03/11/2008 03:58 PM

Goodbye, Cowboy Diplomacy

What Can Europe Expect from the Next White House?

By Erich Follath and

Who will be America's next president, Barack Obama or John McCain, or perhaps Hillary Clinton after all? What will he or she expect from allies? Europe is wondering which one of the three it should want in the White House.

US Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has said the era of cowboy diplomacy is over. But what comes next?

US Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has said the era of cowboy diplomacy is over. But what comes next?

Hillary Clinton was exhausted, but clearly satisfied, beaming in a bright red jacket, careful to make sure that she wasn't blocking the US flag behind her when the TV cameras rolled. The papers called her the "Comeback Lady."

By winning the important presidential primaries in Ohio and Texas, Clinton added new excitement to the race for the Democrat Party's nomination of its presidential candidate. That was last Tuesday. Now the resurrected candidate is sitting with a group of generals in the ballroom of the Westin Hotel in Washington. The photo op comes at just the right time for Clinton. Look at me, it says, America's future commander-in-chief. Her most recent, and more aggressive strategy against her Democratic rival has succeeded. She has raised a storm and sowed doubts -- doubts that the other candidate can stand up to the challenges of a real crisis when, as one of her TV ads suggests, the red telephone rings in the White House at 3 a.m. and the person answering will have to decide whether to go to war or remain at peace.

Barack Obama looked weary and, for the first time in this marathon campaign, truly battered -- like Superman brought back down to earth. The knockout he had planned failed to materialize. "No matter what happens tonight," he said, "we have nearly the same delegate lead that we did this morning, and we are on our way to winning this nomination." Obama is right, at least as far as the math goes. His previous week's lead over Clinton shrank by only a handful of delegates. According to CNN's calculations, Obama is still ahead with 1,321 delegates to Clinton's 1,186. But simple mathematics and the prospect of scraping by in a narrow victory doesn't exactly fit into Obama's visionary campaign.

He remains the frontrunner, after winning 12 of the last 15 primaries. But he has lost some of his momentum, and the wind of change is no longer at his back, pushing him to victory. Instead, it has shifted and is now blowing in his face. The press, which had been relatively uncritical of Obama and celebrated him as a black rising star, is suddenly hypercritical, blowing up minor incidents like his embarrassing, but not illegal ties to a campaign donor who is now on trial for corruption and even helped Obama buy his house.

Perhaps even worse is the fact that his rival has managed to downgrade Obama, previously seen as a new kind of politician, into a candidate motivated by tactical considerations, one who occasionally says things in public that he doesn't mean. A candidate who, for example, promises his voters to renegotiate the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, while indirectly letting these two trading partners know, through a close advisor, that his promise is nothing but campaign rhetoric.

In addition, his opponent has now aired a new proposal that is balm to the spirit of Democrats increasingly demoralized over the rivalry between the two candidates. She has brought the idea of a joint Clinton/Obama candidacy into play -- with her as presidential candidate and him in the vice-presidential slot, of course. She knows that this is something Obama can hardly accept. Unless he suffers a heavy loss in the next important primary, in Pennsylvania on April 22 (188 delegates), he will remain ahead, even if he is unable to reach the magic number of 2,025 delegates needed for the nomination.

McCain is No Dream Republican Candidate

If Clinton does indeed carry on a fight that could culminate in a stalemate at the Democratic Party convention in late August, there is still a good chance that the superdelegates will pick Obama. All opinion polls conducted to date have shown that the fresh-faced Obama, 46, stands a better chance of beating Republican candidate John McCain, 71, who is a generation older than Obama, than the more staid Hillary Clinton, 60.

Meanwhile, the Republicans can sit back and watch the Democrats rip each other apart. Their selection process has ended. McCain's last serious rival, Baptist preacher and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, withdrew his candidacy last week. McCain, the senator from Arizona, is not his party's dream candidate. He is not religious or conservative enough for most Republicans, and he does not reflect the views of the majority of his party when it comes to issues like abortion and granting citizenship to illegal immigrants. Nevertheless, they will vote for McCain enthusiastically. He promises the hope of continued party rule, which is more than most Republicans could have hoped for after the disastrous years of having their fellow Republican, George W. Bush, in the White House.

But what would each of the candidates mean for the rest of the world as president? Which candidate is good for the Europeans, and for Germans in particular?

Obama, Clinton and McCain have one thing in common: They have recognized that maintaining the status quo in Washington is not an option. They know that one of their main challenges will be to reestablish fundamental confidence in the United States, which has plunged worldwide. In this respect, each of them is a step forward for all Europeans, the overwhelming majority of whom are looking forward to the current president's last day in the White House.

Repairing the Reputation of the US

President Bush, who may well be the worst president in the history of the United States (a view held by historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University, for example), has brought the country's reputation to an all-time low worldwide. In the eyes of much of the world, the America of George W. Bush is no longer a beacon of democracy. Instead, it stands for contempt for international law (because of the US's unilateral war in Iraq), torture at Abu Ghraib, bending the law in Guantanamo and selfish environmental policies that do more harm than good to the world's climate.

US Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Barack Obama would expect more from Washington's allies in Afghanistan.

US Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Barack Obama would expect more from Washington's allies in Afghanistan.

Statistics support the dramatic decline in the US's reputation. Less than half of the populations of all Western European countries, 30 percent of Germans and only 8 percent of Turkish citizens have a positive view of the United States. This negative assessment apparently has nothing or very little to do with the often-cited anti-Americanism to which conservatives like to attribute the US's image loss. When George W. Bush began his first term in January 2001, 78 percent of Germans still had a positive view of the United States. This general fondness for Americans remains high today.

Each of the three presidential candidates has declared regaining moral credibility and recapturing a global leadership role by setting the right example as a major goal of his or her administration, but they differ when it comes to their foreign policy proposals designed to repair America Inc. At first glance, the differences seem minor, but upon closer inspection they are significant -- and they offer a surprising, but not always pleasant, outlook for German politics. Obama, Clinton and McCain all want to close ranks with the US's allies, and they all claim multilateralism instead of going it alone as their motto. But the inclusion of the allies in the decision-making process also means that the next American president will want them to take on more active roles.

Whether the Republican, a frequent attendee at the Munich Security Conference, or the Democrats -- with Clinton already quite familiar with Berlin, while Obama has made few European trips so far -- come into power, they will want Germany, as a NATO partner, to assume more responsibility, especially in Afghanistan. While Berlin has managed to fend off the urgent requests coming from a weakened Bush administration, this will become much more difficult when it is dealing with any new US commander-in-chief.

Asking the Europeans to Do more in Afghanistan

Obama, the inexperienced candidate, whose opponents criticize him for being too "soft" on fighting terrorism, is trying to seal off what could be a dangerous flank for him. He recently said that it is unacceptable that the Americans and the British are bearing the brunt of "the dirty work" in Afghanistan. If he becomes president, Obama will demand that the German military, the Bundeswehr, which has been stationed in the relatively safe northern part of the country until now, ultimately participate in combat missions in the south.

Every mission in southern Afghanistan is fraught with danger. Afghanistan experts believe that it is naïve to think that the Taliban can be defeated, no matter how many NATO troops are deployed to the region. Air strikes, the only effective weapon against the radical Islamists, who often hide in villages, also exact a high civilian death toll and fuel hatred among the population. At least Obama, unlike McCain, who emphasizes military options, plans to prioritize civilian reconstruction for the country.

Unlike Bush, whose demonstratively warm endorsement of his former rival could be more harmful than not, McCain is opposed to allowing interrogation methods that border on torture. As a former POW in North Vietnam, McCain knows what torture means. Like his Democratic opponents, he would probably close the detainee camp at Guantanamo. Nevertheless, his worldview remains shaped by his military career. "We can afford to spend more on national defense," says McCain, as if the United States weren't already spending more on defense today than the rest of the world combined.

McCain also hasn't ruled out a military strike against the regime in Tehran, although he has said that it wouldn't be his "preferred option." Speaking to veterans last year, he got carried away when he changed the words to a popular Beach Boys song, "Barbara Ann," enthusiastically singing: "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran." When he was criticized for the slip-up later on, he refused to apologize.

McCain wants to throw "revanchist" Russia out of the G-8 group of nations -- without considering the resulting loss of face for Moscow -- and turn the prestigious group of highly industrialized nations into a club of "leading market democracies," including India and Brazil. "I looked into Putin's eyes and I saw three letters: K, G and B," says McCain.

He wants to put the People's Republic of China in its place. McCain sees Beijing's modernization of its nuclear arsenal and its testing of anti-satellite weapons -- a matter of course for Washington -- as "provocative acts," which he refuses to accept without explanation.

Clinton's approach is different, and more levelheaded. She knows that she needs Moscow and Beijing, despite all the criticism of human rights violations and democratic deficiencies, to resolve problems like the North Korean nuclear disarmament issue. She wants to return to "a pragmatic willingness to look at the facts on the ground and make decisions based on evidence rather than ideology." She would probably ratify the ban on nuclear weapons testing Washington has placed on ice. "The era of cowboy diplomacy is over," she says. Her goal is to seek mutually acceptable solutions within the framework of international institutions. "To lead a great nation must command the respect of others," she says. "The Bush administration has squandered (that) respect."

Iraq is Where the Candidates Diverge Most

Although Clinton does not want to take the military option completely off the table -- in the case of a nuclear-fixated Iran, for example -- her priorities clearly lie elsewhere. She says that she could envision offering Tehran a so-called "grand bargain," a comprehensive treaty including economic aid, cultural exchange and the resumption of diplomatic relations. In return, the mullah-backed regime would have to abandon its uranium enrichment efforts and refrain from engaging in "terrorist activities."

Obama, citing a famous sentence by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt ("We have nothing to fear but fear itself"), would even meet with the leading Iranian politicians without prior conditions. Clinton has characterized Obama's willingness to engage in such a tête-à-tête as "naïve."

The biggest divide between the Republican candidate John McCain and his Democrat rivals is Iraq.

The biggest divide between the Republican candidate John McCain and his Democrat rivals is Iraq.

If terrorists were to attack the United States or concrete plans of such an attack became known, all three would strike back without hesitation. Even the charismatic Obama, who normally comes across as gentle, almost a pacifist, insists on the right to "unilateral American action." In the fight against al-Qaida, Obama says he would insist "that Pakistan crack down on the Taliban, pursue Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants." If necessary, the senator from Illinois would even use US Special Forces to eliminate current targets.

Environmentalists should be overjoyed by the three American presidential hopefuls' environmental policies. Obama, Clinton and McCain all sound as if they had been coached by a member of the German Green Party. All three have very similar ideas about reversing the Bush administration's course, which has been deaf to environmental concerns, and make climate protection a top priority. "We cannot solve the climate crisis alone, and the rest of the world cannot solve it without us," says Clinton. Throughout her campaign, she has praised Berlin's environmental policies and recommends emulating the Germans by creating new "green jobs" in environmental technology.

All the remaining candidates want to fight global warming with efficient energy savings programs, and have criticized industry and the CO2 emitters on American roads. When it comes to environmental policy, however, the least convincing of the three is McCain, who initially said that he would repeal the tax breaks for large corporations and the wealthy approved by his party, but then changed his mind.

The Democrats are playing to voters' fears triggered by the recession. Both Obama ("We cannot build our future on a credit card issued by the Bank of China") and Clinton create the impression that they can use protectionist measures to bring back the jobs the United States has lost. They must know that they are merely creating illusions among trade unions and factory workers. And they are also aware of the fact that all of Africa is already complaining about the West's protectionist practices in agricultural policy, and that its subsidies for commodities like cotton and wheat undermine fair global trade.

McCain Seeks to Distance Himself from Bush

In addition to economic policy, the final phase of the primary campaign will likely be dominated by another big issue: the Iraq war. This is where the candidates' positions clearly diverge. Those who plan to vote for the Democrats support a phased, but clearly scheduled withdrawal. Clinton and Obama agree that a "victory" for US troops in Iraq is impossible. Those who plan to vote Republican will be supporting McCain's statement that the US presence in Iraq could last "another 100 years." He calls his rivals defeatists and firmly believes in victory. McCain insists that the US has to win in Iraq. The consequences of a defeat, he says, would be a “catastrophe” of “colossal historic proportions.”

McCain seeks to distance himself from Bush by dividing the Iraq campaign into two stages. He says that in the first years after the military victory, far too few US troops were stationed in Iraq, which he criticized at the time (which is true). He also says that he called for the resignation of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (which is not true).

According to McCain, the increase in troop strength he proposed last year, as well as the military's new approach of forming alliances with tribal leaders, has substantially improved the security situation. McCain claims the surge is experiencing "success," citing the decline in American casualties.

The Democrats counter that despite the fact that some parts of the country are now relatively peaceful, the overall situation remains dramatic, the struggle is shifting to new targets selected by the terrorists, like Mosul, and the relative calm in Baghdad is the work of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who has chosen, for the time being, to respect the cease-fire he proclaimed.

It seems unlikely that McCain's strategy of aggressive action in Iraq will sit well with voters. Despite the Pentagon's considerable PR efforts, only 39 percent of Americans today believe that the troop surge is working and has been successful. More than 60 percent continue to see the war as a "mistake," and about half support withdrawing from Iraq as quickly as possible. In this respect, Obama has an advantage over Clinton. While she voted in favor of the war resolution in the Senate in October 2002, he was opposed to the Iraq invasion from the start on the grounds that it was in violation of international law.

Berlin will also see additional burdens coming its way on the issue of Iraq. All three remaining presidential candidates want to "internationalize" the Iraq conflict, and they are likely to ask allies for substantial financial and logistical contributions -- perhaps even troops.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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