any given time, and as long as we are mindful of the law of unintended consequences.

We want to be constantly looking for opportunities to expand freedom, expand the rule of law, expand transparency, expand bottom-up economic growth, expand education, expand access to public health and technology. But we have to understand that nations around the world and peoples around the world are going to move in fits and starts, and progress is going to be at their own pace. And that if we think that we can simply engineer outcomes based on ideology, then we're going to be in for rude awakenings, as we have been in Iraq.

On Iraq, what conditions would stop you from moving ahead with your withdrawal plan? What I've said from the start is that I'd be in a constant process of evaluating conditions on the ground … To do otherwise would be irresponsible. What I've said, though, is that it's my strategic belief that we need to set a timetable … The people of Iraq and the leaders of Iraq need to understand that we're not going to maintain permanent bases there. Once that principle is enshrined in our foreign policy, then of course we're going to end up having to make adjustments based on conditions on the ground. But that is very different from what I believe to be George Bush's foreign policy, which is that we are going to be there as long as it takes for us to have exactly what we want in Iraq, which is a strong U.S. ally and a functioning democracy without a trace of anti-American sentiment and without significant Iranian influence.

My objections to what's been happening in Iraq recently aren't tactical; I think General [David] Petraeus has done some very important work. It's strategic—I don't think that they have set a clear and achievable and realistic goal for Iraq that also speaks to our larger strategic interests, in going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, reducing anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world, strengthening our alliances with countries in Europe, strengthening our military to deal with unforeseen military challenges. And in the absence of that kind of strategic thinking, there's no clear marker for success.

You haven't been to Iraq since '05. Some McCain allies have raised that as an issue.
Well, the truth of the matter is that I have watched several of Sen. McCain's trips and they have oftentimes been political in nature. When he travels through a Baghdad market surrounded by soldiers and helicopters and suggests that it's safer, I don't feel like he's getting a better impression of Iraq than I am. Now, my intention has been to travel back to Iraq as soon as this primary [season] is over. It's gone a little longer than I expected.

On Iran, would you open talksbefore they have their elections in 2009? Or would you wait and see?
You'd want to have the dust settle and figure out who has been strengthened or weakened by the elections and who can you deal with ... But … the general principle that we're willing to engage in direct talks is something that I want people to be clear about as soon as I take office.

Why did you take on the nuclear issue, of all the things you could do on the Foreign Relations Committee?
Because I think that is the single most important national-security threat that we face. John McCain likes to say that the defining battle or the defining challenge for our generation is the battle against—what does he call it?—"Islamo-fascism." I think he's missing the forest for the trees ...I think the defining challenge for us is to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of those who might be tempted to use them. If we can be successful in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists, then we can handle the terrorists … The Bush administration has squandered, I think, opportunities to build on the success of START I, START II and the uclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And that is going to be one of my highest priorities when I am president of the United States.

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