Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 16:52 UK

US campaign bypasses foreign policy

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC News diplomatic correspondent

US troop in Iraq
Pundits say the success of the surge has had unexpected political effects

At the outset of this presidential race it looked as though foreign policy would be one of the dominant issues in the campaign.

Adapting the United States to a fast-changing world, extricating its armed forces from Iraq, and restoring the country's standing in the wake of "the global war on terror" would be sufficient foreign policy challenges for any new president.

Add to this the linked crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Iran's nuclear programme, and the quest for Middle East peace and you have more than enough to keep any administration occupied.

Foreign policy was also expected to play a significant tactical role in this campaign. It is after all one of the big selling points for Republican contender Senator John McCain.

'Surge' effect

In all of the presidential debates, he has sought to contrast his experience in foreign affairs with the relative inexperience of the Democratic hopeful Barack Obama.

Senator Obama, in contrast, has sought to present his opponent's policies as simply a continuation of the Bush Administration in all but name.

But out on the campaign trail, foreign policy appears to have all but disappeared as an issue in this race.

Even Iraq - still one of the thorniest of problems - has fallen from the headlines.

Out in Colorado, veteran pollster and pundit Floyd Ciruli explained to me what was happening.

Senators Barack Obama and John McCain
Whichever president wins, a troop build-up in Afghanistan is likely

His polling shows how foreign policy - even Iraq - has fallen way down the list of voters' priorities.

Of course it is the economic crisis that is largely responsible for this.

But he told me that paradoxically the very success of the surge - the increase in US troop numbers in Iraq - has had an unexpected political effect.

"The more successful the surge," he says, "the less Iraq has been covered in the press."

"So the more successful the strategy that John McCain advocated - which was to change the ground rules and add more troops to Iraq -the more Iraq receded from the agenda, leaving Senator McCain without the credit he was really yearning for and expected."

Of course to say that foreign policy has gone away at a time of global financial meltdown is to impose a totally false division between the worlds of economics and foreign policy.

In today's globalised world they are intimately bound up with each other.

No silver lining

For a view on the significance of this crisis for America's role as a global leader, I turned to Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and a former senior official in the Bush Administration.

The new President is going to wake up in the White House and very quickly realise just how constrained he is
Richard Haass
President of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York
"Not every cloud has a silver lining," he said, "and essentially there will be nothing particularly positive that flows from this financial crisis."

"Most importantly," he stressed, "it weakens the economic foundation stone, which is at the basis of all the US does in the world. In the future there will be far fewer resources available, be it for the military, for aid, and for anything else."

It is going to be harder, he said, for the next US president to get Americans to support open trade policies, for example a new world trade agreement.

"I think the prospects for that go down", he says.

But above all he stressed that the crisis effects "the ability of the United States to preach to the rest of the world about how to operate a modern global capitalist economy. Our credibility in that area has gone down considerably."

Richard Haass though, as one of the more pragmatic conservative foreign policy analysts is no doom-merchant.

Catastrophe or opportunity

"The crisis has damaged or weakened the position of the United States in the world," he said.

"But I wouldn't assume that this is permanent.

"We are most likely entering a period of disorder, where essentially we have gone from an American-dominated uni-polar world to a world in which power is distributed to many actors; some of whom are prepared to play a helpful role, and unfortunately some of whom are not."

Gary Hart, 2003
Gary Hart believes the global economy problems help Mr Obama

While in the West, I touched base with one of the Democratic Party's most prominent foreign policy thinkers - former senator and one-time presidential hopeful Gary Hart.

While not underestimating the impact of the problems of the global economy, he nonetheless saw in all of this an opportunity for the man that he backs for the Presidency, Senator Obama.

"I can see a situation", he told me in his office at the University of Colorado, "where catastrophe can be turned into opportunity, where a President Barrack Obama simply says our situation is different now, we are going to play a different role in the world and our role is convenor and creative leader."

A new international regulatory system for banking might be needed, he argued and this, he said, "might be a good place for the new president to start."

Gary Hart thinks that a President Obama could transform American foreign policy.

This assessment stems from his fundamental analysis of the problems facing the contemporary world.

"All of the current global problems," he told me, "be it proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; failing states; climate change; mass South-North migrations; the threat of pandemics and so on, share two common features. One is that no single nation, by itself can solve them and second, they cannot be solved by military means at all."

Then he harked back to a theme of many Democrats, suggesting, as he put it, "that an Obama Administration might recreate the Truman-era of 1945 to 1948 and create a new set of international institutions in collaboration with our allies to address these new realities."

This idea of a new American foreign policy based upon co-operation and collaboration rather than unilateralism is what many people abroad seem to be hoping for from a President Obama.

If opinion polls are to be believed, the overwhelming view in the world beyond America's shores is that Mr Obama is the right man for the job.

Outside America many of the caricatures of Mr McCain as simply "a George W Bush Mark III" seem to be widely accepted.

But behind the slogans, some experts wonder just how different an Obama or a McCain administration might be from each other; at least in foreign policy terms.

Diplomatic tools

"I think no matter who wins", Richard Haass said, "you are going to see a reduction in the American presence in Iraq - they may disagree on the pace and how fast we get to some point - but the era in which Iraq has dominated American foreign policy is over."

US and Iraqi forces in Iraq
Polls show the Iraq war has become less of a priority for voters
He went on: "We are going to see a build-up in Afghanistan, no matter who is the winner, there is a consensus that the situation there is deteriorating rapidly and the United States needs to re-orient its policy.

"And I would think we are going to see a new diplomatic approach towards Iran as it speeds along in its efforts to give itself the option to develop nuclear materials and conceivably nuclear weapons."

Nonetheless Richard Haass accepted that there were some significant differences between the candidates especially in the emphasis they place on diplomacy.

"I think Senator Obama is more comfortable in embracing diplomacy as a central tool or instrument of American foreign policy" he told me.

"Senator McCain approaches diplomacy a little bit more with pre-conditions; as something of a reward and he also seems to see it as something of a sanction, to be removed when he doesn't like a country."

But whoever wins the coming election, Richard Haass believes that diplomacy will win out over other options.

"The new President is going to wake up in the White House," he notes, "and very quickly realise just how constrained he is."

"He is going to have very few military forces that he can do anything with because the bulk of our Army and Marines are so tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Economically he is obviously going to find himself extraordinarily constrained - the US will still be importing two-thirds of the oil it uses and even if the price comes down somewhat, it will still be relatively high by historical standards.

"So the one box of tools the new president is likely to have at his disposal, will be diplomatic tools."

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