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The Obama Message: No We Can't

12:12 PM, Jan 28, 2008 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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Senator Barack Obama's ability to touch the better angels of America's nature lies at the root of his candidacy and might become the defining framework of this year's presidential race. It's hard, even for his opponents, not to be moved by a candidate who calls us to transcend ourselves and believes that, as he said in his South Carolina victory speech, "while we breathe, we hope; and where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people in three simple words. Yes. We. Can."

But when it comes to winning in the war in Iraq, Obama's message has been and remains one of relentless despair; in that same South Carolina speech, he lamented "a war that should never have been authorized and never been waged." The Iraq "surge," he still insists, "has failed," and why we need to begin "not just talking to our friends but talking to our enemies, like Iran and Syria, to try to stabilize the situation there" by an American withdrawal. Indeed, Obama was among those who believed the surge a failure even before it began: he voted in March 2007 to remove all U.S. combat forces within a year.

Three simple words: No. We. Can't.

When it comes to the fight for the future of Iraq and the Middle East, Obama's sense of possibilities and beliefs in America's goodness and greatness desert him. And that makes him, despite what Caroline Kennedy writes in the New York Times, fundamentally not like her father, President John Kennedy. It is almost impossible to imagine that staunch Cold Warrior and hero of PT 109 giving up the current fight in Iraq, particularly at a moment when victory again seems possible. John Kennedy's "American Dream" was not simply of a just society at home but a more just international order and, crucially, of the exercise of American power, including military power, to make that dream a reality. "Let any nation know," Kennedy declared in his inaugural address, "whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." There won't be any similar phrase in an Obama inaugural address.

But the fact is that only cynics and doubters can now discount the prospect of victory in Iraq. Only a mind shut tightly can have observed the changes of the past year and persist in the assertion that the war is lost. Obama argues, quite rightly, that this election is "a battle in our own hearts and minds about what kind of country we want and how hard we're willing to work for it." But that battle is about American abroad as well as at home, and how hard we're willing to work--and how hard we're willing to fight--to secure our interests and advance our principles.