Both want more troops on the ground and both reject many of President Bush's policies; differences emerge on nuclear weapons, defense spending and the priority placed on the war in Afghanistan.
In the shadows of the debate over Iraq, a remarkable convergence is under way between the candidates on other critical issues of national security.
It is a convergence born of a common rejection, by Barack Obama and John McCain alike, of much of what George W. Bush did, especially during his first term and Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as Defense secretary.
On foreign policy, Bush disdained traditional alliances and arms control agreements.
Obama and McCain have been enthusiastically multilateralist, not just in their rhetoric but to a large extent in their Senate records as well. On defense policy, Bush favored a "transformation" of the military, emphasizing long-range strikes, and for years he opposed any increase in old-fashioned manpower. Obama and McCain both endorse the ongoing addition of 92,000 ground troops to the Army and Marine Corps.
There is no pacifist in this race, no new isolationism on the rise, and no peace dividend in the offing, no matter who wins in November or how far the United States draws down its troops in Iraq. Both candidates support a robust military employed in a forceful, and force-wielding, foreign policy. On Sudan, for example, both have advocated a more assertive approach than that taken by the Bush administration.
Even as they reject many of Bush's tactics, however, Obama and McCain struggle with the world that Bush and Osama bin Laden have made. Both candidates accept the post-9/11 consensus of a global struggle against violent extremism within Islam. McCain preaches with far more passion about what he calls "the transcendent challenge of our time," but Obama, too, has adopted the rhetoric of "the long war."
"Obama as much as McCain buys into the paradigm of a global war on terror," lamented Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and Boston University professor, who was a leading critic of the "new American militarism" in both political parties long before his son, an Army lieutenant, died last year in Iraq. When Obama advocates fewer troops in Iraq and more in Afghanistan, Bacevich explained, "he disagrees that the Iraq war is the central front, which has become Senator McCain's position; but it's a difference in operational priorities, not a difference in strategy."
Even accepting the framework of global war, however, those differences in priorities can be dramatic, much as moderate Democrats and Republicans sharply disagreed on how to conduct the Cold War they both believed in.
Obama and McCain converge on national security only up to a point. Their rhetoric on the campaign trail and, even more important, their track records in the Senate show where they diverge, above all on three issues whose importance is all too often overshadowed by Iraq: nuclear weapons; Pentagon spending; and policy toward the war in Afghanistan and the shadow war in next-door Pakistan.
Especially in his first term, Bush showed little patience for the kabuki of formal arms control negotiations. Instead, as Bush said in 2001, he met with then-President Vladimir Putin of Russia, "looked the man in the eye," and proposed that each side simply slash its arsenal unilaterally. But without a binding, formal pact, no mechanisms were in place to verify the cuts or to prevent backsliding.
"Bush came in against arms control treaties in general and has resisted the trust-but-verify enforcement system that was developed during the Cold War," said Graham Allison, director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a key figure in the Clinton-era dismantling of ex-Soviet nukes. "McCain has made it quite clear he's back in the mainstream of Republican and Democratic policy."
Although it's no surprise that the liberal Obama has talked up his support for arms control, McCain has expressed a remarkable fervor for multilateralism. McCain has not only joined his Democratic rival in endorsing a world free of nuclear weapons as a long-term goal, he has also promised a host of near-term initiatives: strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, boosting Cooperative Threat Reduction aid to Russia and other countries, and negotiating a new fissile material cut-off treaty to limit global production of uranium and plutonium. McCain has even pledged to reconsider his 1999 vote against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty--provided that he could include adequate provisions for maintaining America's nuclear arsenal.
But significant caveats punctuate McCain's bold rhetoric on arms control. When Democrats, including Obama, tried to restrict research into new types of nuclear weapons, McCain voted repeatedly against them in the Senate. When just 26 senators, including Obama, tried to make India stop producing weapons material as a condition for a deal with the United States on civilian nuclear power, McCain voted with the majority to put a potential alliance with New Delhi ahead of nonproliferation concerns.
Likewise, Obama has supported cutting missile defense to fund additional anti-proliferation initiatives, but McCain has consistently supported the program--including anti-missile sites in Eastern Europe to which Moscow has strenuously objected. McCain has even called for kicking Russia out of the G-8 group of industrial democracies, a punishment for Putin's creeping authoritarianism that would hardly encourage Russian cooperation on arms control. Both McCain and Obama contend they would do far more to limit nuclear weapons than Bush has--but McCain has made it clear that, for good or ill, he has higher priorities.
Showing the Money
In 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush pledged to "transform" the U.S. military into a leaner but radically higher-tech force during his presidency. The Bush-Rumsfeld reliance on smaller forces with more-sophisticated weapons has been thoroughly repudiated in Iraq--where McCain advocated deploying additional ground troops long before the administration came around. Bush also finally conceded to enlarging the Army and Marine Corps, a program that both parties and White House candidates endorse: Obama wants to add 92,000 personnel (the current plan), McCain 250,000.
McCain is no soft touch for defense interests, however. He has fiercely criticized high-priced programs, he regularly rebukes his fellow legislators for inserting pork-barrel projects into the defense bill, and he consistently blocked such earmarks on the subcommittee he led.
"The candidate who's most bullish on defense spending is also most likely to make life miserable for defense contractors," said Richard Aboulafia, an industry analyst with the Teal Group based in Fairfax, Va. In fact, many in the industry are bitter over what they consider McCain's capricious grandstanding at their expense. "He makes an issue out of ideas that conventional wisdom endorses, like multiyear procurement contracts," Aboulafia fumed. "It implies a preference for populism over good policy."
By contrast, Obama's relative sparse track record is almost comforting to contractors: With only three years in the Senate and zero time on defense committees, he lacks the stature to challenge defense interests as McCain has done. In his campaign, moreover, Obama has turned to reassuring figures from the Clinton administration's Pentagon. "If you look at what we did in the Clinton years, the defense budget, particularly in the late '90s, expands ahead of inflation," said Richard Danzig, Navy secretary under Clinton and a top Obama adviser. On defense, Danzig said, "the Obama watchword is pragmatism."
McCain's reputation for standing up to defense contractors isn't always as cut and dried as it appears, meanwhile. He has refrained from using his full Senate powers--filibusters, holds on bills, parliamentary delays--to force pork to be excised from defense bills, as Winslow Wheeler, then a Hill aide, pointed out in a 2002 paper titled "Mr. Smith Is Dead." And although he chastises the industry on some issues, McCain has championed it on others. Boeing, for instance, may resent the Arizonan's attacks on its tanker proposals for the Air Force and its Future Combat Systems program for the Army; but it also owes him for fighting protectionist limits on the corporation's ability to import specialty metals and other foreign-made components for U.S. defense systems.
"It's always a fight with the Senate, and he's been very active," said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, who has led the House in repeatedly passing measures to protect U.S. defense jobs, only to see McCain and other senators shoot them down in conference. That said, Hunter went on, "John has some very strong points that vastly outweigh what I view as the wrong position on trade."
Hunter and other advocates of higher defense spending know that, whatever gray hairs McCain may give them over particular issues, he will surely do better by them than any Democrat might. "Having Obama as president would be more congenial, but ultimately detrimental to the bottom line," said Loren Thompson, a Lexington Institute analyst and consultant to top defense contractors. "Weapons spending goes down when Democrats control the Senate and the White House, and it goes up when Republicans do." Neither Obama nor McCain is likely to break that rule.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
Obama has hammered the Bush administration--and, by extension, John McCain--for focusing on Iraq at the expense of rooting Al Qaeda and its allies from their hideouts in Afghanistan and the lawless borderlands of neighboring Pakistan. In August 2007, however, what had been one of Obama's most reliable rhetorical weapons burned his own hand, when he said he would order unilateral strikes on targets in Pakistani territory without Pakistan's consent if Islamabad refused to act. Surrogates for both McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton leapt to accuse Obama of recklessly rattling his saber at an essential and fragile ally.
But the "bomb Pakistan" contretemps is less a profound policy debate than one of those teapot tempests that bedevil every presidential campaign. When pressed, the critics admit that any president of either party would strike unilaterally if national security were at stake--but insist that Obama shouldn't have said so out loud.
"Obama came under heat because he said, 'Of course we'll reserve the right to bomb things unilaterally,' " said Christine Fair, a Rand scholar who has traveled repeatedly to Pakistan. "But that's no different from what the Bush administration has been doing. We don't trust the Pakistanis, so we do it ourselves."
The candidates' real difference on Pakistan is subtler but more substantive. As a neophyte member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama has enthusiastically adopted many initiatives of his chairman, Democratic elder statesman Joseph Biden of Delaware, including Biden's plan for Pakistan. Both Democrats called for cutting off military assistance to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf after he declared a state of emergency and assumed near dictatorial powers; when Musharraf finally allowed free elections, the two called for ramping up nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. McCain, by contrast, went out of his way to call Musharraf "honest" and "legitimately elected." His praise for Musharraf, however, plays little better in media-savvy Pakistan than does Obama's talk of air strikes.