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U.S. Election Symposium: The Netherlands

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.


One is black, one is white. One is young, one is old. One is tall, one is short. Such are the differences between Barack Obama and John McCain. Commentators seem to think that the two candidates hold very, very different views of the world. Yet they are one and the same. Their choice of words and their party affiliations distinguish them, but their foreign policies do not. Obama wants to combat “global terrorism,” McCain to win “the war on terror.” This is a matter of style, not content.

What orders their priorities is continuity with their predecessors (despite Obama’s insistence that he wants to “end the mindset that got us into war”) and the simple fact of a world where America is the dominant power. This, in turn, means that whoever wins the election will choose from a much narrower range of options than his campaign speeches might suggest. If there is a crisis that directly threatens American interests and this requires military intervention, then either candidate will intervene. In 1991, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, energy flows into the American economy were imperiled, and so there was military intervention. By contrast, there is no military intervention in Sudan to save the people of Darfur because no direct threat or vital interest presents itself.

Short of that, Obama wants to boost the defense budget and so does McCain. Both view the war against terror as an urgent priority (although they refer to it by different names). Both see an America in crisis, its economy in peril at home, its global power tested by China and Russia abroad. Both wish to distance themselves from the policies of the Bush administration. Of course, one always inherits the disastrous policies of one’s predecessor. The question, then, is how one deals with this. Obama says that he will withdraw from Iraq “responsibly,” but a responsible withdrawal seems to be McCain’s goal as well.

Even their rhetoric tends to be nearly indistinguishable. The candidate who summons America to “lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good” and says the U.S. military should “stay on the offense, from Djibouti to Kandahar” is not John McCain. It is Barack Obama. The candidate who would “combat HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, fashion better policies to confront environmental crises”—this is McCain. The candidate who would provide weak states with “what they need to reduce poverty, build healthy and educated communities,” and combat disease—that, again, is Obama.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a former Dutch parliamentarian and the author of Infidel.

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