The Foreign Policy of Obama and McCain

I just got finished reading David Sanger’s NY Times article comparing the foreign policy positions of the two presidential candidates. Like David Shorr at Democracy Arsenal, I agree that it’s “probably the best stand-in we’ll get for the foreign policy debate that might’ve been,” and an illustration of how the much-derided written press can often confront candidates’ position more effectively than the presidential debate format, which veers towards the theatrical for obvious reasons.

Like Shorr, too, I agree that John McCain’s late reversal on the acceptability of an NPT-compliant uranium enrichment program in Iran is probably closer to my own position. Recently I saw a proposal that Iran be provided export guarantees for its enriched uranium, which would ensure that it actually leaves the country. Another I’ve seen has an international consortium collaborating on enrichment within Iran, which would function to provide more transparent oversight, as well as further integrate Iran into the non-proliferation community.

For the moment, they’re both just proposals, but proposals that hint at an acceptable final status agreement by providing for both Iran’s legal rights (should it return to NPT compliance) as well as the international community’s concerns. The problem with Barack Obama’s more rigid position is that, should Iran return to NPT compliance, it is simply an extra-legal injunction based on American preferences.

But like Shorr, I also feel like Obama’s approach on engaging Iran is more likely to result in both sides being willing to come to some sort of compromise agreement. That’s not to say it’s guaranteed — and no one should have an idealized view of the Iranian negotiating position — but just that we’ve seen what preconditions lead to, and they end up bearing a strong resemblance to the Bridge to Nowhere.

Unlike Shorr, however, I felt the most interesting aspect of Sanger’s article was the passage on the two candidates’ reaction to the Georgia War. Apparently, McCain quickly assembled his foreign policy advisors, listened to their arguments for a measured, balanced response, and then opted for a more confrontational, provocative declaration. The article traces it to McCain’s Cold War background, but there’s also an implicit suggestion of political grandstanding. (Surprisingly, the article — and the campaign — make no mention of China, or Asia in general.)

More generally, the article illustrates the major distinctions between the two candidates’ positions, as well as some overlap. By far, I prefer Obama’s approach and temperament (McCain strikes me as simply too antagonistic), and with the exception of the courageous stance on Iranian enrichment, I find myself at odds with most of McCain’s policies. But it also illustrates all the things I find most troubling about Obama’s policy, as opposed to his vision or objectives. Reupping in Afghanistan, expanding that war to Pakistan, a more interventionist rhetoric towards humanitarian situations, all strike me as reasons to be wary. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that I think Obama’s approach will mitigate the actual need for intervention by mobilizing mulitlateral support for American objectives, I’d be hardpressed to express a preference between the two.

I don’t think the U.S. should retreat from the global stage or turn inward in an isolationist sense, and obviously, the deterrent threat of hard power is a significant part of what makes soft power effective. But I do believe we need a moment or two of introspection, to remember which battles are worth picking. So, too, probably, does the world. We spent the last eight years demanding that the world be on our side. Now would be a good time to let the world remember just why it’s better to have America on its side.

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