Obama adviser speaks policy with students

Steven Bushong

The closest that inquiring minds can get to Sen. Barack Obama, without asking him questions directly, is by speaking to one of his lead policy advisers. They are chief resources of expert knowledge for presidential candidates who are often expected to know everything.

When Obama’s lead adviser on Middle Eastern policy visited campus yesterday, students picked his brain on issues ranging from U.S. support of Israel to its strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

Dan Shapiro, who has been advising the Democratic presidential candidate since early in his campaign, spent more than an hour at the Student Center explaining several of Obama’s positions on the volatile region, then answering questions from students.

Shapiro, who holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern politics from Harvard University, was quick to inject campaign rhetoric into the meeting.

“You all really matter in this election, like never before,” he told an audience of about 60 people, mostly students. “We’ve never had a more consequential presidential election,” he said, citing the Iraq war and U.S. influence on the world as among the election’s focal points.

“After 9/11, the entire world was ready to stand with us,” and now, Shapiro said, respect for the country has been greatly diminished worldwide. “The U.S. is neither respected, liked or feared around the world.”

Advisers to presidential candidates play critical roles in shaping their agendas, establishing talking points and developing policy, said Michael Lewkowicz, assistant professor of politics. After the election, they may go on to assume a role inside the president’s cabinet or become an informal adviser.

Shapiro spoke about Iran, summarizing Obama’s position that a nuclear Iran would be a “game changer” and should be prevented using all tools available – economic, military and, in contrast to the Bush administration’s policy, diplomatic tools.

“What President Bush has done is take the diplomatic tool out of the toolbox,” Shapiro said. “We’ve seen the result of that policy. It’s failing every day.”

He also commented on the candidates’ choices of running mates.

“Sen. Obama, I think, used good judgment in choosing Joe Biden,” Shapiro said, referring to the Democratic vice presidential candidate. A minute later, he offered a contrasting thought in regard to the Republican vice presidential candidate.

“There are many things I could say about Sarah Palin,” but he only said a few, including, “Palin doesn’t have a paper-thin record – that would be an insult to paper.”

Shapiro took about a dozen questions from the audience, offering lengthy responses, unless it was outside his area of expertise. One student asked why Obama considered it necessary to spread democracy in the Middle East.

Shapiro responded, “As a practical matter, democratic states have proved to be more reliable allies in the conflicts and challenges we’ve faced.” Then, as a moral matter, he said people everywhere should be allowed the same rights and privileges United States citizens enjoy.

Assistant professor Joshua Stacher, who studies the Middle East, asked a question regarding the generalized classifications of various extremist and terrorist groups. Although the answer did not settle his concerns, he was inspired by the questions many of the students asked.

“I was most impressed with the range and depth of questions asked by the students,” he said. “That really shows how smart and clever our student body is.”

After an hour, Shapiro was whisked away to an event in Youngstown.

College Democrats organized the event in conjunction with the Obama campaign office in Kent. Other surrogates of Obama to visit campus recently include Kal Penn and Nate Parker.

Contact enterprise reporter Steven Bushong at [email protected].