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U.S. Candidates Promise the World

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
August 14, 2007

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It may be true that “every election is a change election,” as Karl Rove told the Wall Street Journal, but the foreign policy changes promised by the 2008 presidential candidates look to be more sweeping than any time in recent memory. The world views set out by the leading contenders and some second-rung candidates display zeal to remake America’s image as well as refashion its leadership role in the world. At the same time, concern about security underpins nearly every foreign policy speech. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) dominated news cycles for nearly two weeks after his August 1 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in which he vowed to pursue al-Qaeda operatives into Pakistan, if necessary. Weeks earlier, he set out his policy vision in Foreign Affairs, spelling out new initiatives to reach moderates in the Arab world, bolstering the military, revitalizing alliances, and investing in clean energy technologies.

Aside from Iraq, Republican Mitt Romney struck many similar notes in the same issue.

Bill Richardson, polling about fourth among Democrats, has already given a detailed policy address on engaging Iran across a wide range of issues. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), pilloried by some in his party over his immigration reform stance, took on the subject of the much-neglected relations with Latin America in a speech in late June, pledging to build a partnership anchored in trade and “mutual respect.” Frontrunner Hillary Clinton, the Washington Post notes, has worked to fend off demands that she take a more dovish stance on Iraq, not always with success. “Clinton has developed something of a "third way" of talking about the war,” writes the Post’s Anne E. Kornblut, "by emphasizing the future and what she would do as president.”

Republican Rudy Giuliani and Democrat John Edwards provide two new policy visions this week in Foreign Affairs, which has been profiling the world views of would-be presidents in recent issues. Giuliani compares troubled global spots to the bad neighborhoods he helped pacify in New York City, saying concerted international action, spurred by Washington, will help establish order. His specific recommendations include pressing ahead with a national missile defense system, expanding NATO to counter global threats like terrorism, improve post-conflict planning through a civil-military Stabilization and Reconstruction Corps, and greatly expanding U.S.-funded surrogate media to “win the war of ideas."

Edwards, for his part, builds on his condemnation of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” vowing to press a strategy that restores U.S. moral leadership in the world. To combat poverty and overcome the “despair that breeds terrorism,” Edwards calls for a revamp of foreign aid and the creation of a new cabinet-level position to coordinate development policies government-wide. He vows to establish a “Marshall Corps” of 10,000 civilian experts “who could be deployed abroad to serve in reconstruction, stabilization, and humanitarian missions.” Edwards also pledges to end “wasteful and counterproductive overlaps” in nuclear nonproliferation programs and “rebalance,” rather than increase, the U.S. military forces.

What is striking so far about the candidates’ foreign policy presentations is the consistent desire, expressed by Republicans and Democrats alike, to have the United States improve and deepen its engagement with the world. It contrasts with the “polarized and bruising debate” in Washington about the U.S. role in the world recently cited by CFR’s Charles A. Kupchan and Peter L. Trubowitz of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law (Foreign Affairs). As this new Backgrounder explains, the Democratic-controlled Congress has coped with internal party struggles as well as battles with the administration over foreign policy issues.

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