This time next year, Democrats and Republicans will have anointed a presidential candidate in the primaries and the "surge" strategy in Iraq will have worked – or not. The US will then be ready to select its second president since 9/11, one able to start shaping a post-Iraq world for up to eight years.
While the candidates' views on the war provide a useful fault line to distinguish between them, it should not be the only touchstone for picking a president. Their overall approach to foreign affairs is far more important in the decade ahead.
Why? Partly because Americans' anxiety about the world may be at an all-time high. A recent poll by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public policy institute, finds a near-critical level of public concern over such issues as global warming and the dangers the US faces.
More than 8 out of 10 respondents say they are worried about the way things are going for the US in world affairs. And the number of Americans who believe the government can do "a lot" about foreign policy issues is dropping.
One by one, each presidential candidate is giving major speeches on foreign affairs. Often they go largely ignored in the media – except for dubious statements such as Rudy Giuliani's suggestion that Americans would be less safe with a Democratic president. Most candidates frame their views in a post-9/11 context of "national security," even if that includes such issues as illegal migration, Darfur, or trade with China. And last week, Democratic candidates held their first debate, with Republicans holding one Thursday.
One of the most substantial speeches was given last week by Barack Obama. He surprised many by appearing to adopt a Bush doctrine for preemptive action against terrorist-backing states.
He wants the US military to "stay on the offense, from Djibouti to Kandahar." The young Democratic senator from Illinois also said "the ability to put boots on the ground will be critical in eliminating the shadowy terrorist networks we now face."
He also adopted President Bush's apocalyptic imagery by saying the US must continue to "lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good." Hillary Clinton was far less bold in her big speech, given last October, although the two Democratic front-runners strongly emphasize using "soft power," such as education aid to Arab people, to drain the terrorist threat.
Perhaps the candidate with the most foreign-policy experience is Bill Richardson (New Mexico's governor who was UN ambassador, diplomatic troubleshooter, and energy secretary). He stands out for highlighting a nonterrorist concern about the "simultaneous rise" of India, China, and Russia and the need to integrate these nuclear-armed nations into a stable global order.
GOP candidates, perhaps not willing to alienate a pro-Bush Republican base, have been far less specific about their foreign policy.
Yet voters deserve as much detail as possible on each candidate's world vision. Free or fair trade? Threaten Iran or talk with it? Contain Chinese power? Invade Darfur? Build a bigger US military? Work more with the UN?
Soon the candidates must be pinned down on such questions, before one of them sits in the Oval Office come 2009.