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Picking Presidents and Foreign Policy

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
August 25, 2008

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The start of the presidential nominating conventions finds the economy fixed uppermost in Americans' concerns. But in various ways, national security could underpin many of the discussions of political leaders and activists at the two major party conventions that kick off the final stages of the campaigns of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). A draft of the Democratic platform, for instance, links the two issues, especially where matters such as energy policy and manufacturing competitiveness are concerned. [The Republican platform has not yet been released]. As Richard C. Holbrooke, a senior foreign policy official in past Democratic administrations, writes in the latest Foreign Affairs, reviving the U.S. economy "is as important to the nation's long-term security as is keeping U.S. military strength unchallengeable."

National security itself will get full attention; the Democratic Party in Denver this week will set aside August 27 to discuss it, while the Republicans will cap their four-day convention in Minneapolis on September 4 with a focus on the issue. McCain has emphasized his national security credentials throughout the campaign and underlined that "defeating radical Islamist extremists is the national security challenge of our time." Obama offers a slightly different emphasis on the main threats (Foreign Affairs) facing the country, highlighting the need to prevent nuclear weapons from getting into the hands of terrorists. Of the two current wars U.S. forces are waging, McCain stresses the importance of victory in Iraq. Obama says Afghanistan is the "central front in our battle against terrorism" (CBS).

To date, some of the candidates' sharpest exchanges have involved national security. In particular, McCain has challenged Obama's call for a sixteen-month timetable for withdrawing most U.S. troops from Iraq, as well as his signals that he would engage U.S. foes in more intense diplomacy. Obama's selection of Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-DE) as his vice presidential candidate on August 23 is expected to stiffen the debate between the two sides. The candidates have also offered differing views on issues ranging from nuclear energy to the merits of NAFTA.

Analysts say Republican presidential campaigns have traditionally triumphed over the Democrats on the strength of their perceived national security competence, most recently in President George W. Bush's 2004 defeat of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School who has advised Obama, writes in the New York Review of Books that this year Democrats must stop shying away from national security discussions and instead confidently advance their own plans for securing the country. At the same time, writes CFR's Peter Beinart, Obama should avoid changing positions in an effort to look strong because he risks coming across as "inauthentic and insincere" (WashPost). Democratic strategist Mark J. Penn says that while it will be important to establish Obama's fitness to handle global crises, the decisive issue will be how well the Obama campaign presents its economic road map (Politico).

Although both McCain and Obama have offered themselves as clear alternatives to the Bush administration, a number of analysts now believe either candidate could find himself carrying on many of the policy initiatives Bush adopted in his second term. Newsweek International's Fareed Zakaria, for example, credits the administration's more pragmatic policies on cases such as Iran, North Korea, and the Mideast peace process. Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who advises McCain's campaign, writes in the latest Foreign Affairs that the Bush administration has corrected a number of its mistakes, leaving the U.S. position in the world today "not nearly as bad as some claim." On the other hand, writes political analyst Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic, Bush's two terms leave U.S. politics "polarized as sharply as at any point in the past century." Progress on problems from energy to national security, he writes, stands a better chance if the new occupant of the White House redefines his party as "more flexible, inclusive, and practical than it is seen to be today."

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