Washington — What Barack Obama tried to do with the sensitive issue of race, John McCain last week attempted on the no less important topic of foreign policy.
Obama, the leading Democratic candidate, criticized but did not repudiate his ties with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., but used his speech in Philadelphia to explore the wider dimensions of America's tragic history of bigotry and discrimination, suggesting ways this country could move beyond its racial polarization.
In an equally significant address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, McCain, the certain Republican nominee, refused to back off his support for remaining in Iraq, but put that decision in a broader context of American foreign policy, outlining a vastly different approach from President Bush and one that might heal the wounds left here at home and abroad by the last seven years.
Like Obama's address, this McCain speech is worthy of careful study and analysis. It began with a note that only a warrior like McCain could choose - a declaration by the son and grandson of combat veterans and the survivor of a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp that "I detest war" as only a man who has experienced its horrors can do. "Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war," he said, in rejecting the caricature of his own belligerence and explaining why he emphasizes diplomacy as the principal tool in a presidential arsenal and says that scholarships will be more important than smart bombs in winning the war on terrorism.
In a world "where power of all kinds is more widely and evenly distributed, the United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone," McCain said in an implicit rebuke to the mindset of the current White House. "We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them."
That repudiation of unilateralism was just the first of many efforts to distinguish McCain's approach from Bush's. "America must be a model citizen if we want others to look to us as a model," he said. "We can't torture or treat inhumanely suspected terrorists we have captured. I believe we should close Guantanamo and work with our allies to forge a new international understanding on the disposition of dangerous detainees under our control."
Next came a clear signal that the environmental agenda would change radically in a McCain administration. "We need to be good stewards of our planet," he said. "The risks of global warming have no borders. We and the other nations of the world must get serious about substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions."
McCain suggested a continuation of the cautious Bush policy toward China, "based on periodically shared interests, rather than the bedrock of shared values." But Bush's embrace of Vladimir Putin's Russia will not continue in a McCain administration. The G-8 assemblage of market-oriented democracies should expand to include Brazil and India, he said, "but exclude Russia. Rather than tolerate Russia's nuclear blackmail or cyber attacks, Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible."
Finally, McCain signaled not just a break with Bush but an abandonment of his own past preference for strongmen such as Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, by saying that time has run out on the U.S. "strategy of relying on autocrats to provide order and stability" in the greater Middle East. "We relied on the shah of Iran, the autocratic rulers of Egypt, the generals of Pakistan, the Saudi royal family and even, for a time, on Saddam Hussein," he said. But that game has run out: "Change is occurring, whether we want it or not."
All this puts McCain's insistence on staying in Iraq until it is a "peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic" state in a broader context, even if it does not reduce the yawning gulf between his vision of what is achievable in that country and those of Obama and Hillary Clinton.
This has the makings of a great debate, and we now know that both sides are intellectually and politically ready for the battle.