In his most ambitious foreign policy speech to date, Barack Obama robustly defended his stance on Iraq yesterday, accusing the Bush administration of pursuing a "single-minded" foreign policy that has cost thousands of lives, tarnished America's image and emptied the nation's coffers. Ahead of a trip to Europe and the Middle East next week, Mr Obama is emphasising that he intends to use soft power – diplomacy and economic aid – rather than brute force to achieve America's aims in the post-Bush era.
If he becomes president, he says he will restore alliances that have been fractured by seven years of unilateralism from the Bush-Cheney administration. Mr Obama has repeatedly stated he will start withdrawing US combat forces from Iraq from his first day in the White House if he wins in November, transferring as many as 10,000 combat troops to Afghanistan to engage al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters operating from Pakistan.
Mr Obama says that, as president, he would completely revamp America's approach to the world by dealing with the challenges of al-Qai'da terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy security as well as climate change.
"For eight years, we have paid the price for a foreign policy that lectures without listening," he told his audience in a 38-minute address at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Centrein Washington. "By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe."
"What's missing in our debate about Iraq, what has been missing since before the war began, is a discussion of the strategic consequences of Iraq and its dominance of our foreign policy."
Mr Obama is making his first foreign trip as Democratic candidate at the weekend. He travels first to Iraq and Afghanistan with the anti-war Democrat and Republican senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska. He then travels to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. The highlight of the European leg of his trip will be in Berlin, before he travels to France and the UK.
Before he had spoken a word yesterday, Mr Obama's presidential rival, the Republican senator John McCain, accused him of defeatism over Iraq and jumping to conclusions before he had even put his feet on the ground. "Senator Obama is departing soon on a trip abroad that will include a fact-finding mission to Iraq and Afghanistan," Mr McCain said. "In my experience... first you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy."
Mr Obama said there was overwhelming evidence that Washington's focus on Iraq, where it has five times more troops than in Afghanistan, has caused it to become distracted from "the central front in the war on terror".
"It is unacceptable that, almost seven years after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on our soil, the terrorists who attacked us are still at large," he said. "Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are recording messages to their followers and plotting more terror."
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