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McCain, Obama Clash On Foreign Policy At Debate

  • Heather Maher

Barack Obama (left) and John McCain at the conclusion of their second debate

Barack Obama (left) and John McCain at the conclusion of their second debate

WASHINGTON -- In their second debate of the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican candidate John McCain and his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, found little to agree on, except whether Russia might be turning back into an "evil empire."

The two candidates met in a nationally televised town hall-style debate at a small college in Nashville, Tennessee, to answer pre-screened questions from 80 audience members and a few more pulled from millions sent in online.

The theme of the debate was domestic issues, which meant the economic crisis dominated the evening, but foreign policy also took up a fair share of the evening.

And on foreign policy, there is no issue the two candidates disagree more on than the war in Iraq. Obama favors handing more responsibility over to the Iraqi government and beginning what he calls a "responsible" withdrawal of combat troops over a 16-month period.

McCain is perhaps Congress' strongest advocate of keeping U.S. forces in Iraq until the Iraqi government and security forces are able to govern and protect its citizens effectively.

"Senator Obama would have brought our troops home in defeat," McCain said. "I'll bring them home with victory and with honor, and that is a fundamental difference."

'Steady Hand'

On issues of national security and foreign policy, McCain characterized himself as a "steady hand on the tiller" and said his military experience and long Senate career gave him the knowledge and judgment in foreign policy matters.

As he often does, he singled out former President Theodore Roosevelt as one of his heroes, praising Roosevelt for his motto, "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Here, Obama seized on the chance to challenge McCain's frequent characterizations of him as an inexperienced leader, arguing that McCain has at times sounded irresponsible in his comments about countries at odds with the United States.

"Now Senator McCain suggests that somehow you know, I'm green behind the ears and you know, I'm just spouting off, and he's somber and responsible," Obama said. "Senator McCain -- this is the guy who sang, 'Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." Who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That, I don't think, is an example of 'speaking softly.' This is the person who, after we had, we hadn't even finished [with] Afghanistan, he said, 'Next up, Baghdad.' "

In the war on terrorism. Obama called for the United States to "reverse course" and called the Iraq war "a distraction" from Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he said is "the central front in the war on terror," where members of Al-Qaeda are "plotting to kill Americans now." As president, he said he would order U.S. troops into Pakistan if Osama bin Laden's whereabouts there become known.

'We Have To Act'

"If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights, and the Pakistani government is unwilling or unable to take him out, then I think we have to act, and we will take them out," Obama said. "We will kill Bin Laden; we will crush Al-Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority."

McCain, too, said he would eliminate the Al-Qaeda leader, but he criticized Obama for speaking publicly about his willingness to order U.S. troops across the Afghan border.

"I'll get Osama bin Laden, my friends, I'll get him," McCain said. "I know how to get him. I'll get him no matter what. And I know how to do it. But I'm not going to telegraph my punches, which is what Senator Obama did."

On Afghanistan, the two candidates were asked about the recent assessment by an outgoing British commander that NATO forces are "failing in Afghanistan" and "cannot win." McCain and Obama were asked whether, and how, they would reorganize U.S. strategy.

McCain said apart from doubling the size of the Afghan Army, no changes are needed in Afghanistan, and he expressed full confidence in U.S. General David Petraeus's ability to continue the "same overall strategy" of clearing an area, securing it, and holding it.

Obama said a gradual withdrawal Iraq is needed so that more U.S. troops can be redeployed to Afghanistan, where U.S. bases are increasingly being targeted by the Taliban. He also called for closer cooperation with the government of President Hamid Karzai, which he criticized for losing the support of the Afghan people.

The candidates were also asked whether they thought Russia under former President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had become the "evil empire," as former President Ronald Reagan once called it. Obama said Moscow had engaged in "evil" behavior, and McCain said it was "maybe" an evil empire.

'Outside The Norms'

McCain, who has a long reputation as a hard-liner against Russia, called that country's August invasion of Georgia "certainly outside the norms of behavior that we would expect."

"[Putin] has surrounded himself with former KGB apparatchiks; he has gradually repressed most of the liberties that we would expect for nations to observe; and he has exhibited most aggressive behavior, obviously in Georgia," McCain said. "[And I] said before, watch Ukraine. Ukraine right now is in the sights of Vladimir Putin -- those that want to reassemble the old Soviet Union."

McCain also called for Georgia and Ukraine to be brought into NATO. Both countries are on a membership track, but at the NATO summit earlier this year, ministers did not give either a Membership Action Plan.

Obama did not disagree with McCain, and called the resurgence of Russia "one of the central issues" for the next U.S. president. He said former Soviet satellite countries must receive financial and "concrete" assistance to that they can grow their economies and strengthen their democracies.

The two men also agreed on the point that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and that if Iran attacked Israel, the United States should not wait for approval by the UN Security Council before responding.

As always, though, they parted company on how to prevent that situation from ever occurring.

McCain said the Iranians "are obviously on the path" toward acquiring nuclear weapons and hammered Obama for saying he would sit down and negotiate with Iranian leaders. He again mischaracterized Obama's position as having no preconditions to diplomacy.

Obama corrected McCain, saying that while he would never take the military option off the table, he believes in using "all the tools in the toolbox," including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Not talking to North Korea and Iran hasn't worked so far, he pointed out.

The two candidates meet for their final debate on October 16.

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