The Campaign and Foreign Policy

Robert McMahon
Council on Foreign Relations
Monday, November 3, 2008; 2:21 PM

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) launched his presidential campaign emphasizing national security, an issue of top concern for many voters at the time. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) kicked off his candidacy stressing opposition to the increasingly unpopular (PDF) war in Iraq. By the end of their contest, the issues of terrorism and Iraq had faded to distant echoes amid the din of the financial crisis. But national security, as well as a host of related foreign policy issues, will demand the attention of the forty-fourth president. The long campaign-shadowed by events from Pakistan to the Caucasus to the bursting of the global financial bubble-provided ample opportunity for McCain and Obama to present their sometimes contrasting worldviews.

Iraq policy highlights the sharpest divide between the two. McCain, a strong advocate of the military surge, warned on the stump that Iraq could become a terrorist sanctuary if U.S. forces are withdrawn too soon. "If our troops are ordered to make a forced retreat, we risk all-out civil war, genocide, and a failed state in the heart of the Middle East," he said in a June 2008 speech. More generally, McCain cites radical Islamic extremists as the most significant threat facing the country, requiring "all elements of our national power" to confront.

Obama presented Afghanistan as the central front for battling terrorists. He said Iraq has diverted attention and resources from this front and called for a withdrawal of most combat troops from Iraq within sixteen months. "Iraq is not going to be a perfect place, and we don't have unlimited resources to try to make it one," Obama said in a July 2008 speech. Rather than identify one overriding threat, Obama's strategy for making the United States safer includes securing the world's nuclear weapons materials, pursuing energy security, rebuilding alliances, and focusing U.S. resources on the defeat of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces.

Trade represents another area of divergence. Obama has called for renegotiating elements of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and opposes pending bilateral deals with Colombia and South Korea. This reflects the view of the Democratic majority in Congress, which has refused to extend a law granting the president the ability to negotiate trade treaties independent of Congress. Democrats, and many Republicans, too, argue that free trade has contributed to job loss and lower wages. Obama adviser Austan Goolsbee told a recent CFR meeting that "free trade is not the enemy" but that the Bush administration's pushing of flawed treaties had caused a public backlash. McCain has promoted a vigorous trade agenda, citing the U.S.-Colombia bilateral trade deal as important for bolstering a U.S. ally and for opening markets to U.S. goods and services.

Both Obama and McCain have underscored the importance of energy security, pressing their proposals as summer gasoline prices crested above $4 per gallon. But here, too, they appear to offer contrasting visions. McCain's all-of-the-above approach includes an emphasis on ramping up domestic oil drilling and a boom in nuclear energy development, while Obama's proposal stresses investments in renewable energy. In the course of the campaign both candidates began to promise "energy independence," a goal many experts regard as unrealistic.

For all their differences, the two candidates have some notable policy similarities, including plans to introduce cap-and-trade programs to address climate change, to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities, and to ban torture as an officially sanctioned practice. Both men have strongly backed Georgia following its August military defeat by Russia (although McCain was more avid in declaring "We are all Georgians"). They also have similar plans for what has become a hyphenated Pakistan-Afghanistan conflict, including sending at least two additional brigades of U.S. troops to Afghanistan and bolstering Pakistan's democratic institutions and economy. Obama's support for military incursions to pursue al-Qaeda into Pakistan, without consulting Islamabad if necessary, aroused criticism from McCain, although it centered on Obama's public discussion of the policy, not the merits of such attacks.

Both Obama and McCain have proposed sizeable increases in U.S. ground forces overall, though either one's plans might be constrained by what international relations expert Andrew J. Bacevich calls "too much war and too few warriors" (LAT). The two candidates, seeking to distinguish their policies from those of President George W. Bush, want to boost the projection of U.S. soft power, particularly in the Muslim world. They signaled support for sweeping improvements to civilian-military coordination in post-conflict zones.

Visiting Brookings scholar Michael Fullilove, in a recent analysis, highlighted differences between McCain and Obama. But he also noted the conventional wisdom regarding campaign foreign policy positions sometimes turns out to be false. The 2004 election "appeared to present a comprehensive conflict of worldviews," Fullilove writes. Yet moderations in Bush policy in the past four years resembled "broadly what John Kerry's policy would have looked like."

© 2008