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RNC and Foreign Policy

September 18, 2008

Minneapolis, MN – On the sidelines of the Republican National Convention, foreign policy experts gathered at the University of Minneapolis to take part in a weeklong discussion on international affairs. A pool of analysts sketched out the most pressing issues that the new US Administration will have to face, while advisors to the McCain campaign outlined John McCain’s foreign policy view.


The team of advisors defended the concept of democracy promotion and the idea of spreading American-style liberty abroad while suggesting that McCain would pursue a more moderate approach than that which characterized George W. Bush’s Presidency.

Overall, the unanimous assessment was that the next President will inherit a complicated international landscape and will be faced with a series of thorny relationships with other countries, especially in the Middle East.

“Iraqis want us to go, but not immediately,” said Meaghan O’Sullivan, Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and a former member of Bush’s team on Iraq. The people in Iraq recognize that the US military contributes to the maintenance of improved security. However they also anticipate the moment when they will be able to stand on their own feet. According to O’Sullivan, a set timeline is dangerous because it would revamp sectarian divisions: “It’s been shown that whenever Iraqis think that Americans will leave, they immediately take steps to lock in the gains for their own faction.” In short, the US should wait until the Iraqis are able to find a political bargain for power sharing.

Professor O’Sullivan also addressed the worsening conditions in Afghanistan. She warned that the situation there cannot entirely be equated with Iraq and hence one must be careful in taking the lessons learned in the Gulf and applying them to Afghanistan. In particular, O’Sullivan contended that simply deploying more troops would not be effective: “We would never have enough troops on the ground to stop violence in Afghanistan like we did in Iraq.” Instead, the US should think about other and creative ways to engage with the Afghan people and, particularly, work with tribal leaders, a policy that yielded positive results in Iraq.

University of Minnesota Professor Michael Barnett painted a gloomy picture on the state of the Israeli-Palestinians conflict. “I liken it now to a suicide watch,” he said. Barnett thinks that both national communities are as far today from the hard-sought self-determination as they have ever been. According to Barnett there are only two alternatives, either the survival of one community and extinction of the other, or the creation of a federation: “Many people now agree that there is no possibility for a two-state solution,” Professor Barnett said.

Vali Nasr, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Shia Revival, spoke about Iran and argued that Teheran does not want a military confrontation with Washington but instead is looking for official recognition of the regime and for a working relation with the United States. “The Iranians want to be in a successful negotiation with the US but they don’t know how to get there.” According to Nasr, Iran feels it can raise the stakes with the US tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence they resist giving in to American demands. An American military attack against Teheran “would help strengthen the regime and would debilitate the debate on human rights and civil liberties,” Mr. Nasr said. Moreover, the Iranians might retaliate. Finally a military strike would swing public opinion in the Arab world in favor of Iran even more than it has already.

Ambassador Richard Williamson, Special Envoy to Sudan and an advisor to McCain, emphasized the economic crisis in Iran and the opportunity offered by the dissatisfaction of some people, especially the educated youth. “John McCain has been President of the International Republican Institute for years and he recognizes that providing support for civil society is a step toward creating a more open society,” Williamson said, outlining that a McCain Administration would pursue a strategy of direct engagement with groups on the ground to foster pluralism and promote democracy from within.

Also an advisor to Senator McCain, and former National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, Robert McFarlane advocated a similar approach to Democracy promotion in the case of Pakistan. 70 percent of Pakistan’s disposable income goes into military spending, McFarlane noted, while 70 percent of its population is illiterate. Hence, Pakistan is a place where the US has an opportunity to provide aid in the form of education. Religious schools — the madrassas — are often the only ones to educate children in marginalized communities in Pakistan.

“The goal of the US should be that of promoting, through education, a model of free enterprise that can contrast with the values of radical Islam,” McFarlane said.  “In the long-term McCain agrees that we must work to provide these countries with an education system and basic opportunities of housing and health care that will diminish the probability that people might turn into extremists,” McFarlane explained while not elaborating on what should be done in the short-term.

Also taking the stage was McCain’s friend and Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman also underlined the importance of the use of soft power to promote democracy abroad by means such as trade, public diplomacy, foreign assistance and education. “John McCain is seen as inclined to employ military option because of his persistence on Iraq. But John has a veteran’s distaste for war because he’s been through it,” Sen. Lieberman told the audience at the University of Minneapolis. “He’s a believer in the power of our ideas and of our freedom.” Nevertheless, Lieberman argued that there is good and evil in the world and that some people “just hate us.” The US will have “to make these people less threatening members of the international community by arousing their fear or confronting them directly,” Senator Lieberman said.

Overall, the conversations put forward the idea that a Republican Administration under McCain/Palin would never dismiss the use of force, but would put increased emphasis on the use of soft power for achieving goals by fostering civil society and democratic governance across the world. A different argument was put forth by Kim Holmes, Vice President of Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation. Holmes contended that, ideally, the US should take out the Iran nuclear program before it becomes effective, and best if done so by a proxy such as Israel.

Where exactly John McCain stands is still hard to assess. While some of his campaign advisors argue for a policy of moderation, his deputy foreign policy advisor Kori Schake, in a news conference with the foreign press Wednesday, portrayed McCain’s strategy as one that would oust Russia from the G8, renegotiate the agreement with North Korea and the six-party talks under stricter terms, and would maintain an aggressive military posture against Iran.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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