This editorial appears on the New York Times Opinion Page, February 17, 2008
Questions, Not Just on Iraq
How the next president plans to handle the disastrous Iraq war is the most important foreign policy question of this year’s campaign. But it is not the only foreign policy question that voters need answered.
President Bush’s mismanagement reaches far beyond Iraq. He has torn up international treaties, bullied and alienated old friends, and enabled old and new enemies. Before Americans choose a president they will need to know how he or she plans to rebuild America’s military strength and its moral standing and address a host of difficult challenges around the world.
Here is our list of questions. It is by no means comprehensive.
INTERNATIONAL LEADERSHIP Too many people who long admired this country as a beacon of democratic values now suspect and fear it. What steps would the candidates take to revive America’s reputation and its ability to lead? Would they immediately shut the Guantánamo Bay prison, commit to a global treaty to address climate change and press the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty?
CHINA How would the candidates handle relations with a rising China? How would they manage a potential military competition while also encouraging democratic reforms there? How would the candidates persuade Beijing to help dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or to play a constructive role in Sudan and Burma? How would they conduct relations with Taiwan?
NONPROLIFERATION Mr. Bush tore up arms control treaties, offered to sell civilian nuclear technology to India, then wondered why so many countries weren’t more outraged by Iran’s nuclear misbehavior. Do the candidates have practical plans to halt the spread of nuclear weapons? Would they commit to deep cuts in America’s nuclear arsenal, forswear the development of new nuclear weapons, and persuade the Russians to do the same? If the candidates see nuclear energy as a way to control global warming, how would they ensure that its spread does not lead to the spread of nuclear weapons?
RUSSIA President Vladimir Putin has crushed rivals, closed most independent news organizations and all but extinguished hopes for democracy. Washington needs Moscow’s cooperation on a host of dangerous issues. How would the candidates manage relations with an increasingly autocratic and increasingly powerful Russia?
DEFENSE SPENDING The United States’ annual military budget is now about $500 billion, with nearly $200 billion more for Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a 62 percent increase in overall defense spending during Mr. Bush’s tenure. And there is no relief in sight. The American military — in terms of both its people and equipment — is badly strained. Even a new president committed to a swift withdrawal from Iraq will have to keep asking for large budgets to repair the damage and ensure that the country is ready to face new dangers.
There will have to be tradeoffs. What weapons systems would the candidates cancel? What new acquisitions would they seek? Should the Pentagon make nation-building a prime mission? Should the State Department play a larger role in postconflict reconstruction?
USE OF FORCE All presidents rightly reserve the right to take military action to protect the national interest. What has Iraq taught the candidates about the use of force? Do they believe in pre-emption or the use of preventive force? What about humanitarian interventions?
TERRORISM Is the war on terrorism a military fight? Should it even be called a war? How would the candidates improve America’s intelligence capabilities and elicit more cooperation around the world? What would they do to oust Al Qaeda from Pakistan? How would they ensure Pakistan’s cooperation while also pressing for democratic reforms that are essential for its long-term stability? What is their strategy to stop the Taliban and Al Qaeda from regaining control in Afghanistan?
MIDDLE EAST It is far too little and very late, but President Bush finally launched an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. What should the United States, Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states be doing to increase the chances of success? Given that Hamas controls Gaza, is a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine really viable? How can the United States both protect Israel and encourage it to negotiate a peace settlement?
IRAN Iran continues to defy the United Nations Security Council by enriching uranium — the hardest part of building a bomb. How clear and present is the danger? What are the candidates willing to offer Iran in exchange for giving up its nuclear efforts? If Iran shows no interest, are there realistic military options? Must Iran also cut all support for Hezbollah and Hamas? Can Iran be contained without a military confrontation?
NORTH KOREA Since Mr. Bush took office, Pyongyang has tested a nuclear device and produced enough fuel for 10 or more nuclear weapons. Now a deal to dismantle its nuclear program appears to have stalled. Would the candidates continue those negotiations, offer additional incentives to speed up denuclearization or look for new ways to pressure Pyongyang?
On Iraq, there are still many unanswered questions. Most of the discussion during the campaign has been stuck on the past (who supported the war or not). Voters need to know more about what the candidates would do from their first day in office. Whether they plan to stay or leave, how would they accelerate political reconciliation there? What would they do to ensure that Iraq’s chaos does not spill beyond its borders? Americans deserve to hear the candidates’ answers, long before they go to the polls.