WE MAY be facing one of the most important foreign-policy elections in recent history. America is not only at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but threatened by short-, medium- and long-term challenges ranging from terrorist attacks to energy security, Iranian nuclear weapons, Russia's resurgence and China's rise.
On top of this is the frightening prospect that, as the war between Russia and Georgia recently demonstrated, it may take only one event to meld all of these problems into an immediate and devastating perfect storm. Just imagine a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran. The potential consequences: Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces and American allies in the region, a new global Islamist terror backlash against the United States, skyrocketing energy prices, a collapse of the dollar that accelerates as China shifts its reserves to more stable currencies and an angry Moscow deciding that it is the right time to teach Georgia another lesson by force.
Whether or not foreign policy affects how you vote (and you'd be one of the few if it does), it will matter, from the day-to-day to the big picture. Past policies-of presidents in both parties-have already had an impact on the average American. Our preoccupations with the Balkans distracted us from the terrorist threat pre-9/11. Failing to develop a sound energy policy abroad as well as at home has contributed to high oil prices and an enduring military presence in the Middle East. Combined with what appears to many Muslims to be blind support for Israel, the presence of U.S. forces in the region has angered extremists and contributed to terrorism. And the budgets needed for global military dominance-and a five-year-old war-drain resources from the rest of the U.S. economy.
Granted, these problems have multiple causes-many beyond U.S. control-but when Americans are hurting at the pump, suffering from inflation, standing in long lines at the airport and sacrificing their privacy in the name of public safety, it is not because of some preordained destiny or the inevitable designs of U.S. enemies, but rather, at least to a large degree, the result of decisions we make ourselves.
Yet if you try to figure out where our candidates really stand on the key challenges confronting the United States, and the kinds of decisions they would make in office, you might be out of luck. We still know fairly little-and what we know seems to offer little comfort.
Yes, John McCain is a war hero. Yes, he stood up to the Bush administration on torture. Yes, he's had a distinguished career. True, he deserves credit for supporting the surge in Iraq early on. And for some time, the Arizona senator was a careful pragmatist. Skeptical of propping up foreign governments and U.S. military interventions in Haiti, Somalia and, initially, Bosnia-in the absence of vital national interests-he was prepared to embrace reconciliation with Communist Vietnam-that is, when it was in our interest.
But McCain, more than most, began to lose his realist leanings during America's triumphalist moment of the 1990s, developing a more expansive vision of the U.S. global role-succumbing to the temptation of overreach. Though his inner circle includes quite a few people of great stature and proven judgment, Senator McCain appears to have his own well-established worldview and to hear, but not accept, their advice. He has moved far down the worldwide-democracy-proselytizing path, surrounding himself with neoconservative advisors and adopting their far-reaching dreams-despite their well-documented errors in Iraq. Of course, McCain squares the Iraq circle by taking the position that the U.S. predicament there is due to a failure of technical execution rather than fundamental strategic miscalculation. Others may wonder if there is not a little of both.
Though Senator McCain appears very sincere in much of what he says, the Republican nominee does not make it any easier for those trying to understand his views by sometimes contradicting himself, speaking off the cuff and making frequent misstatements. For example, long before the Georgian crisis, he repeatedly called for throwing Russia out of the G-8 even as he stated his intention to work closely with Moscow on nonproliferation. McCain advisors often privately back away from his G-8 comments, but the senator himself has stuck to the idea despite its impracticality. From the outset of the Russian-Georgian conflict, McCain sided with Mikheil Saakashvili, failing to acknowledge that it was the Georgian leader's miscalculation in attacking Russian positions in South Ossetia that triggered Moscow's ruthless response. In addition to McCain's frequent slips of the tongue-like a serious situation exists on the "Iraq/Pakistan border"-he has a tendency to oversimplify and to overstate his case.
But if you're looking to the Left for escape, we seemingly can't get away from the pervasive freedom agenda there, either. Though Obama appears more tempered and nuanced in his foreign-policy statements, one of his top advisors, Anthony Lake, is a card-carrying supporter of the league of democracies, the same neoconservative-liberal-interventionist utopia championed by John McCain. And this idea of a new alliance would not work, serving only to promote new divisions in world politics, turning China and Russia against the United States (together with a number of other important nondemocratic allies), and would make Obama's promise of an assertive multilateral diplomacy to create strong international pressure on Iran a pipe dream.
Like McCain, Senator Obama isn't all bad. He deserves credit for his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq, but he was then just an Illinois state senator with limited exposure to foreign affairs. To what extent his opposition was based on a sober evaluation of the situation rather than the traditional left-wing pacifism of the Democratic Party is hard to judge. Once in the U.S. Senate, Obama did not become a major voice in debates on how to conduct the war. And despite his chairmanship of the Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs, the junior senator seemed quite removed from foreign-policy matters until the presidential campaign forced him to develop instant expertise.
With the notable exception of his willingness to talk to Iran's leaders without precondition (but not, as his advisors remind us, without preparation), the Democratic nominee has offered neither a compelling international vision nor any degree of specificity about how he would deal with urgent international issues. On Iraq, Senator Obama has been increasingly vague about his plan to withdraw U.S. forces. When he is specific, on issues like China, Sudan and the Balkans, he has oversimplified the challenges, misstated the facts and offered conventional clichés about the "international community" from the same old menu of neoconservative and liberal-interventionist policies. That may reflect the presence of quite a few people in the Obama foreign-policy team from the Clinton administration with long records of mishandling U.S. foreign-policy priorities, not focusing sufficiently on the terrorist threat and alienating important potential partners.
Of course, presidential campaigns do not offer the best guidance for what a candidate may do once in power. Just consider George W. Bush's near-total reversal of his America-being-a-humble-power speech during the 2000 presidential campaign. Perhaps once in the White House, Senator McCain, under the pressure of responsibility, would move back to his realist roots. Perhaps Senator Obama would grow on the job and pick advisors more in tune with his analytical mindset. But those would be outcomes of their own internal volition rather than stemming from clear platforms expressed to the American people, who will vote in November without a real understanding of where either major-party candidate is likely to lead the nation.
Once the new president takes office, those who want honest and practical solutions-in the foreign-policy world and elsewhere in American society-must work together to build a bipartisan coalition for realistic, national-interest-based foreign policy without paying too much attention to Right-Left stereotypes of the past. America deserves no less.
Dimitri K. Simes is the publisher of The National Interest. Justine A. Rosenthal is the editor of The National Interest.Essay Types: The Realist