The race between Sens. and is still in its early days, and Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has already taken center stage. Not so much for the threat he represents but as a cudgel for the candidates to whack away at each other's perceived weakness. It began when Obama suggested last year that he would be willing to meet with some of America's biggest enemies, including Ahmadinejad, without preconditions. McCain used Obama's remarks to portray the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee as naive and inexperienced. "It's hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants," McCain told one audience. Obama replies that he would hold such meetings only if he thought they would serve a purpose and has tried to turn these attacks around to link his GOP rival more directly to the unpopular President Bush. "It is time to once again make American diplomacy a tool to succeed, not just a means of containing failure."
This intense back and forth between the campaigns has often obscured the larger challenge of how to deal with the threat from Iran, with its nuclear ambitions and support for extremists. Beyond the sound bites and attempts to twist each other's words, there are serious questions of life and death. Whoever wins in November will be the first newly elected president to take over in wartime since Richard Nixon came to power during the Vietnam War. Along with the need to contain Iran and manage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the next president will face an al Qaeda ensconced in a safe haven in shaky Pakistan, a belligerent and nuclear-armed Kim Jong Il in North Korea, and a world increasingly suspicious of U.S. intentions. "It will be one of the most daunting sets of challenges in modern American history," says Charles Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University. "The first day in the Oval Office is going to be a very tough one."
To make matters worse, the historic agreement that partisan politics stops at the water's edge has broken down during the past decade. "From Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton, presidents as they guided the ship of state were able to look over their shoulders and usually find a bipartisan coalition behind them," says Kupchan. "Right now, that ship has sunk."
Iraq war. The battle lines are drawn most sharply on Iraq. Obama, who gave a 2002 speech opposing the invasion, says the war has been a distraction from pursuing al Qaeda and pledges a scheduled drawdown to accelerate political compromises by the Iraqis. "We are done waiting for them to do the right thing," says Denis McDonough, Obama's foreign policy coordinator. "We're going to use the best leverage we have to press them to do the right thing." McCain has been a firm booster of Bush's surge strategy, calling Iraq central to the effort against terrorism.
McCain's campaign has benefited from the dramatic drop in violence in recent months. The number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq last month was the lowest monthly toll of the entire war, and with overall attack levels down as well, the conflict has all but disappeared from the front page. These trends remain tenuous, however, given continuing tensions between Shiite militias and the groups of Sunni volunteers who helped put Al Qaeda in Iraq on the run. The debate is now more nuanced, focusing on whether Iraqi security forces will be strong enough to take over for U.S. soldiers and whether or not political reconciliation is progressing.
More broadly, either McCain or Obama would inherit a military under terrible strain from multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Anybody who gets elected is going to confront a set of very painful trade-offs," says Stephen Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you want to cut the defense budget, how do you do that without undermining policy in Ira?" The strain on U.S. forces places just as many restrictions on how many troops McCain would be able to keep in Iraq as the potential instability of a quick withdrawal does on Obama's ability to pull out.
The demands on the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan will also affect the next president's ability to contain Iran, which the Bush administration sees as determined to develop nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran could be capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon by between 2010 and 2015--which could fall during the next president's term. But Bush's tough talk toward Tehran has many concerned that the showdown could escalate into a more violent conflict before Inauguration Day. "We're on a slippery slope toward some kind of confrontation," says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East scholar at the University of Maryland. "Both Republicans and Democrats have said we can't allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, which suggests that both are intent on preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if military force has to be used."
The biggest wild card heading into the fall is the possibility of another terrorist attack. Historically, al Qaeda has tried to time its attacks for maximum political impact (such as the 2004 Madrid bombings days before a key election), and spy agencies warn that al Qaeda remains dangerous. "The group has retained or regenerated key elements of its capability, including its top leadership, operational lieutenants, and a de facto safe haven in Pakistan's border area with Afghanistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, to train and deploy operatives for attacks in the West," Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald Kerr warned in a recent speech.
Terrorism could be a minefield during the campaign. McCain and Obama both talk tough. But the Bush administration has been quite aggressive in going after terrorists, leaving little room for candidates to suggest stronger tactics. At the same time, Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain conspicuously at large. "For Republicans, playing up terrorism too much is risky because al Qaeda is stronger than it was in 2002 or 2003," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "Democrats will stay away because the Republican response is that there hasn't been an attack in six or seven years."
Instead, the debate is more likely to focus on a trouble spot like Pakistan, which has been accused of not policing its tribal areas aggressively enough. Early on, Obama called for a shift away from Bush's vocal support for beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf. Obama's campaign says the election victory by opposition parties this year vindicates his position, but the McCain team has been critical of the new government's recent willingness to strike deals with tribal leaders and militants.
Unilateral strike. To highlight Obama's relative lack of experience, McCain pounced on a declaration by Obama that he would mount a unilateral strike inside Pakistan if he had intelligence on a key terrorist target, with or without Pakistan's permission. "The point is not whether that's a sound policy," says Randy Scheunemann, McCain's senior foreign policy adviser. "The question is whether it's a smart policy to announce publicly because it leads to a negative reaction in Pakistan." Obama aides retort that he was simply describing his policy. "Telling the American people how you would approach the crucial challenge of counterterrorism rather than the Bush approach of secrecy and deception is in itself an important difference," says Susan Rice, a top Obama foreign policy adviser.
The next president will also confront an ossified Washington bureaucracy struggling to adapt to the new threats and a sprawling, 100,000-strong intelligence community that the director of national intelligence, a three-year-old position, is stillstruggling to control. The candidates have offered a sampling of ideas. Obama has called for a fixed term for the DNI as long as 10 years, like that of the FBI director, to make the position of the president's chief intelligence adviser less political. McCain has suggested an organization like the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services that could do covert action and conduct more-aggressive espionage overseas. But nobody has called for another full-scale reorganization like the one that led to the creation of the DNI.
The candidates have yet to really engage on a whole range of issues, including the Bush administration's tentative work on a deal with North Korea to restrain that country's nuclear ambitions. In other areas, they are really not all that far apart rhetorically. Each makes similar calls to expand the military and the diplomatic corps, to battle nuclear proliferation--and to repair diplomatic relationships frayed by the Bush administration, which, for example, rejected international restraints on greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change. Both have called for tougher restrictions on methods for interrogating detainees, including the closing of the U.S. military-run prison at Guantánamo Bay. They both recently pledged support for Israel before a key Jewish lobbying group.
McCain and Obama have also repeatedly vowed to rebuild America's image abroad and rejuvenate public diplomacy. Either one will certainly have his work cut out for him. The University of Maryland's Telhami has been polling in the Arab world for years, and he says the image of America has never been worse. In his most recent poll, 88 percent of Arabs named the United States as the second-biggest threat to them personally, after only Israel. "I believe that is the biggest challenge for the next president--restoring our credibility," says Telhami. "It's not about getting them to like America, but it's a question of whether people think you can get things done."
When it comes to changing foreign views of the United States, Obama's aides play up two themes. First, he makes a very clear break from Bush in both substance and style. Then they emphasize his biography. Not only would he be the first African-American president; he was born to a Kenyan father and lived in Indonesia as a child. "Barack Obama is this singularly American story in terms of the different strands of his background," says Richard Danzig, a key Obama adviser and former secretary of the Navy. "The fact that he has roots in Africa and Asia--that in itself is a very powerful image."
McCain's team touts the senator's reputation as a maverick and his long experience in foreign affairs, including as a Navy pilot and POW during Vietnam. "He started his national security career at age 17, and he has been learning and studying and reading and living that world ever since," says John Lehman, a McCain national security adviser and Navy secretary under President Reagan.
But with McCain echoing Bush's rhetoric on Iraq and Pakistan, the campaign is working hard to refute Obama's assertion that McCain is running for Bush's third term. This means that McCain finds himself running not only against Obama but against Bush as well. Remarkably, in trying to distance the Arizona senator from Bush whenever possible, McCain's aides even go into counterterrorism, the one area where being associated with Bush could most help his chances. Lehman says that by using the term "war on terror," Bush was glossing over the root causes of terrorism. "The president doesn't get it, so there is no coherence or integration to their overall policy," he says, citing the administration's reluctance to pressure Saudi Arabia as an example. "The administration has been blind to the role that the Saudi government and its Ministry of Religious Affairs has played in sowing the seeds of terror with its extremist missionary work around the world, creating all these mosques and schoos that are preaching this hatred."
Diplomacy. McCain has also signaled a return to diplomacy, after an administration famous for its strong-arm tactics and opposition to treaties. "Senator McCain's whole approach is going to be much more international," says Lehman. "That doesn't mean he is going to let diplomacy paralyze American politics, but he knows how to make diplomacy work, and that's a huge difference from the Bush administration." When it comes to Russia, for example, McCain has said he is willing to negotiate new arms control treaties, a sharp break from Bush. He would also count on the Kremlin to pressure Iran on nuclear issues.
Yet at the same time, McCain suggested kicking Russia out of the Group of Eight industrialized nations to protest its increasingly undemocratic policies in the Vladimir Putin era. Obama adviser Rice calls these ideas contradictory, saying, "I don't know how you press the reset button with our allies when you are committing to intensifying the policies and approaches they have found so difficult to digest under President Bush, whether you are talking about staying indefinitely in Iraq or kicking Russia out of the G-8.? McCain's advisers, though, see no contradiction. "It is not unheard of in the realm of diplomacy to have differences with countries and also work together on areas where you have common interests," says Scheunemann.
A more fundamental challenge could be a growing sense that America's global pre-eminence is being threatened by the rise of new economic and political centers in Asia and elsewhere. "Even if we have a serious policy to fight greenhouse gas emissions and close Guantánamo, are countries going to start lining up behind the United States again, or has too much water passed under the bridge?" Kupchan wonders, adding that Washington could find its influence waning even on issues like containing Iran and North Korea. "The United States in 2009, even if it does recover respect abroad, will nonetheless have a more difficult time getting its way simply because of a diffusion of political and material power to rising states like China and India."
By Kevin Whitelaw