09/11/2008 02:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Foreign Policy Focus: McCain and Obama

"Perhaps above all, leadership in today's world means accepting and fulfilling our responsibilities as a great nation."
----Senator John McCain

"We need to show leadership through consensus and through pulling people together wherever we can."
-----Senator Barack Obama

The 2008 presidential campaign began with one key foreign policy issue -- Iraq. The Democratic presidential nominee, Senator Barack Obama, was seen by Democratic activist voters in the primaries and caucuses as being the most anti-war of the candidates. This certainly was a key to his eventual success over Senator Hillary Clinton, who was not seen as being as anti-war in her views. Obama could rightly say he was against American involvement in Iraq even before he became a United States Senator. He has been for a timetable to bring U.S. troops home since becoming the junior senator from Illinois. On his trip this summer to Iraq he seemed to have the president of Iraq agree with his timetable for withdrawal.

Iraq was also a large issue in helping Senator John McCain win the Republican nomination for president. The senator from Arizona has been outspoken in his views on Iraq, which are almost the exact opposite of his Democratic opponent. McCain calls for victory in Iraq before American troops can leave. The former fighter pilot in the Vietnam War has been a champion of the troop surge of American soldiers that most analysts feel has helped change the military situation on the ground more favorably for the Iraqis and the Americans.

However, something strange has happened on the road to the general election. Iraq has faded as the main foreign policy issue. For awhile the presidential campaign moved away from foreign policy to a discussion of America's troubled economy. The cost of a tank of gas, the high number of foreclosures, rising unemployment, fear of inflation, the problems with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and a general malaise about the economy had the candidates turn away from foreign policy issues to focus on how to get our economy moving again.

Then Obama made his trip to Europe, Iraq and Israel and dominated the news with his foreign policy views. In his well publicized speech to a crowd of several hundred thousand in Berlin, he stated, "Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe....But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together."

Obama was on the news constantly during his July trip to Europe and beyond and hoped to show that he knew something about foreign policy by not making any mistakes speaking to world leaders.

The former Harvard Law Review editor's trip was a success, but it may have hurt him in the polls as he may have seemed to much like a "rock star" and not enough like a future president. Conversely, some analysts criticized him for trying to appear too presidential when he was only visiting as an American politician or, as he said, "a citizen of the world."

Then Russia invaded its tiny neighbor Georgia and the world was once again focused on foreign policy. Senator McCain seemed to handle the situation better than Senator Obama in the invasion's early days. While Obama was vacationing in Hawaii McCain was on the news frequently giving interviews on how his foreign policy experience in the military and in the House and Senate made him the best choice for America's next commander-in-chief.

McCain, who has called for ousting Russia from the economic group the G8, was very tough in his condemnation of Prime Minister Putin and the Russians for the invasion and he and others spoke of a return to a new type of Cold War. McCain even went so far as to say "We are all Georgians," showing Americans support for the country against Russia.

The invasion of Georgia seemed to help the McCain campaign in the late summer (as did a clever ad featuring Paris Hilton which had nothing to do with foreign policy).

Attention also turned to foreign policy as the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate further. Both candidates sounded pretty much alike on Afghanistan, calling for more U.S. troops, more U.S. assistance and more troops from our NATO allies.

After Obama's quick visit to Afghanistan in the summer he stated, "The situation is precarious and urgent here...and I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front in our battle against terrorism."

On Afghanistan, McCain commented that "I know how to win wars. And if I'm elected president, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory."

Voters thinking that Obama would be as anti-war in Afghanistan as he has always been on Iraq would be mistaken. Obama, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been quite strong on his views that the central place to fight terrorism is in Afghanistan and has been very vocal in his calls to bring Osama bin Laden to justice for his part in 9/11.

Then President Musharraf of Pakistan resigned rather than face impeachment. Even though McCain had been a long time supporter of the Pakistani president as an ally in our war against terrorism, he quickly took the lead in looking at U.S. relations with the new president in Pakistan.

Even the summer Olympics turned America's attention back to foreign policy. While the ratings soared on NBC as we all watched Michael Phelps gain his historic eight gold medals in swimming, the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government was always being discussed by commentators and television viewers alike.

From the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan to the Russian invasion of Georgia to the U.S. missiles being placed in Poland to China's rulers and their authoritarian views to the Pakistani president's departure and the loss of a key ally, the American voter once again began to focus on foreign policy issues.

By early September, the American voter realized, once again, that the world is still a dangerous place.

During the Georgia situation, foreign policy advisors to Obama and McCain pointed out rather well the differences in how each candidate is being marketed to the American voter on foreign policy issues.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who always travels with McCain and would be a possibility as Secretary of State or Defense if the Republicans capture the White House, stated, "You got a guy who is ready to be president on Day One who understands the world for what it is. The thing about Senator Obama, he's playing catch-up here. His initial statements, quite frankly, didn't appreciate how bold a move this was from Russia."

Susan Rice, a key Obama foreign policy advisor, while also speaking about Russia's invasion of Georgia, mentioned that "Barack Obama, the administration and the NATO allies took a measured, reasoned approach. We were dealing with the facts as we knew them. John McCain shot from the hip, very aggressive, belligerent statement. He may or may not have complicated the situation."

McCain supporters are saying their candidate has the background and judgement to deal with foreign policy crises. He would know what to do when the phone rings at 3 a.m. in the morning (a clever ad Hillary Clinton used in the primaries). He has been tested in war and peace, knows world leaders and feels he has been justified by his views on Iraq.

Obama's supporters would say it is better that their candidate is a new face on the world scene and doesn't have the baggage to deal with from being in Congress for decades. His view on the invasion of Iraq as having been a mistake from the beginning shows his good judgment on foreign policy issues of war and peace. His successful trip abroad this summer showed that he could stand up to world leaders and hold his own on the key foreign policy issues of the day.

The focus will remain on foreign policy issues like the ones mentioned and also on the global economic situation, global warming and climate change and free trade versus fair trade. The future of America and its dependence on foreign oil will continue to dominate discussions on the campaign trail.

It boils down to experience versus change. Voters looking for an experienced politician with strong views on issues from Iraq to Russia to Cuba to the War on Terror will most likely go for McCain. In fact, polls from this summer indicated that a return to foreign policy concerns as our top issue in the campaign initially helped McCain.

Voters willing to take a chance on a less experienced candidate who is a terrific speaker calling for change in domestic and foreign affairs and who was helped to his party's nomination by his strong anti-war views on Iraq will most likely vote for Obama.

The backgrounds of the two candidates couldn't be more different. Yet, as the campaign progresses they are both moving to the center and their focus on many foreign policy issues are not that far apart.

As has been the case in previous presidential elections, we will most likely vote for the candidate based on his personality and background. We will also look for the candidate who will keep us safe in a dangerous world.

But, as always, nothing is simple and we have the Democratic candidate Barack Obama praising not only the foreign policy team under president Harry Truman but also praising a Republican -- "the first President Bush -- with people like Scowcroft and Powell and Baker, who I think had a fairly clear-eyed view of how the world works."

And we have the Republican candidate John McCain having as one of his chief foreign policy advisors Senator Joe Lieberman, who was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 2000 with Al Gore.

While voters focus on the top of the ticket, the vice-presidential candidates views on foreign policy this time around also matter. Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, certainly has the knowledge, expertise and contacts around the world to be an effective vice-president.

On the other hand, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has very little foreign policy experience yet has helped McCain to a dead heat in all the current polls with Obama. As she begins to grant interviews and speak out on foreign policy issues, voters will be able to judge her qualifications.

In the last few days, Obama has been talking about the need for more help for Afghanistan and for a speedier withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. McCain continues to stress his military background and his extensive contacts with world leaders.

As sure as the sun rises tomorrow another crisis in the world will continue to keep our focus on foreign policy.