Editor's note: This essay is part of a symposium on the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The symposium comes with a twist: none of our contributors can vote in the election. As foreign citizens, each brings a less familiar voice to the debate, but, as intellectuals, documentarians, dissidents, and journalists, they bring interesting voices. Raphaël Glucksmann, Jonathan Freedland, Max Rodenbeck, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali offer arguments for and against John McCain and Barack Obama and much else besides.
Any case for Barack Obama as the man best placed to advance—some would say, “restore”—America’s place in the world must begin with an assessment of the record of George W. Bush. After all, the Bush era is the problem to which Obama has proposed himself as the solution.
It is a matter of near-consensus outside the U.S., and across an astonishingly broad swath of the “foreign policy community” inside, that the legacy of the last eight years has been woeful. Central to this indictment is the 2003 invasion of Iraq, widely regarded in most capitals as an entirely avoidable calamity. Even in London, where the government of Tony Blair joined Bush’s war, one strains to find policymakers who would dispute that the invasion was the worst foreign policy decision since the Suez Crisis in 1956. Most would now agree with the assessment Obama delivered as an Illinois state senator in 2002, that the Iraq War was a “dumb war” which would “require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” Those policymakers, joined by their colleagues in the intelligence services, would nod again as they re-read Obama’s 2002 warning that “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
The indictment could go on. It would include, but not be limited to, Bush’s indifference and lethargy toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that depends entirely on American mediation; his blithe disregard for alliances nurtured over more than half a century; his casting a pall over the beacon of light that America once showed the world, so that its name became synonymous not with human rights but with Abu Ghraib, and so that, in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, “the evocative symbol of America in the eyes of much of the world ceased to be the Statue of Liberty and instead became the Guantanamo prison camp.”
This litany would surely be enough to elect Barack Obama if he were in a contest against George W. Bush. But it weighs nearly as heavily against John McCain. With the honorable exception of his opposition to torture, the Republican nominee cheered Bush on his road to hell every misstep of the way.
Of course, the McCain camp insists otherwise, objecting that the “maverick” senator often defied the president. But these were only ever disagreements over methods and particulars. True, McCain wanted the Iraq War waged differently. But he never opposed the war itself, never understood what a grave error it was in principle, even if it were to be prosecuted with efficiency. (That task was left to an unknown state senator from Illinois.) Thus, McCain argued loudly and consistently in favor of the “surge” for which he now demands full credit. But that was a solution to a problem that had been of America’s own making, encouraged from the start by enablers and boosters like McCain. By his insistence on plaudits for backing the surge, McCain resembles a man who pushes you into a ditch, then insists on a round of applause for helping you climb out.
Moreover, he shows no sign of repentance, no evidence that he has learned the lesson of Iraq and intends to move U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. McCain’s choice of counsel is revealing here. Those close to him include Randy Scheunemann, the president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq; James Woolsey, a diehard advocate of Dick Cheney’s worldview; and Joe Lieberman, another hawk and fervent backer of the Iraq War, whose approach has barely altered despite its bruising contact with reality.
The ideas that McCain offers suggest a man who has not moved from the basic set of premises that underpinned White House thinking when neoconservativism was in its pomp in 2002–03. He touts a League of Democracies, a kind of restricted version of the United Nations with awkward states turned away at the door. McCain fails to see that in any international crisis these nations would still have to be accounted for; you can’t wish them away. The League of Democracies proposal suggests that, as with Bush, McCain would contend with the world as it should be rather than as it actually is.
The affirmative case for Barack Obama is no less easy to make. It begins with that simplest of points, that on the greatest foreign policy judgment of the age, Obama—for all his inexperience and distance from Washington—got it right in 2002 even as McCain got it catastrophically wrong. As Obama put it when accepting the Democratic nomination before a crowd of 84,000 in Denver, “You don’t defeat a global network in eighty countries by occupying Iraq.” Obama is surely right, too, that the central front in the war on terror runs through Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden may actually be hiding. One might be troubled by the apparently open-ended nature of Obama’s commitment in Afghanistan, which points to a permanent U.S. presence in the country—when case-by-case, discrete operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda might be more appropriate—but this clearly ought to be the priority. (McCain in 2003 said the U.S. could just “muddle through in Afghanistan.”)
Elsewhere, Obama has signaled that the most urgent item on his desk would be the prevention of Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power: his advisers reckon Tehran is on course to acquire that capability within the next president’s first term. Once again, this seems a sound ordering of priorities. A nuclear Iran would trigger a wider, regional arms race. It would further cement Tehran’s status as a regional superpower and it would provide cover with a nuclear umbrella for the armed groups it currently sponsors, thereby emboldening Hezbollah and Hamas.
Obama would proceed first along the diplomatic route, seeking a tightening of sanctions on the Iranian regime. Again, one can harbor legitimate concerns about some of the tactics Obama favors, specifically an embargo on refined petroleum products that would affect ordinary Iranians at the gas pump: the evidence of such attempts in the past is that they can unite a beleaguered population in patriotic defiance. But, clearly, a menu of sanctions will need to be drawn up. Imagine, by contrast, the effort to gain international backing for such measures during a McCain presidency. If McCain traveled to Berlin or Paris or London, warning of a new peril from the Persian Gulf, he would be met with justifiably derisive cries of “There you go again.” How much more credible would a President Obama be, able to say that he—nearly alone among U.S. politicians—had seen through the deceptions of the last war, but that this was altogether different and more urgent?
It’s worth noting here a strength of Obama’s that the Republicans have sought to cast as a weakness, evidence of his status as a mere celebrity: Obama’s enormous international popularity, made flesh in the crowd of 200,000 that stood to hear him in Berlin in July. He will be bound to disappoint such rock-star expectations: how could he not? But the notion of a young, eloquent, and—it should be admitted—black man becoming not only the president of the United States, but, ex officio, the leader of the free world, has inspired people across the globe. After eight years of Bush, the yearning for an American president not complicit in the Iraq War, and not in denial about climate change and so much else, has become palpable. The result may be that a large step toward the repair of America’s international image will be taken the moment Obama takes the oath of office. This also means Obama would arrive in the White House backed by a reserve of global political capital. In those early months, not many democratic leaders overseas would wish to explain to their electorates why they stood on the wrong side of President Obama.
That logic could even apply, though perhaps not for long, to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here, the signals from Obama have been infinitely more encouraging than those from McCain. Both have promised to ensure Israel’s security; both have publicly committed to a two-state solution. But while Obama has said he will engage himself in the effort to foster peace “starting from the minute I’m sworn into office”—understanding, first, that no substitute exists for direct, hands-on U.S. engagement and, second, that his leverage will be at its maximum point on the day of his inauguration—McCain has paid only the most minimal lip service to the question. He has not upbraided Bush for his lassitude on Israel-Palestine; he has suggested more of the same.
In all these areas, then, it is Obama who has articulated the wiser approach. But what impresses most is not so much Obama’s region-by-region prescriptions—and in some of these he can still seem uncertain (during the recent Georgia crisis, for example)—as his guiding philosophy in international affairs. It is this broader set of principles that sets him apart from McCain.
The core idea remains so simple that, until the Bush era, its iteration would have qualified as a statement of the obvious. It is the belief that the United States should use all the tools of its power, including both force and diplomacy, with no instruments cast aside. Only a pacifist would exclude, always and on principle, the use of the former and, one would think, only a simpleton would bar the use of the latter. Yet in several critical areas, the Bush administration has done exactly that—taking the threat of diplomatic engagement, as it were, off the table. The Bush administration—in an approach endorsed by John McCain—has voluntarily denied to itself that most useful tool, initially ruling out contact with Iran and even preventing one of its allies, Israel, from having a dialogue of its own with Syria. (Both of those absurd, self-defeating restrictions have now broken down.)
The rest of the Obama methods will be similarly restorative of the traditional way of doing international business. The use of force will return to its place as America’s option of last, not first, resort. The U.S. will work through, rather than purposefully thwart, international institutions, even those that do not act as creatures of U.S. power. Any resort to force that does not directly concern American self-defense will be employed multilaterally rather than unilaterally.
Vindication for this approach keeps coming, and from the unlikeliest sources. Obama advocated dialogue with Syria early on: eventually the government of Israel, in defiance of the Bush administration, began to talk to Damascus. Obama advocated a sixteen-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, eliciting howls of opposition from John McCain and the Republicans. But then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that sounded reasonable enough to him.
In recent months, even the Bush White House has come around to Obama’s positions, whether on an Iraq timetable, engagement with Iran, or the wisdom of placing its entire Pakistan bet on Pervez Musharraf. (“We need a Pakistan policy, not a Musharraf policy,” Obama had said, long before events proved the point.) Only John McCain seems to be stuck on the old Bush script.
Revealingly, Obama has spoken of his admiration for the foreign policy record of George H. W. Bush, singling out the earlier president’s assembly of an international coalition to eject Saddam from Kuwait in 1991. That provides a clue as to the kind of realism and multilateralism, shorn of unipolar delusions and combined with some of the liberal interventionist instincts associated with the Clinton era (before interventionism’s good name was tainted by the Iraq debacle), that Obama promises. After the lethal fantasism of the last eight years—cheered along by John McCain and the men who surround him—this represents a very appealing prospect.
Jonathan Freedland is an editorial page columnist for The Guardian and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.