Foreign Policy Blogs

Battle of the Caricatures

This blog is dedicated to relating how the US Presidential candidates view the world and are viewed by it.

Washington Post Editorial Page Editor and columnist Fried Hiatt penned compared the worlviews of Senators McCain and Obama by pulling back the curtains on the recent row over Obama's policy of taking with US enemies.

In the column titled “The Belligerent vs. the Naif?” Hiatt calls the row “overblown…something of a teacup in a much larger tempest.” He argues that the Senators’ argument is “a proxy, and it won't be the last, that allows the candidates to imply much bigger differences in worldview that they can't always state directly.”

Hiatt proposes assessing the two candidates’ worldviews by imaginging what the opposing party's foreign policy advisors might say about them, drunk on truth serum:

“If Democratic foreign policy advisers were to speak honestly about McCain, they would call him bellicose and uncompromising, by philosophy and nature. His unwillingness to engage with Castro or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they would say, bespeaks an inflexibility unsuited to a complex world. His proposed League of Democracies proves he doesn't believe in the United Nations or other existing international institutions, insists on playing on his field and by his rules, and can't come to terms with regimes he does not like or with the transnational threats of the 21st century. His strong moralistic streak, they might say, blinded him to the risks of invading Iraq and will get the country in trouble again. His age, his record and his party all make it impossible for him to give the United States the fresh start in the world that it so desperately needs.

Republican advisers, by contrast, would call Obama naive and overconfident, a dangerous combination in international affairs. With his initial insouciance [indifference] about talking with dictators, they might say, he overvalued his own charm and the power of reason and undervalued economic and military might and other forms of leverage. His insistence that Afghanistan is more vital than Iraq, a large, oil-rich Arab nation at the heart of the Middle East, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of national interest. And, they might say, he emerged from Hyde Park and academe with a sense that the United States on balance has done more harm than good in the world — and that international laws and organizations that constrain American power therefore should be welcomed.”

Surprisingly, Hiatts argues that while these caricatures point out real differences in each candidates’ worldview, “the imperatives and constraints of leadership would push them toward converging policies.”

Even campaigning, the candidates have reasons to move toward common ground. McCain will emphasize the importance of alliances and Obama will not be outflanked on his support for a strong military because Americans want both diplomacy and strength. Both will talk about promoting democracy and human rights because Americans want that, too.

Neither candidate may deem it in his interest to focus on Iraq, which once looked certain to be the central issue of this campaign, since McCain supported a war that has taken more than 4,000 American lives and is now seen by most Americans as a terrible mistake, while Obama was wrong about the surge and is now committed to withdrawing troops just as they may be succeeding. Neither has a convincing formula for keeping Iran from going nuclear, but it would not be politically wise for either to talk about post-nuclear containment. So, at least for now, it may be difficult for them to engage on the big questions.”

In the end, Hiatt points out that we have a lot to learn about the two forerunners–but that campaign politics may prevent us from doing that. While it seems too early to judge either candidate on this first major foreign policy-related campaign spat, relying on caricatures of a “belligerant” McCain and a “naif” Obama doesn't satisfy either.

Looks like we’ll have to wait for the candidates to fill in the gaps themselves.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.