US foreign troubles loom large for next president

October 29th, 2008 - 9:35 am ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaWashington, Oct 29 (DPA) When the large field of Democratic and Republican presidential candidates launched bids for the White House more than a year ago, the campaign’s main focus was sure to be foreign policy and the conflict in Iraq.The candidates sought to portray their international affairs credentials and outline their plans for bringing the fight in Iraq to an acceptable conclusion.

Having captured their party’s nominations, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain were set to duel over who could best repair relations with the rest of the world after eight years of President George W. Bush, resolve the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, handle the delicate diplomacy of curbing the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea and cope with a resurgent Russia - all while keeping America safe.

But the sudden onslaught of the economic crisis in September has changed the face of the race. Heading to the polls Nov 4, Americans are now less fearful of terrorists and more worried about the threat posed by the failings of Wall Street and a finance industry.

Traditional foreign policy issues are likely to slide down the new president’s list of priorities as a result.

The next White House occupant, however, will have formidable challenges abroad, beginning with the largest ongoing deployments of US military forces in combat to be handed over from one president to the next since the Vietnam War.

Both candidates have agreed the US must adopt a more multilateral approach than Bush and work closely with allies to promote mutual interests. But neither candidate has ruled out unilateral action when vital US interests are at stake.

“Our great power does not mean that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want,” McCain, 72, said in a key foreign policy address in March. “Nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed.”

Senator McCain, a prisoner during the Vietnam War, is seen as more experienced than his opponent on foreign affairs.

He voted in October 2002 to authorize the use of military force against Saddam Hussein.

Obama, elected to the US Senate only two years later, said he opposed it, and the two have since sparred over how to move forward.

Obama, 47, has pledged to withdraw US combat forces within 16 months of taking office, while McCain endorses Bush’s policy of keeping troops there until the mission succeeds.

McCain called for a troop buildup in Iraq to counter escalating violence long before Bush ordered the troop “surge” in January 2007.

Obama opposed it and has since had to acknowledge the surge’s success in bringing bloodshed down to its lowest level since the 2003 invasion. But he argues it has yet to bring political reconciliation.

Obama wants to redeploy US troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda. The security environment in Afghanistan took a major turn for the worse in the last two years, with US casualties climbing to their highest rate yet. The violence in Afghanistan now rivals levels in Iraq.

“I’m not convinced we’re winning it in Afghanistan,” Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who will serve into the next president’s term, said in September.

McCain has said he will refocus US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, but has characterized Obama’s plan to begin troop withdrawals from Iraq as “irresponsible” and a retreat in the face of terrorism.

In addressing Afghanistan, the next president will need to find a way to cope with Pakistan, which has been unable to halt the use of its mountainous terrain near the Afghan border by the Taliban as refuge for launching attacks.

The Pakistani government fiercely resists allowing US forces into the region to stomp out the Taliban or pursue al-Qaeda leaders or even Osama bin Laden, and strongly condemned a series of covert US raids into the territory this year.

Obama irked the Pakistanis when he said on the campaign trail that he would order US forces into Pakistan, a close ally in the war on terrorism despite widespread anti-American public sentiment, if he had solid intelligence pointing to bin Laden’s location.

Both candidates have chided Bush for mismanaging the war in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime was ousted. Obama says he will not recklessly pull US troops out.

“We need to be as careful getting out as we were careless going in,” he frequently says.

Bush is trying to wrap up an agreement with the Iraqi government before he leaves office in January that would establish a legal basis for the presence of US troops after a UN mandate expires at the end of this year.

Bush reluctantly agreed to a 2011 “horizon” for removing combat brigades - close to Obama’s withdrawal timeframe - under pressure from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The Pentagon says the agreement will not tie the hands of the next president.

While both senators have pledged to take a more multilateral course in foreign affairs, they have not explained whether they would alter the painstakingly-built multilateral approaches Bush arranged to deal with the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes.

Obama has said he is open to direct meetings with Iran’s leadership, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, without preconditions, leading McCain to call him “naive” in dealing with enemies who advocate the destruction of Israel.

“It doesn’t mean that you invite them over for tea one day,” Obama countered.

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