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Why Obama Would Be Better on National Security than McCain

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Conventional wisdom has it that one of the few ways left for John McCain to win the presidency is for a national security crisis to intervene before election day. And Senator Biden's misunderstood comment about a challenge to the next president early on that perhaps mistakenly reinforced that conclusion is being featured in the McCain campaign's final ad push. However, the perception that McCain is better on foreign policy issues than Obama is incorrect. Why?

First, the same factors that affect the financial crisis at home apply to the global arena. The US cannot operate effectively while we are economically weak and preoccupied with our own travails. If Obama is far more likely to resolve the current crisis, which is widely accepted polls tell us, then he can provide a critical national security function which McCain cannot. And because the financial crisis is global, Obama's greater popularity abroad with elites and publics is critical to overcoming it.

Second, Obama's global policy is rooted in cooperation with our allies and an attempt to first employ diplomacy with our adversaries, while still maintaining a strong military option. His approach of "negotiation and confrontation" first enumerated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger offers far more favorable opportunities for strengthening America than the suspicion and enmity George Bush's policies have engendered among friend and foe, which the policies of John McCain show no signs of changing.

Third, McCain stresses a belligerent confrontationalism even more stark than Bush's. When John McCain doesn't approve of another country's policies, he sees its government as an actual or potential foe, as in the case of Russia or even apparently NATO member Spain. He celebrates Iraq as central to the war on terror, which differs radically from the views of most of our allies. His policy on Iran is similar to the failed approach of Bush -- talk loudly, but without a clear policy, which causes universal frustration. It is hard to understand how McCain's policies would be more effective in the war on terrorism than Bush's.

For all of George Bush's friendliness toward Israel, for example, he has presided over eight years of the weakening of Israel as compared to the strengthening of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria. If McCain continues these same policies that have already failed, as he claims to be prepared to do, then the situation Israel confronts will deteriorate further. In the tough Mideast, Obama's policy of diplomacy, defense, and deterrence may not completely succeed, but we already know that McCain's reliance primarily on confrontation will definitely fail.

Fourth, America has been hindered by the current administration's tendency to act unilaterally on a host of issues, most prominently Iraq, but also on matters as wide ranging as the environment, energy, and population control. McCain's views are closer to the Bush administration's on Iraq and Pakistan, missile defense and family planning.

Fifth, most arguments in favor of Senator McCain and his approach to national security rest on his greater experience and knowledge. Yet, McCain is a gambler -- in practice, in personality, and in judgment. McCain's fundamental approach to policy-making is based on snap decisions and quick, emotional judgments. Some examples include picking Palin, rushing back to Washington to "help" in the bailout, and flip-flopping on regulation and Bush's tax policy. His emotional and provocative reaction to the Georgia crisis this summer provides an example of what life with a President McCain would be like. Why would any American want to place America's future in the world arena in the hands of an unpredictable and temperamental gambler whose actions and phrases cannot be anticipated at home or abroad?

Sixth, the next president will have to concentrate on financial problems, at least for the next two years, even if an unexpected foreign policy crisis occurs. The new president will therefore need a vice president experienced and nuanced in foreign and national security affairs. Here the two campaigns present an utter mismatch. On the one hand, we have Joe Biden with 35 years of knowledge and experience in the foreign arena, and the current Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the other side, Sarah Palin -- inexperienced, unknowledgeable, simply unprepared for a role intended to assist the President on any serious foreign or national security issue.

John McCain has admitted that he sometimes makes quick and unexpected decisions and then has to live with the consequences. But why should any American want to rely on a president known for the temperamental, quixotic, and unpredictable whims that guide his decision-making? In domestic policy and in the national security arena, America would be far better off with the cool, careful, considered decisions of Barack Obama.

Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science and director of the Center for Middle East Development at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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