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A Primer on the US Presidential Race  

By Adam Frey  

Though the US presidential election is still a year away, the Democratic and Republican primary campaigns have been in full swing for some time. And, owing to a new and severely front-loaded primary schedule beginning in January, the parties may know their nominee by mid-February. Nevertheless, the current state of play is marked by uncertainty and crowded primary fields on both sides of the aisle, a testament to the lack of an “heir apparent” in either party. (Indeed, the 2008 election is the first in eight decades to not have a sitting president or vice president running.) The campaign is also filled with intriguing possibilities, including America’s first female, African-American, or Mormon president.

This article focuses on the current frontrunners from each party and explores the differences and similarities on key foreign policy issues, including the US-Israel relationship, the Middle East peace process, the Iranian threat and the Iraq war.

 

THE DEMOCRATS

Each of the Democratic frontrunners is an ardent supporter of Israel and a strong US-Israel relationship based on shared values and mutual interests. They also back vigorous engagement toward a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and support the isolation of Hamas. On Iran, all three generally agree that Iran is a threat that should be addressed through increased diplomacy and economic sanctions, though they differ on specifics. With respect to the Iraq war, the candidates believe US troops should begin withdrawing but again differ from one another in certain respects. However, in a recent debate, all three refused to give a requested commitment to have all US troops out of Iraq by the end of the next presidential term (early 2013), citing the need to be able to respond to circumstances on the ground.  

Hillary Clinton

* US Senator for New York since 2000;
* Former First Lady;
* Foreign policy advisors include: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger; and former Ambassador to Israel (and former Australian) Martin Indyk.

US-Israel Relationship and Peace Process: Clinton has stated her commitment to Israel as a Jewish state with defensible borders and with an undivided Jerusalem as its capital. With respect to current efforts to achieve a two-state solution, Clinton recently joined with other senators to urge President Bush and Secretary of State Rice to engage America’s Arab allies to participate in and support the upcoming peace meeting slated for Annapolis. The letter calls on Arab participation to be “substantial, visible, and constructive”. Clinton also was highly engaged in the long-running efforts to have Israel’s Magen David Adom fully recognised by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Iran: To strengthen economic sanctions on Iran, Clinton co-sponsored legislation that would prohibit the foreign subsidiaries of US companies from doing business with Iran. (Although current US law prohibits US companies from engaging in such business, foreign subsidiaries are exempt). Clinton also recently voted for a Senate measure designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation, which would allow the US to impose additional sanctions on the Guard’s leadership. Although Clinton would not take the military option off the table, she supports legislation that would require President Bush to seek and obtain explicit Congressional authorisation before taking any military action against Iran.

Iraq: Clinton voted to authorise the use of force against Iraq in 2002. Although she says she would not vote the same way today, “knowing what we know now,” she refuses to apologise for her vote despite pressure to do so from Democratic activists and the other candidates. Clinton currently supports legislation that would require the war to be “reauthorised”; supports a “responsible” troop withdrawal; and has said she will not vote for troop funding legislation that does not include withdrawing forces.

Other: Clinton believes that US dependence on foreign oil supplies has national security implications. To achieve energy independence, she has proposed a program akin to the US space program of the 1960s.

John Edwards

* US Senator for North Carolina from 1998 to 2004;
* 2004 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee.

US-Israel Relationship and Peace Process: Edwards has said that the US should always stand by Israel and do everything it can to help Israel maintain its qualitative military advantage in the region. With respect to the peace process, Edwards supports Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorist attacks but criticises the Bush Administration for disengaging from the peace process and allowing the momentum generated under President Clinton to dissipate.

Iran: To ensure Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons, Edwards would utilise what he terms a “smart power” strategy that would combine a “carrots and sticks” incentives approach; direct engagement by the US with Iran; international pressure to isolate the radical elements of the Iranian regime, like President Ahmadinejad; and increased economic sanctions on US and foreign companies. Edwards was critical of Clinton’s vote for the legislation labelling Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation, claiming that President Bush might use it as a pretext for military action against Iran.

Iraq: If elected president, Edwards pledges to withdraw 40,000 to 50,000 US troops (one quarter to one third of the current force) immediately and complete withdrawal of all combat troops within ten months after that. Edwards would leave some US forces in Iraq to train Iraqi security forces as well as to prevent Iraq from becoming a terrorist haven and the conflict from descending into a genocide, or spilling over into a regional war. Finally, Edwards would sponsor an international conference with all of Iraq’s neighbours - including Iran and Syria - to try to bring about a political solution to the conflict.

Other: Edwards has disavowed the phrase “war on terror”, arguing that it is a Bush Administration construct that has been used to justify ill-conceived policies. He also believes it gives the false perception of a single enemy that can be defeated solely by military means.  

Barack Obama

* US Senator for Illinois since 2004;
* Grew up mostly in Hawaii, the son of an American mother and Kenyan father, and also spent some time in Indonesia during his childhood;
* Key foreign policy advisors include: Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter; and Dennis Ross, Middle East peace negotiator for several administrations.

US-Israel Relationship and Peace Process: Obama has referred to Israel’s security and cooperation with Israel as the “linchpin” of many US goals in the Middle East. Obama believes Israel’s security can best be achieved through negotiated peace agreements with reliable partners. He believes direct US presidential leadership is necessary to ensure the Quartet maintains the current two-pronged approach (isolating Hamas, engaging Abbas), as well as to garner practical support for the policy from other Arab states.

Iran: Obama has called for direct US diplomacy with Iran, and famously argued in a Democrat debate that he would meet with Ahmadinejad, without preconditions, if elected president. He has also called for increased sanctions against Iran, both within and outside the UN framework, and increased pressure on Iran’s trading partners, and Russia and China. In the Senate he has introduced legislation to promote state and local government divestment strategies. Finally, Obama has also been critical of the legislation labelling Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation, arguing that President Bush could use it as a pretext to strike Iran.

Iraq: Obama opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, a fact which he often trumpets on the campaign trail to differentiate himself from his Democratic rivals. He has issued a withdrawal plan under which all US combat troops would be out of Iraq by the end of the year. At the same time, the plan calls for a residual force to remain in Iraq and “on the horizon” to train Iraqi forces, protect US diplomats, fight al-Qaeda, and, if necessary, intervene to prevent genocide.

Other: Obama’s platform directly links US “addiction” to foreign oil supplies with national security, arguing that US energy insecurity undermines its national security by forcing the US to expend financial and political resources supporting regimes that are hostile to its interests.

 

THE REPUBLICANS

Like their Democrat counterparts, each Republican frontrunner is a proponent of a strong US-Israel relationship based on the countries’ shared values and interests. They generally support efforts toward a two-state solution but are more sceptical than the Democrats on its timing. The Republican candidates are more willing to entertain the use of military force or regime change to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons if economic and political sanctions fail. With respect to the Iraq war, they all oppose premature troop withdrawals, support the surge, and believe that the Iraq war is inextricably linked to the larger war on terrorism.  

Rudy Giuliani

* Mayor of New York City from 1993 to 2002;
* Foreign policy advisors include: neoconservative intellectual Norman Podhoretz and noted Middle East historian Martin Kramer.

US-Israel Relationship and Peace Process: Giuliani recently told a Washington, DC congregation that he could not envision a situation which would separate him from Israel. He has taken a hardline on Palestinian terrorism and, in particular, Yasser Arafat (whom he once had removed from a UN-sponsored concert at Lincoln Centre). He supports the current efforts to bolster PA President Abbas, though not at any cost, and does not think Israel should be forced to negotiate with groups intent on its destruction. He also has said he believes NATO should invite Israel to join the alliance.

Iran: Giuliani has called Iran the leading state sponsor of Islamic terrorism. To forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Giuliani believes the US must be willing to use sticks as well as carrots, including undermining the Iranian public’s support for the regime, damaging the Iranian economy and military, and taking out its nuclear infrastructure with military force if necessary. Giuliani has said he would meet with Ahmadinejad, but only with preconditions that would ensure a successful outcome from the US perspective.

Iraq: Giuliani opposes setting a timetable for troop withdrawal, arguing it is wrong to telegraph to US enemies in Iraq when the US will withdraw its forces. Giuliani believes that the war in Iraq is firmly linked to the wider “war on terror” and that a US defeat in Iraq would lead to a broader regional conflict.

Other: Giuliani believes that decreasing America’s dependence on foreign oil would not only help reduce pollution and global warming but would aid the US in winning the global war on terror. To be ultimately successful in that war, Giuliani believes that US foreign policy must continue to promote US values and ideals but must be balanced by realistic means and expectations of what can be achieved.  

John McCain

* US Senator for Arizona since 1986;
* Ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000;
* Foreign policy advisors include former Republican secretaries of state Henry Kissinger; Laurence Eagleburger; and Colin Powell.

US-Israel Relationship and Peace Process: McCain has promised to “strengthen America’s bedrock commitment” to Israel’s security, including making sure that Israel retains its qualitative military advantage over its adversaries. He supports a “genuine” peace between Israel and the Palestinians as a priority and supports the continued - and, if necessary, increased - isolation of Hamas to achieve this goal. McCain also would invite Israel to join his proposed “League of Democracies”, a body which would act where the UN fails to.

Iran: McCain believes the potential regional repercussions of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon as well as Iran’s provocative behaviour in Iraq, toward Israel, and its support of terrorist groups constitutes an “unacceptable risk”. To confront this threat, McCain proposes increased economic and political sanctions through the UN or outside its framework if necessary. McCain also supports divestment campaigns by US individuals and companies. Finally, McCain would not rule out military action against Iran, stating that the only thing worse than such action is a nuclear-armed Iran.

Iraq: McCain has been an avid defender of the Iraq war even while heavily criticising the Bush Administration’s handling of it. He believes that the US did not send sufficient troops from the beginning and, having called for some time for increasing US troop numbers in Iraq, was a natural supporter of the “surge” strategy. He believes the war in Iraq remains “winnable” and failure in Iraq would have catastrophic consequences for the US.

Other: McCain has said that “defeating radical Islamist extremists is the national security challenge of our time.” To do this, he believes that the US must utilise all instruments of national power to win the war on terrorism, and cannot be complacent or naïve about the threat terrorists pose, their intentions, or their capabilities. He further supports spreading democracy as a key part of the path toward security - for the US and the world. McCain also explicitly links the US dependence on foreign oil with the conditions in the Middle East that breed extremism.  

Mitt Romney

* Governor of Massachusetts from 2002 to 2006;
* Chairman 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics Organising Committee;
* Would be the first Mormon president if elected.

US-Israel Relationship and Peace Process: Romney believes that Israel is currently facing a jihadist threat running from Iran through Syria, south Lebanon and Gaza, and whose opposition is not based on Israel’s borders but its very existence. At the same time, his administration would work towards a two-state solution where Palestinians reject terror, recognise Israel’s right to exist and both people can live in peace and dignity.

Iran: Romney has said that Iran’s nuclear ambitions represent the greatest global threat since the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. He argues that Iran’s efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb must be stopped and can be stopped. To do so, Romney would first tighten economic sanctions on Iran, including supporting divestment strategies. He also would isolate and put pressure on its leadership: in 2006, as governor, he refused to allow state police to provide security for former Iranian President Khatami’s visit to Harvard University; Romney is currently a vocal proponent of indicting Ahmadinejad under the UN Genocide Convention. Finally, Romney would not rule out a military option.

Iraq: Romney supported Bush’s surge strategy and welcomes the military progress being reported on the ground. He believes that a precipitous withdrawal would pose “grave risks” to the US, including sparking a regional conflict, allowing Iraq to become an al-Qaeda safe haven, and prompting the need for US troops to go back into Iraq.

Other: Romney speaks of the need for the US and its allies to defeat the “jihadists”, by which he means a radical and violent faction of Islam that is waging a global war against the US and the West with the intent of establishing an Islamic caliphate. Winning this war will require a multifaceted effort, he says, including military and diplomatic support to moderate Muslim countries as well as the wider promotion of “secular education, modern financial and economic policies, international trade, and human rights”. Romney’s approach emphasises the promotion of free market economic and trade policies in the Muslim world - as opposed to “democracy” promotion as such - as the path to enduring security. Romney also believes that the US must become independent of foreign sources of oil - but does not link energy independence with defeating the jihadist threat.  

Fred Thompson

* US Senator for Tennessee from 1994 to 2003;
* Previous occupations include lawyer, lobbyist and currently, actor.

US-Israel Relationship and Peace Process: Thompson has commented that Israel is “at war” with Hamas and has expressed admiration for Israel’s restraint and the concern Israel shows for Palestinian civilians when responding to Hamas’ rocket barrages. He has also highlighted and denounced incitement in Palestinian media.

Iran: To make clear US opposition to Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, Thompson would utilise economic sanctions, reach out to the people of Iran directly to undermine the regime, and enlist the help of US allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He believes the US must be prepared to use military force, even pre-emptively, if the other efforts are unsuccessful. He also has stated that if the international community fails to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, it must be prepared for the consequences of Israel doing so.

Iraq: Thompson has called the Iraq war the “defining issue of our time”. As a senator he voted to authorise the use of force against Iraq in 2002 and still argues that the US would be faced with a much greater threat if Saddam Hussein were still in power today. Thompson believes that the US must take chances to succeed in Iraq, which is a central front in the global war on terrorism.

Other: Thompson also argues that greater American energy independence from foreign oil sources will increase the US’s ability to pursue its foreign policy and national security objectives.

 

US Jewish Community Attitudes

As an official of a US Jewish organisation based in Washington notes, the American Jewish community historically leans heavily toward the Democrats, often as much as four to one in presidential elections, and this allegiance is unlikely to change much in the upcoming election. With respect to the current candidates, observers indicate that Clinton is the current Democratic frontrunner among the Jewish community while Giuliani seems to be the favourite on the Republican side. That said, each of the other major candidates - on both sides of the aisle - have support among Jewish voters and the situation is fluid.

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