The race between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain is still in its early days, and Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has already taken center stage. Not so much for the threat he represents but as a cudgel for the candidates to whack away at each other's perceived weakness. It began when Obama suggested last year that he would be willing to meet with some of America's biggest enemies, including Ahmadinejad, without preconditions. McCain used Obama's remarks to portray the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee as naive and inexperienced. "It's hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants," McCain told one audience. Obama replies that he would hold such meetings only if he thought they would serve a purpose and has tried to turn these attacks around to link his GOP rival more directly to the unpopular President Bush. "It is time to once again make American diplomacy a tool to succeed, not just a means of containing failure."
This intense back and forth between the campaigns has often obscured the larger challenge of how to deal with the threat from Iran, with its nuclear ambitions and support for extremists. Beyond the sound bites and attempts to twist each other's words, there are serious questions of life and death. Whoever wins in November will be the first newly elected president to take over in wartime since Richard Nixon came to power during the Vietnam War. Along with the need to contain Iran and manage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the next president will face an al Qaeda ensconced in a safe haven in shaky Pakistan, a belligerent and nuclear-armed Kim Jong Il in North Korea, and a world increasingly suspicious of U.S. intentions. "It will be one of the most daunting sets of challenges in modern American history," says Charles Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University. "The first day in the Oval Office is going to be a very tough one."
To make matters worse, the historic agreement that partisan politics stops at the water's edge has broken down during the past decade. "From Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton, presidents as they guided the ship of state were able to look over their shoulders and usually find a bipartisan coalition behind them," says Kupchan. "Right now, that ship has sunk."
Iraq war. The battle lines are drawn most sharply on Iraq. Obama, who gave a 2002 speech opposing the invasion, says the war has been a distraction from pursuing al Qaeda and pledges a scheduled drawdown to accelerate political compromises by the Iraqis. "We are done waiting for them to do the right thing," says Denis McDonough, Obama's foreign policy coordinator. "We're going to use the best leverage we have to press them to do the right thing." McCain has been a firm booster of Bush's surge strategy, calling Iraq central to the effort against terrorism.
McCain's campaign has benefited from the dramatic drop in violence in recent months. The number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq last month was the lowest monthly toll of the entire war, and with overall attack levels down as well, the conflict has all but disappeared from the front page. These trends remain tenuous, however, given continuing tensions between Shiite militias and the groups of Sunni volunteers who helped put Al Qaeda in Iraq on the run. The debate is now more nuanced, focusing on whether Iraqi security forces will be strong enough to take over for U.S. soldiers and whether or not political reconciliation is progressing.
More broadly, either McCain or Obama would inherit a military under terrible strain from multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Anybody who gets elected is going to confront a set of very painful trade-offs," says Stephen Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you want to cut the defense budget, how do you do that without undermining policy in Iraq?" The strain on U.S. forces places just as many restrictions on how many troops McCain would be able to keep in Iraq as the potential instability of a quick withdrawal does on Obama's ability to pull out.