REMARKS BY SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL) TO THE CHICAGO COUNCIL ON GLOBAL AFFAIRS
MODERATOR: LESTER CROWN, CHAIRMAN, CHICAGO COUNCIL ON GLOBAL AFFAIRS
SEN. OBAMA: You know, throughout American history there have been moments that call on us to meet challenges of an uncertain world, and pay whatever price is required to secure our liberty. They are the soul-trying times that our forbearers spoke of. When the ease of complacency and self-interest must give way to the more difficult task of rendering judgment on what is best for the nation and for posterity and then acting on that judgment -- making the hard choices and sacrifices necessary to uphold our most deeply held values and ideals.
This was true for those who went to Lexington and Concord. It was true for those who lie buried at Gettysburg. It was true for those who built democracy's arsenal to vanquish fascism, and who then built a series of alliances and institutions that would ultimately help to defeat communism. And this has been true for those of us who looked on the rubble and ashes of 9/11 and made a solemn pledge that such an atrocity would never again happen in these United States. That we would do whatever it took to hunt down those responsible and use every single tool at our disposal -- diplomatic, economic and military -- to root out both the agents of terrorism and the conditions that helped breed terrorism.
In each case what's been required to meet the challenges we face has been good judgment and clear vision from our leaders, but also a fundamental seriousness and engagement on the part of the American people. A willingness on the part of each and every one of us to look past what is petty and small and sensational, to ask questions, and look ahead to what is necessary and what's purposeful.
Now, a few Tuesdays ago the American people embraced this seriousness with regard to America's policy in Iraq. Americans were originally persuaded by the president to go to war, in part, because of the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and in part because they were told it would reduce the threat of international terrorism -- neither turned out to be true. And now after three long years of watching the same back and forth in Washington, the American people have sent a clear message -- that the days of using the war on terror as a political football are over. (Applause.)
They have indicated that policy by slogan will no longer be an acceptable form of debate in this country. Mission accomplished, cut and run, stay the course -- the American people have determined that all of these phrases have become meaningless in the face of a conflict that grows more deadly and more chaotic with each passing day. A conflict that has only increased the terrorist threat it was supposed to help contain.
As of today, 2,867 Americans have now died in this war. Thousands more have suffered wounds that will last a lifetime. This war has lasted longer than World War II. Iraq is descending into chaos based on ethnic divisions that were around long before American troops arrived. The conflict has left us distracted from containing the world's threats in North Korea, in Iran and again in Afghanistan. And a report by our own intelligence agencies has concluded that al Qaeda is successfully using the war in Iraq to recruit a new generation of terrorists on its war in America.
These are serious times for our country. And with the votes two weeks ago, Americans demanded a feasible strategy with defined goals in Iraq. A strategy no longer driven by ideology or by politics, but one that's based on a realistic assessment of the sobering facts on the ground, and our interests in the region.
Now this kind of realism has been missing since the very conception of this war. And it's what led me to publicly oppose this war in 2002. The notion that Iraq would quickly and easily become a bulwark, a flourishing democracy in the Middle East, was not a plan for victory, but an ideological fantasy.
I said then, and believe now, that Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator who craved weapons of mass destruction, but who posed no imminent threat to the United States; that a war in Iraq would harm, not help, our efforts to defeat al Qaeda and finish the job in Afghanistan; and that an invasion would require an occupation of undetermined length at undetermined cost with undetermined consequences.
Month after month, then year after year, I've watched with a heavy heart as my deepest suspicions about this war's inception have been confirmed and exacerbated in its disastrous implementation. No matter how bad it gets, we're told to wait and not ask questions. We've been assured that the insurgency is in its last throes. We've been told that progress is just around the corner, and that when the Iraqis stand up, we will be able to stand down. Last week, without a trace of irony, the president even chose Vietnam as the backdrop for remarks, counseling patience with his policies in Iraq.
When I came here and gave a speech on this war a year ago, I suggested that we begin to move toward a phased redeployment of American troops from Iraqi soil. At that point, 75 United States senators -- Republican and Democrat, including myself -- had also voted in favor of a resolution demanding that the year of 2006 be a year of significant transition in Iraq. What we've seen instead is a year of significant deterioration. A year in which well-respected Republicans like John Warner, former administration officials like Colin Powell, and generals who have served and led in Iraq, and intelligence experts have all said that what we are doing is not working. A year that is ending with an attempt by the bipartisan Iraq study group to determine what can be done about a country that is quickly spiraling out of control.
According to our own Pentagon, the situation on the ground is now pointing towards chaos. Sectarian violence has reached an all-time high. And 3,065 Iraqis have fled their homes since the bombing of a Shi'a mosque in Samarra last February. Three-hundred-thousand Iraqi security forces have supposedly been recruited and trained over the last two years; and yet, American troop levels over the last two years have not been reduced by a single soldier.
The addition of 4,000 American troops in Baghdad has not succeeded in securing that increasingly perilous city. And polls show that almost two-thirds of all Iraqis now sympathize with attacks on American soldiers.
Prime Minister Maliki is not making our job easier. In just the past three weeks he has -- and I'm quoting from a New York Times article here -- quote, "rejected the notion of an American timeline for action on urgent Iraqi political issues; ordered American commanders to lift checkpoints they had set up around the Shi'a district of Sadr City to hunt for a kidnapped American soldier and fugitive Shi'a death squad leader; and blamed the Americans for the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.
That is now the reality in Iraq. Now I am hopeful that the Iraq study group emerges next month with a series of proposals around which we can begin to rebuild a bipartisan consensus.
I am committed to working with this White House, and any of my colleagues in the months to come, to help craft such a consensus. And I believe it remains possible to salvage an acceptable outcome to this long and misguided war.
But I have to be honest today. It will not be easy, and the fact is that there are no good options left in this war. There are no options that do not carry some significant risks. And the question is not whether there is some magic formula for success or a guarantee against failure in Iraq. Rather, the question is what strategies -- imperfect though they may be -- are most likely to achieve the best outcome in Iraq, one that will ultimately put us on a more effective course to deal with international terrorism, nuclear proliferation and other critical threats to our security.
What is absolutely clear is that it is not enough for the president to respond to Iraq's reality by saying he is, quote, "open to" or, quote, "interested in" new ideas, while acting as if all that is required is doing more of the same. It is not enough for him to simply lay out benchmarks for progress with no consequences attached for failing meet them. And it is not enough for the president to tell us that victory in this war is simply a matter of American resolve.
Let me be clear on this point. The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They've seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in places like Fallujah. They have spent hundreds of billions of dollars of their hard-earned tax dollars on this effort -- money that could have been devoted to strengthening our homeland security and our competitive standing as a nation.
It has not been a failure of resolve that has led us to this chaos, but a failure of strategy, and that strategy must change. It may be politically advantageous for the president to simply define victory as staying and defeating -- and defeat as leaving, but it prevents a serious conversation about the realistic objectives that we can still achieve in Iraq.
Dreams of democracy, hopes for a perfect government are now just that: dreams and hopes. We must instead turn our focus to those concrete objectives that are possible to obtain. Namely, preventing Iraq from becoming what Afghanistan once was; maintaining our influence in the Middle East; and forging a political settlement to stop the sectarian violence so that our troops can start coming home.
There is no reason to believe that more of the same will achieve these objectives in Iraq. And while some have proposed escalating this war by adding thousands of more troops, there's little reason to believe that this will achieve these results either. We've heard some commentators, and some of my colleagues indicate that more U.S. troops are needed. But the fact is that it's not clear that these troop levels are sustainable for a significant period of time. General Abizaid does not think so. And according to our commanders on the ground, adding American forces will only relieve the Iraqis from doing more on their own.
Moreover, a coherent strategy -- or better -- without a coherent strategy or better cooperation from the Iraqis, we would only be putting more of our soldiers in the crossfire of a civil war. Let me underscore this point. The American soldiers I met when I traveled to Iraq this year were performing their duties with bravery, with brilliance, and without question they are doing so today. They have battled insurgents, secured cities and maintained some semblance of order in Iraq.
But even as they have carried out their responsibilities with excellence and valor, they've also told me that there is no military solution to this war. Our troops can help suppress the violence, but they cannot solve its root causes. And all the troops in the world won't be able to force Shi'a, Sunni and Kurd to sit down at a table, resolve their differences and forge a lasting peace.
I've long said that the only solution in Iraq is a political one. The only solution in Iraq is a political one. And to reach such a solution, we must communicate clearly and effectively to the factions in Iraq that the days of asking, urging and waiting for them to take control of their own country are coming to an end. (Applause.) No more coddling, no more equivocation. Our best hope for success is to use the tools we have -- military, financial and diplomatic -- to pressure the Iraqi leadership to finally come to a political agreement between the warring factions that can create some sense of stability in the country and bring this conflict under some measure of control.
The first part of this strategy begins by exerting the greatest leverage that we have on the Iraqi government. And that's a phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq on a timetable that would begin in four to six months. Now when I first advocated -- when I first advocated steps along these lines almost a year ago, I'd hoped that this phased redeployment could begin by the end of this year -- 2006. Such a timetable may now need to be adjusted and begin in 2007, but begin it must. For only through this phased redeployment can we send a clear message to the Iraqi factions that the United States is not going to hold together this country indefinitely, that it will be up to them to form a reliable government that can effectively run and secure Iraq.
Let me be even more specific. The president should announce to the Iraqi people, publicly, that our policy will include a gradual and substantial reduction in U.S. forces. He should then work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and our military commanders to map out the best plan for such redeployment and determine precise levels and dates. When possible, this should be done in consultation with the Iraqi government, but it should not depend on Iraqi approval.
Now I'm not suggesting that this timetable need to be overly rigid. We cannot compromise on the safety of our troops, and we should be willing to adjust to the realities on the ground. The redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the parties in Iraq reach an effective political arrangement that stabilizes the situation, and if they offer us a clear and compelling rational for maintaining certain troop levels. Moreover, it could be suspended, and should be suspended, if at any point U.S. commanders determine that a further reduction would put American troops who are still there in danger.
Drawing down our troops in Iraq will allow us to redeploy additional troops to northern Iraq, and elsewhere in the region, as an over-the-horizon force. A force that could help prevent the conflict in Iraq from becoming a wider war, consolidate gains in northern Iraq, reassure allies in the Gulf, allow our troops to strike directly at al Qaeda wherever it may exist, and demonstrate to international terrorist organizations that they have not driven us from the region.
Perhaps most importantly, some of these troops would be redeployed to Afghanistan where our lack of focus and commitment of resources has led to an increasing deterioration of the situation there. The president's decision to go to war in Iraq has had disastrous consequences in Afghanistan. We have seen fierce Taliban offenses, a spike in terrorist attacks, and a narco-trafficking problem that is spiraling out of control. And instead of consolidating the gains made by the Karzai government, we are backsliding in Afghanistan towards chaos. And by redeploying from Iraq to Afghanistan, we would answer current NATO calls for more troops, provide a much needed boost to this critical fight against terrorism.
As a phased redeployment is executed, the majority of U.S. troops remaining in Iraq should be dedicated to the critical, but less visible roles, protecting logistic supply points, critical infrastructure and American enclaves like the Green Zone -- as well as acting as a rapid-reaction force to respond to emergencies and go after terrorists.
In such a scenario it is conceivable that a significantly reduced U.S. force might remain in Iraq for a more extended period of time, but only if U.S. commanders think that such a significantly reduced force would be effective, if there is substantial movement towards a political solution among Iraqi factions, if the Iraqi government showed a serious commitment to disbanding the militias, and if the Iraqi government asked us in a public and unambiguous way for such continued support. We would make it clear in such a scenario that the United States would not be maintaining permanent military bases in Iraq, but would do what is necessary to prevent a total collapse of the Iraqi state and further polarization of Iraqi society. Such a reduced but active presence would also send a clear message to hostile countries, like Iran and Syria, that we intend to remain a key player in the region.
The second part of our strategy should be to couple this phased redeployment with a more effective plan that puts Iraqi security forces in the lead, intensifies and focuses our efforts to train these forces, and expands the number of our personnel and Special Forces, who are deployed with Iraqi units as advisers. Here's the reason this is important: An increase in the quality of U.S. personnel in training and advisory roles will help guard against militia infiltration in Iraqi units, which has been a chronic problem; develop the trust and good will of Iraqi soldiers and the local populace; and lead to better intelligence while undercutting grassroots support for the insurgents.
Let me underscore one particular point. Any U.S. strategy must address the problem of sectarian militias in Iraq. In the absence of a genuine commitment on the part of all the factions in Iraq to deal with this issue, it's doubtful that a unified Iraqi government can function for very long. And it is doubtful that U.S. forces, no matter how large, can prevent us -- prevent an escalation of widespread sectarian killing.
Of course, in order to convince the various factions to embark on the admittedly difficult task of disarming their militias, the Iraqi government must also make headway on reforming the institutions that support the military and police. U.S. advisers can teach soldiers to fight and police to patrol, but if the Iraqi government will not properly feed, adequately pay or provide them with the equipment they need, they will continue to desert in large numbers, as they already have; or they will continue to maintain fealty only to their religious affiliation, rather than to the national government. The security forces have to be far more inclusive than they have been to date. Standing up an army composed mainly of Shi'a and Kurds will only cause the Sunnis to feel even more threatened and fight even harder.
The third part of our strategy should be to link continued economic aid in Iraq with the existence of tangible progress toward a political settlement. So far Congress has given the administration unprecedented flexibility in determining how to spend $20 billion in Iraq. But instead, effectively targeting this aid, we've seen some of the largest, fraud and abuse of foreign aid in American history. Today the Iraqi landscape is littered with ill-conceived, half- finished projects that have done almost nothing to help the Iraqi people or stabilize the country.
This must end in the next session of Congress when we reassert our authority to oversee the management of this war. This means no more bloated no-bid contracts that cost the taxpayer millions in overhead and administrative expenses, but don't do the job. We need to continue to provide some basic reconstruction funding that will be used to put Iraqis to work and help our troops stabilize key areas. But we need to also move towards more conditioned-based aid packages, or economic assistance is contingent upon the ability of Iraqis to make measurable progress on reducing sectarian violence, and forging a lasting political settlement.
Finally, we have to realize that the entire Middle East has an enormous stake in the outcome in Iraq and we must engage neighboring countries in finding a solution. This includes opening a dialogue with both Syria and Iran, an idea supported by both James Baker and the incoming secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.
We understand that these countries, Iran and Syria, want us to fail. And we should remain steadfast in our opposition to their support of terrorism and Iran's nuclear ambitions. But neither Iran nor Syria want to see a security vacuum in Iraq filled with chaos -- terrorism, refugees and violence -- as it could have a destabilizing affect on the entire region and within Iran and Syria themselves.
And so I firmly believe that we should convene a regional conference with the Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, Syrians, the Turks, the Jordanians, the British and anyone else who's got a stake in this outcome. The goal of this conference should be to get foreign fighters out of Iraq, prevent a further descent into civil war, and push the various Iraqi factions towards a political solution.
Now make no mistake, if the Iranians and the Syrians think they can use Iraq as another Afghanistan, or a staging area from which to attack Israel and other countries, they are badly mistaken. It is in our national interest to prevent anything of the sort from happening. We should also make clear that even after we begin to draw down forces, we will still work with our vital allies in the region to combat international terrorism and prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It is simply not productive, however, for us not to engage in discussions with Iran and Syria on an issue of such fundamental importance to all these countries. (Applause.)
This brings me to a broader set of points. As we change strategy in Iraq, we also have to think about what Iraq has taught us about American strategy and the wider struggle against rogue threats and international terrorism. We have to think about what sort of comprehensive national security strategy is effective in these times. Many who supported the original decision to go to war in Iraq have argued that the problem was not one of conception, but rather a failure of implementation. I disagree with this. I've long believed it has been a failure of conception as well as implementation, that the rationale behind the war itself was misguided.
And so going forward, I believe there are strategic lessons to be learned from this as we continue to confront the new threats that we're going to face in the 21st century. The first lesson is that we should be more modest in our belief that we can impose democracy on a country through military force. (Applause.) In the past, it has been movements for freedom from within tyrannical regimes -- whether Poland or South Africa -- that have led to flourishing democracies, movements that are still continuing today.
Now this doesn't mean that we abandon those efforts or that we abandon our values and our ideals. Whenever we can, it is in our vital interest to help foster democracy through diplomatic and economic resources that are at our disposal. But as we provide such help, we should be clear that the institutions of a functioning democracy -- free markets, a free press, a strong civil society, rule of law -- that these things cannot be built over night. And they cannot be built at the end of the barrel of a gun.
And so we must realize that the freedoms that FDR once spoke of -- especially the freedom from want and the freedom from fear -- do not just come from deposing a tyrant and handing out ballots. They're only realized once the personal and material security of a people is ensured as well. (Applause.)
The second lesson is that in any conflict it is not enough simply to plan for war. You must also plan for success after war. And much has been written about how the military invasion of Iraq was planned without any apparent thought to what political situation might emerge after Baghdad fell. Such a lack of foresight is simply inexcusable. If we commit our troops anywhere in the world, it is our solemn responsibility to define their mission and formulate a viable plan to fulfill that mission and bring our troops home. (Applause.)
And the final lesson, and one that I amplify in the foreign policy chapter of my new book, is that in an interconnected world, the defeat of international terrorism -- and most importantly, the prevention of these terrorist organizations from obtaining weapons of mass destruction -- will require the cooperation of many nations. We must always reserve the right to strike unilaterally at terrorists wherever they may exist.
But if we -- but we should also know that our success in doing so is enhanced immeasurably by engaging our allies so that we receive the crucial diplomatic, military, intelligence and financial support that can lighten our load and add legitimacy to our actions. This means talking to our friends, and even at times talking to our enemies. Legitimacy in military parlance is a forced multiplier.
We need to keep these lessons in mind as we think about the broader threats America now faces. Threats we haven't paid nearly enough attention to, because we've been distracted in Iraq. The National Intelligence Estimate, which details how we're creating more terrorists in Iraq than we're defeating, is the most obvious example of how the war is hurting our efforts in the larger battle against terrorism, but there are a number of other examples.
The overwhelming presence of our troops, our intelligence and our resources in Iraq has stretched our military to the breaking point and distracted us from the growing threats of a dangerous world. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said that if a conflict arose in North Korea, we'd have to rely largely on Navy and Air Force to take care of it, since the Army and Marines are bogged down elsewhere.
In my travels to Africa, I've seen weak governments and broken societies that can be exploited by al Qaeda. And we have a vital interest in making sure that these ungoverned spaces around the world are dealt with. And on a trip to the former Soviet Union I've seen the biological and nuclear weapons terrorists could easily steal while the world looks the other way.
There's one other place where mistakes in Iraq have cost us dearly. And that is the loss of our government's credibility with the American people. According -- (interrupted by applause) -- according to a Pew survey taken last year, 42 percent of Americans now agree with the statement that the U.S. should, quote, "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." Unquote.
Now we can't afford to be a country of isolationists in the 21st century. 9/11 showed us that try as we might to ignore the rest of the world, our enemies will no longer ignore us. And so it is absolutely vital that we maintain a strong and active foreign policy, relentless in pursing our enemies and hopeful in promoting our values around the world. But to guard against isolationist sentiment in this country, we must change conditions in Iraq and the policy that has characterized our time there. A policy based on blind hope and ideology instead of fact and reality.
Americans called for this more serious policy a few Tuesdays ago. It's time that we listened to their concerns and win back their trust. I spoke here a year ago and delivered a message about Iraq that was similar to the one I did today. I refuse to accept the possibility that I will have to come back a year from now, after several hundred or a thousand more American lives have been lost, to say the same thing. There have been too many speeches, there have been too many excuses, there have been too many flag-draped coffins, and there have been too many heartbroken families. The time for waiting in Iraq is over.
It is time to change our policy. It is time to give Iraqis their country back. And it is time to refocus America's efforts on the larger struggle yet to be won.
Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)
Thank you. So I think we have time for questions and Lester's in charge.
MR. CROWN: Well, first Barack, thank you for your thoughtful, substantive comments on various things that are so very important to not only the people in this room, but the entire country.
We do have time for a few questions. If you are good enough to raise your hand, we'll bring a microphone to you. I know I don't have to suggest the questions should be short and should end in a question mark. (Laughter.)
Q Senator, could you expand just a bit on what America should do in relation to engaging Iran, and perhaps the Saudis, so as to achieve the end?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, the -- I've been saying this for quite some time, that I don't understand the administration's posture that not talking to somebody is punishment and talking to somebody is a reward. (Applause.) It hasn't proved effective. It's drastically diminished our leverage in the region.
Keep in mind that throughout the Cold War, at a time when we had intercontinental ballistic missiles pointed at every major city in the United States, there was a phone directly from the White House to the Kremlin. There were constant summit meetings taking place throughout that period. The notion that where we had an existential threat from another superpower, and we could engage in a dialogue, and yet we can't find anything to talk about with these regional powers that are potentially damaging to our interests, does not make any sense to me at all.
So how would we go about it? Well, let's take the example of Iran. Obviously, there are very difficult negotiations that are taking place around the issue of their attempts to weaponize nuclear power. I am a firm believer that we should prevent them from getting nuclear weapons and I think we have to be tough negotiators in those conversations.
Now we have to be active negotiators. We essentially contracted out those negotiations to the Europeans. And as a consequence, did not get very far for several years. Now I think there is some movement to be more directly involved. And the key there, I think, is going to be to leverage China and Russia in these conversations.
But even as those conversations are taking place, there is no reason why we cannot open some channels for communication around this issue of how to stabilize Iraq. Iran is by far the biggest beneficiary thus far of our invasion in Iraq. They are able to sit back -- they have dramatically increased their influence inside Iraq. They can watch us flail about and really not put any cards on the table. Part of the reason I think it's important for us to initiate a phased redeployment is to send a signal to them that, you know, you may enjoy watching our difficulties in Iraq right now. You will not enjoy a million refugees pouring over your borders in the event that Iraq collapsed.
Now that conversation -- there is a basis then for a conversation about, how can this region be stabilized? It's not an easy conversation. And I think that you have to go into all these conversations without any illusions, with a clear understanding of what their interests are, and a clear understanding of what our interests are, and to be tough negotiators, which one of the ironies of this administration has been that it talks tough, but it's not very savvy when it actually comes with negotiations. The Indian nuclear deal is an example of where we got taken to the cleaners, even though I think the geopolitics of it made a lot of sense.
Now the same applies, by the way, to North Korea. We've got a situation there where we have a highly unstable and problematic regime. And they have now stated that they are testing nuclear weapons and claim that they possess them. It is of grave concern to us and other powers in the region. And I'm glad to see that we have heard signals from the North Koreans that they are prepared to re- enter six-party talks. I'm also glad to see that this administration did a credible job in terms of moving some sanctions through the United Nations Security Council.
But what the Chinese and the South Koreans have repeatedly stated is that it is -- it would give them additional confidence and additional leverage if the United States were willing to engage in some form of bilateral conversations that would complement the six- party talks. It's not clear to me why we would not do that.
Now that's one final point in all this. Ultimately, I think the administration's rationale for not talking to Iran or North Korea has to do with, in the back of the mind, the thinking that at some point, we may try to overthrow those regimes militarily. Now that is speculative, so I don't want reporters to go rushing -- I don't have any intelligence information. But I think what's been clear is that the administration has gone out of its way to let the Iranians and the North Koreans, at least, think that, you know, what happened in Iraq might happen to you as well.
In such an environment, it is hard to imagine a better formula for them wanting to seek nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. And it just strikes me that part of the strategic understanding that we're going to have to arrive at is, at what point do we make some decisions about giving them potential security assurances in exchange for behavior that comports with the interests of the international community? And if that's not on the table, if we are not willing to have those conversations, then my suspicion is we won't make too much progress over the long term. (Applause.)
I didn't guarantee that the answers would be short -- just the questions. (Laughter.)
Q Aside from the possibility of you running for president, what initiatives would you seek to introduce in the new Congress with your colleagues to support the strategy that you just outlined?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, a couple of things. As I indicated, the Democrats being in control of the Senate and the House, I think, can initiate the sort of vigorous oversight and information gathering that we have not been able -- or at least the folks on the other side of the aisle were not willing to engage in over the last several years.
And I think that will be helpful in us at least getting an honest and accurate assessment of the situation, and a full exploration of what our options are. And I will be active in that oversight process.
Ultimately, though, the president is the commander in chief. The only way to force the president's hand would be in some ways to restrict funding for the war effort in Iraq. That is not something that I am prepared to do. I think that when we send our young men and women there, we have a solemn obligation to make sure that they've got the tools they need to succeed, or at minimum, come safely home. And so -- and I don't think you'll see any movement like that from our colleagues.
So the one encouraging aspect of this is that after Tuesday, I think you will see as much pressure within the Republican Party, as from Democrats, on the administration to change course. Because they will not -- (interrupted by applause) -- and I've told this to some Republican friends of mine. I actually think that the last election can be liberating for the Republican Party, because I think both on domestic, but especially on foreign policy, there has been this absolute insistence on toeing the party line that has muffled effective descent and questions within the party. And so I think that you're going to see a bipartisan push on the administration to change course.
The Iraq study group, I think, offers an opportunity. It gives Republicans a place to land. And it will be interesting to see what the Iraqi study group comes up with. The one thing I will say is that if the Iraqi study group proposals do not address some mechanism whereby we begin to start bringing troops home in some defined time period, then I don't think it will speak to both our strategic interests, and it will also not speak to the desires of the American people. (Applause.)
We've got Reverend Martin right here in the middle. And you know, I always call on reverends, Lester --
Q Thank you.
SEN. OBAMA: -- because, you know, they've got a direct line.
Q Oh. (Laughs.) B. Herbert Martin, pastor of the Progressive Community Church.
Senator, in your address to us you alluded to the president's presence in Vietnam. Can you share with us a little bit of your assessment of the impact of his presence there on the continent of Asia; and also, since China is so interested in Africa, some implications about the impact to Africa; and then finally, if you could share with us a little bit of what your wisdom circle, or your advisers, are saying to you about running for president of the United States.
SEN. OBAMA: That was a lot of questions, sir. I'm not sure you get three questions, so I may just answer the first two. (Laughter.)
I thought that the president's visit to Vietnam was valuable. I think that what you're seeing is Vietnam transitioning. It is a booming economy at this point. And I think that anywhere where you're starting to see active market forces in the ways that you're seeing in Vietnam, and of course in China, should be encouraged, because I think that when you have economic freedom, over time cultural and political freedom, I think, will help emerge.
You know, I mentioned earlier this whole issue of democracy. A fascinating book by Fareed Zakaria -- and I'm suddenly blanked on the title -- but it basically is about this whole theory of democratization. And he cites very compelling statistics that say at a -- once per capita income reaches say, $5,000 or $7,000 annually, then the likelihood of a democracy being stable is enormously enhanced. Below that level, it's very difficult to sustain. And so I think that to the extent that we can start improving trade relations with Vietnam, and encouraging openness there, I think that's all to the good.
China's interactions with Africa, I think, are fascinating. When I was on my trip to Africa, I remember having dinner with a number of businessmen from South Africa. And one of them, who was originally from Zimbabwe, a black-African businessman, stated -- let me see if I can get this quote right. He said, "The prominence of China in Africa is exceeded only by the lack of a presence of the United States." And I think some of you have been seeing sort of the active movement by China -- aggressive movement by China -- both economically and politically in the region.
Now there are some things that the Chinese can do that I don't think we should do. They're willing to overlook human rights violations in a place like Zimbabwe that I think are unacceptable. They are willing to turn a blind eye, often times, to what's been taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan, because they have strong trade relationships there. So in some ways, they are less constrained than we are in terms of who you partner with.
But that is no excuse for the enormous investment that they are making, ironically, largely with our dollars, right? With the trillion dollar surplus that they've now accumulated, they can go around and they're building roads and bridges and schools and hospitals and infrastructure. And they are laying the groundwork for making enormous amounts of money, and opening up markets to Chinese companies, and we are just on the sidelines.
We have no active strategy in that region. And I think it is an enormous geopolitical mistake for us over the long term, because the -- you know, the Chinese, they've got their problems, but they are taking the long view. And we don't seem to be exhibiting that same kind of strategic thinking in our foreign policy at the moment. (Applause.)
MR. CROWN: Barack, thank you. And we do hope you come back next year. We hope at that time it won't be necessary to repeat the same kind of concerns. (Applause.)
SEN. OBAMA: Thank you very much, everybody. I appreciate it. (Applause.)