This week finds the presumptive Democratic nominee for United States president, Senator Barack Obama, travelling through the Middle East and Europe. His Republican rival, Senator John McCain, has also been roaming: in March he was in the Middle East and Europe; in June he defended the North American Free Trade Agreement in Canada; this month he visited Colombia and Mexico to talk about free trade and the war on drugs.
They are travelling for different reasons, of course. Obama has dominated the general election so far, with impressive public performances and some intelligent repositioning taking place against the background hum of a highly effective campaign machine. So it makes sense for him to advance onto McCain’s home ground of foreign policy, just as McCain feels he must fight on the same territory.
The foreign policy debate remains open. A poll published last week indicated that only half the American public believes Obama would be an effective commander-in-chief, whereas three-quarters think McCain would be. The country is split down the middle on which candidate it trusts more on Iraq, and whether there should be a timetable for US withdrawal from that traumatised country-an option supported by Obama and opposed by McCain.
Obama is likely to win the battle of the foreign trips. McCain is running as the national security candidate, so the expectations surrounding his travels are high. When he makes mistakes-as he did in Jordan in March, confusing Sunni and Shiite insurgents-he is marked down hard. On the other hand, Obama is neither a war hero nor a 25 year veteran of Congress, so he has more to gain from international travel. Images of Obama inside the Green Zone or outside 10 Downing Street place him in the presidential frame.
Last week Obama won a related contest-the battle of the foreign policy speeches-when the candidates delivered duelling lectures on national security on the very same day. The rhetoric on Iraq was predictable. Each candidate has some bragging rights: Obama on the foolish decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and McCain on the gutsy decision to insert more troops in 2007.
Since they delivered their remarks, Obama’s timetable for withdrawal has been boosted by an apparent endorsement from the Iraqi government and news that the Bush Administration has agreed to a more general “time horizon”.
On Afghanistan, the speeches came together-a rare note of agreement driven by overwhelming pessimism in Washington on the subject. Both Obama and McCain called for extra combat brigades to be deployed, although it is not clear where McCain would find them without drawing down the US force in Iraq. (McCain also called for the appointment of an “Afghanistan czar”-an unfortunate job title given the record of the Russian czars, and their Soviet successors, in Afghanistan).
McCain summed up the argument for his candidacy like this: “In wartime, judgment and experience matter. In a time of war, the commander-in-chief doesn’t get a learning curve.”
Yet Obama’s case was even more powerful. In a neat piece of virtual history, he reminded his audience of the national and international unity summoned up by September 11, 2001, and asked them to “imagine, for a moment, what we could have done” instead of invading and occupying a country that was not implicated in that attack. His list of answers was impressive: Washington could have focused on hunting down the perpetrators of 9/11 and establishing “real security in Afghanistan”, “secured loose nuclear materials around the world”, “invested hundreds of billions of dollars in alternative sources of energy”, “strengthened old alliances” and “renewed international institutions”.
In his remarks, Obama refused to shrink US foreign policy to the dimensions of the Iraq conflict. “This war,” he said, “distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize. Instead of pushing the entire burden of our foreign policy onto the brave men and women of our military, I want to use all elements of American power to keep us safe, and prosperous, and free. As president, I will pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy-one that recognises that we have interests not just in Baghdad, but in Kandahar and Karachi, in Tokyo and London, in Beijing and Berlin.”
Given that solutions to the world’s most pressing problems require an engaged and undistracted United States, Obama will find his audiences this week are receptive to this argument.
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Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.