Blurring the foreign policy lines

John McCain has said his worldview was formed in the Hanoi Hilton, the jail where, as a prisoner of war, he learned to stand up to his country’s enemies and lost any naïveté about what happens when the United States shows weakness.

Barack Obama has written that his views began to take shape in the streets of Jakarta, where he lived as a young boy and saw the poverty, the human rights violations and the fear inspired by the American-backed Indonesian dictator, Suharto.

As the campaigns tell the story, those radically different experiences in different corners of South-East Asia have created two men with sharply different views about the proper use of American power.

McCain’s campaign portrays him as an experienced warrior who knows how to win wars and carries Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick. Obama’s campaign portrays him as a cerebral advocate of patient diplomacy who knows how to build partnerships without surrendering American interests.

But in the post-Iraq, post-crash US, judgement and political expediency have sometimes collided as the two men forged specific positions. The result has included contradictions that do not fit the neat hawk-and-dove images promoted by each campaign.

The Iran game
With the endgame slowly playing out in Iraq, the potential confrontation over neighbouring Iran and its nuclear programme has emerged as the premier case study in how Obama and McCain would use diplomacy and the threat of military force against a hostile state.

Obama’s declaration that he would engage Iranian leaders without preconditions has ended up dominating most of the debate—and opened him to McCain’s accusation that he is a naif, willing to give legitimacy to the Iranian regime.

Obama has backtracked a bit, arguing that he never suggested that the first meetings would be at the presidential level, and that preconditions are less important than “careful preparations”. He has also insisted that “we will never take military options off the table”.

The harder question is how to force Iran to give up its uranium enrichment quickly, before it produces enough material to build a weapon—a threshold that US and European intelligence officials believe Tehran may cross fairly early in the next presidential term.

McCain has been the more vociferous in emphasising that “we have to do whatever’s necessary” to stop Iran from obtaining a weapon. He said in interviews last year and early this year that risking military action against Iran might be better than “living with an Iranian bomb”, but in recent months he has expressed more interest in changing Iran’s behaviour than changing the regime, and has said that his “bomb Iran” ditty was a bad attempt at humour: “I wasn’t suggesting that we go around and declare war.”

But the main prescription McCain has offered relies on gradually escalating economic sanctions, the same path taken by the Bush administration. So far that strategy has been a failure.

Questions posed to both campaigns in the past few weeks have yielded another example of role reversal. While McCain seems willing to consider the possibility that Iran might some day be trusted to produce its own nuclear fuel, Obama does not.

The director of foreign policy for the McCain campaign, Randy Scheunemann, said that if Iran got back in compliance with all United Nations resolutions “it would be appropriate to consider” letting it produce uranium under inspection, which Iran has said is its right.

Obama’s position is closer to the zero-tolerance approach adopted by the Bush administration. “I do not believe Iran should be enriching uranium or keeping centrifuges,” Obama said in an email message passed on by aides.

Wrong war?
While McCain reminds audiences that he vowed to do whatever it took to win in Iraq, he has been extraordinarily reluctant when it comes to the war in Afghanistan to advocate cross-border attacks into Pakistan, even though top military commanders have publicly said that is a prerequisite for victory. McCain has dismissed Obama’s advocacy of military action inside Pakistan as unwise, saying his rival does not appreciate how Pakistanis would react.

That was Bush’s view as well until July, when he issued secret orders allowing US Special Operations forces to conduct ground incursions across the Pakistani border.

Obama’s discussion of the issue has been less than clear. He has frequently said that he would send US personnel over the border to kill leaders of al-Qaeda. In his speech at the Democratic convention he accused McCain of focusing on the wrong war—Iraq—and he vowed to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.

But US policy since the attacks of 9/11 has backed the idea of hunting down al-Qaeda members anywhere. A harder question is whether the US will go into Pakistan to hunt down Taliban or other militant groups. On that question, Obama’s statements have been ambiguous, and his campaign has declined to clarify them.

Exit strategy
When it comes to sending troops to protect the oppressed, Obama has sounded more like an interventionist than McCain.

McCain has long been sceptical about sending US troops on humanitarian quests—whether for peacekeeping, peacemaking or missions that morphed from one to the other. He opposed the US military interventions in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia in the 1990s, and has often asked what good US troops can do in a single year when the conflict they are parachuting into has roiled for centuries. He has often demanded to see an exit strategy before troops are committed.

In an article in Foreign Affairs, Obama laid out a position that is the opposite of Bush’s attitude in 2000 but sounds much like his attitude now. Obama wrote that he would use US military forces to “support friends, participate in stability and reconstruction operations or confront mass atrocities”.

Cold War child
Within hours of the Russian attack on Georgia in August McCain was on the phone to his foreign-policy advisers, seeking to calibrate the right response.

While Obama’s reaction was much closer to the Bush administration’s, McCain seized on the moment to portray Obama as weak. McCain’s friends say his criticism of Russia over the episode is a direct outgrowth of his prisoner-of-war experience and his Cold War upbringing. He regularly reminds voters that when he looks into the eyes of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, he sees three letters: KGB.

Both men say they share the goal of keeping the US the most powerful nation on earth. McCain emphasises hard power first, though his advisers say that on global warming, among other issues, he has shown a flexibility that Bush rarely demonstrated. More than any previous presidential nominee, Obama has emphasised the idea of soft power—the US’s ability to lead by moral example and non-military actions—and his challenge if elected, his advisers acknowledge, is to convince the world that an untested young senator also has a steely edge.—

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