Testing the Candidates on Foreign Policy

Many observers watched the two parties’ political conventions and were distressed by what they heard from one side or the other.

By contrast, my impression was that both sides had good conventions, all four candidates gave good speeches – and we now have the makings of an excellent last two months between two strong tickets in what should be a healthy debate about the country’s future.

Still undecided how to vote, I will listen carefully to the candidates on a range of issues where their positions as outlined on Web sites and Foreign Affairs articles do not yet tell me enough about their bottom lines.

To set the right tone, it is worth beginning with a word of praise about each of the four candidates. Sen. John McCain has perhaps the most impressive biography of anyone to run for president in my lifetime – not only a war hero but that rarest of Washington operatives, a man of his own mind totally unafraid to challenge his own party.

For those of us who may have Democratic or Republican ties but still value our independence and consider debate on the substance of issues important, Mr. McCain is hugely inspirational. He was not only impressive throughout the Iraq debate but was one of the very few Republicans to support Bill Clinton during the Balkan wars, realizing their importance especially once American troops were committed.

Gov. Sarah Palin still has lots to do by way of explaining her readiness for the second-highest office in the land, to be sure. But her poise and her spirit and her confidence in delivering a great speech in front of 40 million people already make her an appealing and intriguing figure.

Sen. Barack Obama is a remarkable story, an inspirational orator and an impressive political and policy mind. Importantly, he has also already shown he is capable of learning “on the job.”

For example, in the summer of 2007 his “Obama Doctrine” for meeting unconditionally with extremist leaders around the world like the leadership of Iran seemed uninformed about the nature or history of diplomacy. A year later, he wisely talks about having such meetings only after proper preparation and at a time and place of our country’s choosing.

Sen. Joseph Biden has distinguished himself in numerous foreign policy debates over the years. For example, he underscored the challenges involved in ruling a liberated Iraq in a series of Senate hearings back in 2002, he proposed a plan for enhanced federalism in Iraq when that seemed one of the only possible ways to avoid complete defeat in 2006, and he continues to focus laser-like on helping Pakistan play a stronger role in the war on terror while strengthening its own society and economy.

Mr. Obama has concerned me greatly in his adamant opposition to the Iraq war. That may have been a principled and wise view in 2002. But as he continued to insist throughout 2007 and much of 2008 that the surge was not working and that we needed to get out of Iraq quickly and unconditionally, the stand smacked of hyperpartisanship – his opposition to the Bush administration and its past decisions seemed to blind him to the implications of the U.S. essentially giving up in a major war that it no longer needed to lose, given the huge progress on the battlefield. The Democratic ticket still concerns me somewhat in this regard.

But with the turnaround in Iraq, Mr. Obama’s plan is ironically no longer so unreasonable, even if the pace of his plan for getting out of Iraq remains rushed. His instincts on how to manage the war are still suspect, but if he can indicate a bit more flexibility on the timing of our troop drawdown and pledge to work with Iraqis in fashioning a workable plan, his views on the war may no longer prove disqualifying for me. And his commitment to success in Afghanistan equals John McCain’s.

So with both tickets passing basic muster, at least in this centrist’s eyes, we can now turn to some of the other important matters that each needs to address in coming weeks. Many questions still demand attention. For example:

(1) Energy policy: The Obama-Biden ticket favors massive subsidies for renewable energy. This seems reasonable at one level (and for those who think it excessive, by most estimates the United States spends up to $50 billion a year militarily defending Persian Gulf oil even when we are not at war in that part of the world, so government intervention in energy markets is already a longstanding bipartisan policy). But how do we know which technologies to favor? Wouldn’t a simple tax on oil and coal products (a tax that went down as market prices went up, to spare consumers a double whammy) be the best way to level the playing field?

The McCain-Palin ticket’s view about offshore drilling seems reasonable in one sense, but not if it signifies less enthusiasm for developing alternatives. How hard would they really push wind, solar and other renewable technologies?

(2) Relations with the Muslim world: Both tickets have a better ear than the Bush-Cheney administration for how to work with moderate Muslim leaders on matters such as Mideast peace and domestic political reform. But Mrs. Palin seemed to mock the idea of ensuring rights for detainees in her convention speech, calling into some doubt John McCain’s earlier pledges to avoid the excesses of Guantanamo. As for the Democratic ticket, will their wariness about free trade deprive us of one of our best tools for supporting moderating Muslim regimes through stronger economic relationships with the Western world?

(3) North Korea: The Korean War was once described as America’s “forgotten war”; now it has become “America’s forgotten nuclear crisis.” Neither ticket says much about it. Ambassador Christopher Hill has made progress of late in negotiations with Pyongyang, but in a best case he will only have frozen North Korea’s nuclear capabilities by January, not walked them back. Convincing North Korea to embark on a path of reform like Vietnam’s that also extends to economic matters and, gradually, to human rights is probably the best way to pull that country out of its Stalinist ways and end its nuclear programs permanently. In any case, both tickets need to explain their strategies for dealing with North Korea.

(4) Russia and Georgia: Over the last month, Mr. McCain has looked prescient and resolute in his concerns about Russia’s strong-arm tendencies and autocratic ways under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. And Mr. Obama initially was too equivocal in how he seemed to allocate blame for the war in Georgia.

But we need to hear more. Would Mr. McCain’s adamant criticism of Russia be counterproductive, provoking another round of faceoffs between Moscow and the West, given Mr. Putin’s thuggish and easily piqued ways? Or would Mr. Obama’s conciliatory nature invite more Russian shenanigans, if Moscow believed America would not stand up for its friends?

Both tickets need to say more about this crucial matter, as well as their visions for if, when and how Georgia and Ukraine (and someday, perhaps, even Russia itself, under different leadership) might be offered NATO membership. Arguing over what happened on Aug. 7, 8 and 9 is not enough.

It should be a very exciting next two months. With luck, we should have a national debate on foreign policy that not only helps we the voters decide for whom to vote but helps the winning ticket refine and in some cases even rethink its proposed solutions to some very big international challenges.