- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

The grumbling on the left about Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy has begun. Some orthodox liberals are uncomfortable to learn that Mr. Obama: 1) believes America is a force for good in the world; 2) speaks glowingly about the work of American soldiers as goodwill ambassadors for this country and 3) believes the military must be enlarged. On Monday, Mr. Obama delivered a major foreign-policy address to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs about America’s international role —perhaps his most comprehensive remarks yet about American foreign policy. Although he reiterated some familiar positions, including his opposition to the war in Iraq, Mr. Obama made a number of points that sound more like Weekly Standard fare than the kind of thing you’ll read in the Huffington Post.

“Americans may find it tempting to turn inward, and cede our claim of leadership in world affairs,” Mr. Obama said. “I insist, however, that such an abandonment of our leadership is a mistake that we must not make. America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America.”

Mr. Obama went on to make one of the most powerful arguments we’ve heard yet from any elected official on the need to bolster the capability of U.S. conventional forces. “We must maintain the strongest, best-equipped military in the world in order to defeat and deter conventional threats. But while sustaining our technological edge will always be central to our national security, the ability to put boots on the ground will be critical in eliminating the shadowy terrorist networks we now face. This is why our country’s greatest military asset is the men and women who wear the military uniform of the United States.”

Unfortunately there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the U.S. armed forces, faced with the prospect of difficult counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, are in danger of collapse. Today, the military “has been stretched to the breaking point, understaffed and struggling to repair its equipment. Two-thirds of the Army is now rated ‘not ready’ for combat. Eighty-eight percent of the National Guard is not ready to deploy overseas, and many units cannot respond to a domestic emergency,” Mr. Obama told the Chicago Council. “Our men and women are performing heroically around the world in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.” But the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns “have clearly demonstrated the consequences of underestimating the number of troops required to fight two wars and defend our homeland. That’s why I strongly support the expansion of our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines.”

Mr. Obama emphasized that “adding troops isn’t just about meeting a quota. It’s about recruiting the best and the brightest to service, and it’s about keeping them in service by providing them with the first-rate equipment, armor, training and incentives they deserve. It’s about providing funding to enable the National Guard to achieve an adequate state of readiness again. And it’s about honoring our veterans by giving them the respect and dignity they deserve and the care and benefits they have earned.”

An important component of bolstering the military, he said, was recruiting soldiers who are able to speak Arabic and other foreign languages. “We know that on the streets of Baghdad, a little bit of Arabic can actually provide security to our soldiers. Yet less then a year ago, less than 1 percent of the American military could speak a language such as Arabic, Mandarin, Hindu, Urdu or Korean. It’s time we recognize these as critical skills for our military, and it’s time we recruit and train for them.” Last summer, Mr. Obama related, he visited the Combined Task Force in the Horn of Africa, a base set up in Djibouti to launch counterterrorism operations against nearby jihadists. While there, the senator saw firsthand how the American military was providing food and water to Ethiopians “who had been devastated by flooding.”

And Mr. Obama offered some much-needed perspective about helping societies move from repressive dictatorships to representative democracies. The yearning for freedom, he said, “is not satisfied by simply deposing a dictator and setting up a ballot box. The true desire of all mankind is not only to live free lives, but lives marked by dignity and opportunity.” He added that it is important for the United States to have “a 21st-century military to stay on the offense.”

The tone and substance of Mr. Obama’s remarks are troubling to some left-wing bloggers. William Arkin of The Washington Post grumbled that parts of Mr. Obama’s vision sound like President Clinton and Sen. John Kerry’s, while other left-of-center blogs questioned the senator’s commitments to opposing “future military adventurism” and spending more money on “human needs” (mainly domestic programs). The good news is that the Obama speech might signal the start of a sorely needed debate inside the Democratic Party over both the size of the military and America’s role in the world.

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