It is not surprising Iraq has dominated the foreign policy debate during the presidential campaign. Nearly 4,200 American troops have died there since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and Republican Sen. John McCain's open-ended military commitment could not be further from Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's proposal to begin a phased withdrawal.
But the next president faces larger foreign policy challenges: the growing strength of Taliban militants and al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan, Mexico's descent into a narcostate, a resurgent Russia, the nuclear ambitions of rogue states like Iran and North Korea, the moribund Middle East peace process and the rising threat of civil war, hunger and poverty, particularly in Africa, caused by the global spike in food prices.
The next president will need to restore America's standing, rebuild alliances and understand the limits of U.S. military power. Both McCain and Obama have called for closing the U.S. prison at the American military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That would go far toward repairing the United States' image in the Muslim world. Guantanamo did not kill the Middle East peace process. But it gave extremists the cover to rationalize Islamic terrorism and it undermined the popular climate for Palestinian moderates to bargain with Israel.
Whoever wins Nov. 4 will need to realize the practical value of America's moral standing. While McCain has ridiculed Obama for his willingness to hold a dialogue with America's enemies, the old days of carrying a big stick have changed. Look no further than America's own military, which is so stretched it cannot take on the growing strength of the jihadis in Afghanistan or Pakistan until more U.S. troops are redeployed from Iraq.
McCain sees the big picture on immigration. Finding a way for undocumented workers already here to legally assimilate is a step toward controlling the border, creating opportunities in Mexico and stanching the flow of drugs, guns and money that destabilize both societies. Obama, though, applies that realpolitik across the foreign policy spectrum. His plan to expand the production of renewable energy makes not only environmental and fiscal sense; in the long run, it will cut our nation's dependence on oil and prune the money tree that America's biggest oil-producing antagonists, such as Iran, Russia and Venezuela, rely on to fund anti-Western adventurism.
The next president will need to speak more through the State Department than the Pentagon. Resolving the nuclear impasse with North Korea requires not only China's help but the skill to keep China's regional ambitions in check in the process. Solid relations with Russia, likewise, are needed to rein in Tehran and root out the terror networks in central Asia. The next president will need to use sustained and creative diplomacy to open these political opportunities. Ending the embargo against Cuba would inspire a region grappling with failed socialist models. It also would hasten the twilight of the Castro dictatorship, and improve the United States' legacy on human rights in Latin America.
The ability of terrorist groups and small actors to destabilize the global stage requires a new commitment to diplomacy. The incoming administration must re-engage the United Nations. It also cannot take America's allies for granted. That it took two weeks for the West to coordinate a response to the meltdown in the financial markets shows how disconnected the major NATO states are on a common vision for economic security. The next president will need to address how to regulate the financial markets in an economy without national borders. He will need to draw an international consensus on a range of pressing problems, from food aid and land reform to climate change, before they explode into full-blown crises. That requires something other than using America's military for nation-building. That policy is coming at a painful price in Iraq, and it should not guide this country's thinking another presidential term.
This is the last in a series of editorials on key issues in the 2008 presidential election.