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How McCain, Obama Compare On Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON -- On November 4, Americans will elect a new president: either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain.

What can the world expect from Washington when one or the other of these men is inaugurated on January 20, 2009? RFE/RL asked two veteran observers of U.S. politics and foreign affairs for their views.


McCain says he wouldn't draw down U.S. forces in Iraq until he's certain of victory there, whenever that may come.

Obama says he'd begin withdrawing combat forces 16 months after becoming president, if conditions there permit, and send them to Afghanistan.

But analysts differ over whether either of these strategies is sufficient for these conflicts.

Michael Rubin, a foreign-policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., tells RFE/RL that the only way to handle both Iraq and Afghanistan is to take a far more politically difficult step. That is, to expand the size of the U.S. military in the next president's term.

"The greater question is: What is the proper size of the U.S. military to handle both problems?" asks Rubin. "And that's something that could land on the desk of a President Obama or a President McCain.

He says one reason more U.S. troops are needed is that Washington's NATO partners have proven slow to send more combat troops to southern Afghanistan.

But another analyst, Allan Lichtman, says increasing the size of the U.S. military in the coming term is unlikely.

Lichtman, a professor of American political history at American University in Washington, says that even if the U.S. economy were doing well -- which it isn't -- it would be very difficult for the United States to enlarge its forces.

"Both of them would like to shift priorities to Afghanistan," Lichtman says. "Obama has said he will take troops from Iraq and shift them to Afghanistan. It's a little less clear where McCain is going to find the troops to beef up [the U.S. military presence in] Afghanistan. Both seem to be committed to a larger military, but that's not going to happen soon. And one has to ask, 'How are you going to expand the military, fulfill all your other promises, cut taxes, and deal with a federal deficit that may be approaching $1 trillion?'"


Will the next administration be more confrontational, or more ready to negotiate with Tehran?

Rubin expects more diplomacy. One reason is that this would continue what he says is the Bush administration's own greater use of diplomacy as the crisis over Iran's nuclear program has grown.

"Ronald Reagan once said, 'Trust, but verify,'" Rubin says. "Both Obama and McCain would try diplomacy. Senator McCain would likely put more emphasis on the verifying. Senator Obama would likely place much more emphasis on the trust. And then the question is, What do the Iranians do?
If you believe in a black-and-white world, in clear good and evil, then McCain's your guy.

Lichtman says that Obama probably would begin with a more diplomatic approach to Iran than would McCain. But both men realize that sticks as well as carrots would be needed to induce Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The problem either president would face is that -- because America does not buy Iranian oil -- Washington has no direct economic leverage over Tehran. That means Washington will likely continue to work closely with European allies -- who do have economic leverage -- in stepping up sanctions.

And the final option: military action. U.S. President George W. Bush has never ruled it out and McCain has taken a tough public posture toward Tehran. But Lichtman says but he doubts McCain would resort to force very soon.


Lichtman sees McCain as one of the last of the Cold Warriors.

"If you believe in a black-and-white world, in clear good and evil, then McCain's your guy," he says. "because that's, I think, the way he sees the world -- obviously not exactly that way, but certainly much more so than Obama, who sees the world more in shades of gray. You couldn't quite imagine Obama saying [as McCain has said], you know, 'I looked in [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's eyes and I saw 'KGB.' That's not the way Obama approaches anything. He's more cool, more nuanced, than McCain. Those are two very different views of the current world, and I think these candidates, if elected, would act that way."

McCain's wife, Cindy, visited Georgian refugees in August.

For his part, Rubin says the initial reactions of McCain and Obama to the Russian invasion of Georgia in August are indicative of their different approaches. At that time, Rubin notes, McCain clearly portrayed Russia as the aggressor, while Obama called on both sides to show restraint.

But Rubin says the Georgia-Russia war illustrates another important difference between McCain and Obama.

"The other difference that the Russia-Georgia crisis brought out is a tendency for Senator Obama perhaps to see every crisis in isolation, the Russia-Georgia crisis, for example, being just between Russia and Georgia," Rubin says. "Senator McCain tends to look at each crisis as a precedent and may think, for example, 'If we don't support Georgia, what will that mean for Ukraine, what will that mean for Iraq and Turkey with regard to the Kurds, what will that mean in every other place in the world?'"

Hard To Predict

But if there is one thing both analysts agree upon, it is that it is impossible to precisely predict the foreign policy of any presidential candidate after he takes office.

That is because what a presidential candidate says during a campaign often has little bearing on how he might act as actual crises present themselves.

They point to Clinton speaking aggressively about stopping violence in Bosnia during the 1992 presidential campaign, then deciding not to intervene in the Balkans until 1999.

And there's Bush's comment during the 2000 campaign that he'd have a "humble" foreign policy, contradicted by his muscular action after the attacks of September 11, 2001.