Pretty clearly, this election is all about Barack Obama. Americans want change but they are still making up their minds about Obama – are they willing to take a chance on a relative newcomer to the national political stage?
On foreign policy, McCain has largely been assumed to have competence. But his views – to the extent they stabilize long enough to get a bead on them – haven’t been subjected to much scrutiny in the way that Obama’s have. When you look closer at McCain’s views, they’re not reassuring. He seems to be focused on enemies and threats rather than opportunities and alliances. To the extent he has articulated any major policy approaches it would be to exclude and isolate Russia and China – working toward a new Cold War.
Here are three good pieces on McCain’s foreign policy views and another that focuses more on Obama but provides a good contrast with McCain (I particularly recommend that last piece by Fareed Zakaria). I have edited them somewhat for brevity, but I would encourage you to read them in their entirety if you’re interested:
McCain's Foreign Policy Frustration
By Joe Klein
"I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war," John McCain said during a Rochester, N.H., town meeting on July 22. "It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign." It was a remarkable statement, as intemperate a personal attack as I've ever heard a major-party candidate make in a presidential campaign, the sort of thing that no potential President of the United States should ever be caught saying. (A prudent candidate has aides sling that sort of mud.) It was also inevitable.
You could see McCain's frustration building as Barack Obama traipsed elegantly through the Middle East while the pillars of McCain's bellicose regional policy crumbled in his wake. It wasn't only that the Iraqi government seemed to take Obama's side in the debate over when U.S. forces should leave (sooner rather than later). McCain was being undermined in Washington as well, by his old pal George W. Bush, who seemed to take Obama's side in the debate about whether to talk to Iran. Bush sent a ranking U.S. diplomat to negotiate with the Iranians on nuclear issues — and also let it be known that a U.S. Interests Section could soon be established in
Tehran, the first U.S. diplomatic presence on Iranian soil since the 1979
hostage crisis. …
McCain's greatest claim to the presidency — his overseas expertise — now seems squandered. He has appeared brittle and inflexible, slow to adapt to changes on the ground, slow to grasp the full implications not only of the improving situation in Iraq but also of the worsening situation in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan. Some will say this behavior raises questions about his age. I'll leave those to gerontologists. A more obvious explanation is that McCain has straitjacketed himself in an ideology focused more on enemies (real and imagined) than on opportunities. "It is impossible to ignore the many striking parallels between [McCain] and the so-called neoconservatives (many of whom are vocal and visible supporters of his candidacy)," writes the Democratic diplomat Richard Holbrooke in a forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs. "I don't know if John has become a neocon," says a longtime friend of the Senator's, "but he sure has surrounded himself with them."
Neoconservatism in foreign policy is best described as unilateral bellicosity cloaked in the utopian rhetoric of freedom and democracy. McCain hasn't always sided with the neocons … but his pugnacity seems a natural fit with theirs. He has been militant on Iran, though even there his statements have been tactical rather than strategic: his tactic is not to talk to the bad guys.
The strategic question here is whether to go for regime change or diplomatic
engagement. McCain hasn't said he was for regime change, but he has rattled
sabers noisily, joked about bomb-bomb-bombing Iran and surrounded himself with,
and been funded by, Jewish neoconservatives who believe Iran is a threat to Israel's existence. He has also taken a rather exotic line on Russia, which he wants to drum out of the G-8 organization of major industrial powers (a foolish proposal, since none of the other G-8 members would abide by it). His notion of a "League of Democracies" seems a transparent attempt to draw a with-us-or-against-us line in the sand against Russia and China. But that's the point: McCain would place a higher priority on finding new enemies than on cultivating new friends.
The sudden collapse of McCain's Middle East policy is a stunning event, although McCain's regional stridency raised questions from the start. This is a long campaign — with, I fearlessly predict, at least one major Obama downdraft to come — but John McCain seems panicked, and in deep trouble now.
From the New York Times:
Getting to Know You
By BOB HERBERT
The conventional wisdom in this radically unconventional presidential race is that
the voters have to get to know Barack Obama better. That’s what this week’s
overseas trip was about: to showcase the senator as a potential commander in
chief and leader of U.S. foreign policy.
According to this way of thinking, as voters see more of Mr. Obama and become more comfortable with him (assuming no major foul-ups along the way), his chances of getting elected will be enhanced.
Maybe so. But what about the other guy? How much do voters really
know about John McCain?
Senator McCain crossed a line that he shouldn’t have this week when he said that Mr. Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” It was a lousy comment, tantamount to calling Mr. Obama a traitor, and Senator McCain should apologize for it.
But what we’ve learned over the years is that Mr. McCain is one of those guys who never has to pay much of a price for his missteps and foul-ups and bad behavior. Can you imagine the firestorm of outrage and criticism that would have descended on Senator Obama if he had made the kind of factual mistakes that John McCain has repeatedly made in
this campaign? (Or if Senator Obama had had the temerity to even remotely
suggest that John McCain would consider being disloyal to his country for political reasons?)
We have a monumental double standard here. Mr. McCain has had trouble in his
public comments distinguishing Sunnis from Shiites and had to be corrected
in one stunningly embarrassing moment by his good friend Joe Lieberman. He
has referred to a Iraq-Pakistan border when the two countries do not share a
He declared on CBS that Iraq was the first major conflict after 9/11, apparently forgetting — at least for the moment — about the war in Afghanistan. In that same interview, he credited the so-called surge of U.S. forces in Iraq with bringing about the Anbar Awakening, a movement in which thousands of Sunnis turned on insurgents. He was wrong. The awakening preceded the surge.
ore important than these endless gaffes are matters that give us glimpses of the fundamental makeup of the man. A celebrated warrior as a young man, he has always believed that the war in Iraq can (and must) be won. As the author Elizabeth Drew has written: “He didn’t seem to seriously consider the huge costs of the war: financial, personal, diplomatic and to the reputation of the United States around the world.”
He also felt we could have, and should have, won the war in Vietnam. “We lost in Vietnam,” said Mr. McCain in 2003, “because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting and because we limited the tools at our disposal.”
The spirit of the warrior was on display in the famous incident in which Mr. McCain, with the insouciance of a veteran bomber pilot, sang “Bomb-bomb Iran” to
the tune of “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys.
No big deal. Just John being John.
But then, we are already bogged down in two wars. And John is running for president. It’s hardly crazy to wonder. Part of the makeup of the man —
apparently a significant part, according to many close observers — is his outsized temper. Mr. McCain’s temperament has long been a subject of fascination in Washington, and for some a matter of concern. He
can be a nasty piece of work. (Truly nasty. He once told an extremely cruel joke about Chelsea Clinton — too cruel to repeat here.) If the McCain gaffes seem endless, so do the tales about his angry, profanity-laced eruptions. Senator Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, said of Mr. McCain: “The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine.” Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, told Newsweek in 2000: “I decided I didn’t want this guy anywhere near a trigger.”
Both senators have since endorsed Senator McCain’s presidential bid, but their initial complaints were part of a much larger constellation of concerns about the way Mr. McCain tends to treat people with whom he disagrees, and his frequently belligerent
Senator McCain has acknowledged on various occasions that he has a short fuse and has at times made jokes about it. He told Larry King in 2006: “My anger did not help my campaign ... People don’t like angry candidates very much.”
My guess is that most voters don’t see John McCain as an angry candidate, despite several very public lapses. The mythical John McCain is an affable, straight-talking,
moderately conservative war hero who is an expert on foreign policy.
Barack Obama is not the only candidate the voters need to know more about.
How Much Does John McCain Really Know About Foreign Policy?
Not as much as he'd like you to think.
By Fred Kaplan
After Barack Obama's opening day in Iraq this week, the New York Times headline read, "For Obama, a First Step Is Not a Misstep." The story, by Richard Oppel Jr. and Jeff Zeleny, noted, "Mr. Obama seemed to have navigated one of the riskiest parts of a weeklong international trip without a noticeable hitch."
That was the big nail-biter: Would Obama, the first-term senator and foreign-policy newbie, utter an irrevocably damaging gaffe? The nightmare scenarios were endless. Maybe he would refer to "the Iraq-Pakistan border," or call the Czech Republic "Czechoslovakia" (three times), or confuse Sunni with Shiite, or say that the U.S. troop surge preceded (and therefore caused) the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province.
But, of course, it was Obama's opponent, John McCain—the war hero and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee—who uttered these eyebrow-raisers. "Czechoslovakia" was clearly a gaffe, and understandable for anyone who was sentient during the Cold War years. What about the others, though? Were they gaffes—slips of the tongue, blips of momentary fatigue? Or did they reflect lazy thinking, conceptual confusion, a mind frame clouded by clichéd abstractions?
If Obama had blurted even one of those inanities (especially the one about the Iraq-Pakistan border), the media and the McCain campaign would have been all over him like red ants on a wounded puppy.
McCain caught almost no hell for his statements—they were barely noted in the mainstream press—most likely because they didn't fit the campaign's "narrative." McCain is "experienced" in national-security matters; therefore, if he says something that's dumb or factually wrong, it's a gaffe or he's tired. Obama is "inexperienced," so if he were to go off the rails, it would be a sign of his clear unsuitability for the job of commander in chief.
It may be time to reassess this narrative's premise—or to abandon it altogether and simply examine the evidence before us. Quite apart from the gaffes, in formal prepared speeches, McCain has proposed certain actions and policies that raise serious questions about his suitability for the highest office. As president, he has said, he would boot Russia out of the G-8 on the grounds that its leaders don't share the West's values. He would form an international "League of Democracy" as a united front against the forces of autocracy and terror. And though it's not exactly a stated policy, he continues to employ as his foreign-policy adviser an outspoken, second-tier neoconservative named Randy Scheunemann, who coined the term "rogue-state rollback" and still prescribes it as sound policy.
Evicting Russia from the group of eight leading industrial nations may have some visceral appeal, but it has at least two drawbacks. First, all the G-8's other members are opposed to the notion. Second, the main issues that concern the G-8—for instance, climate change, energy policy, nuclear nonproliferation, and counterterrorism—cannot be fully addressed without Russia's participation.
The idea of a League of Democracy has a nice ring, especially given the United Nations' frequent obstructionism in the face of human misery and common danger. The obstructionism stems in part from vetoes by
Russia or China, which, of course, would not be members of this league. But there are a few problems here as well. First, democratic nations often differ on high-profile issues (e.g., the invasion of Iraq, the rules of engagement in Afghanistan, the Kyoto Treaty, etc.). Second, very few of the world's pressing problems break down along the lines of democracies vs. nondemocracies, either by topic or constituency. Third, creating such an overtly ideological bloc as a central tool of foreign policy would only alienate the excluded nations—and possibly incite them to form an opposing bloc. The challenge is to find common
solutions to global problems, not to encumber them in a new Cold War.
As for rolling back rogue states, one would hope that McCain has learned some lessons from George W. Bush's failures as even Bush himself has done, albeit
belatedly—for instance, in deciding to negotiate with the North Koreans (though
not until after they tested an atomic bomb). Someone should ask McCain: Would he
cut off those talks? Does he value Scheunemann's advice? If so, which rogues
does he hope to topple next, and with whose army does he plan to do it? (Ours is
overbooked at the moment.)
In other words, how much does John McCain really know about foreign policy after all? It's a question to be asked and answered, not brushed away as impertinent.
He's been called a naive idealist. But in terms of foreign policy, he's the true realist in the race.
The rap on Barack Obama, at least in the realm of foreign policy, has been that he is a softheaded idealist who thinks that he can charm America's enemies. John McCain and his campaign, conservative columnists and right-wing bloggers all paint a picture of a liberal dreamer who wishes away the world's dangers. Even President Bush stepped into the fray earlier this year to condemn the Illinois senator's willingness to meet with tyrants as naive. Some commentators have acted as if Obama, touring the Middle East and Europe this week on his first trip abroad since effectively wrapping up the nomination, is in for a rude awakening.
These critiques, however, are off the mark. Over the course of the campaign against Hillary Clinton and now McCain, Obama has elaborated more and more the ideas that would undergird his foreign policy as president. What emerges is a world view that is far from that of a typical liberal, much closer to that of a traditional realist. It is interesting to note that, at least in terms of the historical schools of foreign policy, Obama seems to be the cool conservative and McCain the exuberant idealist. …
Obama rarely speaks in the moralistic tones of the current Bush administration. He doesn't divide the world into good and evil even when speaking about terrorism. He sees countries and even extremist groups as complex, motivated by power, greed and fear as much as by pure ideology. His interest in diplomacy seems motivated by the sense that one can probe, learn and possibly divide and influence countries and movements precisely because they are not monoliths. When speaking to me about Islamic extremism, for example, he repeatedly emphasized the diversity within the
Islamic world, speaking of Arabs, Persians, Africans, Southeast Asians, Shiites and Sunnis, all of whom have their own interests and agendas.
Obama never uses the soaring language of Bush's freedom agenda, preferring instead to talk about enhancing people's economic prospects, civil society and—his key word—"dignity." He rejects Bush's obsession with elections and political rights, and argues that people's aspirations are broader and more basic—including food, shelter, jobs. "Once these aspirations are met," he told The New York Times's James Traub, "it opens up space for the kind of democratic regimes we want." This is a view of
democratic development that is slow, organic and incremental, usually held by
Obama talks admiringly of men like Dean Acheson, George Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr, all of whom were imbued with a sense of the limits of idealism and American power to transform the world. "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any
way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative," wrote Larissa
MacFarquhar in her profile of him for The New Yorker. "There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It's not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good."
As important as what Obama says is what he passes up—a series of obvious cheap shots against Bush. He could bash him for coddling China's dictatorship, urge him to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics or criticize his inaction in Darfur. In fact, Obama has been circumspect on all these issues, neither grandstanding nor overpromising….
Perhaps the most telling area where Obama has stuck to a focused conception of
U.S. national interests is Iraq. Despite the progress in Iraq, despite the possibility of establishing a democracy in the heart of the Arab world, Obama's position is steely—Iraq is a distraction, and the sooner America can reduce its exposure there, the better. … But his view is certainly focused on America's core security interests and is recognizably realist. Walter Lippmann and George Kennan made similar arguments about Vietnam from the mid-1960s onward.
Ironically, the Republicans now seem to be the foreign-policy idealists,
labeling countries as either good or evil, refusing to deal with nasty regimes, fixating on spreading democracy throughout the world and refusing to think in more historical and complex ways. "I don't do nuance," George W. Bush told many visitors to the White House in the years after 9/11. John McCain has had his differences with Bush, but not on this broad thrust of policy. Indeed it is McCain, the Republican, who has put forward some fanciful plans, arguing that America should establish a "League of Democracies," expel Russia from the Group of Eight industrialized countries and exclude China from both groups as well.
Obama's response to McCain's proposals on Russia and China could have been drafted by Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft. We need to cooperate with both countries in order to solve significant global problems, he told me last week, citing nuclear-proliferation issues with Russia and economic ones with China. The distinction between Obama and McCain on this point is important. The single largest strategic challenge facing the United States in the decades ahead is to draw in the world's new rising powers and make them stakeholders in the global
economic and political order. Russia and China will be the hardest because they are large and have different political systems and ideological approaches to the world. Yet the benefits of having them inside the tent are obvious. Without some degree of great-power cooperation, global peace and stability becomes a far more fragile prospect.
Obama and McCain are obviously mixtures of both realism and idealism. American statesmen have always sought to combine the two in some fashion, and they are right to do so. A foreign policy that is impractical will fail and one that lacks ideals is unworthy of the United States. But the balance that each leader establishes is always different, and my main point is that Obama seems—unusually for a modern-day Democrat—highly respectful of the realist tradition. And McCain, to an extent unusual for a traditional Republican, sees the world in moralistic terms.
In the end, the difference between Obama and McCain might come down to something beyond ideology—temperament. McCain is a pessimist about the world, seeing it as a dark, dangerous place where, without
the constant and vigorous application of American force, evil will triumph. Obama sees a world that is in many ways going our way. As nations develop, they become more modern and enmeshed in the international economic and political system. To him, countries like Iran and North Korea are holdouts against the tide of history. America's job is to push these progressive forces forward, using soft power more than hard, and to try to get the world's major powers to solve the world's major problems. Call him an Optimistic Realist, or a Realistic Optimist. But don't call him naive.