By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008
On a range of major foreign policy issues over the past year, Bush has pursued strategies and actions very much along the lines of what Sen. Obama has advocated during his presidential race, according to the Illinois Democrat's campaign and many diplomatic and security experts.
The administration has pushed ahead with high-level diplomatic negotiations with Iran and North Korea, agreed to a "time horizon" for a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq and announced plans last week to shift troops and other resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. U.S. officials also confirmed last week that Bush has formally authorized cross-border raids into Pakistan without that government's approval -- an idea that Obama first endorsed, and was heavily criticized for, last year.
Bush administration officials and aides to Sen. McCain (Ariz.), the Republican presidential nominee, argue that the developments have little in common with Obama's policies and dismiss any comparison as simplistic and misleading.
But the Obama campaign views the moves as vindication of sorts, arguing that Bush has been forced by the pressure of events to move away from the hard-line policies of his first term and toward a more pragmatic path in his second. When Bush announced the new troop deployments to Afghanistan, for example, Obama said he was "glad that the president is moving in the direction of the policy that I have advocated for years."
Obama aides also say the moves by Bush complicate matters for McCain, who is more hawkish than his opponent on issues including the crisis in Georgia and the war in Iraq.
"What we have here, in many ways, is that a McCain presidency would look a lot like a Bush first term and a move back in that direction," said Rand Beers, who served as a National Security Council staffer in Republican and Democratic administrations and is now an unpaid adviser to the Obama campaign. "The flip side of that is that John McCain is therefore to the right of George Bush, which I don't think is the way he conceived of his campaign."
But Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top foreign policy adviser, accused the Obama campaign of "rank hypocrisy" and said it was "comical" for the Democrat to now claim accord with the Bush administration on some issues. "I find the whole argument relatively amusing, given that they have done nothing but criticize Bush administration foreign policy and now claim that Bush is moving in their direction," Scheunemann said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
McCain has accused Obama of wanting to "lose in Iraq to win in Afghanistan," criticized him for endorsing direct talks with leaders of Iran and other enemies, and repeatedly called Obama "naive" for publicly advocating the Pakistan raids.
McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, seemed to endorse unilateral raids in Pakistan during an interview last week with ABC News, saying: "We have got to have all options out there on the table." Scheunemann said that Palin's remarks were in line with McCain's views and that McCain's criticism of Obama was focused on his decision to talk publicly about detailed counterterrorism strategies.
The renewed wrangling over foreign policy comes as Obama struggles to convince voters that he is trustworthy on world affairs and seeks to fend off McCain's overall gains in national polls. The Republican nominee has a 17-point lead on the question of which candidate can better handle an unexpected crisis and a double-digit advantage as the one more trusted on international affairs, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week.
McCain and Obama said they approved of Bush's announcement last week that 8,000 troops would be removed from Iraq by early next year while nearly 5,000 troops would be added to Afghanistan by the end of the year. But their interpretations of these events were starkly different.
Obama, although supportive of the shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, criticized the effort as too little and too late. McCain said the withdrawal of troops from Iraq was possible because of the addition of 30,000 troops last year, which the Democrat had opposed. McCain said Obama's "focus is on withdrawal, not on victory."
On the diplomatic front, Obama has made a point of advocating dialogue with Iran as well as Syria, though the McCain campaign accuses him of backing off from a statement that he was prepared to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without conditions. Bush waded into the debate in May during a speech at the Israeli Knesset, when he compared talking with Iran or terrorist groups to the appeasement of Nazi Germany -- a comment widely seen as a swipe at Obama.
Then, in July, Bush sent a high-level U.S. emissary to attend nuclear talks with Iran and authorized Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to join North Korean diplomats at six-party talks about ending that country's nuclear programs. The moves prompted howls from many conservatives but were viewed by the Obama campaign as signs that the Bush administration was moving in its direction.
Another case is Georgia, the small country that was invaded by Russian forces early last month. McCain has been notably harsher in his anti-Moscow rhetoric than Obama and has called for expelling Russia from the Group of Eight major industrialized nations. The Bush administration has not taken that step, but it did announce a $1 billion aid package for Georgia that was similar to a proposal previously made by Obama and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), now Obama's running mate.
"They said it was naive to deal with Pakistan, appeasement to talk to Iran, surrender to withdraw forces from Iraq," said Ben Rhodes, an Obama senior foreign policy adviser. "The rhetoric that greeted all of these proposals from Obama does not square at all with the positions the Bush administration has been forced into in recent months."
But the McCain campaign and many other conservatives dispute the comparisons. One senior Bush administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Obama campaign was using "phony talking points."
McCain aides said the argument that the administration has moved toward Obama's positions appears intended to make their candidate appear more extreme. "There's a huge misconception that the Obama campaign has tried to foster that somehow they're in favor of diplomacy and we're not," Scheunemann said.
Gary Schmitt of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said that the range of issues amounts to "apples and oranges" and that the administration's recent policies have little in common with the Democratic candidate's views. "I don't think they're moving towards Obama's positions at all," he said.