Sen. John McCain basically made four points in the foreign-policy sections of the first presidential debate: 1) He was for the surge (which "has succeeded") while Sen. Barack Obama opposed it; 2) he has experience, while Obama does not; 3) he wants to form a League of Democracy to impose sanctions on Iran; 4) Georgia and Ukraine should be admitted to NATO.
Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Obama dealt with those points—in some cases not as strongly as he might have, but probably well enough—and made several of his own: the need to improve our standing in the world, to wipe out al-Qaida in Afghanistan, to focus on creative diplomacy and not just bluster to solve problems, and to devise a sound energy policy in order, not least, to blunt Russia's resurgence.
McCain did little to rebut those propositions except to say that he knows how to do these things and that Obama's thinking is naive and dangerous.
Scored on debaters' points, the match was close. Judged on the substantive issues, especially on which candidate has the more realistic view of the world, Obama won hands down.
It was odd that McCain put so much emphasis on Iraq. Yes, he supported the surge, which has played a major—but far from the only—role in reducing the violence in Iraq. But Obama could boast that he was against going into Iraq in the first place—which speaks more to the next president's judgment about getting lassoed into future conflicts. And Obama was correct that the surge was always, even on its own terms, a means to an end—a way to reduce the violence so that the Iraqi leaders could form a unified government. It was in this sense that Obama meant that the surge was tactics while the political goal was strategy. McCain overshot when he kept saying that the surge "has succeeded," that the troops will come home with "victory"—a word that McCain's demigod, Gen. David Petraeus, has many times explicitly declined to invoke, for good reason.
Obama also did well in countering McCain's proposal for a League of Democracy—a group of democratic nations that would confront Iran when the U.N. Security Council can't because of Russia's and China's veto power. The problem with this idea, as Obama noted, is that sanctions wouldn't be very effective without the cooperation of Russia or China. The issue at stake—keeping Iran from building a nuclear bomb—has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with common security interests. Russia can't be coddled on the matter, but cutting them off through a new Cold War is a counterproductive idea. Besides, the other democracies—mainly Germany, France, and England—don't like the idea, so it's a nonstarter. It's a fantasy on every level.
The two candidates weren't far apart on the question of letting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, but their differences, while subtle, were telling. McCain wants to let both countries into NATO right away (which would mean war with Russia, if the treaty were taken seriously). Obama says they should be allowed to start the application process and should be admitted "if they meet requirements." The catch is that Georgia can't meet the requirements, one of which is that a member must have borders that are agreed upon. Georgia's borders have long been in dispute. This isn't just a loophole; an alliance can't agree to defend a member's borders if the borders are in contention from the outset. Again, it's a nonissue: Georgia is not going to be let into NATO under the current circumstances, no matter what McCain says.
McCain's fiercest rhetorical points were the ones that I thought Obama didn't answer firmly enough. The first was that if we were to impose a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, as Sen. Obama has proposed, the war would be lost. Obama could have noted two things. First, he is not talking about a total withdrawal. Second, and more to the point, the person who is insisting on a withdrawal timetable as a condition of any U.S. troop presence beyond the end of this year isn't Obama—it's Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq. Even the Bush administration has conceded this point. Does McCain want to keep troops in Iraq over the objection of the Iraqi government?
McCain's second point was that he has experience. Several times (at least four), he noted that he has been "involved" in every national-security decision of the past twentysome years. He also took every opportunity to say, "I've been to Afghanistan, I know the security needs. … I know how to heal the wounds of war," etc., etc. At one point, he said, "There are some advantages in experience and judgment," then added, "I don't believe Senator Obama has that knowledge and experience."
Obama didn't answer these charges directly—but maybe he didn't have to. I have never been any good at gauging how "the American people" view these sorts of things, but was McCain protesting too much? My guess (and it's just a guess) is that by talking sensibly and coherently about issues of war and peace, arguing with McCain at his own level or higher—simply by holding his own—Obama may have effectively rebutted the charge and made McCain's condescension seem prickly. One could ask: If McCain has had all this experience, how did he get snookered on invading Iraq in the first place? If Obama's so naive (the tag that McCain threw at him several times), how did he see through it?
And does McCain really want to put such a high premium on the experience card right now? Next week, after all, Sarah Palin debates Joe Biden.