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Amb. Richard C. Holbrooke Headshot

Why the Nation and the World Need Barack Obama

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The winner of the presidential election will inherit a perfect storm of problems, both economic and international. He will face the most difficult opening day agenda of any president since -- and I say this quite seriously -- the man who saved the Union, Abraham Lincoln. But a more instructive precedent is 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt offered inspiring rhetoric and "bold experimentation" to a nation facing economic meltdown and a breakdown in public confidence.

For me, the choice is quite simple -- and not simply because I am, by temperament and history, a Democrat. The long and intense political campaign has revealed huge differences in positions, style, and personal qualities of the two candidates. And the conclusion seems clear.

JUDGMENT. John McCain has shown throughout his career a penchant for risk-taking; in his memoirs, he proudly calls himself a gambler. His selection of Sarah Palin, a charismatic but spectacularly unqualified candidate, as his running mate, is just the most glaring of many examples of the real McCain. His bravery in combat attests to his patriotism, courage and toughness, but his judgment has been found sorely lacking time and time again over his career.

Barack Obama is tough too, but in a different way. No one should underestimate how difficult it was to travel his road, against incredible odds, to the edge of the presidency. But where McCain is impulsive and emotional, Obama is low-key and unemotional. He makes his judgments in a calm and methodical manner; McCain's impulsiveness is anathema to Obama, and rightly so; one cannot play craps with history. Having seen so many political leaders falter under pressure, I prize this ability above most others. And Barack Obama has it.

THE FINANCIAL CRISIS. The first priority will be the international financial crisis. Since the crisis hit, Obama has been calm and, indeed, presidential -- he consulted the best advisory team in the nation, weighed each course of action carefully, and then issued a series of precise, calm statements. Meanwhile, McCain veered bizarrely, issuing contradictory statements throughout the crisis, "suspending" his campaign (while continuing to campaign), and urging that the first debate be canceled (when it was all the more needed). Advantage to Obama.

FOREIGN POLICY. The most explicit differences are over Iraq, Iran, and Russia. But there are deeper differences. McCain's positions, with the notable exception of climate change, suggest that he would simply try to carry out Bush policies more effectively. Obama offers a different approach to foreign policy. By starting the drawdown of combat troops from Iraq, he would change the image and policies of America immediately. By engaging Iran in talks that would cover not only the nuclear issue but other aspects of Iran's destabilizing role in the region, he would either reach agreements that lowered the dangers from Iran, or he would mobilize a stronger international coalition to isolate Iran. Either way, engaging Iran is the right policy, and it is hard to understand why Bush and McCain have continued to hold out against such an obvious policy change, which, if carried out with firmness, will not compromise America or Israel's national security.

On Russia since its invasion of Georgia, Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden (who was the first member of Congress to visit Georgia after the invasion), stress helping Georgia rebuild its economy and maintain its independence in the face of a continuing Russian campaign against it. McCain, on the other hand, wants to punish Russia by such actions as expelling them from the Group of 8. Such measures may ultimately be necessary, but they do not help Georgia survive as an independent democracy. And even after the outrage in Georgia, there are issues of common interest on which the West and Moscow must work, such as energy and climate change. This was true even during the Cold War, and remains true today, yet McCain seems not to recognize it.

LEADERSHIP. In the end, presidential elections come down to the intangibles of leadership. The vote for president is a sort of private contract directly between each voter and his or her preferred choice. Who do you want to see on your television screen for the next four years? Who do you wish to entrust the nation's fate to?

And here again, the contrasting styles of the two men offer a clear choice between a calm and confident man and a highly emotional one, between a major change in the nation's direction and a minor one, between a combative style and a more conciliatory one. Finally, in a year when the Democrats are certain to increase their majority in both Houses, an Obama victory would offer the Democrats control of both the legislative and executive branches for the first time since 1994, and with it the possibility of legislative achievement after years of stalemate. After so many years of polarization at home and unilateralism abroad, the choice for president seems clear.

Richard Holbrooke is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia.