With just a few days before the presidential election, the publishers of The National Interest stand divided on who is the best choice for America. One of us, Robert Ellsworth, has already voted for Senator Barack Obama. Another, Dimitri Simes, will vote for Senator John McCain. But each of us has serious concerns about both candidates.
Before describing our reservations, however, let us state the obvious: the choice is between two truly remarkable men-one, the first African American nominated by a major party, has captivated not only Democrats but the nation with his charisma, eloquence and personification of change; the other, a genuine American hero, is a man of courage, independence and demonstrated ability to transcend party lines. The nation can be proud to have leaders of such caliber on the ballot.
In ordinary times, either would likely be a good president. But these are not ordinary times. We will be selecting America's chief executive officer and the U.S. military's commander in chief in the midst of a global financial crisis, two demanding wars, and numerous other international challenges from Iran and North Korea to Russia and China. While not quite a perfect storm, the magnitude of these challenges requires a formidable leader who has not only a first-rate intellect and temper, but also experience, judgment, and strong-but not rigid-convictions to serve as an intellectual and moral compass to deal with America's hour of trial.
With such demanding requirements in mind, we have reservations about the conduct of both candidates so far. Senator McCain would be a natural choice for both of us, as a fellow Republican and a friend who served with distinction on The Nixon Center board for many years. He was also for a long time a fellow realist-someone who understood both the need to pursue American interests vigorously and the limits of American power, who was proud of American values but accepted that they cannot be imposed on others, and most important, who saw international developments in their complexity, with shades of gray, rather than as a one-dimensional morality play. For years in Congress, John McCain demonstrated precisely those qualities.
But by the late 1990s, during America's post-cold-war triumphalist moment, Senator McCain gradually but decisively moved away from his realist roots and became an enthusiastic champion of an ideological interventionist agenda. To be fair, many in the political center, including key Republican realists, came to believe that, as the only superpower, the United States was both able and entitled to reshape the world without paying a prohibitive price.
However, Senator McCain moved in that direction further than most. Even the American predicament in Iraq didn't seem to make a dent in his fundamental strategic thinking. While Senator McCain is certainly justifiably proud of his early support for the surge, which has been a brilliant tactical success, he has shown no remorse whatsoever for his advocacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a fundamental strategic blunder. It isn't just that Senator McCain does not want to admit a mistake-he genuinely seems convinced that the same strategic logic that brought the United States into Iraq should guide America's responses to new challenges. And he appears untroubled by the fact that a number of the neoconservative polemicists in his inner circle lobbied for years for the U.S. invasion of Iraq under that false premises that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda, and that American troops would be greeted in Iraq as liberators-all now self-evidently wrong.
Worse, Senator McCain's foreign-policy agenda, influenced by the neoconservatives, is based on a neo-Trotskyite notion of permanent global democratic revolution without which the United States allegedly cannot be secure. This approach could easily lead to dangerous and unnecessary confrontations with China and Russia, estrangement from many other important nondemocratic American allies, such as Saudi Arabia, and an overall polarization of international politics that would undermine American global leadership. At a minimum, this approach would also damage other key U.S. priorities, such as nonproliferation and counterterrorism. Domestically, this international overreach would make lower taxes and balanced budgets a pipe dream.
By comparison, Senator Obama projects a more judicious and analytical image. But he has no meaningful foreign-policy record. His farsighted opposition to the invasion of Iraq came at the time he was an Illinois state legislator and had no role in national-security decisions, and it is hard to know to what extent his position was based on thoughtful evaluation of the problem and to what extent it simply reflected opposition to most if not all American interventions by left-wing liberals in the Democratic Party. Once in the Senate, Senator Obama did not become a major voice on Iraq, and as a matter of fact, after becoming chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Europe, he did not arrange a single substantive hearing.