By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008
The well-advertised differences between John McCain and Barack Obama on the war in Iraq may obscure a consequential similarity between their hawkish views on the use of American military force in other places.
Just two questions in the three debates between the two nominees touched on the subject, and neither has spoken at length on it during a fall campaign dominated by economic issues. Yet both have revealed a willingness to commit U.S. forces overseas for both strategic and humanitarian purposes. Both agree on a course of action in Afghanistan that could lead to a long-term commitment of American soldiers without a clear statement of how long they might remain or what conditions would lead to their withdrawal.
Both candidates favor expanding the armed forces, Obama by 92,000 and McCain by as many as 150,000. Both speak of situations when the United States might have to commit its troops for "moral" reasons, whether or not a vital American interest was at risk. Both accept what Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor at Boston University, calls the "unspoken consensus which commits the United States to permanent military primacy" -- shared, Bacevich said, by leading figures in both parties.
Bacevich, who has endorsed Obama, is a stern critic of what he considers the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, and he regards this consensus as "far more important than any apparent differences" between the candidates and their advisers.
But there are also clear distinctions between McCain and Obama. Obama is eager to end the Iraq war, while McCain says it can only be ended in "victory." Obama has not shied away from positions that could lead to offensive military action -- in Afghanistan and against targets in Pakistan, and conceivably against an Iran that has acquired nuclear weapons -- but his campaign also emphasizes the importance of pursuing diplomacy, economic development and other "soft" tools before resorting to force.
In the second debate against McCain this fall, in Nashville, Obama went further than he had previously to describe situations that might require U.S. military force. "We may not always have national security issues at stake, but we have moral issues at stake," Obama said, replying to a question from Tom Brokaw about circumstances that might justify the use of force in a humanitarian crisis. Citing the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda as cases when intervention would have been justified, he continued: "When genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening somewhere around the world and we stand idly by, that diminishes us."
Obama said that in Darfur, the section of Sudan in East Africa where, he said, genocide is occurring now, "we could be providing logistical support, setting up a no-fly zone at relatively little cost to us, but we can only do it if we can help mobilize the international community and lead. And that's what I intend to do when I'm president."
But independent experts on the Darfur crisis say a no-fly zone, far from being relatively cheap and easy, would be "an act of war" -- in the words of John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, which monitors the situation on the ground -- "because it would involve destroying the air force of the Sudanese regime."
In that second debate, McCain did not directly answer Brokaw's question about the circumstances in which he would use military force for humanitarian purposes.
In the past, McCain has spoken of possible U.S. military action in numerous contexts. In May 1994, for example, he urged the Clinton administration to prepare for military action against North Korea. "North Korea's nuclear program may be the defining crisis of the post-Cold War world," McCain said then, and Pyongyang's refusal to admit international inspectors might be a cause for war. He disputed suggestions that U.S. military action short of invasion would be ineffective: "Air or cruise missile strikes on North Korea's nuclear facilities would not completely destroy their nuclear program, but they could damage it severely over both the near and long term." Doing nothing, McCain said, would constitute "appeasement."
The image of appeasement recurs in McCain's rhetoric. So does the notion of preserving American national honor. McCain has often addressed the need to respond forcefully in crises, most recently in reaction to the brief Georgian-Russian war in August. He urged that NATO move quickly to admit Georgia to deter future Russian incursions, potentially committing the United States and its allies to future military action. When the war began (Georgia fired the first shots, claiming it had been provoked), McCain speedily blamed the Russians and came to Georgia's defense, rhetorically: "We are all Georgians," McCain said right after the fighting stopped. Obama reacted more cautiously, calling on "all sides to show restraint and to stop this armed conflict."
In his 2000 presidential campaign McCain sided with neoconservative experts and analysts who openly advocated an aggressive American posture toward dictators. In a speech in March 1999, he called for active American support for the "indigenous and outside forces" opposing the regimes in "rogue states such as Iraq, North Korea and others. . . . Call it rogue state rollback. . . . " McCain's senior aide, Mark Salter, said last summer that McCain still believes in this goal, but he cautioned that the senator does not expect "the United States' military [to be] forcing democracy at the point of a bayonet."
McCain called himself an "realistic idealist" in a foreign policy speech last spring and, as his friend Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said recently, believes that "some political problems have military solutions." McCain said as much in an interview with The Washington Post in July, when he described the wars in Vietnam and Iraq -- both categorized as political struggles by many experts, diplomats, soldiers and historians -- as wars that could have been (Vietnam) or would be (Iraq) "won" by the American military.
Both McCain and Obama have declared that a nuclear-armed Iran would not be permitted, suggesting both are prepared to take military action if the Iranians acquired a nuclear weapon. Neither has spelled out a specific course of action.
And both men avoid any broad commitment to the use of force in any situations other than direct attacks or imminent threats to the United States. Obama nearly always mentions the need for allies and international collaboration in any use of force; McCain does not emphasize that point.
In the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, McCain and Obama took radically different positions. McCain was sure Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were natural allies. Preemptive war was "necessary," McCain said. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, was cool to the idea of what he called "a dumb war."
On Afghanistan, both candidates have ended up with similar positions: send more troops, train a bigger Afghan army, intensify diplomacy, develop a more effective nation-building strategy, and stay until the situation has stabilized. But they followed different paths to a similar destination.
For most of two years, Obama has described Afghanistan as the central front of the war on terrorism, and has called for increasing the size of the American force there, while also promoting a more effective combination of diplomatic, political and economic efforts to improve living conditions and stabilize the country. Obama proposes speedier withdrawals of U.S. troops from Iraq than McCain or President Bush favor, and their redeployment to Afghanistan.
McCain long spoke of Afghanistan as a sideshow to the war in Iraq. In November 2003, he told the Council on Foreign Relations: "If [President Hamid] Karzai can continue making the progress he is making, in the long term we may muddle through in Afghanistan."
But last July he gave a speech in which he said that "the status quo is not acceptable. Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated, and our enemies are on the offensive." He called for "a comprehensive strategy" that resembled Obama's. But McCain resists Obama's proposal to speed troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, saying this can happen only when "conditions on the ground" in Iraq justify their withdrawal from that war.
Neither candidate has spoken explicitly about how American and NATO forces would get out of Afghanistan.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.