Why Foreign Policy Favors Obama, Not McCain

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

In a few months Barack Obama will square off against John McCain and inevitably the subject of foreign policy and national security will arise. Next to a decorated Vietnam War vet, Obama risks being painted as a neophyte with a flimsy résumé who's unfit to be commander in chief. But he should relish the chance to debate McCain on U.S. foreign policy. Here's why:

McCain hammers home the notion that he has been right all along about Iraq, from sacking Rumsfeld to surging into Baghdad. That is complete bunk. McCain has treated the war as a public relations stunt to boost his candidacy, from the "Mission Accomplished"-style walk through a Baghdad market last spring to the overly rosy picture painted by his gung-ho speeches on Iraq. The fact is, violence is down because of the ethnic cleansing of once-mixed neighborhoods and a bargain struck by a handful of Sunni elders in late 2006, not because of 20,000-or-so additional U.S. troops sent to Iraq. McCain is taking credit for something that was not his -- or the U.S. military's -- doing. In so doing, he is obscuring the fact that the war shows no signs of concluding. If no political reconciliation is reached by 2009, how can he then look Americans in the face and say that an escalation of the war was worth it? Obama should seize this opportunity to portray McCain as out-of-touch with average Americans but also with the reality on the ground in Iraq.

But he should be more specific on how he would exit Iraq. First, he should suggest staging an over-the-horizon force in Kurdistan to keep the peace there should the Turks decide to invade or the Kurds decide to secede. The Kurds are the only Iraqis practically begging us to build permanent bases there. Also, he should scrap timetables and benchmarks for Baghdad to meet, which just tells the average Iraqi that their government is a puppet of Washington. For the Iraqi government to gain credibility, it must be seen as independent of the Americans.

Secondly, on Iran, McCain is about as hawkish as they come. And that's dangerous. McCain's anti-Russian stance virtually guarantees that Moscow would not agree to any meaningful sanctions against Tehran. Meanwhile, Russians are the ones supplying Iranian reactors with their nuclear fuel. Go figure. Obama should present the case for negotiating directly with the Iranians on the issue of nukes (in addition to Iraq) at the level of foreign minister or higher (Obama should also clean house at the State Department, whose Iran desk is headed by a self-declared "neo-con"). I'm not saying he should cut the tape on a new American embassy in downtown Tehran, but reaching out to the Iranians just might halt their nuclear fuel cycle.

McCain is also hawkish on the war on terror and repeats the mantra that the struggle against Islamic extremism is the struggle of our generation. He might be right. But his views on this are a mixture of cold realism and ugly neo-conservatism. He would not close Guantanamo. He would not stop eavesdropping on U.S. citizens. He would use the GWOT guise to keep supplemental war spending packages at record levels. All Obama needs to say to the American people is "enough" -- we can win the war on terror without sacrificing our ideals as a nation of immigrants and going broke in the process.

Finally, in his ads Obama should loop footage of McCain calling Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf a "good ally" and a "very honest person" who has made "mistakes." Obama should advocate reaching out to the moderates that the Pakistani people just voted for, even at the risk of alienating the military establishment in Islamabad. For $10 billion, the Americans should get a better return on their investment. McCain would just keep cutting the checks, no questions asked.

All of which is a wordy way of saying: McCain is out of touch on the biggest foreign policy issues of the day. Obama promises a change of course, a fresh start to a foreign policy gone amok. He may not have served in uniform or known as many foreign leaders personally, but he understands that a continuation of Bush's bellicose policies abroad is the wrong way to go.