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The National Security Debate

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: June 4, 2008

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As the party nominating process finishes up in the 2008 presidential race, Americans appear focused on economic concerns—rising food and gas prices, tighter credit, falling housing values, and dropping consumer confidence. A May 29 Pew survey showed just 18 percent of the public satisfied with the state of the nation, including overwhelming concern about the economy. In the daily fray between presidential candidates, however, national security issues continue to resonate.

That is partly because the nation remains at war, with nearly 200,000 forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the presumptive Republican nominee, has steadily questioned the national security credentials of the man claiming the Democratic presidential nomination (WashPost), Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). (Obama secured the number of delegates needed to clinch his party’s nomination after splitting the June 3 primaries in South Dakota and Montana, but Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) said she was making no immediate decisions on her candidacy). Speaking June 2 to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, McCain said Obama's plan for an early troop withdrawal from Iraq "would surely result in a catastrophe." He also criticized Obama's calls for diplomacy with Iran, urging a global plan of divesting from Iran to "create the real-world pressures that will peacefully but decisively change the path they are on."

Obama told the same AIPAC conference on June 4 he would do "everything in my power" to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran while at the same time defending the notion of holding talks with Iran in the proper circumstances. Regarding Iraq policy, his campaign says "the war in Iraq that John McCain supported and promises to continue indefinitely has done more to dramatically strengthen and embolden Iran than anything in a generation." As for how the public compares them, a leading pollster recently wrote that discerning views on Iraq is complicated by "ambivalent and contradictory public opinions."

To date, the McCain and the two front-running Democratic presidential camps have had few full-fledged discussions (PDF) over strategy for the Iraq war (one of the most detailed explorations of the pros and cons of the surge is this recent Online Debate between CFR fellows Max Boot and Steven Simon). The sparring of late has centered on how to engage leaders of adversarial states, an issue that has spurred debate in U.S. foreign policy circles for decades, as this new Backgrounder explains. Obama said at a Democratic debate last summer he would meet unconditionally with the leaders of states such as Syria and Iran in his first year in office. He has since sought to clarify those comments, telling the New York Times that as president he would order lower-level talks with Iranian officials to prepare for any higher-level meetings. McCain, for his part, has not ruled out sitting down with Iranian leaders but has pointed to the recent unproductive talks representatives the two states have had over Iraq. "There would have to be negotiations and discussions and all kinds of things happening before you lend them the prestige of a face-to-face meeting with the President of the United States of America," he told Atlantic Monthly's Jeffrey Goldberg. Clinton has said she's unwilling to hold unconditional direct personnel talks with Iran's president.

In fact, some foreign policy analysts assert there is unlikely to be a dramatic shift in Washington's national security positions regardless of which major candidate wins. Timothy Lynch and Robert Singh of the University of London write that none of the lead candidates have disavowed the "war on terror." They also assert Obama's "opposition to the Iraq war is empirical—'it didn't work'—rather than ideological." McCain has also recently embraced a drawdown of nuclear weapons in a speech that, in a number of places, echoes Obama's nonproliferation views. In another area of apparent consensus, on May 28, McCain, Obama, and Clinton issued a joint statement to "demand that the genocide and violence in Darfur be brought to an end." Further insight into the views—and policy divisions—among the candidates can be found by studying the core national security advisers for McCain, Obama, and Clinton. Writing in Slate, CFR's Stephen Sestanovich says Obama and McCain have begun to engage in the "first real foreign-policy debate" of the long campaign but says both are burdened by the Bush administration's legacy.

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