Practice Makes Perfect
During the cold war, Republicans earned the reputation of being more serious than Democrats on foreign policy. The stereotype didn't always hold true, but the American people preferred to trust their nation's safety to the GOP. However, over the last eight years the Republican Party has squandered its reputation. The results of the Bush administration's policies have ranged from failure to disaster. Although the right continues to try to live off of its cold war reputation, since 2000 the Republican Party
has nominated candidates who, despite their pretensions to the contrary, demonstrate little understanding of the complicated world around us.
In the 2004 foreign-policy debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry it was evident that President Bush knew his lines but Senator Kerry knew the substance. Whatever one thought of the policies advanced by both candidates, Senator Kerry seemed far more comfortable discussing the nuance of international relations. President Bush still won the
election, but his debate performance helped explain why administration policies consistently turned out so badly. Friday's debate between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain delivered a similar result. Senator McCain has endlessly lectured the American people on his alleged foreign policy acumen. On Friday he declared: "I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas." Yet the debate showcased a Senator Obama who seemed comfortable discussing complex international problems, while Senator McCain traded in simplistic assertions and policy bromides. It had the feeling of Bush-Kerry redux, and not to John McCain's credit.
Iraq was a critical issue of contention. Senator McCain made much of his support for the surge in troops. "We will come home with victory," he declared. Among the consequences of defeat, which he charged would have resulted from Senator Obama's earlier support for withdrawal, would "have been increased Iranian influence," al-Qaeda "would establish a base in Iraq," and an "increase in sectarian violence." At the same time, however, he wanted to avoid debating whether his initial support for the war was justified: "The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not." [sic]
But Senator Obama's rejoinder was devastating: "John, you like to pretend that the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong." Senator McCain answered with a non sequitur about Senator Obama confusing tactics and strategy, but the latter observed: "if the question is who is best-equipped as the next president to make good decisions about how we use our military, how we make sure that we are prepared and ready for the next conflict, then I think we can take a look at our judgment."
Both candidates scored points over Pakistan. Ironically, Senator Obama essentially endorsed the Bush administration's aggressive policy of launching cross-border raids, while Senator McCain uncharacteristically counseled restraint, warning that "we will have a wider war and it will make things more complicated throughout the region, including in Afghanistan." Yet McCain undercut this argument by making one of the true howlers of the evening. When Senator Obama criticized administration "coddling" of Gen./President Pervez Musharraf, including the largely wasted $10 billion in aid since 9/11, Senator McCain responded: "I don't think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then, and had been there, and knew about it knew that it was a failed state."
Actually, there was a functioning democratic government-not terribly favorable towards America, but not obviously worse than today's regime. And it's hard to argue that things have gotten better since Musharraf seized power. Certainly Washington's standing among the Pakistani people has deteriorated dramatically. Senator McCain appeared to be reading the talking points put out by General Musharraf and his American lobbyists justifying his overthrow of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Moreover, Senator Obama landed perhaps the evening's most devastating rejoinder when he noted: "you're absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But, you know, coming from you, who, you know, in the past has threatened extinction for North Korea and, you know, sung songs about bombing Iran, I don't know, you know, how credible that is." Senator McCain tried to paint his record as a peacenik, but since advocating bombing the Bosnian Serbs, it is hard to find a war that he has not wanted to fight.