REVUE DE PRESSE
Le New Yorker vient de publier un article passionnant sur la diplomatie de Barack Obama (versus les idées diplomatiques de John McCain). Cet article qui est le fruit d'une longue enquête permet de donner les premières grandes lignes d'une éventuelle administration Obama.
NONFICTION publie de larges extraits (en anglais) de cet article :
Obama, McCain, and the future of foreign policy.
par Nicholas LEMANN
When John Kerry came to the stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he saluted smartly and said he was reporting for duty. Kerry was a decorated Vietnam veteran and a senator with many years of foreign-policy experience. The Bush Administration’s central foreign-policy initiative, the war in Iraq, was going badly, and Kerry was supposed to be able to confront President Bush on the issue and win. But in the bleary aftermath, to people in the very small world of Democratic Party foreign-policy professionals, it seemed that Bush had somehow framed the election around foreign policy and managed to win, despite a weak hand. He did this mainly by presenting himself as more resolute, more fully alive to threats to the United States, and prepared to deal with them more harshly than Kerry—which was a variant on how Republicans had presented themselves for years.
While Bush was preparing for his second term, foreign-policy Democrats began preparing for the 2008 Presidential election. How could they prevent another version of 2004, with toughness as the fail-safe Republican argument? One way might be for the Democrats to scrub any remaining hint of docility from their reputation (though Kerry had tried to do that, and failed). Another would be to change the nature of the conversation. Barack Obama, even before announcing his candidacy, was deeply engaged in the latter approach.
Last summer, a small group of prominent foreign-policy Democrats who call themselves the Phoenix Initiative, and who first came together in early 2005—the link between their name and Kerry’s defeat should be obvious—published a report. It had the kind of aggressively bland title that is typical of such efforts (“Strategic Leadership: Framework for a Twenty-first Century National Security Strategy”) and got almost no attention. Reports like this rarely do, except in retrospect, such as a 2000 report by the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, which laid some of the groundwork for the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. The Phoenix Initiative’s report was published with a brief preface by Susan E. Rice, who is one of Obama’s top foreign-policy advisers and is almost certain to serve in a high government position if he wins the Presidency. Rice, a brisk, direct woman in her early forties, had worked in the Clinton Administration, first on the National Security Council and then as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and had been part of John Kerry’s foreign-policy team in the 2004 campaign. The report lays out a new approach to American foreign policy, and in so doing it implicitly promises that the Democrats might be able, finally, to set the terms on national security.
“This report,” Rice writes in her preface, “breaks away from such traditional concepts as containment, engagement, and enlargement and rejects standard dichotomies of realist power politics versus liberal idealism.” It “offers bold and genuinely new thinking about America’s role.” The report lists five top “strategic priorities” for the United States. The first three are issues that governments, or even international organizations, can’t handle on their own: counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation, and, taken together, climate change and oil dependence. The other two are regional: the Middle East and East Asia. The report barely mentions great-power diplomacy, the traditional core concept of statecraft. It is not just post-Cold War but post-war on terror and, arguably, post-American hegemony. (It makes a point of describing the war in Iraq as a bad idea, rather than as a good idea poorly executed.) It speaks of “interconnectedness” and “diffuse power.” It isn’t dovish or sanguine, exactly—those top three strategic priorities are all threats—but it definitely does not envision American military power, or even power combined with diplomacy, as the only effective tool of foreign-policymaking.
Well before the Phoenix Initiative’s report came out, Obama was using similar themes in his speeches. In his first major foreign-policy address, delivered in Chicago in April, 2007, he said, “When narco-trafficking and corruption threaten democracy in Latin America, it’s America’s problem, too. When poor villagers in Indonesia have no choice but to send chickens to market infected with avian flu, it cannot be seen as a distant concern. When religious schools in Pakistan teach hatred to young children, our children are threatened as well. Whether it’s global terrorism or pandemic disease, dramatic climate change or the proliferation of weapons of mass annihilation, the threats we face at the dawn of the twenty-first century can no longer be contained by borders and boundaries.”
John McCain talks about new kinds of threat sometimes, too, but his views on foreign policy are completely different from Obama’s, in tone and in substance. McCain’s chief focus is on great powers, and on the all-importance of maintaining American military and political primacy in the world. There is a lot at stake in foreign policy in this campaign. The next President will have two wars to pursue, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. McCain has said he believes both countries “can in time become pillars of stability, tolerance, and democracy,” as long as America commits military and economic resources to them. Obama wants to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq and focus on Afghanistan, and he tends to define the war there more in terms of the threat of terrorism than of the opportunity to establish a model democracy. “On Iraq, McCain is wedded to unrealistic goals,” Susan Rice told me. Whoever wins the election may have a chance to do something larger: propose a new defining idea for American foreign policy. For McCain, a history buff who loves to talk about America’s glorious military and diplomatic triumphs, the question has been whether he would be viewed as someone who understands how the world has changed. For Obama, the question is whether he can successfully keep the focus on his new ideas, which means avoiding the old routine of Democratic defensiveness on foreign policy.
The 2008 Democratic campaigns were staffing up in foreign policy in 2006, when Hillary Clinton looked like a sure bet to be the Party’s nominee. Just about every foreign-policy Democrat had worked in Bill Clinton’s Administration, and those who had been most prominent—such as Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, and Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and negotiator of the Dayton peace accords—signed on with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. A few people pulled off the tricky feat of not endorsing anybody (something that campaigns don’t find endearing, and that the 2008 Clinton campaign, in particular, didn’t) and, instead, as the saying goes, “offering advice to anyone who might find it helpful.” Dennis Ross, the former Middle East peace negotiator, is one of those, and another is James Steinberg, the former deputy national-security adviser, now at a safe distance from Washington as dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. (Both would be likely to serve in an Obama Administration.) For the most part, though, the other Democratic campaigns represented an opportunity for less obvious foreign-policy names to place their career bets in a way that might produce a dramatic return in 2009.
So, although it is accurate to say that Barack Obama’s foreign-policy team is led by people who served in the Clinton Administration, this formulation leaves out what is most important about them: They broke with Bill and Hillary Clinton in a way that they knew the Clinton camp would remember. They saw Obama as the bolder, more visionary candidate, the one who understood how profoundly the world had changed and how completely American foreign policy had to change, too.
The Obama campaign started with a big idea about foreign policy: that the great issues of the future, like climate change, terrorism, and pandemic disease, cannot be solved through traditional means of nation-to-nation military and diplomatic dealings. The McCain campaign also started with a big idea, one rooted in the candidate’s life experience and the conviction of McCain and the people around him that the Bush Administration has handled national security badly. The idea is that the United States should assert itself more aggressively and adroitly as the world’s superpower and forge a new alliance of the most powerful democracies that pointedly excludes Russia and China. Presidential campaigns run for so long that, even when they present a choice as stark as this one, they function as a running real-time test of the power of the candidates’ ideas. It matters most who wins, but it also matters a lot who winds up leading the conversation—how the candidates adapt to each other and to changing circumstances before Election Day. In that sense, even before the votes are cast and counted, a lot has already happened in American foreign policy this year.
In 2004, as Barack Obama, a third-term Illinois state senator who had lost a congressional race a couple of years earlier, was preparing for what looked like a quixotic run for the Senate, he began to acquaint himself with the foreign-policy world in Washington. His first important contact was Anthony Lake, whom he’d met over the phone in 2002. Lake had made a speech in Chicago; afterward, someone who had been in the audience told him that he really ought to meet Obama. Lake, who teaches at Georgetown and has been working in Democratic Presidential campaigns since 1971, is the oldest of the top Obama advisers. (Lake and Holbrooke, who was the most important of Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisers, were both members of the Foreign Service class of 1962.) He wears sweaters and wire-rimmed glasses; he looks like a boarding-school headmaster who secretly sympathizes with the more rebellious students. His charm lies in his ability to convey the sense that he can summon up a degree of detachment, and even occasional amusement, beyond what you’d expect from a foreign-policy player—that he cares about the great game but doesn’t need it. Lake was Bill Clinton’s first national-security adviser, and his time with Clinton ended unhappily when he was nominated to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency and, under fire from conservatives, had to withdraw.
Lake began talking to Obama, and hosted a dinner party in Washington to introduce him to some foreign-policy experts. Obama was already far more than a typical freshman senator, because of the spectacular keynote speech he had given at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and when he began to think seriously about running for President his relationship with Lake deepened. About a year and a half into his Senate term, Obama had formed a core group of foreign-policy advisers, which included Susan Rice, whom Lake had introduced him to; Samantha Power, the writer whose book about genocide, “A Problem from Hell,” Obama had read and admired; and Mark Lippert, a rising young Capitol Hill staff member who had become the foreign-policy expert on Obama’s Senate staff. The group later expanded to include Gregory Craig, whose ties to the Clintons went back to Yale Law School, and who had worked in the Administration and helped to manage Bill Clinton’s defense during the impeachment proceedings. Craig, who had met Obama at a number of Washington events put on by well-connected people (the host of the first one was Vernon Jordan), helped to produce a memo in 2006 detailing how Obama might go about running in the 2008 New Hampshire Presidential primary. Over the 2006 holiday season, Obama made up his mind to run for President, and in early 2007 he asked Lake and Rice to set up a network of outside experts on foreign policy for him.
Nobody in the group around Obama was a genuine Washington outsider, but its members were seen as representing the liberal wing of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment. However, just as Obama likes to think of himself as transcending traditional racial and ideological divisions, his foreign-policy advisers objected to being labelled as traditional doves. Even Lake, who was the locus classicus of a dove during the later stages of the Vietnam War, presents himself today as someone who understands new kinds of threats and new kinds of international relationships, and is not reluctant to use force or assert American interests. His most recent book, published in 2000, is called “Six Nightmares: The Real Threats to American Security.” Obama’s advisers never forgot that a perceived lack of toughness on national security had brought down Democratic Presidential candidates in the past.
Still, Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy team—which included familiar names from her husband’s Administration, such as Warren Christopher, another former Secretary of State, and William J. Perry, a former Secretary of Defense—regarded Obama as being a bit too soft. In the primaries, Obama’s strongest argument was that he had opposed the Iraq war and that his two leading opponents, Clinton and John Edwards, had voted in favor of the Bush Administration’s resolution authorizing it. Obama proposed a timetable for withdrawal, and Clinton would not. During the CNN/YouTube debate, in South Carolina in the summer of 2007, Obama responded to a question by saying unhesitatingly that he would be willing to meet without preconditions with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea during his first year in office; Clinton said that she would not promise to do that, and one of her recurring criticisms of Obama was that while she could be trusted to respond to foreign-policy crises, he could not. Her best-known campaign advertisement, about the White House “crisis phone” ringing at three in the morning, was meant to convey that message.
Obama’s advisers, for their part, thought of Clinton and her advisers as being mired in the past, and as having too many egos, too many power struggles, and too many unresolved psychological issues. In addition to everything else they are post-, the Obama team gives the feeling of being post-therapy: they know who they are, they’re not needy, they have it under control. In explaining why they signed on with Obama, most of his top foreign-policy advisers took pains to say that they found him calm, grounded, respectful, and ready to listen—implying that certain other past and potential Presidents lack those qualities. “There is a degree of self-reflection, self-awareness, and psychological wholeness he arrived at after going through a period of working through his identity as the son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas,” Richard Danzig, a Secretary of the Navy during the Clinton Administration, who was the last member of the Obama foreign-policy high command to join up, in the spring of 2007, said. “Having worked for two Presidents and with many Presidential candidates during the last thirty years, I have not seen one as psychologically well balanced, and as good about not injecting his ego into a problem.”
The network of experts set up by Lake and Rice eventually grew to about three hundred, divided into teams by region and issue, with each group generating its own material and passing it up the line. (Now, after the official absorption of Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy apparatus, there may be as many as five hundred experts connected to the Obama campaign.) These people support a close group of about a half-dozen advisers, who include, in addition to Rice, Lake, Craig, Danzig, and Lippert, another former Senate staffer named Denis McDonough, who worked for Tom Daschle before he was unseated in 2004; Ben Rhodes, a young speechwriter who had helped draft the Iraq Study Group Report in 2006; and Scott Gration, a retired Air Force major-general whom Obama has befriended. Only Lippert, Rhodes, and McDonough are on the campaign’s payroll; Lippert travels with Obama, Rhodes is based at campaign headquarters in Chicago, and McDonough splits his time between Chicago and Washington. The thoughts of the many experts—who generally respond by e-mail—are most often filtered through Rice, Lippert, and McDonough. Thus far, nobody leaks, nobody bickers in a way that can be discerned by outsiders, and there are not obvious camps. The general feel of the campaign, both in its spread-out virtual form and at its headquarters in a modern office tower in downtown Chicago, is a little like that of the Microsoft campus in the nineteen-nineties, or the Google campus today: everybody seems young, trim, competent, cool, and casual, but casual in a “you and I both know that we’re ferocious and brilliant and we’re going to crush the other team” way.
The tone comes from Obama himself—he’s a mixture of soulful outsider and competitive, hyper-organized meritocrat—and it has an ideological manifestation. The Obama people think of themselves as future-oriented strategic thinkers, not old-fashioned, gooey, Eleanor Roosevelt-style humanitarians—as people who get it, the “it” being the new realities of the twenty-first century. Although the candidates may be required to say that their foremost concern is how the economic crisis affects the middle class, they seem to get their inexhaustible drive from the belief that they might be able to run American foreign policy. Obama’s foreign-policy staff likes to think he reads their memos first. The most sustained signal we have about Obama’s personal views on foreign policy is the next-to-last chapter of his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope,” which is called “The World Beyond Our Borders,” and which, by all accounts, he wrote himself, taking particular care with it.
Politicians who write well usually come alive on the page when discussing policy—think of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Obama comes alive when creating scenes and characters (including himself). He’s a master of autobiography, as is McCain, if you consider him and his amanuensis, Mark Salter, as a single writing unit. But the analytic passages in “The Audacity of Hope” are cautious and shot through with a concern to appear balanced and to avoid saying anything that might peg the author as a typical liberal. Obama begins with a long, vivid set piece about the time he spent in Indonesia as a child, which suggests that he comes to the subject of foreign policy with a sense of how America looks to non-Americans. (McCain, when living abroad, was always an American military officer, even as a prisoner of war; Obama was briefly the stepson of an Indonesian military officer.)
The policy part of the chapter demonstrates a politician’s need to hedge: Obama says that he struggled with his decision to oppose the Iraq war, and he offers measured praise to President Reagan. But it does put forth fresh ideas. Obama wants to “build a new international consensus around the challenges of transnational threats.” Of great-power competition as the defining element in statecraft, he writes, “That world no longer exists.” Instead of Russia and China, we should be focussed mainly on “terrorist networks intent on repelling or disrupting the forces of globalization, potential pandemic disease like avian flu, or catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate,” and the way to make headway there is by bringing together multinational coalitions and adding new elements to the traditional foreign-policy tool kit. As Lake put it, when I spoke to him, traditional statesmen see international relations as a game of chess, and “post-realists” see it as more like the complicated multidirectional Japanese board game of Go—“but Obama knows you have to play both boards at the same time.” (In the Obama camp, all dichotomies are false dichotomies, which the candidate transcends.)
The most mystical believer in Obamaism whom I met was Scott Gration, the retired Air Force major-general—a burly, friendly, artifice-less guy who assured me that he had only recently begun to wear a tie regularly. I went to see him over the summer at his house in Nutley, New Jersey. An American flag flies from a flagpole on the lawn. Gration, who grew up in Africa as the son of American missionaries, and who flew two hundred and seventy-four combat missions over Iraq, used to be a registered Republican, but he became a Democrat after spending time with Obama, especially during a trip to Africa in 2006. Perhaps because his background isn’t conventionally liberal, he is more open than the other top Obama advisers in expressing a soaring optimism about the possibility of a less arrogant, more coöperative, more empathetic America leading the world in confronting its most intractable problems. “We’ve screwed up,” he told me. “We don’t really fix these things.” He mentioned the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, the Israel-Palestine dispute, and the tension between Russia and Georgia. “What I’d hope we learn from that is: ‘Yep, we’ve got to fix the basic issues here.’ ” He went on, “What doesn’t work, in Gration’s mind, is forcing a solution. Create an environment, give people the opportunity to air their differences, and see if they can come together. We don’t tell them what the solution is, but we do have an obligation—let’s get people in here, find out the needs, see if you can come up with a plan. Don’t try to freeze conflicts!”
Gration was impatient with the idea that conflict is the natural state of the world, to be managed rather than resolved. “People are more alike than their cultures and religions,” he said. “When Obama talks about global citizens, it’s the same framework. You see, religion and culture—they’re the way people communicate their values. They want stability, order, education. This is just humanness. Then you add on your religion, your culture—that’s how you execute it.” His implication was that if we can get past the religious and cultural identities that serve as host organisms for conflict, and deal with people at the level of their humanity and their basic needs, then we can make real progress—especially if Obama personally holds an office that permits him to set the tone and lead the effort.
The idea had an early field test on Obama’s 2006 trip to Africa, and a more serious test last summer, when he and an entourage that included most of his principal foreign-policy aides toured the Middle East and Europe. A mere state legislator four years earlier, Obama had already, it appeared, become an important world leader. He met with heads of state—he was confident, they were respectful and attentive—and capped off the trip with a speech to an ecstatic crowd of two hundred thousand in Berlin. It seemed to prove not only that Obama was ready for the Presidency, and that his ideas represented a fresh and attractive approach to foreign affairs, but also that Obama alone could put those ideas into action. And then the fall campaign began and Obama was inevitably confronted with some long-standing realities—the sort of international issue that became obvious two weeks after the speech in Berlin, when Russia invaded Georgia.
I interviewed John McCain a few weeks ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was conducting his first joint town-hall meeting with his running mate, Sarah Palin. A Presidential candidate spends a lot of time in bleak backstage settings: hotel suites, service entrances, greenrooms. Our interview took place in an empty two-room suite on the top floor of a Marriott hotel, at the end of a dark, narrow hallway guarded by three or four Secret Service men. McCain walked in with his campaign press secretary, Brooke Buchanan, and his chief foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann. McCain does not have an obvious, room-filling charisma. He looked thinner than he does in photographs, and seemed alert but not energetic. He was dressed in a blue blazer, gray slacks, loafers, and no tie. His face had a kind of parchment translucence, and his left eye was slightly shut. He was clutching a Sharpie pen in his left hand. As he spoke, he would rouse himself from an even calm to animation and then sink back down again.
Even if McCain and Obama agreed about everything, you’d have the feeling that the election’s outcome mattered a lot, if only because the moods of the two campaign organizations are so different. McCain’s campaign does not have three hundred foreign-policy experts divided into teams (and they’re proud of it—“John McCain needs foreign-policy advisers like Tiger Woods needs a golf coach!” a member of McCain’s staff told me). The McCain national headquarters is in Crystal City, a collection of glass towers in Arlington, Virginia, which, in a thirty-second political ad, one could describe as the sleek home to military contractors—although that would be misleading. There’s a downscale subterranean mall and lots of guys wandering around in camo. The McCains’ ten homes and thirteen cars notwithstanding, everything to do with the McCain campaign has the frowsy feeling of a town next to a military base. Until surprisingly late in the summer, the headquarters had no security checkpoint for visitors, and if you wandered in you would find a big flat-screen television perpetually tuned to Fox News, a drink dispenser offering Red Bull on tap, a table loaded with unhealthy snacks, and photographs of the candidate in uniform on the walls. There were big, excessively obvious signs in the rooms that said things like “War Room” and “Bundlers”; they looked like props in a school play about a campaign.
The people around McCain put me in mind of one of those old war movies where a salty, can-do major struts into the mess hall and points: “You—soldier! I like the cut of your jib. How about coming along on a special operation? Not for the faint of heart.” And then he knows how to cadge some light artillery, a couple of jeeps, and some rations from the quartermaster (he’ll do the paperwork later). In the McCain campaign, the women (and not just Sarah Palin) tend to be a little saucy and the men look uncomfortable in suits, and it would be difficult to produce an organization chart that would explain the relationship of McCain’s travelling buddies from the Senate, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman, to the staff and the short roster of outside advisers.
During the first few months after McCain had clinched the Republican nomination, Democrats talked about the McCain campaign as a struggle in foreign policy between “realists” and “neocons,” and by fall the consensus was that the neocons had won. But this division is too neat to capture McCain on foreign policy. When I asked him about the over-all situation in the world, he immediately mentioned dangers—“the radical extremist threat,” Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, Russia’s aggressiveness, the rise of China. That’s a neocon answer, if it has to be categorized. But McCain thinks of himself as an old foreign-policy hand, a veteran of myriad trips abroad and conversations with foreign leaders, someone who deeply understands the ancient and honorable art of statecraft. He is close to Henry Kissinger. That would make him more of a realist.
I asked him how he reacted to Obama’s promise to meet with the leaders of Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. “I’ve never objected—I’ve encouraged—conversations at various levels,” he said. “But look, to say, ‘Everything’s on the table, without preconditions’—facts are stubborn things. Iran is dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel and it is pursuing old ambitions in the Middle East. You give Ahmadinejad or Raúl Castro or Chávez a forum for their prestige. Reagan sat down with Gorbachev, but that was after he had refused to sit down with Brezhnev, Andropov, or Chernenko. Nixon did not go to China until he knew what he was going for. That’s the way you conduct negotiations with these countries.”
On the other hand, McCain is a moralist who sees Russia, in particular, as a bad actor. Realists believe that countries should negotiate with each other coolly in terms of national interests, but McCain is not inclined to do that with Russia, or possibly with China, either. He has repeatedly called for the expulsion of Russia from the Group of Eight, the association of major industrial democracies to which it was admitted in 1998. In the nineteen-nineties, he supported the admission of former Soviet satellite states to NATO, and now he would like NATO to admit Georgia and Ukraine. This stance infuriates the Russians. McCain was one of the few Republicans who supported NATO’s 1999 campaign against Serbia, one of Russia’s allies. Now he wants to set up an organization called the League of Democracies (the echo of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations is intentional), which would include Brazil, Japan, and India and exclude Russia and China, and which might diminish the importance of the United Nations Security Council and the Group of Eight; he has promised to convene a summit meeting about it during his first year as President. When I asked about this, he said, “I would work toward a League of Democracies that shares our values, and I do not predict that this would lead to a reinstitution of the Cold War. These are K.G.B. apparatchiks. That’s what they are. They are bent on reassembling the Russian empire. The government of Ukraine just collapsed. There are seventy thousand Russian passports in South Ossetia. Why? I think we all know the answer. I would be happy to work with the Russians, but we ought to understand the nature of its government—its autocratic nature.”
McCain is far more oriented to countries than to transnational forces, and far more apt to stress that America must remain the world’s most powerful nation than to lay out a coöperative, collaborative plan for the world’s future. “I am committed to working with other nations that share our values,” McCain said, “but somebody has to lead. Somebody must lead. America has to lead. Look at the challenges we have faced after September 11th. America led, in coördination with our allies in one case—Afghanistan—and in one case without: Iraq. Somalia was a failure because we did not lead. We have to lead.” McCain was in his animated mode now. His eyes were open wide, his face upturned, his arms raised. “I believe in American exceptionalism. I do. And I can prove it by reviewing our history. I want the twenty-first century to be the American century.”
A few weeks earlier, I had visited McCain’s headquarters to talk to Randy Scheunemann. A bearded, affable, informal, sure-of-himself man in his late forties, Scheunemann has spent most of his career working as a foreign-policy staff aide to Senate Republicans (including Bob Dole and Trent Lott), and he once served as the paid Washington lobbyist for the former Soviet republic of Georgia. His loyalty to McCain is such that he worked without pay from the late summer of 2007 until the spring of 2008, when the campaign was broke. He shared a small, barren office with two or three other aides. The one decorative touch was a framed copy of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, the first piece of legislation signed into law to call for the removal from power of Saddam Hussein, an act that McCain had co-sponsored and Scheunemann had helped to draft. Scheunemann unhesitatingly presented “the global struggle against Islamic extremism” (he did not use a more neutral formulation like “terrorism”) as “the defining struggle of our time.”
Scheunemann had a few things to say about Barack Obama’s foreign-policy positions. “The evolution of Obama is fascinating,” he said. “In 2004, he said he was against pulling out of Iraq. Then he moved farther left. In May, 2007, he voted to cut off supplemental funding for all the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.” (This was a hundred-and-twenty-billion-dollar bill that Obama opposed because the Bush Administration would not give a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq; it passed.) “It was a supremely irresponsible vote done out of pure political calculation about where he needed to be for the Democratic primaries. McCain’s position”—for increasing the troop level by thirty thousand—“was not popular even within the Republican Party. Obama engaged in cynical political calculation. McCain said, and meant with all his heart, that he would rather lose an election and win a war. He didn’t flinch. On a matter of supreme importance—American forces in harm’s way—you really see the character of the two men.”
I asked him what he thought of Obama’s promise to talk to the Iranian leadership. “I’m searching for the word for the world view that has such incredible hubris that you believe that if you talk to anybody, no matter what they represent, you can get a result.” He made a show of searching for the word, and then he found it: “Laughable. The idea that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons because they don’t have direct negotiations with the President of the United States! Obama has tried to walk back from his stance. It’s a facile view, which has taken hold in many think tanks, here and in Europe, that there’s a grand bargain to be had in Iran. Obama thinks they don’t really want nukes—they want a summit meeting. It’s naïve.”
Barack Obama isn’t the only politician that the McCain campaign considers weak on foreign policy. First place would probably go to President Bush. That can’t be an overt theme of the campaign, of course, but the anger at Bush in the McCain camp is palpable. McCain is a military man; Bush is guilty of the cardinal sin of committing American prestige to a military operation, and sending American troops into battle, with an incompetent war plan. He played the tough guy and didn’t follow through; he made terrible misjudgments about foreign leaders (Vladimir Putin, to McCain’s mind, was at the top of that list, because of Bush’s early announcement that he had looked into Putin’s eyes and got a sense of his soul); he didn’t work effectively with the other major powers; and he dishonored America’s reputation in the world.
“Americans are really angry at the Bush Administration for doing Iraq badly, and Senator McCain shares that view,” Kori Schake, another member of McCain’s foreign-policy staff, who sits about six inches away from Randy Scheunemann in the same small office, told me. Schake, a professor at West Point, might plausibly be cast as a heroine in a James Bond movie—the sort of character who speaks several languages and is also an Aikido master. “Secretary Rumsfeld did his job badly,” she continued. “In the perfect storm that was the Bush Administration, you had Rumsfeld’s dominating personality, Bush’s support of him as somebody pushing change, and the marginalization of the National Security Council staff”—on which Schake was serving at the time. Toward the end of our conversation, she remarked, “Having been around Bush a bit, there’s a groundedness about McCain. He doesn’t dig in his heels to prove he’s tough. He thinks, and when he feels he’s hit bedrock, that’s the principle that determines his course of action.”
Recently, Bush’s foreign policy has moved distinctly left of where it was during his first term. This may represent a change of heart on Bush’s part—as well as the increasing influence of Condoleezza Rice, now that she is Secretary of State, and the replacement of Rumsfeld by the more moderate Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense. On several of the most pressing issues in foreign affairs, the Bush of 2008 has positions that are closer to Obama’s than to McCain’s. Obama has promised to get personally involved in Middle East peace negotiations as soon as he takes office. McCain has not. Bush, in his second term, has, though with minimal results. The Bush Administration has talked about the desirability of a “general time horizon” for withdrawing troops from Iraq, the sort of language that McCain, during the primaries, took pains to attack; the Obama campaign called it “a step in the right direction.” McCain has since welcomed the idea in a general way, though he also said, “An artificial timetable based on political expediency would have led to disaster and could still turn success into defeat.” For McCain, carelessness with American—and, in particular, Presidential—prestige is unacceptable, and there is nothing worse than America’s entering, or remaining in, an international engagement with its options limited in advance. (McCain was furious at President Clinton when he announced that he would not send ground troops to Kosovo.)
When Russia sent troops and bombers into Georgia, it provided McCain with a perfect opportunity to differentiate himself from Bush, who reacted in his second-term manner, speaking cautiously and calling for “a return by the parties to the status quo.” McCain appeared before the press and read a blistering statement. “Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory,” he said, and he called on the United States to convene emergency sessions of NATO and the U.N. Security Council and work with the European Union in order “to put diplomatic pressure on Russia to reverse this perilous course it has chosen.”
Obama’s initial response was plainly based on a determination not to take sides. He issued a statement that said, “I strongly condemn the outbreak of violence in Georgia, and urge an immediate end to armed conflict. Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full-scale war.” McCain wanted international organizations to become involved in order to get Russia out of Georgia; Obama wanted them to support “a peaceful resolution to this crisis.”
A few hours later, having seen increasing evidence of Russia’s aggression in news reports, Obama made a second brief statement, during a stopover in California, in which he more openly took Georgia’s side and said that Russia had “invaded” Georgia, without quite calling on Russia to withdraw.
Three days after that, Obama issued yet another statement, a long, complicated, careful one, which he delivered in person. It was, characteristically, far more temperate than McCain’s, but closer in substance: now there was a good guy and a bad guy. “No matter how this conflict started,” Obama said, “Russia has escalated it well beyond the dispute over South Ossetia and invaded another country. Russia has escalated its military campaign through strategic bombing and the movement of its ground forces into the heart of Georgia. There is no possible justification for these attacks.” He ended by saying that “the United States and Europe must support the people of Georgia” and that “the United States and the international community must speak out strongly against this aggression, and for peace and security.”
That last statement came after the campaign had consulted one of its foreign-policy experts, a Stanford professor of international relations named Michael McFaul. McFaul, who had never met Obama, was then given more than an hour of the candidate’s time, on a plane trip from the two candidates’ appearances at Saddleback Church in Southern California, to Reno, Nevada. McFaul was a member of the Phoenix Initiative, but he had also participated in a more conservative effort to develop a Democratic foreign-policy blueprint, run by the Democratic Leadership Council—one whose report was called “With All Our Might.” He is part of the wing of the Democratic foreign-policy world that likes to call itself “Wilsonian,” or “democracy-promoting,” made up of those who tend to support American military interventions on humanitarian grounds. They sometimes find common cause with Republican neocons, who no longer like to be called that. (Robert Kagan, one of the most prominent neocons and an occasional speechwriter for the McCain campaign, said that he would prefer to be called a proponent of the “indispensable nation” view of the United States’ role in the world.) McFaul told me that after he and Obama had talked for a while about why they thought the Russian reaction to Georgia’s use of force in South Ossetia was unjustified, Obama said, “It is about a big nation attacking a small nation, about sovereignty being violated.”
“Obama’s greatest challenge,” Anthony Lake said when we talked, “is to be a unifying figure and show he’s tough enough to deal with Republican attacks. They’re still using the same old crap they always have, and they started right away.” Lake, like many of the Democratic elders around Obama, knows how effective Republican attacks can be.
In his acceptance speech at the Convention and in the first debate—his two big-audience occasions on foreign policy—Obama mentioned coöperation but emphasized aggressive action much more strongly. In that way, the Obama campaign is like a symphony orchestra, with the need for international coöperation as the string section and the necessity for aggressive action as the horns. Both sections are always playing, but usually one or the other is playing louder. During the fall campaign, the horns have dominated the strings. “What you’re selling” in a Presidential campaign, the previous Democratic nominee, John Kerry, told me, “is, you have a better way of keeping America safe, of making it stronger in the world. The Republicans are paper tigers. They have made America less safe. . . . The job of a President is to put America first.”
Although Obama hasn’t changed his sixteen-month deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq, several of his aides stressed to me that he also says he would leave a “residual force” of unspecified size. On the Middle East, under the tutelage of Dennis Ross (who surprised some of his colleagues by leaving government after the end of the Clinton Administration to work at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a region-specific, and enthusiastically Zionist, think tank), Obama has become more staunchly supportive of Israel in his rhetoric; Ross accompanied Obama on his summer trip to the Middle East, and when I spoke with him he emphasized that Obama’s campaign promise to conduct early peace negotiations could be kept without Obama’s personally hosting the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and conducting the talks. On Iran, Susan Rice told me, “Obama has never said he’d sit down with Ahmadinejad. Obama has said repeatedly that he would be willing to meet with appropriate leaders of Iran and other hostile countries at the time and place of his choosing when it can serve U.S. national interests. As for Ahmadinejad, he is not the Supreme Leader and may not be President of Iran after June of ’09.”
The rhetorical high point of the section on foreign policy in Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention—he took the stage after a small parade of retired generals, including Scott Gration, who made brief remarks—was a couple of lines in which he taunted McCain for not being as militarily aggressive as he is. “We must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights,” he said. “John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but he won’t even follow him to the cave where he lives!”
There’s a lot behind that remark. In August, 2007, Obama gave a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington in which he set forth in detail his interventionist side. (The choice of venue was probably not an accident, since interventionist Democrats like to identify themselves with Wilson.) If the enemy is Al Qaeda, he explained, then Iraq was the wrong place for the United States to invest its energy: “The first step must be getting off the wrong battlefield in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The Bush Administration had made a terrible mistake in starving the American military effort in Afghanistan so that it could wage war in Iraq; one reason Obama wanted to pull troops out of Iraq was to redeploy them to Afghanistan, where the Taliban is on the rise again.
Bin Laden is widely believed to be holed up in the mountainous tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan. At the Wilson Center, Obama made explicit the promise that he would allude to in his acceptance speech: that if he had “actionable intelligence,” he would be willing to launch a unilateral strike inside Pakistan, in the hope of hitting bin Laden and his forces. This is the one area where McCain’s position is far more cautious than Obama’s. During the two candidates’ first debate, last month, McCain said, “I’m not prepared at this time to cut off aid to Pakistan. So I’m not prepared to threaten it, as Senator Obama apparently wants to do, as he has said that he would announce military strikes into Pakistan. We’ve got to get the support of the people . . . of Pakistan. He said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan. Now, you don’t do that. You don’t say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government.”
The argument against attacking bin Laden directly is that Pakistan, of all the unstable places in the world, is the most dangerous, because it has an arsenal estimated to include more than a hundred nuclear weapons. The state is shaky, and its civilian leader, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, is new and untested; Islamist terrorist groups, their allies in the Pakistani intelligence service, and the military are all serious alternative power centers.
President Bush initially didn’t attack the tribal areas because he was afraid that, if he did, the government of Pervez Musharraf would fall. When Bush began to tire of Musharraf and to tilt away from him, and then started a program of air strikes and incursions into Pakistan, it coincided with a period of rising instability there. In the name of encouraging genuine political competition in Pakistan, the Bush Administration prodded Musharraf to allow Benazir Bhutto to return and begin a political campaign. She was assassinated by Islamist terrorists. Musharraf left office. Islamists began to stage significant terrorist attacks in response to the American strikes in the tribal areas. The most frightening possibility in Pakistan is that an Islamist government could come to power, turn its attention eastward, and try to reclaim Kashmir from India—also a nuclear power—just as Russia tried to reclaim South Ossetia from Georgia.
McCain prides himself on his knowledge of Pakistan. When we talked, he reminded me that he had travelled to Waziristan, in the tribal areas, a fact that he managed to work into the first Presidential debate, along with his unwillingness to threaten unilateral American military action in Pakistan. “Obama says he’s going to drop bombs on Pakistan,” Stephen Biegun, another of McCain’s inner circle of foreign-policy advisers, told me. “You don’t say on the campaign trail that we’ve got to bomb another country unless you mean to alienate a country. What about the safety and security of Pakistan’s military arsenal? What you see there is a candidate who’s very green. There’s an impatience. Obama displays an extraordinary impatience that looks like enthusiasm.”
One of the skills of a master politician like Obama is being able to project more than one possibility about himself—and being young, without much of a record of political accomplishments, makes that easier. One Obama is a visionary who reframes American foreign policy to meet the needs of a new era in which states are less important, America is less powerful, and collaborative efforts are the only way to get things done. Another Obama—the one who chose Joe Biden as his running mate, while McCain was picking Sarah Palin—respects, and wants the respect of, the Democratic foreign-policy establishment; he wouldn’t be inclined toward a wholesale refashioning of American foreign policy. Yet another Obama is a liberal who is keenly aware of the need to forestall ferociously unfair—but effective—attacks from the right, and who may feel that he has to demonstrate that he has the toughness to take military action. Nobody can tell which of these Obamas will obtain, or in what measure, if he wins, but what he does in Pakistan would be an early and unavoidable indicator—more so than what he does in Iraq, where he has left himself more room to maneuver.
Barack Obama and John McCain came into this long campaign with ideas about America’s role in the world that were more obviously different from those of the two major party candidates in the past few elections. This campaign has been an argument not about how to conduct the Cold War or the war on terror or the war in Iraq but about what American foreign policy should be after those wars have ended. Obama, who got where he is through a complicated process of self-definition, is much more nimble than McCain at dealing with changing circumstances. McCain, a third-generation military aristocrat who got where he is through pure bullheaded determination, is less adaptable. The result may be that Obama will outmaneuver McCain politically, but on foreign policy, over the course of the campaign, McCain will have left an imprint on Obama, and Obama will not have left one on McCain.
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