The Candidates’ Similarities

by , May 04, 2008

The economy seems to have overtaken the war as a live concern for potential voters, which to a great extent reflects the economic uncertainty many people are feelingmore than may be warranted by their own personal prospects, but real enough to affect political perceptions, even though the president has less real control over the economy than most voters seem to think. Part of the reason, however, might be a growing perception that the differences among the three remaining candidates over how to handle the war are more stance than substance.

To be sure, John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has dropped the idea that the United States might be in Iraq for another 50 or 100 years, but he did it almost offhandedly, and did clarify the comment to suggest it might be more like South Korea, where the country is reasonably stable and no Americans are being killed in active conflicts (just enduring the occasional protest against foreign troops, which tend to be unpopular in almost any country even if they are not exerting direct control or doing anything more provocative than occasionally getting drunk and being over-aggressive with a few local women). While he is clearly the most militaristic of the remaining candidates, he hasn’t come right out and argued for the permanent stationing of 100,000 or more troops in Iraq, but implied (he’s pretty fuzzy on specifics) that a drawdown of troops will be contingent on conditions on the ground. If he is elected, however, he will have to face the logistical and morale problems the occupation of Iraq has created in the army and to a lesser extent in the marines.


If the Bushlet doesn’t start something military with Iran – something worth worrying about with "Fox" Fallon being replaced by the politically ambitious and pliable Petraeus at the Central Command – a President McCain is likely to have to draw down some troops from Iraq to avoid the "hollowing out" of U.S. ground forces or to place more troops in Afghanistan. That makes it likely that a McCain administration will interpret conditions on the ground in Iraq, which are likely to be a mix of pluses and minuses from the perspective of perceived U.S. interests at any given time for the next several years, as favorable enough to allow for reductions in U.S. ground forces. The Bush administration hasn’t done so yet because it wants to saddle the next administration with as extensive a commitment as possible, so the next administration can be blamed for the eventual outcome, whatever it is. The Bushies want to be able to say "we had the place on the verge of stability until those amateurs came in and screwed things up," however little credibility such an assessment might have with more thoughtful observers. Certain radio talk-show hosts will buy it – or at least sell it.

In terms of rhetoric, Barack Obama, who opposed the war from the beginning, has until recently advocated something close to a withdrawal from Iraq (a "war that never should have been fought") regardless of conditions on the ground. The assumption that would logically underlie such a position is that the U.S. has failed in Iraq and is likely to continue to fail, that the bloodbath some predict if the U.S. withdraws is approximately as likely whether or not the U.S. keeps large contingents of troops there.

But in fact, Obama’s position has become, or perhaps ever was, a bit more nuanced. He has called for having U.S. combat brigades out of Iraq within about 16 months (sadly, about as quickly as it can be accomplished logistically unless the U.S. decides simply to leave loads of tanks, vehicles, artillery and other materiel in Iraq indefinitely). However, he has qualified his position by saying that if al-Qaeda attempts to build a base within Iraq, he just might keep troops in Iraq, or elsewhere in the region, to carry out strikes. Given that al-Qaeda is attempting to build a base within Iraq, however mixed the results, and however marginal al-Qaeda might actually be in a future Iraq run by Iraqis, the logical outcome of Obama’s position could well be an open-ended commitment to keeping troops in Iraq.


Thus Obama’s likely position is not all that different from McCain’s, however different the backgrounds of the candidates, and however differently they may phrase their comments about the situation and the mission.

As for Hillary, her position on what should happen in Iraq if she is elected is difficult to tease out of the rhetoric. But the apparently offhand (though it can hardly have been so) comment that if Iran attacks Israel a Hillary-led U.S. would be in a position to "obliterate" Iran and might try to do so, hardly indicates a disinclination to get involved in new conflicts. It wouldn’t be a bad guess to suggest that when it comes to Iraq her position in office would be strikingly similar to the Bush-McCain (apparent) policy of gradual withdrawal based on perceived conditions on the ground rather than a definite timetable.

Of course, the conditions a new president will face next January are unknowable, which is one reason all the candidates’ positions are a bit vague. A new president who is inclined to begin a withdrawal from Iraq will have to be aware that any U.S. drawdown could well bolster Iranian influence in Iraq (though division among Iraq’s Shia could preclude that – or make it more likely. However, an Iraq heavily influenced if not dominated by Iran could well come into conflict with Saudi Arabia. The U.S. is unlikely to want to put U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia again (part of the real reason for the Iraq war may have been a desire to get them out of Saudi in the first place) but it is likely to consider Iranian dominance of the Arabian Peninsula unacceptable.

Thus the next president, whoever he or she is, is more likely to undertake a phased withdrawal based on perceptions of conditions on the ground rather than a timetable withdrawal regardless of emerging consequences. It’s not that Obama, who is closest to advocating an unconditional withdrawal, is lying about what he would like to do, any more than GWB was consciously lying in 2000 when he said he preferred a more "humble" foreign policy that abjured nation-building. It’s that like all presidents, he will face the conditions that prevail, and his real-life options will be limited, in large part because of the consequences of the Bushlet’s initiation of the war and the way he has chosen to have U.S. forces wage it. Presidents are not as free as they would like to be.


As to the rest of the world – postures are there in position papers that are surely not written by the candidates and are not really intended to be read or taken seriously – the candidates’ positions are also remarkably similar. They’re deeply concerned about growing authoritarianism in Russia, but don’t have much of an idea what, if anything the U.S. should do about it beyond tut-tutting. They’re concerned about China’s potential effect on U.S. jobs and its growing regional military/political influence, but don’t want to do anything drastic about it, like cutting off or restricting trade. They have no objections to the unification of Europe if it happens, but don’t care much if the Europeans go slower than some of their leaders propose.

This consensus is in some ways remarkable but perhaps not so much. All three likelies share many fundamental assumptions about the nature and use of American power in the world at large. They all see the U.S. as the de facto leader of the world – if not the sole superpower then its dominant force, and rightly so. The disagreement about Iraq is a disagreement about tactics and specifics – not whether U.S. power should be applied to influence outcomes in other countries as a general principle, but whether it should have been applied in this particular place at this particular time.

There is no candidate with a chance at the presidency who questions the fundamental underpinnings of the policy of maintaining dozens of forward military positions in the world at large. None is proposing to withdraw from Japan, South Korea or Germany – let alone Kazakhstan or other central Asian countries that might or might not turn out to have tappable energy resources – despite the general uselessness and ongoing irritant and expense such deployments represent. No candidate has a vision of U.S. foreign policy that moves beyond empire to a position closer to something like continental self-defense and war avoidance, let alone reducing the U.S. footprint in the world at large.

Too bad. I suspect more Americans than candidates or conventional thinkers realize would welcome more fundamental rethinking of U.S. foreign policy.

Read more by Alan Bock