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Campaign 2008’s Foreign Policy Divide

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
October 15, 2007


After nearly twenty debates and countless speeches, position papers, and interviews, the foreign policy divide between leading Republican and Democratic presidential contenders is apparent. The obvious starting point is Iraq. Democrats seek to dramatically shrink the U.S. military deployment and Republicans urge a continued robust U.S. presence to stabilize the country. While there are intra-party differences, top Republicans generally view Iraq as a crucial front in the war on terror while Democratic frontrunners do not; they want to bring greater U.S. attention, and resources, to the battlefield in Afghanistan.

Fresh contrasts are on display in the latest Foreign Affairs, where Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) writes of reinforcing U.S. military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan, which she calls "the forgotten front in the war on terror." Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), counters that the war in Iraq "cannot be wished away" and it "will touch every one of our citizens for years to come." On another key strategic area—nuclear proliferation—both candidates agree on the need to strengthen prevention efforts. But while Clinton calls for dramatic steps to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal to spur disarmament, McCain puts the emphasis on reexamining the right of all states-parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to nuclear technology. On trade, McCain's Foreign Affairs piece stresses the importance of free-trade deals to building ties from Asia to Latin America. Clinton, an increasing skeptic on free trade, does not address it in her article.

These distinctions have echoed along the campaign trail. In the October 9 Republican debate in Michigan, the leading Republican candidates generally expressed support for free-trade pacts as important for lifting incomes, although there was some talk of cushioning the blow for trade-displaced Americans. The August 7 Democratic debate in Chicago was marked by trade skepticism, especially calls to fix the North American Free Trade Agreement. Democratic wariness on trade reflects a growing public unease over the impact of globalization, also seen among supporters of Republican candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), who has generated (Politico) a strong Internet following and solid fundraising. Such concerns prompted President Bush to say (WSJ) in a new interview: "We have lost our confidence in the ability to compete internationally."

At the same time, there are some common themes emerging from both parties that may be useful to build on down the road. Top candidates from each party have spelled out a vision for a United States reengaged with the world, both revitalizing alliances and becoming an engine of growth for developing states. Republican Rudy Giuliani wants to improve post-conflict planning through a civil-military Stabilization and Reconstruction Corps. Democrat John Edwards calls for a revamp of foreign aid to combat poverty and seeks to establish a "Marshall Corps" of ten thousand civilian experts "who could be deployed abroad to serve in reconstruction, stabilization, and humanitarian missions." Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) seeks to reach moderates in the Arab world and would put the United States at the forefront of efforts to curb greenhouse gases. Republican Mitt Romney proposes a "Partnership for Prosperity and Progress" to help modernize Islamic states.

But clashes in Washington between the White House and Congress over Iraq, domestic intelligence, and Guantanamo Bay presage a tough time for the next occupant of the Oval Office. A new book by former Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith demonstrates what reviewer Terry Eastland notes (Weekly Standard) is the difficulty of being president "in an era of abiding terrorist threat."

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