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Greg Sheridan on the US presidential candidates

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29 February 2008 08:15

Having recently patted myself on the back for avoiding blog jargon on The Interpreter, I'm now going to reverse course to revive a blog practise that has fallen into abeyance: fisking. For those unfamiliar with the term, I'm going to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal of someone's argument, in this case the latest column by The Australian's foreign editor, Greg Sheridan. Sheridan's column is below in italics, with my annotations in between:

This is no time for a celebrity in the Oval Office

In terms of who would be best for Australia, there is a respectable case to be made for each remaining US presidential candidate: Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. The case for Obama rests on the fact that greater US power and prestige directly benefits Australia. Certainly the Rudd Government believes this. The case for Obama is that as president he would bring the maximum brand for the US from George W. Bush.

'Bring the maximum brand' does not make sense to me, but that might just be poor sub-editing. Still, if this is a 'respectable' case for Obama, it is quite thin.  

There is something a little weird about the Obama phenomenon. It's a bit like the Princess Di obsession. His is a candidacy of celebrity and identity. But we live in a world of celebrity and identity, and for a time the world probably would fall in love with president Obama. At a deeper level, Obama's soaring rhetoric seems to serve no purpose beyond itself. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt used magnificent speeches to argue specific causes: ending slavery, defeating Nazism. Obama's cadences are superbly non-specific: "Yes, we can!"

I have some sympathy for this argument. The messianism surrounding Obama is indeed a little creepy, and I am similarly unmoved by the soaring rhetoric. If that were all there was to Obama, he would make a poor president. But Obama has a record and he has detailed policy positions. He stands for specific things. But I see Sheridan is about to address this point.

Nonetheless, Obama does have a record and it places him generally on the Left of the Democratic Party, although he has often used centrist and sometimes even hawkish rhetoric. But his closest advisers all come from the Left of the party.

I can't speak for Obama's domestic policy advisers, but on foreign policy this looks like a real stretch. Zbigniew Brzezinski? Richard Clarke? Anthony Lake? These are hardly dangerous radicals.

This is bad for Australia in four ways. It has led Obama into protectionism, he campaigns against Clinton because her husband passed the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The remaining primary states are fertile ground for anti-free trade sentiment, and both Clinton and Obama are indulging in it. But a Brookings study finds very little substantive difference between their positions on trade.  

Second, the Left of the Democratic Party has no interest in Asia and can barely find it on a map.

This is obviously a vast exaggeration.

Most important, Obama steadily increases the stridency of his opposition to US troops in Iraq. Members of the Bush administration are worried that the Democratic primary has gone on so long. This has resulted in both Obama and Clinton appealing only to the Democratic base on the Left, and not yet tracking back to the centre.

It's not clear why Sheridan mentions the Bush Administration here, other than to trumpet his access. But it is pretty common for candidates to appeal to their party base in the primary campaign and then move to the centre in the general election. Besides, neither Clinton or Obama is very far left anyway.

Iraq has faded as an issue because the US strategy there is now working.

Maybe the surge is working. Or maybe not. And there could be another reason the issue has faded in the Democratic primaries: every time Hillary raises it, Obama can claim superior judgment by reminding voters he was against the war from the beginning, and Clinton was for it.

There is a real chance the US could prevail in Iraq.

But what percentage is a 'real chance'? 20%? 70%? I'd want to know this before deciding whether to pick a pro-withdrawal candidate like Obama or a dead-ender like McCain. 

This is what Clinton was worried about when she earlier hedged her bets on Iraq. But Obama, playing not least for the Hollywood Bush haters, has left little room to manoeuvre as president on Iraq. A sudden US withdrawal from Iraq could be catastrophic for the Middle East, and for US standing generally.

It's not just 'Hollywood Bush haters' who are against the Iraq war, it's a majority of the US population. As for America's 'standing', what has fighting an unpopular five-year war done for it?

Obama is all over the place on foreign policy. He has threatened to bomb Pakistan to kill terrorists (imagine if Bush or McCain had said such a thing) but also to journey to Tehran to fix a grand bargain with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Obama has most certainly not threatened to bomb Pakistan. Bush, on the other hand, has actually sent Predator drones into Pakistan to assassinate al Qaeda leaders. As for McCain, he likes to make light-hearted fun about bombing Iran.

His rhetoric on foreign policy, apart from Iraq, is scattered, which is a sure sign that he's never given the matter any serious thought.

There's a respectable case to be made that Obama has too little foreign policy experience to be president, but this is another vast exaggeration. There's no way Obama could have come this far without giving foreign policy 'any serious thought'. And I'd be interested to know whether Sheridan thought a lack of foreign policy experience was a decisive argument against George W Bush in 2000.

Finally, the Left of the Democratic Party cares least for the military and for alliances. But the chief way Washington conceives of Australia is as an ally, and the chief US thinkers about us are the military.

If this is true, it's probably time we did something about it.

The case for Clinton is a more modest version of Obama. As the US's first woman president and a partisan opponent of Bush, she would also be a big brand change for the US. The world would be much less hostile to her than it is to Bush. Moreover, while she has tracked Obama on protectionism, she has not gone as far, and her husband had no protectionist instincts in office. Similarly, though promising to withdraw from Iraq, she has left herself much more wriggle room. She is surrounded by the hawks and centrists of the Democratic Party: old friends of Australia of great competence such as Kurt Campbell and Martin Indyk. She has no natural affinity with Asia and little knowledge of it, but some of her closest advisers do.

The fact that Clinton has surrounded herself with hawks seems to require no further elaboration. For Sheridan, it is in and of itself a good thing.

In my view the best candidate from Australia's point of view is McCain. Like his close friend former deputy secretary of state Rich Armitage, McCain has a national security outlook which elevates allies to a central position. He knows Asia very intimately. Like almost all US Vietnam veterans he has close Australian friends and has visited Australia on numerous occasions. He has spoken to the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. Because he has been such a fierce critic of the way the Bush administration initially mismanaged Iraq, and the war on terror more generally, he can plausibly represent significant brand change from Bush, while still being from the same party. Though he cannot compete with Obama in the celebrity stakes, he has a sincerity which many people internationally might well respond to.

This strikes me as an entirely respectable argument for McCain. But it is only a decisive argument if you accept all that has come before it, and all that follows.

One of the reasons he just may win the presidency is that he will motivate the vast military constituency (including serving personnel, their families, veterans and their families, defence contractors and so on), a critically important cohort that the Republicans were in some danger of losing while the military seemed to be bleeding pointlessly in Iraq. One reason McCain would be good for Australia is that he would stay strong in Iraq. He would not let the Middle East spin out of control.

By extension, then, the Middle East is presently 'in control'. As for the military constituency Sheridan refers to, it's true they tilt overwhelmingly Republican, but it's not as if Obama is some flower child who wants to abolish the air force. In fact, he wants to add 65,000 army troops and 27,000 Marines.

So why do I think an Obama ascendancy could cause war in the Middle East? It's a simple calculation. Despite the recently released US National Intelligence Estimate that Iran is not working on nuclear weaponisation, no one seriously doubts that Iran is moving towards nuclear weapons. The NIE confirms it is continuing to pursue uranium enrichment and missile capabilities. Weaponisation is the easiest bit of the process.

Weaponisation is not necessarily the easiest part of the process. 

Many Israeli leaders say that a nuclear armed Iran represents an existential threat to Israel. If they really believe this, they have no alternative but to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. If they believe McCain will win, they will have faith that the Americans, one way or another, will try to handle the Iranians. If they believe Obama will win, they not only believe he definitely won't handle Iran effectively, but he might even stop them from doing so. The same calculations in a way apply to the Bush administration. Almost no one in the Bush administration favoured the troop surge in Iraq except Bush. Yet he went ahead and did it, and it worked. One of Bush's greatest criticisms of Bill Clinton is that he didn't confront problems but kicked them down the road and left them for his successor. If Bush believes Iran will go nuclear, he might have faith that McCain could handle it. He will have absolutely no faith that Obama would handle it. The odds are against a US strike on Iran under any circumstances, and I would say the odds are even against an Israeli strike. But either or both are much more likely if it looks like Obama will win.

In other words, in order to make it less likely that the US or Israel will bomb Iran, Americans should elect the candidate who is more likely to bomb Iran.

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