Stratfor.com: George Friedman on the Debate
By: George Friedman, Stratfor.comOctober 2, 2008
Editor's Note: This is part four of a four-part report by Stratfor founder and Chief Intelligence Officer George Friedman on the U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy, which was held Sept. 26. Stratfor is a private, nonpartisan intelligence service with no preference for one candidate over the other. We are interested in analyzing and forecasting the geopolitical impact of the election and, with this series, seek to answer two questions: What is the geopolitical landscape that will confront the next president, and what foreign policy proposals would a President McCain or a President Obama bring to bear?

Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The presidential debate on foreign policy was held on Friday night, Sept. 26. It began with a discussion of the current financial crisis and then turned to foreign policy, and as with most debates, there was no clear winner. Partisans of either candidate will assert that their candidate clearly won, pointing to whatever they choose to point to as evidence. Then a debate will ensue about the debate, and a fine time will be had by all.

Much of the electorate has already made up its mind and will use the debates to reinforce its choices. Both the debates and the campaign are now about a relatively small group of people whose minds either are not made up or are open to persuasion. This group is now probably less than 10 percent of the electorate, and many of that 10 percent have a relatively low interest in politics and did not watch the debate. But there is a subgroup of voters that were the real target of the debate: those for whom there is a relatively high degree of interest, who did watch the debate and for whom foreign policy will be an important influence on how they vote. We would guess that this group, at this point, is no more than 2 percent to 3 percent of the electorate.

A Close Race
But 2 percent to 3 percent is going to be a very important number for this election, for there is every indication that this will be a close race, perhaps on the order of the 2000 and 2004 votes. This view is driven by the single most important fact of this election. Last week had to be the worst week yet for the Republican Party, as a financial crisis ripped through the nation on Republican watch. That had to shake confidence in the ruling party, and it did-Barack Obama opened a lead over John McCain in most tracking polls.

But here is the oddity: All things considered, Obama's lead should be in the double digits, and it isn't. The biggest lead he seems to have is about 5 percent in some polls, and 2 percent to 3 percent in others. This is better than the slight lead McCain seemed to have before the latest crisis, but it is not close to what we would expect to see for the opposition party at this time. Obama simply is not breaking the election open. If, as we expect, the financial bailout legislation is passed early in the week, it will calm markets and improve liquidity fairly quickly. Then, at the very least, it will prevent further deterioration in the Republican position and might even cause some bleed-off in the 2 percent to 5 percent of voters who switched to Obama in the past week. A 10- to 15-point lead is what we would expect under the circumstances-in which a bleed-off would still leave Obama with a commanding lead. That simply hasn't happened, and a bleed-off, should it come, would turn the election back into a dead heat.

When we look at the electoral map, we have seen a slight tilt toward Obama in the past week, but not a definitive one. There is nothing there that locks in the race for Obama. Indeed, the electoral map looks very much like the 2000 and 2004 maps, with the South and most of the mountain states locked in for McCain; California, New York and New England mostly locked in for Obama; and the election playing out in the industrial Midwest and Florida, with all of those states close. The question in our mind is simply this: If last week did not hand Obama an electoral lock, what will? It is hard to imagine what more could happen that would benefit Obama this much. Without trivializing the past seven days, Obama had the best week he could have had and picked up a few percentage points. For Obama, it can't get much better than this.

This tells us that Obama has limits on his growth, not unlike those John Kerry and Al Gore had. Obama has a substantial core base but is having difficulty taking definitive control of the center. The same is true of McCain, although it is harder to judge his top limits. Except for the early bounce from vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, McCain has operated in a political environment that has been relatively hostile. If everything suddenly came up roses, he might be able to pull into a commanding lead. But we doubt that we will see that theory tested-things are not going to come up roses for McCain. He is lucky to be in the race. More precisely, he has a base that is as inflexible in reconsidering its position as Obama's is.

We are, therefore, in the same position we have been in for the last two presidential elections. The country is deeply divided and has prior and unshakeable commitments to one or the other party. Some voters in each party are open to persuasion, but too few are available on which to build a campaign strategy. The battle is for the small group in the middle. The presidential debate on Friday night attempted to take a small hill-uncommitted voters who were tuned into the campaign and cared about foreign policy.

Machiavellian Virtue and the Unexpected
As we said in our first analysis in the run-up to the debate, the heart of a president's foreign policy will pivot around his or her virtue (understood in Machiavellian terms) rather than any particular policy. A policy, after all, assumes that the policy maker knows what the future holds, whereas the virtue of a president determines what the president will do when the future delivers an unexpected surprise. To deal with unexpected surprises, a president needs experience, quickness, smarts and the ability to identify the jugular and go for it.

During Friday night's debate, McCain tried to demonstrate that he possesses those qualities. After the debate, he was criticized by some for appearing irritated at times. We suspect that he spends a lot of his time irritated, but in this particular debate, his irritation didn't necessarily hurt him. He tried to show experience, hammering home that he traveled to many places and met with many people while Obama failed to hold meetings of a Senate committee he chaired. McCain tried to show his knowledge by diving into a few details of Ukrainian politics. He tried to show that he could get nasty and critical after making the point that he had looked into Putin's eyes and seen three letters: KGB. He tried to capture the virtue of a president by implying that he understood his enemy and was constitutionally incapable of being intimidated by him.

Obama counterattacked McCain on his weakest point: his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By making that attack, Obama sought to undermine McCain's virtue (McCain had made a bad call) and enhance his own (Obama had forecast that the Iraq invasion was a mistake). Obama hit back by trying to show that this was not an anti-war position, but a well-considered strategic one, in which he recognized the greater significance of Afghanistan over Iraq. McCain, seeing the threat, countered by charging that Obama didn't know the difference between a strategy and a tactic, hammering home Obama's lack of military experience.

The very best that Obama could have hoped for on the virtue aspect of the debate was to see McCain explode emotionally, showing himself to be unfit for office. He didn't get that. Obama's best maneuver was the one he chose, to hammer on the decision to go into Iraq and use that to undermine McCain's ultimate virtue in the exercise of power. Therefore, we saw McCain consistently trying to show broader and deeper understanding, as well as seasoned toughness, while Obama constantly returned to the original Iraq decision.

The critical point for McCain came on the question of meetings without preconditions, and the attempt to nail Obama as naïve for suggesting such meetings. McCain was driving hard on the theme that Obama doesn't understand how international negotiations work. Obama came back with the claim that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, an adviser to McCain, had endorsed talks without preconditions as well. The argument wound up in a tangle of who said what and who had known whom longer, and we leave it to the reader to decide who won that exchange. But it was emblematic of the entire debate, with McCain trying to show his sophistication against Obama's naiveté, and Obama trying to demonstrate that there was nothing unreasonable or novel about his own position.

McCain tried to flip the sophistication issue against Obama in an interesting way on Pakistan. During the debate and before it, Obama made the point that the key to the U.S.-jihadist war is in Afghanistan and that in order to win in Afghanistan, the United States might have to take action in Pakistan. McCain, normally taking the more aggressive stance, turned conciliatory on the Pakistan issue. He made the case that one should never point a gun at someone one isn't trying to shoot, trying to make Obama appear reckless and unsophisticated at the same time.
Sophistication again came into the picture on the discussion of Iran and Georgia. There appeared to be no substantial disagreement on that issue (apart from how and when a presidential meeting that no one expects might take place), but there was agreement on one point: involvement of U.S. allies in dealing with Russia and Iran. And by allies, both candidates clearly meant European allies.

The Question of Allies
As we argued earlier, there is a belief throughout the political spectrum that any sophisticated foreign policy must be an alliance-based policy, and that the most important allies are European. Obama draws this from his deepest Democratic roots, while McCain, drawing on the moralism of the Republicans, wants alliances with democracies, and particularly the strong democracies of Europe. McCain went so far, in a startling statement that has not been widely noted, as to argue for the creation of a new alliance of democratic nations that would bypass the United Nations (where the Russians and Chinese hold veto powers). Obama did not respond to that proposition in detail, but it would be interesting, at some point during the campaign, for McCain to define precisely what he was talking about and for Obama to say whether he agrees with it.

Both candidates were invoking alliances to distinguish themselves from the perceived unilateralism of George W. Bush. Neither addressed a crucial question: What if the allies, particularly the Europeans, don't want to cooperate? More precisely, both Obama and McCain seemed to call for strong actions against Iran, although neither specified what actions. Both also called for a strong response to Russia, although neither gave an indication of what they might do. But assume, for the moment, that the European allies do not want action against Iran and do not want action against Russia. Assume that all are content with "diplomatic pressure," which has, in the past, meant taking no decisive and therefore risky steps. Suppose that many Europeans believe the United States is overreacting to the Iranians and Russians. Would McCain or Obama act unilaterally if they refused to work within European limits?

No reasonable person objects to allies. The question facing the next U.S. president is the extent to which the wishes of allies should shape his foreign policy. On the basis of sheer personality (hard to read for people we have never met), it would seem that McCain would be more likely to bypass recalcitrant allies, for better or worse, than Obama would. But that is guessing at personalities, and the fact is that neither candidate has given any indication that he would act unilaterally. And neither has addressed the core issue, which is the divergence of American and European interests on many fronts.

The measure of the debate, in the end, is not in whether commentators liked it but in whether it moved the 2 percent or 3 percent of the electorate who were listening and who respond to these issues. We suspect it did not. The more sophisticated the foreign policy voter, the more likely he or she is to respond to the issues. McCain's attempt to dominate the arena of political virtue was powerful, but we suspect that those who respond to the issues had already made up their minds which way to vote, and those who admired McCain's style at the debate already were with him. It is that small fraction of voters whose minds are open and who are looking at the issues who are precisely the voters who might be alienated by his style.

Which is to say that we don't know if the debate persuaded any voters. Foreign policy is the heart of a president's power, and this debate showed dramatically different styles and levels of experience-some might say that new styles are more important than old experience, or that experience always trumps the shallowness of style-but very little difference in foreign policies. The most interesting thing for us is the extent to which an older consensus on U.S. foreign policy seems to be re-emerging. Apart from the decision to invade Iraq (now a five-year-old issue), there seemed to be precious little difference in substance between the two candidates on foreign policy. And so, as always, it comes down to our perception of their Machiavellian virtue-known in our time as the character of their souls.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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