[Overseas view]The men who would be U.S. presidentOn Nov. 4, Americans will elect a new president. They will have a real alternative, as they will have to choose between two very different candidates, John McCain for the Republicans and, very probably, Barack Obama for the Democrats. The two men are distinguished not only by their political membership, their generation and their skin color. They also have very different visions of the kind of relations the United States should have with the rest of the world. Although they share the principle of making it a priority to restore the image of the country, which has been considerably degraded during George Bush’s two terms, they are proposing completely opposite solutions.
Barack Obama, one of the very few American politicians who publicly opposed the war in Iraq before its launching, favors a rapid pullback of U.S. troops out of this plight. He would preserve only a residual force. He considers that maintaining a massive American military force allows Iraqis to shirk facing their internal political problems.
John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, has taken a position against the use of torture and upholding the Geneva Conventions. But though he opposed Bush on this matter, it would not be right to conclude that his foreign policy would be radically different. The Republican candidate declared that, if needed, the Americans would stay in Iraq a hundred years. He is not only opposed to withdrawal from Iraq; he also favors reinforcement of the American military presence to win the war decisively.
McCain belongs to the generation traumatized by America’s losing the war in Vietnam and therefore cannot stand another capitulation. He is a proponent of American power based on military supremacy. He plans to significantly increase the American military budget, which already represents 50 percent of the world’s defense spending. He pleads for an alliance of democracies which could possibly act militarily in spite of United Nations constraints (such as the possibility of a Russian or Chinese veto). McCain is also in favor of a military option against Iran; He even appeared on TV singing “Bomb, bomb, Iran” to a Beach Boys melody. According to him, Muslim extremism is the foremost enemy of the United States, and he plans to fight against it mainly through military means.
McCain is not a neoconservative, but rather some kind of Jacksonian, recalling the jack-booted and expedient methods of President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). He is not intending to export democracy; he just wants to promote Washington’s interests.
He will not hesitate to lead a foreign policy based on American power considerations. Supporters brag about McCain’s experience, but this does not keep him from making crass mistakes, as for instance last week when he declared several times that Iran was endorsing al Qaeda in Iraq, accusing a Shiite country of backing a Sunni terrorist group.
John McCain is also not likely to give up the principle of a preventive war implemented by George Bush, with the success we know.
Although he does not exclude the possibility of a military option against Iran, Barack Obama declares himself ready to engage with Tehran’s regime. Therefore he dissents not only against Bush’s policy, but also from Hillary Clinton’s program. Indeed, he thinks there should not be any taboo against having a dialogue with potential adversaries. Obama believes in giving Iranians a rationale to behave differently. Accordingly, the U.S. refusal to engage them tends to reinforce extremists such as Ahmadinejad. He considers it Washington’s priority to pay attention to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the war on al Qaeda has to be fought.
Barack Obama has a vision of a world facing deep transformation. In such a configuration, the use of force is not necessarily a good means to resolve every problem; moreover, it tends to feed tensions even more. He is convinced the United States has to use its potential for attraction instead of its capacity for duress.
Both candidates present themselves as friends of Israel, considering the security of this country as a priority. They refuse to negotiate with Hamas as long as it does not officially recognize Israel. But Tel Aviv is clearly backing McCain, fearing Obama would be too hesitant to use force.
If elected, Obama would probably not be able to lead a multilateral policy as he wants. He will have to face down resistance from Congress and pressure groups. But for McCain, it would be easier. This is not reassuring.
*The writer is the director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
by Pascal Boniface