Tuesday, October 16, 2007

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Comparing and contrasting McCain and Clinton

Foreign Affairs has released the latest foreign policy visions of the candidates (faithful readers of the blog will remember that Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John Edwards have inflicted presented their views in previous issues. These efforts have ranged from fair to middlin' to bats@$t insane).

Hillary Clinton, "Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century."

John McCain, "An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom."

Having read through the essays, I have two thoughts....

The first is the diametrically opposed logics these two candidates bring to Iraq. Here's Clinton:

Ending the war in Iraq is the first step toward restoring the United States' global leadership. The war is sapping our military strength, absorbing our strategic assets, diverting attention and resources from Afghanistan, alienating our allies, and dividing our people. The war in Iraq has also stretched our military to the breaking point. We must rebuild our armed services and restore them body and soul.

We must withdraw from Iraq in a way that brings our troops home safely, begins to restore stability to the region, and replaces military force with a new diplomatic initiative to engage countries around the world in securing Iraq's future. To that end, as president, I will convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of defense, and the National Security Council and direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home, starting within the first 60 days of my administration....

Getting out of Iraq will enable us to play a constructive role in a renewed Middle East peace process that would mean security and normal relations for Israel and the Palestinians. The fundamental elements of a final agreement have been clear since 2000: a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank in return for a declaration that the conflict is over, recognition of Israel's right to exist, guarantees of Israeli security, diplomatic recognition of Israel, and normalization of its relations with Arab states. U.S. diplomacy is critical in helping to resolve this conflict. In addition to facilitating negotiations, we must engage in regional diplomacy to gain Arab support for a Palestinian leadership that is committed to peace and willing to engage in a dialogue with the Israelis. Whether or not the United States makes progress in helping to broker a final agreement, consistent U.S. involvement can lower the level of violence and restore our credibility in the region.

And then there's McCain:
Defeating radical Islamist extremists is the national security challenge of our time. Iraq is this war's central front, according to our commander there, General David Petraeus, and according to our enemies, including al Qaeda's leadership....

So long as we can succeed in Iraq -- and I believe that we can -- we must succeed. The consequences of failure would be horrific: a historic loss at the hands of Islamist extremists who, after having defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the United States in Iraq, will believe that the world is going their way and that anything is possible; a failed state in the heart of the Middle East providing sanctuary for terrorists; a civil war that could quickly develop into a regional conflict and even genocide; a decisive end to the prospect of a modern democracy in Iraq, for which large Iraqi majorities have repeatedly voted; and an invitation for Iran to dominate Iraq and the region even more.

Whether success grows closer or more distant over the coming months, it is clear that Iraq will be a central issue for the next U.S. president. Democratic candidates have promised to withdraw U.S. troops and "end the war" by fiat, regardless of the consequences. To make such decisions based on the political winds at home, rather than on the realities in the theater, is to court disaster. The war in Iraq cannot be wished away, and it is a miscalculation of historic magnitude to believe that the consequences of failure will be limited to one administration or one party. This is an American war, and its outcome will touch every one of our citizens for years to come.

That is why I support our continuing efforts to win in Iraq. It is also why I oppose a preemptive withdrawal strategy that has no Plan B for the aftermath of its inevitable failure and the greater problems that would ensue.

I'm not sure I agree with either Clinton or McCain. The Senator from Arizona is vastly inflating the importance of groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, but I can't see how the Senator from New York thinks a complete withdrawal -- and the internal chaos that will go with it -- will "enable us to play a constructive role in a renewed Middle East peace process."

That said, these two essays are easily the best of the bunch. Both Clinton and McCain -- or at least, the staffers who wrote these pieces -- have a better grasp for policy detail and means-ends relationships than the other candidates. Clinton, in contrast to either Obama or Edwards, makes the connection between a withdrawal from Iraq and a more generous policy towards Iraqi asylum-seekers. She occasionally suffers from the fairy dust that is the word "engagement," but otherwise she hits the appropriate marks. Also, not for nothing, but this essay is much more clearly written than the other essays in the mix.

McCain, more than any other candidate, gets the connection between trade policy and foreign policy. He explicitly connects improving America's image in Latin America and ratifying the bevy of trade agreements from that region. He also pushes for a completion of the Doha round. His "League of Democracies" idea sounds awfully familiar, and I'm not sure it will fly. That said, this essay is a vast improvement over the other Republican challengers.

posted by Dan on 10.16.07 at 10:14 PM


points (I suppose) for actually reading all this tripe. bonus question: what relationship, if any, do you think there will be between what the candidates say her and what they do once in office? direct? inverse? none at all?


posted by: lamont cranston on 10.16.07 at 10:14 PM [permalink]

Documents written by committee are always heavy going, and these are not exceptions.

Sen. McCain's sounded as if it were designed as a repository for a fairly large number of ideas, not all of them closely related to one another but most of them originating with the candidate himself. It is pretty heavy with proposals to create new institutions -- a new OSS, a new USIA, some kind of military civil society corps. I agree with Dan that McCain's is the best statement of all the candidates' on trade.

It recognizes mistakes of and some problems arising from the approach the Bush administration has taken to foreign policy, but breathes no word of criticism of Bush himself. This is not, unfortunately, a mere campaign expedient, for the core of McCain's document is a commitment to continue Bush's policy in Iraq, apparently in perpetuity, because unimaginable disasters are certain to happen if America does not maintain a large army in that country. This commitment vitiates most of the other ideas McCain proposes, for with Iraq still commanding vast resources as well as most of the attention of the White House, Pentagon and State Department there will be little money and less time to make them a reality.

Except for the Iraq section, McCain's manifesto would have been a very good statement to have emerged from his 2000 campaign. It's 2007, though, and with McCain committed to staying George Bush's course in Iraq a President McCain would have mostly talk with which to address the other subjects this document discusses.

Sen. Clinton's statement does not give one the impression that the ideas in it originated with her, though one expects she either has already or is able to memorize all the talking points in their favor. She proposes a lot of initiatives, but does not promise to create as many institutions as McCain's statement does. Her statement does not lack for criticisms of President Bush's policies; they are expressed in a notably bloodless tone, and one would never remember any of them without having the relevant phrases repeated over and over (this is probably the key element in Clinton's election strategy), but they are still criticisms.

Clinton more than McCain uses the statement in Foreign Affairs to comment on the performance of other governments and international organizations -- the governments of Malawi and Mauritania are doing this or that, the African Union has a long way to go, and so forth. The reasoning behind this escapes me. Much more curious is the fact that a candidate who is only considered a potential President because she is Bill Clinton's wife has nothing to say about Clinton administration foreign policy. I suppose there is sound reasoning behind that, and I can guess as to what some of it is (e.g. if you're calling for more and better public diplomacy you don't want to step on your message by mentioning that your husband was the one who presided over the dismantling of the agency that did public diplomacy ten years ago), but you don't have to listen long to hear Republicans still talking about the foreign policy successes of the two-term President who preceeded Clinton, and none of them are named Reagan.

The tightrope Clinton is walking on Iraq has been much discussed already. She is for withdrawal from Iraq, but she wants to be sure nothing bad happens there while we are leaving or after we are gone. This represents gestures being made at the same time to antiwar Democratic primary voters and...someone else, or maybe to something else, namely the perceived political nightmare that a second President Clinton would face if any of the disasters John McCain predicts would follow an American withdrawal actually happen. Can withdrawal happen without leaving some pretty bad things in its wake? No. Can we prevent all those bad things, with an intensive diplomatic initiative and talking to our adversaries? No. But we haven't withdrawn yet, and the bad things haven't happened yet, so we can talk about them, which Sen. Clinton's statement does.

McCain and Clinton are as one on an important though currently obscure point: they each propose lots of new initiatives, and they each do not propose any way to pay for them. No new revenue, no reductions in the vast Pentagon procurement budget, and no cuts anywhere else in the government. Sen. Clinton at least mentions the huge ongoing cost of the Iraq war and the needs left unmet because of it. But it isn't clear that those costs will be going anywhere soon if she becomes President, though she promises to get a committee talking about withdrawal right away.

Campaign statements like these are valuable from my point of view if they provide a window into the candidate's thinking -- not just what the candidate thinks about foreign policy, but how much he thinks about it and whether the thinking is his own or just borrowed from someone else to get through the campaign. Clinton's statements suggests mostly borrowed thinking, and most of her other public statements suggest someone who would prefer to spend time thinking about something else, perhaps education, health care or fundraising. I'm more prepared to believe McCain's statement represents his own thinking. I'd be more admiring of that were that thinking not so completely wrong on the salient foreign policy issue of the day.

posted by: Zathras on 10.16.07 at 10:14 PM [permalink]

Sorry, Zathras, but one of the few things McCain is right about is Iraq. Repeating the phrase "Bush's policy" over and over to make victory in Iraq sound like a bad idea is not an argument. (Incidentally, a bigger commitment now probably speeds the day we can get out on favorable terms.)

In any case, I have yet to hear anyone suggest a better or more important place for us to defeat and discredit al Qaeda and its epigones. What would you do with resources allegedly "freed up" by a withdrawal from Iraq?

posted by: srp on 10.16.07 at 10:14 PM [permalink]

Zathras: Whether these essays are "by committee" is irrelevant, as you yourself note they represent the key proposals of the respective campaigns.

In this respect, Hillary's piece is a disaster. It's not that she walking "a tightrope." She simply can't find any footing at all - flippity-floppity is her game. Wrong again on Hillary not endorsing her husband's administration's foreign policy: The names are changed (it's not Bosnia or Haiti today), but the basic thrust remains the same: Foreign policy as social work. Every item possibly under the global sun is a matter for America's rectification, and especially on the humanitarian side, since she's so resistant to the assertion of American hard power (she's all about restoring U.S. moral legitimacy after Iraq, blah, blah...).

Of all the candidates who've written in the Foreign Affairs series, McCain's clearest on the new challenges to America's national interests. He particularly good on how to rebuild the military and on the need for alliances over hokum-pokem "multilateralism." Yes, he overdoes it on proposing new international bodies, though some of the ideas are good. He needs to back off the rhetoric about rebuilding international trust, etc. He sounds more like the Dems on that score.

posted by: Americaneocon on 10.16.07 at 10:14 PM [permalink]

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