2008 “Town-Hall” Presidential Debate – A Foreign Policy Breakdown

Presidential candidates Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama held a town-hall style presidential debate this evening in Nashville, TN, and though the bulk of the discussion focused on domestic policy the two did make several noteworthy foreign policy comments late in the debate.

On Pakistan

Sen. Obama attributed the “difficult situation” in Pakistan and Afghanistan to the decision to invade Iraq. He says Osama bin Laden has set up bases in “north-west Pakistan,” which he declared the central front of the war. He vowed to “crush al-Qaeda” and kill bin Laden, and said he would not “coddle” the Pakistani government as past administrations have. Sen. Obama also said he would insist the Pakistani government go after militants, and would target bin Laden if the Pakistani government refused to do so.

Sen. McCain criticized his opponent for announcing his intention to launch attacks into Pakistan, which he blamed for damaging Pakistani public opinion about the US. He also promised to get Pakistan to “go into Waziristan,” but said of the question of attacks he would “talk softly and carry a big stick.” Elaborating on that, Sen. McCain assured he also had a plan to get bin Laden, but that he wouldn’t “telegraph my punches.”

Sen. Obama denied that he called for an invasion of Pakistan, and insisted that faltering Pakistani public opinion was due to US support for the dictatorship of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

On Afghanistan

Sen. Obama promised to “put more pressure on the Afghan government,” saying he would tell Afghan President Hamid Karzai he is going to have to do better for the Afghan people. His primary change in Afghanistan would be to demand Iraq take more responsibility for its security so he could shift more troops to the Afghan front.

Sen. McCain, by contrast, said the big foreign policy mistake was in ignoring Afghanistan after the mujahideen (whom the Senator termed “Afghan freedom fighters”) successfully drove the Soviet Union from the nation. His strategy was very straightforward, just letting General David Petraeus set the tone for the war and having him engage in the “same overall strategy” as the surge in Iraq, which he said would lead to “honor and victory.” He also said he would seek to “streamline” the NATO command structure.

On Russia

Sen. McCain said Russia might be the same old “Evil Empire” they were during the Soviet era, He also assured that there would be no new Cold War, while warning that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was plotting against Ukraine in an attempt to “reassemble the old Soviet Union.” He said the US should provide “moral support” to Georgia and Ukraine and penalize Russia for its actions.

Sen. Obama went a step further, saying the moral support should also come with “concrete financial support.” He accused Prime Minister Putin of engaging in “evil behavior,” and cautioned that Russia has “dangerous nationalist impulses.” His said that seeking energy independence would be a good way to “weaken Russia.”

On Iran

Sen. Obama mentioned Sen. McCain’s previous “bomb bomb bomb Iran” song, though Sen. McCain insisted he was just “joking with an old veteran” in making this comment.

Sen. McCain accused Iran of being engaged in a “quest” to acquire nuclear weapons, and said that if Iran ever acquires a nuclear arsenal everyone else in the Middle East would acquire them as well. He chided Sen. Obama for supporting talks without preconditions with Iran, and called for significant new sanctions against Iran. He also called for a “League of Democracies” to crack down on Iran, and insisted “we can never allow a second Holocaust.”

Sen. Obama said that though he supports talks, he would never take the option of attacking Iran off the table, and would not allow the United Nations to “veto” an American attack. He also said Iran should be barred from importing gasoline as a way of putting “the squeeze on them.” He also accused Iran of having “4,000 centrifuges to develop nuclear weapons” and called for tighter sanctions.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for Antiwar.com. He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.