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Why the Election Mattered

Author: Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs and Peter G. Peterson Chair
December 31, 2008


The 2008 Presidential election will have a major impact on U.S. foreign policy-but not for the reasons many think.

Whichever side one listened to during the campaign, the policy differences between Barack Obama and John McCain were said to be stark. McCain would pursue victory in Iraq; Obama would bring the troops home. McCain would push free trade; Obama would restrict it. McCain was a hawk who would take on a world full of evildoers; Obama was a talker rather than a fighter who would restore diplomacy to its pride of place.

Most of this, of course, was bunk. Campaign discussions take place in a mythical world where issues are simple and ideological, and there are clear right and wrong answers. The invocation of those answers by candidates is a political act rather than an intellectual one, designed to accentuate or blur differences between them to curry favor with key constituencies at key moments. In the real world, by contrast, foreign-policy issues are complex and practical, with only bad and worse answers-all of which usually involve unpleasant trade-offs and inevitable disappointments. So as a rule, campaign rhetoric is a lousy guide to post-election policy, and this cycle is unlikely to be an exception.


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