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Obama and McCain's foreign policy

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Every once in a while I come across an article that I believe deserves wider dissemination. However, in this case, I felt it incumbent to share not one, but two articles, both written by the same writer. What is so refreshing and remarkable about these two articles is that, in the midst of another brutal, partisan Presidential campaign, these articles are an unbiased account of an extremely vital issue - the foreign policy of our next President.
 
In a very real sense my writing here is less of an article written by me, but a review of two articles written by someone else. Both articles were written by George Friedman, founder and chief of intelligence for Stratfor. The first is entitled McCain's Foreign Policy Stance, and the second, not too surprisingly, Obama's Foreign Policy Stance. Stratfor is a private, nonpartisan intelligence service with no preference for one candidate over the other. Stratfor is interested in analyzing and forecasting the geopolitical impact of the election. This review should be subjected to intense scrutiny.
 
McCain's Foreign Policy Stance
 
John McCain is the Republican candidate for president. This means he is embedded in the Republican tradition. That tradition has two roots, which are somewhat at odds with each other: One root is found in Theodore Roosevelt's variety of internationalism, and the other in Henry Cabot Lodge's opposition to the League of Nations. Those roots still exist in the Republican Party. But accommodations to the reality the Democrats created after World War II--and that Eisenhower, Nixon and, to some extent, Reagan followed--have overlain them. In many ways, the Republican tradition of foreign policy is therefore more complex than the Democratic tradition. Overall, the Democratic Party focused on Europe, while the Republican Party showed a greater interest in Asia.
 
More than any other person, Roosevelt introduced the United States to the idea that it had become a great power. During the Spanish-American War, in which he had enthusiastically participated, the United States took control of the remnants of the Spanish empire. During his presidency a few years later, Roosevelt authorized the first global tour by a U.S. fleet, which was designed to announce the arrival of the United States with authority.
 
For Roosevelt, having the United States take its place among the great powers served two purposes. First, it protected American maritime interests. The United States was a major trading power, so control of the seas was a practical imperative. But there was also an element of deep pride--to the point of ideology. Roosevelt saw the emergence of the United States as a validation of the American experiment with democracy and a testament to America as an exceptional country and regime. 
 
The second strand of Republicanism emerged after World War I, when Lodge, a Republican senator, defeated President Woodrow Wilson's plan for U.S. entry into the League of Nations. Lodge had supported the Spanish-American War and U.S. involvement in World War I, but he opposed League membership because he felt it would compel the United States to undertake obligations it should not commit to. Moreover, he had a deep distrust of the Europeans, whom he believed would drag the United States into another war.
 
The foundations of Republican foreign policy early in the 20th century therefore consisted of three elements:
  1. A willingness to engage in foreign policy and foreign wars when this serves U.S. interests.
  2. An unwillingness to enter into multilateral organizations or alliances, as this would deprive the United States of the right to act unilaterally and would commit it to fight on behalf of regimes it might have no interest in defending.
  3. A deep suspicion of the diplomacy of European states grounded on a sense that they were too duplicitous and unstable to trust and that treaties with them would result in burdens on--but not benefits for--the United States.
This gave rise to what has been called the "isolationist"- strand in the Republican Party, although the term "isolation"- is not by itself proper. The isolationists opposed involvement in the diplomacy and politics of Europe. In their view, the U.S. intervention in World War I had achieved little. The Europeans needed to achieve some stable outcome on their own, and the United States did not have the power to impose--or an interest in--that outcome.
 
Opposition to involvement in a European war did not translate to indifference to the outcome in the Pacific. The isolationists regarded Japan with deep suspicion, and saw China as a potential ally and counterweight to Japan. They were prepared to support the Chinese and even have some military force present, just as they were prepared to garrison the Philippines.
 
There was a consistent position here. First, adherents of this strand believed that waging war on the mainland of Eurasia, either in China or in Europe, was beyond U.S. means and was dangerous. Second, they believed heavily in sea power, and that control of the sea would protect the United States against aggression and protect U.S. maritime trade. This made them suspicious of other maritime powers, including Japan and the United Kingdom. Third, and last, the isolationists deeply opposed alliances that committed the United States to any involvement in war. They felt that the decision to make war should depend on time and place--not a general commitment. Therefore, the broader any proposed alliance involving the United States, the more vigorously the isolationists opposed it.
 
Republican foreign policy--a product of the realist and isolationist strands--thus rejected the idea that the United States had a moral responsibility to police the world, while accepting the idea that the United States was morally exceptional. In foreign policy, Republicans were realists first, moralists a distant second.
 
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war on the United States in 1941, the realist strand in Republican foreign policy appeared to be replaced with a new strand. The Republicans were torn between two wings after the war. On the one hand, there was Robert Taft, who spoke for the prewar isolationist foreign policy. On the other hand, there was Eisenhower, who had commanded the European coalition and had an utterly different view of alliances and of the Europeans. In the struggle between Taft and Eisenhower for the nomination in 1952, Eisenhower won decisively. The Republican Party reoriented itself fundamentally, or so it appeared. The Republicans' move toward alliances and precommitments was coupled with a shift in moral emphasis. From the unwillingness to take moral responsibility for the world, the Republicans moved toward a moral opposition to the Soviet Union and communism.
 
Yet the old Republican realism wasn't quite dead. At root, Eisenhower was never a moralist. His anti-communism represented a strategic fear of the Soviet Union more than a moral crusade. Indeed, the Republican right condemned him for this. As his presidency progressed, the old realism re-emerged, now in the context of alliance systems. But there was a key difference in Eisenhower's approach to alliances and multilateral institutions: He supported them when they enabled the United States to achieve its strategic ends; he did not support them as ends in themselves. Thus, when the right wanted him to be more aggressive and liberate Eastern Europe, he was content to contain the Soviets and leave the Eastern Europeans to deal with their own problems. Balancing the idea of foreign policy as a moral mission fighting evil and the idea of foreign policy as the pursuit of national interest and security defined the fault line within the Republican Party.
 
Ronald Reagan tried to straddle this fault line. Very much rooted in the moral tradition of his party, he defined the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."- At the same time, he recognized that moralism was insufficient. Foreign policy ends had to be coupled with extremely flexible means. Thus, Reagan maintained the relationship with China.
 
The collapse of communism left the Republicans with a dilemma. The moral mission was gone; realism was all that was left. This was the dilemma that George H. W. Bush had to deal with. Bush was a realist to the core, yet he seemed incapable of articulating that as a principle. Instead, he announced the "New World Order,"- which really was a call for multilateral institutions and the transformation of the anti-communist alliance structure into an all-inclusive family of democratic nations. In short, at the close of the Cold War, the first President Bush adopted the essence of Democratic foreign policy.
 
It was never clear what form George W. Bush's foreign policy would have taken without 9/11. After Sept. 11, 2001, Bush tried to re-create Reagan's foreign policy. Rather than defining the war as a battle against jihadists, he defined it as a battle against terrorism, as if this were the ideological equivalent of communism. He defined an "Axis of Evil"- redolent of Reagan's "Evil Empire."- Within the confines of this moral mission, he attempted to execute a systematic war designed to combat terrorism. It is important to bear in mind the complexity of George W. Bush's foreign policy compared to the simplicity of its stated moral mission, which first was defined as fighting terrorism and later as bringing democracy to the Middle East. In the war in Afghanistan, Bush initially sought and received Russian and Iranian assistance. In Iraq, he ultimately reached an agreement with the Sunni insurgents whom he had formerly fought. In between was a complex array of covert operations, alliances and betrayals, and wars large and small throughout the region. Bush faced a far more complex situation than Reagan did--a situation that, in many instances, lacked solutions by available means.
 
Which brings us to McCain and the most important questions he would have to answer in his presidency: To what extent would he adopt an overriding moral mission, and how would he apply available resources to that mission? Would McCain tend toward the Nixon-Kissinger model of a realist Republican president, or to the more moralist Reagan-Bush model? Though the answers to these questions will not emerge during campaign season, a President McCain would have to answer them almost immediately. For example, in dealing with the Afghan situation, one of the options will be a deal with the Taliban paralleling the U.S. deal with the Iraqi Sunni insurgents. Would McCain be prepared to take this step in the Reagan-Bush tradition, or would he reject it on rigid moral principles? And would McCain be prepared to recognize a sphere of influence for Russia in the former Soviet Union, or would he reject the concept as violating moral principles of national sovereignty and rights?
 
McCain has presented Russia's actions [in Georgia] in moral terms. He also has said international diplomatic action must be taken to deal with Russia, and he has supported NATO expansion. So he has combined a moral approach with a coalition approach built around the Europeans. In short, his public statements draw from moral and multilateral sources. What is not clear is the degree to which he will adhere to realist principles in pursuing these ends. He clearly will not be a Nixon. Whether he will be like Reagan, or more like George W. Bush--that is, Reagan without Reagan's craft--or a rigid moralist indifferent to consequences remains in question.
 
But remember that presidential campaigns are not where forthright strategic thinking should be expected, and moral goals must be subordinate to the realities of power. While McCain would need to define the mix of moralism and realism in his foreign policy, he made his evaluation of NATO's weakness clear in 1999. Insofar as he believes this evaluation still holds true, he would not have to face the first issue that Barack Obama likely would--namely, what to do when the Europeans fail to cooperate. McCain already believes that they will not (or cannot). Instead, McCain would have to answer another question, which ultimately is the same as Obama's question: Where will the resources come from to keep forces in Iraq, manage the war in Afghanistan, involve Pakistanis in that conflict and contain Russia? In some sense, McCain has created a tougher political position for himself by casting all these issues in a moral light. But, in the Reagan tradition, a moral position has value only if it can be pursued, and pursuing those actions requires both moral commitment and Machiavellian virtue.
 
McCain's foreign policy--like Obama's--would devolve into complex tactics, where the devil is in the details, and the details will require constant attention.
 
Obama's Foreign Policy Stance
 
Barack Obama is the Democratic candidate for president. His advisers in foreign policy are generally Democrats. Together they carry with them an institutional memory of the Democratic Party's approach to foreign policy, and are an expression of the complexity and divisions of that approach. Like their Republican counterparts, in many ways they are going to be severely constrained as to what they can do both by the nature of the global landscape and American resources. But to some extent, they will also be constrained and defined by the tradition they come from. Understanding that tradition and Obama's place is useful in understanding what an Obama presidency would look like in foreign affairs.
 
The most striking thing about the Democratic tradition is that it presided over the beginnings of the three great conflicts that defined the 20th century: Woodrow Wilson and World War I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and World War II, and Harry S. Truman and the Cold War. (At this level of analysis, we will treat the episodes of the Cold War such as Korea, Vietnam or Grenada as simply subsets of one conflict.) This is most emphatically not to say that had Republicans won the presidency in 1916, 1940 or 1948, U.S. involvement in those wars could have been avoided.
 
But it does give us a framework for considering persistent patterns of Democratic foreign policy. When we look at the conflicts, four things become apparent.
 
First, in all three conflicts, Democrats postponed the initiation of direct combat as long as possible. In only one, World War I, did Wilson decide to join the war without prior direct attack. Roosevelt maneuvered near war but did not enter the war until after Pearl Harbor. Truman also maneuvered near war but did not get into direct combat until after the North Korean invasion of South Korea. Indeed, even Wilson chose to go to war to protect free passage on the Atlantic. More important, he sought to prevent Germany from defeating the Russians and the Anglo-French alliance and to stop the subsequent German domination of Europe, which appeared possible. In other words, the Democratic approach to war was reactive. All three presidents reacted to events on the surface, while trying to shape them underneath the surface.
 
Second, all three wars were built around coalitions. The foundation of the three wars was that other nations were at risk and that the United States used a predisposition to resist (Germany in the first two wars, the Soviet Union in the last) as a framework for involvement. The United States under Democrats did not involve itself in war unilaterally. At the same time, the United States under Democrats made certain that the major burdens were shared by allies. [Thus] the allies had a complex appreciation of the United States. On the one hand, they were grateful for the U.S. presence. On the other hand, they resented the disproportionate amounts of blood and effort shed. Some of the roots of anti-Americanism are to be found in this strategy.
 
Third, each of these wars ended with a Democratic president attempting to create a system of international institutions designed to limit the recurrence of war without directly transferring sovereignty to those institutions. Wilson championed the League of Nations. Roosevelt the United Nations. Bill Clinton, who presided over most of the post-Cold War world, constantly sought international institutions to validate U.S. actions. Thus, when the United Nations refused to sanction the Kosovo War, he designated NATO as an alternative international organization with the right to approve conflict. Indeed, Clinton championed a range of multilateral organizations during the 1990s, including everything from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and later the World Trade Organization. All these presidents were deeply committed to multinational organizations to define permissible and impermissible actions.
 
And fourth, there is a focus on Europe in the Democratic view of the world. Roosevelt regarded Germany as the primary threat instead of the Pacific theater in World War II. And in spite of two land wars in Asia during the Cold War, the centerpiece of strategy remained NATO and Europe. The specific details have evolved over the last century, but the Democratic Party--and particularly the Democratic foreign policy establishment--historically has viewed Europe as a permanent interest and partner for the United States.
 
Thus, the main thrust of the Democratic tradition is deeply steeped in fighting wars, but approaches this task with four things in mind:
  1. Wars should not begin until the last possible moment and ideally should be initiated by the enemy.
  2. Wars must be fought in a coalition with much of the burden borne by partners.
  3. The outcome of wars should be an institutional legal framework to manage the peace, with the United States being the most influential force within this multilateral framework.
  4. Any such framework must be built on a trans-Atlantic relationship.
That is one strand of Democratic foreign policy. A second strand emerged in the context of the Vietnam War. That war began under the Kennedy administration and was intensified by Lyndon Baines Johnson, particularly after 1964. The war did not go as expected. As the war progressed, the Democratic Party began to fragment.Ultimately, the Democratic Party split into two camps. Hubert Humphrey led the first along with Henry Jackson, who rejected the left's interpretation of the U.S. role in Vietnam and claimed to speak for the Wilson-FDR-Truman strand in Democratic politics. McGovern led the second. His camp largely comprised the party's left wing, which did not necessarily go as far as the most extreme critics of that tradition but was extremely suspicious of anti-communist ideology, the military and intelligence communities, and increased defense spending. The two camps conducted extended political warfare throughout the 1970s.
 
The presidency of Jimmy Carter symbolized the tensions. He came to power wanting to move beyond Vietnam, slashing and changing the CIA, controlling defense spending and warning the country of "an excessive fear of Communism."- But following the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he allowed Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser and now an adviser to Obama, to launch a guerrilla war against the Soviets using Islamist insurgents from across the Muslim world in Afghanistan. Carter moved from concern with anti-Communism to coalition warfare against the Soviets by working with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghan resistance fighters.
 
Carter was dealing with the realities of U.S. geopolitics, but the tensions within the Democratic tradition shaped his responses. During the Clinton administration, these internal tensions subsided to a great degree. In large part this was because there was no major war, and the military action that did occur--as in Haiti and Kosovo--was framed as humanitarian actions rather than as the pursuit of national power. That soothed the anti-war Democrats to a great deal, since their perspective was less pacifistic than suspicious of using war to enhance national power.
 
Obama's foreign policy outlook was shaped by the last eight years of Democrats struggling with the U.S.-jihadist war. The Democrats responded to events of the last eight years as they traditionally do when the United States is attacked directly: The party's anti-war faction contracted and the old Democratic tradition reasserted itself. This was particularly true of the decision to go to war in Afghanistan. Obviously, the war was a response to an attack and, given the mood of the country after 9/11, was an unassailable decision. But it had another set of characteristics that made it attractive to the Democrats. The military action in Afghanistan was taking place in the context of broad international support and within a coalition forming at all levels, from on the ground in Afghanistan to NATO and the United Nations. Second, U.S. motives did not appear to involve national self-interest, like increasing power or getting oil. It was not a war for national advantage, but a war of national self-defense.
 
The Democrats were much less comfortable with the Iraq war than they were with Afghanistan. The old splits reappeared, with many Democrats voting for the invasion and others against. There were complex and mixed reasons why each Democrat voted the way they did--some strategic, some purely political, some moral. Under the pressure of voting on the war, the historically fragile Democratic consensus broke apart, not so much in conflict as in disarray. One of the most important reasons for this was the sense of isolation from major European powers--particularly the French and Germans, whom the Democrats regarded as fundamental elements of any coalition. Without those countries, the Democrats regarded the United States as diplomatically isolated.
 
The intraparty conflict came later. As the war went badly, the anti-war movement in the party re-energized itself. They were joined later by many who had formerly voted for the war but were upset by the human and material cost and by the apparent isolation of the United States and so on. Both factions of the Democratic Party had reasons to oppose the Iraq war even while they supported the Afghan war.
 
It is in light of this distinction that we can begin to understand Obama's foreign policy. On Aug. 1, Obama said the following: "It is time to turn the page. When I am President, we will wage the war that has to be won, with a comprehensive strategy with five elements: getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan; developing the capabilities and partnerships we need to take out the terrorists and the world's most deadly weapons; engaging the world to dry up support for terror and extremism; restoring our values; and securing a more resilient homeland."-
 
Obama's view of the Iraq war is that it should not have been fought in the first place, and that the current success in the war does not justify it or its cost. In this part, he speaks to the anti-war tradition in the party. He adds that Afghanistan and Pakistan are the correct battlefields, since this is where the attack emanated from. It should be noted that on several occasions Obama has pointed to Pakistan as part of the Afghan problem, and has indicated a willingness to intervene there if needed while demanding Pakistani cooperation. Moreover, Obama emphasizes the need for partnerships--for example, coalition partners--rather than unilateral action in Afghanistan and globally.
 
Responding to attack rather than pre-emptive attack, coalition warfare and multinational postwar solutions are central to Obama's policy in the Islamic world. He therefore straddles the divide within the Democratic Party. He opposes the war in Iraq as pre-emptive, unilateral and outside the bounds of international organizations while endorsing the Afghan war and promising to expand it.
 
This view on multilateralism and NATO is summed up in a critical statement by Obama in a position paper: "Today it's become fashionable to disparage the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international organizations. In fact, reform of these bodies is urgently needed if they are to keep pace with the fast-moving threats we face. Such real reform will not come, however, by dismissing the value of these institutions, or by bullying other countries to ratify changes we have drafted in isolation. Real reform will come because we convince others that they too have a stake in change--that such reforms will make their world, and not just ours, more secure. Today, NATO's challenge in Afghanistan has become a test case, in the words of Dick Lugar, of whether the alliance can "-overcome the growing discrepancy between NATO's expanding missions and its lagging capabilities."
 
The last paragraph represents the key challenge to Obama's foreign policy, and where his first challenge would come from. Obama wants a coalition with Europe and wants Europe to strengthen itself. But Europe is deeply divided, and averse to increasing its defense spending or substantially increasing its military participation in coalition warfare. Obama's multilateralism and Europeanism will quickly encounter the realities of Europe. There is neither the will nor the capability to substantially increase Europe's NATO participation in Afghanistan. Averse to unilateral actions and focused on Europe, Obama would face his first crisis in dealing with the limited support Europe can provide.
 
Obama would face similar issues in dealing with the Iranians. His approach is to create a coalition to confront the Iranians and force them to abandon their nuclear program. He has been clear that he opposes that program, although less clear on other aspects of Iranian foreign policy. But again, his solution is to use a coalition to control Iran. That coalition disintegrated to a large extent after Russia and China both indicated that they had no interest in sanctions. But the coalition Obama plans to rely on will have to be dramatically revived by unknown means, or an alternative coalition must be created, or the United States will have to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan unilaterally. This reality places a tremendous strain on the core principles of Democratic foreign policy. To reconcile the tensions, he would have to rapidly come to an understanding with the Europeans in NATO on expanding their military forces. Since reaching out to the Europeans would be among his first steps, his first test would come early.
 
Obama has been portrayed as radical. That is far from the case. He is well within a century-long tradition of the Democratic Party, with an element of loyalty to the anti-war faction. But that element is an undertone to his policy, not its core. The core of his policy would be coalition building and a focus on European allies, as well as the use of multilateral institutions and the avoidance of pre-emptive war. There is nothing radical or even new in these principles. His discomfort with military spending is the only thing that might link him to the party's left wing.
 
Obama would be the first Democrat in this century to take office inheriting a major war. Inheriting an ongoing war is perhaps the most difficult thing for a president to deal with. Its realities are already fixed and the penalties for defeat or compromise already defined. The war in Afghanistan has already been defined by U.S. President George W. Bush's approach. Rewriting it will be enormously difficult, particularly when rewriting it depends on ending unilateralism and moving toward full coalition warfare when coalition partners are wary.
 
As with all presidents, what he plans to do and what he would do are two different things. But it seems to us that his presidency would be defined by whether he can change the course of U.S.-European relations not by accepting European terms but by persuading them to accommodate U.S. interests.
 
An Obama presidency would not turn on this. There is no evidence that he lacks the ability to shift with reality--that he lacks Machiavellian virtue. But it still will be the first and critical test, one handed to him by the complex tensions of Democratic traditions and by a war he did not start.
 
Ultimately, it is the global landscape that determines a president's foreign policy choices, and the traditions presidents come from can guide them only so far. Whoever becomes president in January 2009 will face the same landscape and limited choices. The winner will require substantial virtue, and neither candidate should be judged on what he says now, since no one can anticipate either the details the winner will confront or the surprises the world will throw at him.
 
There you have it. Americans, you decide. However, I would like to offer some comments that have no bearing on Mr. Friedman's articles. I am not to blind to the fact that we are facing an economic crisis right now, and, more than likely, the economy will be the number one issue on Nov. 4th. If so, essentially, that is the wrong approach voters should take on this election, very wrong.
 
As bad as things are right now, overall we are ten times better off than those poor folks back in the '30's. Economic woes are cyclic. Within only a few years after the end of the Great Depression, our proud nation became a world superpower. This will be over in a few months, maybe a year, possibly two years. What does the current economic crisis have to do with the future of our republic? Nothing whatsoever in the long run. The future of our country will be determined by our relationships with other nations that inhabit this globe, not domestic issues. That has been true for 225 years.
 
I don't see that changing anytime soon. 
 
 
 

 

I am the author of two novels, "The Bode Testament" and "Impeachment." I am also a columnist who keeps a wary eye on other columnists and the failures of the MSM (mainstream media). I was born in Minnesota, and, to this day, I love the Vikings (more...)
 

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In the interest of "here and now," I wan... by Margaret Bassett on Tuesday, Oct 21, 2008 at 9:34:51 PM
There is this strange statement in the article on ... by Bill Samuel on Wednesday, Oct 22, 2008 at 2:46:49 PM