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Why McCain, Obama differ on America's role in world

The general election campaign has finally begun, and presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama already are clashing on a crucial foreign policy issue: Should the United States talk with hostile foreign leaders?

Obama says yes, and that President Bush's refusal to do so has made some global problems worse. McCain calls Obama's position naive and dangerous.

Their disagreement looks all the more inevitable when viewed through the prism of the two men's life stories — the natural expression of how their different backgrounds led to two fundamentally different viewpoints about America's place in the world.

McCain was deeply informed by his family's long-standing military tradition and his experiences during and after the Vietnam War. Obama's early years were all about adapting to different environments and communities, from Indonesia to Hawaii to Chicago's South Side.

McCain was born in and lived the first few months of his life on a U.S. naval base in Panama, where his father and grandfather, both Navy admirals, were based. "John grew up in a family where military strategy was constantly being discussed at very high levels," said Carl Smith, a Washington lawyer who served with McCain in the Navy. "He was steeped in the history and purpose of American military power."

By contrast, the influences in Obama's youth were more about diversity than tradition. The son of a Kansas-born mother and Kenyan father, he was raised by his mother and grandparents in Hawaii, then moved to Indonesia at age 6.

"When you grow up in a different culture, you learn at an early age how to talk to different kinds of people and to appreciate diversity," said Scott Gration, a retired general advising the Obama campaign, and who lived in Africa as a boy.

Both Obama and McCain have access to some of the country's most experienced foreign policy advisers, and they have staked out careful positions, vetted by experts, on everything from the Middle East peace process to negotiations with North Korea.

McCain has grounded his foreign policy in the belief that America needs to project its power for good in the world. He supported Bush's troop surge in Iraq and recently said he would "never surrender" there, even if it meant keeping American troops in that country for decades. He also pledged to support forming a U.S.-led "League of Democracies" that could act more freely than the United Nations to pressure rogue regimes.

Obama has emphasized negotiation over military action and has said he would meet without conditions with leaders of such countries as Iran, Syria and North Korea, although more recently he has clarified that it would occur only after careful preparation. He has vigorously opposed the war in Iraq and pledged to begin a phased withdrawal that would have all combat brigades out of the country in 16 months.

As individuals, the two were shaped by very different forces. McCain, 71, had an early adulthood that was largely defined by military service. He went to Vietnam as a naval pilot in 1967, was shot down later that year and famously spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, where he was tortured.

The Vietnam years infused McCain with the belief that America stands for freedom and has a responsibility to use its power in the world, according to those close to him. They also help explain his deep-seated suspicion of authoritarian regimes.

Like McCain, the 46-year-old Obama speaks often of his father's influence, though he saw him only during one brief visit. The elder Obama went from herding goats to getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University, then returning to Kenya filled with idealism — only to be blackballed by its government for being outspoken, and dying bitter and unemployed.

His son has said he concluded from the lessons of his father's life that America needs to reclaim its image as a place of opportunity and good — a position he believes it lost under Bush's presidency — and must do it by building enough consensus at home and overseas that its goals can be achieved.

Obama's wide and varied life experiences helped him develop what those who knew him call his defining "pragmatism."

"The idea that there are two camps, the warmongers and the appeasers, is a false dichotomy, as far as Barack is concerned," said Julius Genachowski, a law school classmate who has since become an adviser. "Just as then, everyone felt confident he was not an ideologue. Now, he has idealistic goals, but he also thinks, why waste time if there are no serious plans to achieve them?"

Why McCain, Obama differ on America's role in world 06/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 10:39am]
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