Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Forward defence

Obama can beat McCain on foreign policy if he sticks to a clear message

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So far the momentum hasn’t come. After a whirlwind tour of Europe and the Middle East where he sucked up every bit of information and insight he could while being followed by the combined US media, Barack Obama has not returned home to a bounce many in his camp had been hoping for. It’s not seat of the pants time yet for the Democrats but the view that unlike last time round with John Kerry in 2004 this election would not be a close affair is rapidly dissipating.

Foreign affairs is seen by the McCain camp as the embodiment of Obama’s Achilles heel – his inexperience. In contrast, McCain can call on foreign affairs as his trump card ahead of issues like the economy where he freely admits he’s weak. The prevalence of foreign affairs in the 2008 presidential race is a far cry from the last time a non-incumbent Republican campaigned for the White House. In 2000 George Bush won significant votes off the back of a largely isolationist agenda promising to rein back the Clintonite doctrine of humanitarian intervention and the promotion of democracy. His complete lack of foreign affairs experience was of little electoral consequence, in fact his lack of experience or interest in anything outside the 50 states was seen as an electoral advantage.

Eight years on and things are very different due to 9/11 and Iraq. 9/11 crushed any notion politicians in the US had that after catastrophes like Somalia the country could enjoy a period of introspection devoid of large-scale foreign military action. The Iraq affect was more creeping. At first hailed a success, the subsequent drudgery and cumulative death toll of the occupation of Iraq swung public opinion gradually against the conflict. Bush managed to cling on to the Iraq issue in 2004 even as the US death toll in the country reached the symbolic 1,000 mark barely a month before the presidential election. This time round it’s far more open, whoever understands Iraq, and how the US public view it, will go a long way to winning the presidency in November.

In terms of messaging, McCain has won out so far – his ‘I told you so’ rhetoric about the so-called success of ‘the surge’ is casting him as a worldly and wise potential commander in chief. And while McCain can’t quite cast Obama as a flip-flopper in the mould of Kerry – he can infer that he is simply too wet behind the ears to deal with big foreign policy issues like Iraq and as a consequence Iran. Furthermore, unlike the economy, McCain can use Iraq without being hurt by association with the current government. The term ‘love the warrior, hate the war’ is often used to describe how voters view McCain on Iraq.

Obama’s big plan to neutralise McCain the warrior and McCain the statesman was to use his overseas fact-finding trip as a springboard to catapult his domestic mantra of change on to the issue of foreign policy – in essence accepting McCain’s superiority in terms of experience but pushing the need for a fresh face and a fresh attitude to dealing with America’s position abroad, not least in Iraq. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way.

A cheeky Israeli student’s antics in stealing Obama’s note at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and giving his prayer to Maariv, the popular Israeli daily who subsequently splashed it on their front page; his Kennedyesque spectacle at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and the general circus-like environment surrounding his tour just didn’t underline the message that this was a fact-finding mission and that Obama meant business. No doubt Obama’s team studied and tried to emulate JFK’s numerous fact- finding tours to Europe which solidified his foreign affairs credentials. Unfortunately this whistlestop tour didn’t really wash in comparison.

He needs to realise that while being a statesman and a figurehead is important, what Americans really want is somebody with a firm stance on defence, and on defence read Iraq. In virtually every public opinion poll since Obama became the democratic candidate Iraq has ranked no lower than third in voter concerns, being beaten consistently only by the economy; sometimes by concerns over energy supplies; and very rarely by health care. To argue that Iraq is now a marginal issue in US electoral politics is a dangerous game to play. Perhaps Obama lost site of that slightly during his whistlestop world tour. He should get back to what the Democrats – and he himself to a lesser extent – have been good on: campaigning for a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

There is no clear polling trend although on the whole the Democrats (not Obama personally) tend to poll higher than the Republicans when it comes to capability of handling Iraq. The trust voters had in the Republicans in 2004 when it came to Iraq has all but dissipated. Obama should hammer home his withdrawal timeline message and not try to be something he isn’t, namely a foreign policy veteran. This might work in two ways: first, unlike the world tour, Obama does not look like he is over-stretching himself; second, it underlines McCain’s unwillingness to commit to ending the Iraq fiasco. Unlike in 2004, the majority of American voters now want a timeline in place and want a definable endpoint to Iraq. The ‘staying the course’ message which worked well for Bush and made him look strong against Kerry the flip-flopper doesn’t work anymore. In a recent CBS poll (July 29) 62 per cent of respondents were in favour of setting a date for troop withdrawal only 37 per cent signed up for McCain’s position on staying the course. This figure reflects a steadily growing trend towards those in favour of withdrawal.

McCain is tempering his message on Iraq, bringing it closer to Obama’s position. But this is still a fruitful avenue for the democrats when attacking McCain if they are careful. In 1968 a rabid pro-war presidential candidate by the name of Richard Nixon campaigned on the pledge to bring ‘peace with honour’ for the US in Vietnam – a tactic which helped win him the election. The prospect of the American public voting in a Nixon-like figure in McCain who promises to pull honourable victory in Iraq out of the jaws of defeat may just be too tempting for swing voters, especially those who initially supported the war. When McCain hammers home his belief in the surge, this is what he is implying: ‘I can grab the US a form of victory out of Iraq.’

In comparison to Kerry in 2004, and maybe Gore in 2000, Obama has a far superior chance of winning in November both when you look at policy and personality. Unlike 2004, there are too many key issues which continually fall in his favour. On the economy he and the Democrats are seen as stronger, on energy security the same is true. On general approval ratings Obama consistently edges out McCain, even if only marginally. It is only really foreign policy which hurts Obama as it acts as a lightning conductor for broader criticism of his inexperience. In many ways it would have been brilliant to have seen John Kerry on the Obama ticket – his career trajectory and experience runs almost parallel to McCain’s and it is ironic that McCain is now exploiting his Vietnam record so aptly four years after his party used Vietnam so cruelly against Kerry.

While it’s working well at present, it’s yet to be seen how much long-term play there is in knocking Obama on foreign policy. Worryingly however, the new line of attack, ‘Obama the vacuous celebrity’ is hitting a nerve among many swing voters. The Republicans, it seems, remain depressingly adept at lampooning their electoral opponents and American voters have an alarming tendency to break for personality over policy in presidential elections. Whether Obama should retaliate with attack ads of his own – centring on McCain’s not so perfect personal past – is another debate, but what is clear is that in an election which will undoubtedly be marginal he must at least stay crystal clear on swing issues like the war in Iraq. He cannot compete with McCain on experience but he can on policy. McCain’s blind faith in staying the course hardly smacks of someone who has learnt from the past, not least from Vietnam.

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Sam Hardy

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