If the presidential debate Friday night told us anything, it was that whichever of these candidates is elected, we can expect more wars, or at least more conflicts that put U.S. forces or citizens in danger for dubious reasons. Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama came close to questioning the "bipartisan" consensus on U.S. foreign policy, that the U.S. should be the prime mover and shaker in the world at large. They differ, and in some ways that are fairly important, on details. But on the central question of whether it is the United States’ job to go out there and fix the world, there was no disagreement.
To be sure, taking candidates at their word during a debate is not necessarily advisable for one who would be so foolish as to try to predict what they will do once in office. Politicians as a breed are not noted for being especially candid on the campaign trail, of course. Furthermore, every president faces unexpected foreign-policy challenges (Truman didn’t expect Korea, Carter didn’t expect Iran, Dubya didn’t expect 9/11, etc.). Still, the Bushlet has left some open sores out there in the rest of the world. So the next president is likely to have to deal with winding down the war in Iraq and figuring out what to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which will require reaching some kind of accommodation with Iran. Neither candidate seems to realize this, so they competed to see who could say the most childishly nasty things.
Whether it’s necessary or not, the next president is likely to figure he will have to pay attention to both Iran’s and Korea’s nuclear ambitions and cope in some way with the Russian resurgence (not as strong as Putin wants us to believe, but notable, and showing up just now in Venezuela, which should have been predictable but seems to have caught the U.S. off-guard). They will have to do all this with very few bargaining chips, thanks mainly to the Iraq war, and in addition figure out what kind of stance to take toward a disunited Europe.
There are hints in the records and attitude of the two major parties that suggest genuine differences as to which parts of the world they consider crucial and how a president from that party might deal with them. Despite the impression one might get from current rhetoric, historically the Democrats have not been shy about fighting wars. However, they tend to want a coalition and prefer to have an international agreement or a new international organization that will really, really keep the peace this time see the UN and, before that, the League of Nations as an outcome. Since Vietnam, of course, the Democratic coalition has included a strong antiwar strain. Clinton did humanitarian intervention, but that may be a dead letter now. The challenge of Russia will test these proclivities, as will focusing on Afghanistan, if Obama really wants to do so (as he has said). Getting out of Iraq is likely to take longer than Obama thinks.
The Republicans have their own traditions and contradictions. One can discern the strains of Teddy Rooseveltian muscular nationalism, neoconservative nation-building and democracy-promotion (muscular Wilsonianism), along with a persistent isolationist strain. There are differences between "idealists" (democracy-expanding) and "realists" (national interest, reluctance about adventures, e.g., Scowcroft-Baker, maybe Kissinger) within the GOP. McCain identifies with Roosevelt, but to act like a Great Power he might have to make deals with the Taliban to avoid chaos in Afghanistan, or make concessions to the Russians despite his moralistic inclinations.
Neither candidate seemed to be the least bit interested in discussing the likelihood, especially in light of the current financial crackup, that the new president will have to deal with the fact that economic power, and thus eventually political power, will be more dispersed in the very near future. It won’t be a unipolar world in which the U.S. can call the shots, if it ever really was, partly because of Bush’s missteps and partly because of trends neither he nor anybody else could have controlled.
This urge to intervene was especially apparent when it came to Pakistan and Afghanistan. On those tragically interrelated countries, both Obama and McCain simply puffed up their chests and promised they would set things right without offering anything resembling a hint as to what would constitute such a happy outcome.
They did both acknowledge that things would be tougher in Afghanistan and with Pakistan. But neither seems to have any appreciation of just how complicated the situation is, how deeply rooted anti-Americanism is, or how much more it would be precipitated by more troops and more examples of the U.S. trying to push those pitiful governments around.
In addition, both are fixated on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden at a time when al-Qaeda, despite having camps somewhere, is much weaker than it was on 9/11. It’s a mosquito rather than a dragon, but Americans always want to puff up pip-squeak adversaries.
McCain seemed to be trying to make the point that he is not a knee-jerk warmonger in every instance by mentioning how, earlier in his career, he opposed sending troops to Lebanon and was for changing the mission in Somalia, but he didn’t say what potential conflicts he might want to avoid. Anyway, that was then. He seems to have gone through a sea-change in his foreign-policy attitudes sometime in the late 1990s, when he decided Bosnia and Kosovo were worth doing, even with a Democratic president leading the way.
Neither seemed to notice what is absolutely true: if the U.S. really wants to have anything resembling success in Afghanistan, it will have to bring in Iran, which helped in Afghanistan after 9/11, or we’ll simply be wasting blood and treasure. That means we’ll have to talk to them, marvel of marvels. During the wandering discussion of talking with nasty foreign leaders with or without preconditions or preparation, Obama seemed to be suggesting that we should talk with Iran for the sake of diplomacy, apparently quite unaware that the U.S. and Iran have any common interests, such as preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, something that Iran would most definitely not like to see.
Ah, well. It’s much more fun to pound on yet another "demon."
Perhaps the most striking thing about the debate came toward the end, when Jim Lehrer invited the two candidates to spend all of two minutes talking about Russia. Despite the recent Putin muscle-flexing, most Americans seem to be in the 1990s, when Russia was weak and not especially well situated to push back as the U.S. and other countries relentlessly expanded NATO.
At this point, however, the Middle East and al-Qaeda are minor problems compared with the resurgence of Russia. Neither candidate had anything but chest-puffing to offer. Perhaps it would have been impolitic or maybe not for a candidate seeking to separate himself from the Dubster, which all the pundits said both were determined to do. But there was no acknowledgment that the reason we didn’t do anything about the Russia-Georgia war was because we didn’t have the resources to do anything but bluster, and Europe is in no mood to do anything even if it had the military resources, which it doesn’t.
Of course neither seemed to know enough history to entertain the thought that Russia, which has no obvious defensible borders and was invaded by Napoleon and Hitler, just might have reason to be concerned about its "near abroad," and that any realistic policy would have to take this into account. It doesn’t necessarily mean we should give them carte blanche to invade their neighbors. But to pose and posture rather than say something like "We understand your concerns, so how can we work something out that doesn’t lead to war?" seems astoundingly shortsighted.
In short, it was fascinating that both of these guys have no hint of a doubt that the United States is supposed to run the world, tell other regimes how to behave, pay attention to every sparrow that falls, be the avatars of what we self-centered Americans choose to call democracy, and worry about other peoples’ problems incessantly. They have only minor differences as to which countries and which perceived threats are more important and how they should be handled.
The idea that the United States might be better off simply minding its own business and dealing only with actual threats of which, truth to tell, there are very few doesn’t seem to have penetrated either skull. No matter who is elected, we will be spending blood and treasure to try to resolve disputes that are not our own.