Where Is Waziristan? A Look at the Candidates' Foreign Policy Positions

It is commonly believed in Europe that anyone would be more competent that George W. Bush when it comes to foreign policy. But with Clinton tough on Iran and most of the Republicans willing to follow Bush off the foreign policy cliff, that could be a pipe dream.

By John C. Hulsman

They look great. But where do they stand on foreign policy?

They look great. But where do they stand on foreign policy?

For American political junkies, it just does not get any better than this. With the Iowa Caucus just past and the New Hampshire primary looming ahead on Tuesday, the next month is one for eating, sleeping and dreaming politics. This year is especially enjoyable, for it is the first time since the 1950s that a sitting president or vice president is not running for the White House. More than that, any one of six or seven people could plausibly become the next most powerful person on earth once American voters cast their ballots in November. It is the most wide-open race in decades.

In the coming weeks, most of the campaign comment reaching Europe’s shores will deal with tactics, strategies, fund raising, the media’s role in American politics, the primary system and the personalities of the candidates. In short, everything will be discussed except what the candidates would do should they get elected to actually run America. Foreign policy gets especially short shrift from many American political commentators.

The reasons for that are clear: It is much more fun to talk about Hillary Clinton’s raucous laugh, John Edwards’s $400 haircuts, or John McCain’s palpable disdain for Mitt Romney. But, especially after the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, it is glaringly obvious that America -- and the world -- simply cannot afford another president who needs on-the-job training. And it's not all that difficult to determine the pose each candidate might strike on the international stage -- a quick look at the frontrunners' views on Iran is often all it takes. It also reminds us that beyond all the frivolous fun and excitement in the campaign, it actually matters a great deal who is elected president.


Hillary Clinton is easily the most hawkish on Iran of the major Democratic candidates. The senator from New York would first delight Europeans with her emphasis that America ought to negotiate unconditionally and directly with Tehran, and the sooner the better. Berlin, Paris, and London would also be pleased that she has consistently placed the emphasis on sanctions as the tool of choice in confronting the mullahs. She has also approvingly cited the Libyan and North Korean examples, pointing out that sanctions likely helped convince those regimes to back down from the nuclear brink.

But the cheering on the continent would stop there. For Senator Clinton makes it quite clear that she "will do everything in her power to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon." In other words, force remains squarely on the table. Clinton is ready to give multilateralism and sanctions -- those icons of conventional European thinking on diplomacy -- a real try. But if they fail, her position is not all that different from that of George W. Bush.

Barack Obama is -- on this issue as with so many others -- the hero of the European continent. While stressing Iran should be stopped from acquiring nukes, the Illinois Senator is fuzzy as to how this might actually happen, beyond repeating the standard European mantra that meaningful negotiations should take place. Unlike Senator Clinton, Obama would personally take part in such negotiations. Generally and uniquely, Obama calls for America to negotiate without preconditions with everyone, seeing this as the only way to solve international problems. Furthermore, to the delight of European elites, Obama thinks these negotiations should take place within existing multilateral institutions. Indeed, he is by far the firmest adherent to this centerpiece of European thought.

Americans, though, tend to be far more impressed by results (or the lack of them) than by process, and Obama is far from clear on what happens should well-meaning negotiations with Iran fail, nor does he elucidate what happens if endless conferences fail to yield results in other areas. In other words, he is unclear, in a way Senator Clinton is not, on the role power plays in foreign policy formulation. As always, Obama’s rhetoric is intriguing, but his ideas have yet to be fully formed.

John Edwards has concentrated on running an old-fashioned populist campaign, strongly focusing on domestic issues to the exclusion of foreign policy. In some ways, this is a shame as Edwards has some interesting, if vague, things to say that are not part of American conventional wisdom on foreign affairs.

For example, Edwards has questioned the sacrosanct war on terror in a way no other Democratic candidate has, calling it, “a bumper sticker, not a plan.” In pointing out that the neo-conservative Bush administration tends to act first, and think later, Edwards certainly has a point. However, his sound bite on this critical issue amounts to little more than a bumper sticker itself. While it is certainly legitimate to call the war on terror concept into question, after 9/11 you need a solid alternative to put in its place. Edwards seems better at asking foreign policy questions than providing edgy answers.

On Iran, the former Senator from North Carolina does better. Advocating a nuanced carrot and stick approach, Edwards proposes direct, immediate, low-level talks between Tehran and Washington, noting, “diplomacy is not a co-ncession.” While he thinks force must remain an option, the former Democratic vice-presidential candidate sharply criticized Hillary Clinton for recently supporting a Bush-sponsored resolution designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Edwards felt she was giving the president yet another blank-check for military hostilities in the Middle East. Edwards would certainly be less likely to use force in Iran than Senator Clinton.

Instead, Edwards calls for increasing economic sanctions through redoubling efforts at international cooperation. Like Senator Obama, Edwards is fuzzy on what happens if this fails; unlike Obama, he doesn't say which international organization should host such talks. Edwards, though, says a non-aggression pact between Tehran and Washington could be necessary.


John McCain made a rather terrible joke while campaigning in South Carolina in April last year. When asked about Iran, the Arizona senator laughed, and broke into his Beach Boys impression. Changing the words of "Barbara Ann" slightly, he began softly singing, “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran,” to general laughter. Force, to state the obvious, is clearly an option for McCain when dealing with Iran.

Senator McCain would make most Europeans wince in more conventional ways as well. Seeing Russia and China as impediments to an Iranian settlement, McCain calls for bypassing the UN, urging a global league of democracies to impose sanctions on the mullahs instead. Such an alienation of Russia and especially China would likely result in the two upping their investments in oil and gas-rich Iran just as quickly as Europeans were preparing to leave. Without a more comprehensive set of sanctions, such an effort would fail, economically harming America’s allies in the process, while enriching those who oppose the US over Iran. This half-hearted effort at diplomacy seems to be a non-starter, in policy terms.

McCain, though, is not prepared to go very far down the diplomatic road. He would not speak to the Iranians until they change their position on their nuclear program, at which point speaking to them would be unnecessary. He follows in the dubious Bush tradition of seeing diplomatic contact with Washington as a reward rather than as a real-world necessity. McCain has been clear that the only thing worse than military action against Iran is an Iran with nuclear weapons. Given his threadbare efforts at diplomacy, this is likely where a McCain presidency would lead.

Mitt Romney slavishly follows the current conventional thinking in the Republican Party over foreign policy. Romney seems to be competing with McCain and Giuliani to prove who is "tougher" in dealing with the Islamic Republic. While strength is a fine quality in diplomacy, it must be coupled with a thought-out foreign policy. Otherwise, it leads to the very cowboy aspects of American foreign policy -- shoot first and ask questions later -- that has characterized Bush's hapless administration.

The former Massachusetts governor calls for the diplomatic isolation of Iran and stiff economic sanctions to force Iran to change course. Corresponding carrots, though, are difficult to find. Like both McCain and Giuliani, Romney does not support direct talks with Tehran, at least for now. He likewise sees military action as an option. His strategy for avoiding such a strike, however, seems flimsy at best.

Romney, though, doesn't stop there. Throwing a bone to the hawks, Romney has called for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be charged with war crimes. While Ahmadinejad is clearly a menace, such comments amount to little more than grandstanding. Should Romney to become president, such a stance would make any serious negotiations with Iran practically impossible.

Rudy Giuliani is, from the European perspective, a real Frankenstein’s monster. The former mayor of New York resembles nothing so much as a competent version of George W. Bush. It is not a mistake that his principal foreign policy advisors, such as the fanatical Norman Podhoretz, are neo-conservative refugees, having washed ashore from the wreckage of the Bush presidency. Giuliani is nothing if not clear. Under no circumstances will Iran be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon. Further, the mayor is quite skeptical that diplomacy will work, musing aloud on the campaign trail that force might well be necessary to stop the mullahs, as diplomacy is rarely effective.

Giuliani may be right to ridicule those who believe in carrots to the exclusion of sticks. But European critics are surely correct that his lack of faith in negotiation can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Bush Administration demonstrated as much in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, merely hoping to fool its allies into rubber stamping its planned invasion. Simply put, Giuliani’s desire to continue the Bush presidency would likely spell the end of the trans-Atlantic relationship as we know it.

Mike Huckabee, surprisingly, is not blindly following the Bush administration off a foreign policy cliff as are Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Recently, he accused Bush and his team of having an "arrogant bunker mentality," going on to say that after Iran was included in the Axis of Evil, things began to go downhill. Such rhetoric is not, to put it mildly, part of the Republican Party's current foreign policy handbook. And it is music to European ears.

But Huckabee is scary in an entirely different way. Cheerfully admitting that he had no idea what the National Intelligence Estimate said about Iran, the former Arkansas governor was also recently unaware that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had in mid-December lifted the state of emergency imposed on his troubled country. Nor did he know that Waziristan, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is suspected to be in hiding, adjoins eastern and not western Afghanistan. Watching Huckabee, and having taught International Relations to college students, I am not certain he could pass my class.

It is not that Huckabee is stupid; you do not become a successful businessman, governor of a state, and a respected clergyman if you are a moron. Rather, Huckabee simply does not care enough to learn the foreign policy basics, rightfully concluding that winning the presidency is not dependent on him also winning Jeopardy.But if the presidency of George W. Bush teaches anything, governing is dependent on a mastery of foreign policy detail. Perhaps it is time to remind the country that in the old days, American voters put genuine intellectuals such as Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. They did so for a reason.

Editors Note: This piece has been updated with additional candidate profiles since it was originally published.


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