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    Middle East
     Oct 25, 2008
US worldviews worlds apart
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - While the ongoing financial crisis has almost entirely displaced foreign policy and even the Iraq War as the main concern of voters in the United States, differences in approach to the world beyond US borders between Republican candidate Senator John McCain and his Democratic rival Senator Barack Obama remain substantial.

While they agree, superficially at least, on a number of issues, such as the importance of shutting down the notorious Guantanamo detention facility on Cuba, acting more aggressively to curb global warming, increasing US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, and keeping all options on the

 

table vis-a-vis Iran, their basic worldviews and instincts are far apart.

In broad terms, McCain identifies closely with the unilateralist instincts and Manichean worldview of the coalition of Israel-centered neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists who dominated the first term of President George W Bush's administration and place a premium on military power, as opposed to diplomacy or other forms of "soft power".

Indeed, McCain is surrounded by advisers, such as his main foreign policy spokesman, Randy Scheunemann, from both traditions. But he reportedly also consults closely with their nemeses, the foreign policy "realists", most notably former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, James Baker and Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell. While not shy about using military power or acting unilaterally as a last resort, they place greater emphasis on diplomacy and working with other countries to further US national interests.

Obama, on the other hand, is generally seen as grounded in the "liberal internationalist" school, whose founding is credited to president Woodrow Wilson and which became the basis for the US - and Western-led multilateral order - presided over by the United Nations, the two Bretton Woods institutions, and an embryonic World Trade Organization - elaborated in large part by president Franklin Roosevelt in the waning days of World War II.

Most of Obama's main foreign policy advisers hail from that tradition. Indeed, some, like his vice presidential running-mate Senator Joseph Biden, whose long-time leadership of Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is likely to give him special influence on international affairs in an Obama White House, are considered "liberal interventionists". This group believes the US should actively and aggressively export the spread of liberal values and prevent - by military force if necessary - massive abuses of human rights, such as genocide.

At the same time, however, a number of influential realists, most recently Bush's first-term secretary of state, General Colin Powell, have come out in strong support of Obama and are also found among his top advisers.

Indeed, the candidate has himself extolled as a model the foreign policy record of former president George H W Bush's administration - widely considered the most realist of the past generation - and publicly stressed admiration for the ranking member on Biden's committee, Republican realist Senator Richard Lugar, who along with another Republican, Senator Chuck Hagel, has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state under Obama.

The inclusion of prominent realists - who, more than any other school, constitute what could be called the foreign policy "Establishment" - as advisers in both campaigns may be designed primarily to reassure independent and centrist voters that their respective candidates will avoid radical departures of the kind that resulted in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the influence of the neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists reached their zenith.

But whoever wins the November 4 election is likely to come to office in January with a foreign policy team that spans a fairly broad spectrum of advisers susceptible to fundamental disagreements regarding the definition of US national interests, the appropriate use of military force and the degree to which Washington should rely on multilateral institutions, as opposed to taking unilateral action, if those interests are threatened.

Such differences, when wide enough, have historically wrought heavy damage on past administrations, beginning with the battle for control over policy within the current Bush administration between hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney and realists led by the hapless Powell in the first term and then by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Pentagon chief Robert Gates who have devoted themselves to undoing - however slowly - some of the damage done during the first term.

The administration of president Jimmy Carter was also undone in part by internal fights between liberal internationalists led by former secretary of state Cyrus Vance and more realist forces led by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, an early Obama supporter.

In both cases, external events - in Bush's case, the September 11, 2001, attacks; in Carter's, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan followed by the Islamic revolution in Iran - acted as catalysts in shifting the balance of power within their administrations. Just one year after campaigning as a foreign policy realist committed to a "humble" foreign policy, Bush launched a "war on terrorism" designed to "transform" the entire Middle East and beyond. Effective Iraqi and regional resistance to those ambitions eventually forced Bush to listen to the realists.

If either candidate retains his current spectrum of advisers, splits will almost certainly develop on key issues ranging from what to do about Iran's nuclear program and a resurgent Russia, to "humanitarian intervention", and the promotion of democracy (or destabilization) in countries whose governments are considered hostile to the US

On Iran, for example, the hawks have strongly opposed any diplomatic opening, while the realists, including those advising McCain, have, like Obama, urged Washington to engage Tehran at a high level without pre-conditions. McCain publicly sided with the hawks on the issue until Kissinger and Baker last month called for unconditional talks.

When it comes to the Middle East as a whole, an additional complicating factor will be the presence of strong advocates for Israel among either man's closest advisers. While realists in both camps believe Washington should act as an honest broker in the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, both neo-conservatives associated with McCain and a number of liberal interventionists, including Biden and former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, associated with Obama, have opposed exerting strong pressure on Israel.

On Russia, realists identified with both candidates have urged caution, warning that strong US retaliation for its intervention in Georgia - such as McCain's suggestion it be expelled from the Group of Eight - could have serious negative implications for other US policy interests. Obama has sided with the realist position, although some of his liberal interventionist advisers have urged that he take a more punitive stance.

An Obama administration is also likely to suffer splits over humanitarian intervention, a concept that has been eagerly embraced by liberal internationalists, especially those, like Biden, of the interventionist persuasion. However, it has drawn great skepticism from realists who believe it is a recipe for wearing out already-overstretched US military forces in countries that are not vital to US national interests.

Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

(Inter Press Service)


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