Friday's presidential foreign policy debate is the Commander-in-Chief test for both candidates. Senator McCain, by virtue of his military and congressional service, claims the mantle of experience; but he is tied to the Bush presidency and still faces questions on his economic prowess and his temperament. He must show that his experience translates into superior knowledge and good judgment and that his approach won't be four more years of the same. Senator Obama must show that he can hold his own with the Senate veteran and that he is ready to be Commander-in-Chief.
Every four years, our political system focuses on national security for one night -- a classic set piece of political theater with real consequences. This debate matters more than most. Our country is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is struggling to eliminate Al Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan. The world economy is in serious crisis, pressing us in ways our political leaders have not begun to explain. Americans seek renewal of U.S. global leadership at a time when respect for America around the world has fallen to an all time low.
Into this cauldron come two non-incumbent candidates, each of whom must pass the commander-in-chief test and demonstrate that he:
• Offers real change from the past eight years;
• Understands foreign policy beyond simplistic soundbites and tough talk, by providing serious solutions;
• Is ready to grapple with the complexities that link our security and our economy; and most importantly
• Has the temperament and judgment to lead.
Offering real change from the past eight years. Both candidates have claimed that they can reverse the failed and reckless policies of the past eight years. McCain, however, supported the invasion of Iraq and declared that the war would be quick and easy. He advocates a continued focus on Iraq that would leave little time for threats from Afghanistan and Al Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan. Obama opposed the invasion, arguing that it would distract us from the fight against Al Qaeda. He has called for a responsible redeployment of American forces and a refocusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan. McCain is relentlessly confrontational towards Iran, rather than supporting the diplomacy advocated recently by five former secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Jim Baker, Madeleine Albright, and Warren Christopher. Obama believes that tough and direct diplomacy must be part of a strategy for stopping Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capability. McCain has taken an abrasive line with NATO allies, calling them "vacuous and posturing" in the run up to the Iraq war, and last week stated that he may not meet with the Spanish Prime Minister. Obama has promised to strengthen our ties with Europe, and his popularity there offers real possibilities. From Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to Iran, to Europe, McCain's policies are very much in line with the president's, and his differences tend to make him more, rather than less, hawkish. He will have difficultly differentiating himself from the Bush administration.
Understanding foreign policy and moving beyond simplistic soundbites and tough talk. Because of his military credentials and time in Washington, McCain is believed to have the advantage on national security issues. However, his candidacy has been plagued by "gaffes": confusing Shi'a and Sunni, not understanding the Iranian leadership structure; misunderstanding the series of events that led to the Anbar Awakening; consistently referring to Czechoslovakia - a country that hasn't existed for fifteen years; and failing to be able to articulate a clear understanding of our relationship with Spain. In this debate, McCain must demonstrate a mastery of the issues that is superior to Obama's and make no mistakes. An error from McCain could be catastrophic - undermining one of the central claims of his candidacy. Conversely, Obama will need to hold his own against the Senate veteran, and display a knowledge not simply of facts, but of the complexities of foreign policy questions. Obama has been attacked for having little substance behind his rhetorical strength. American voters will be looking for concrete policy proposals. On Russia they will have to choose between a candidate who jumped at the first opportunity to talk tough - or one who realizes that kicking Russia out of the G8 and casually threatening war over Georgia will mean the end of any cooperation on the critical issue of nuclear weapons. On terrorism, they will have to choose between a candidate who lumps Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda together and advocated invading Iraq to fight terrorism, or one who understands that each of these entities needs to be dealt with differently and that invading other countries is not the only way to counter terrorism. On energy, American voters will have to choose between a platform based primarily on the short-term solution of offshore drilling or a long-term comprehensive plan that reduces American dependence on oil. If McCain is not able to show a mastery of the issues, American voters will have to question exactly how much his experience is worth.
Grappling with the complexities that link our security and our economy. The economy is foremost on voters' minds and they will be looking for a candidate whose national security goals match up with sensible economic policies. "Fiscal responsibility" is an issue both candidates talk about, but do their policies-literally and figuratively-add up? McCain advocates spending $10 billion a month in Iraq indefinitely even though the Iraqi Government has billions in unspent oil money. His saber rattling towards Iran has the potential to dramatically raise oil prices; and his proposal to add an additional 150,000 ground forces to the US military will cost us an additional $175 billion. Obama has advocated a much more prudent and careful foreign policy - one that will not strain the American economy and drive up energy prices at a sensitive time, but that could require sacrifices from the American people as the Bush Administration never has. With the financial crisis now enveloping America, difficult economic choices will have to be made between measured approaches and overly aggressive policies which will cost this country billions.
Having the temperament and judgment to lead. In the Democratic primary, Obama faced challenges to his capability to handle a "3 am phone call." In a dangerous world, America's Commander-in-Chief must be able to approach a crisis with a clear-eyed and composed demeanor, avoiding knee-jerk reactions. History has shown that leaders' reactions in such situations often determine the difference between war and peace. Obama's short time on the national scene has been attacked as a shortcoming in this regard. However, Obama won support from the public and the national security community for his foresight in early opposition to the Iraq War. Moreover, he called for direct strikes against al Qaeda targets in Pakistan over a year ago - a position similar to the one now adopted by the Bush administration. He long ago called for more troops in Afghanistan - a position that is supported by the U.S. military and more recently by President Bush. In contrast, McCain's extensive experience has been characterized by un-diplomatic moments. McCain promoted the invasion of Iraq in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, assuming that Al Qaeda and Afghanistan were secondary. He has joked about bombing Iran. He has called our European allies "adversaries." He has called for kicking Russia out of the G8 - a provocative move in the context of already sensitive relations. And, when a war broke out between Russia and Georgia, as other world leaders, President Bush, and Barack Obama all took a necessary and cautious initial approach, McCain reacted quickly and with bellicosity. Throughout his career, Senator McCain has held up such "straight talk" as a virtue. The test will be whether voters believe tough talk or responsible action is the preferred presidential virtue.