Steve Chapman

It's an election year in wartime, and right now we seem to be having a real debate about American foreign policy. All three of the remaining contenders have been talking about Iraq for months, all have been touting their credentials to be commander in chief, and all have given major speeches mapping out their views.

But don't be misled. Instead of a real debate, we're having a make-believe one. The make-believe is the suggestion that there are clear, profound differences among the candidates. In reality, they represent a range that, on a color palette, would range not from red to blue but from cream to taupe.

It's true they have staked out distinctive positions on the Iraq war. John McCain was for it at the beginning and always will be. Barack Obama was against it from the start and hasn't budged. Hillary Clinton voted to authorize it but now wants to get out. They have also bickered over issues such as whether to negotiate with dictators and whether to go into Pakistan after Osama bin Laden.

Those disagreements are not trivial. It's safe to say a Democratic president would handle Iraq differently than a Republican one. But it's worth remembering what helped to get us into Iraq: a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that favors U.S. military intervention abroad whenever we may be able to accomplish something that looks appealing. That was our national approach under the past three presidents, and it's a safe bet it will be our approach under the next one.

During the early 1990s, McCain was wary of the use of American military power. But he supported sending American peacekeeping forces to Bosnia in 1995. When a civil war erupted in Kosovo in 1999, he became a fervent voice for using American bombers and even ground troops against Yugoslavia -- this when House Republicans were voting against giving President Clinton authority to go to war.

Soon after, McCain was urging a "rogue state rollback" policy. "We must be prepared," he said, to apply "military force when the continued existence of such rogue states threatens America's interests and values." Hmm. Whatever happened to that idea?

McCain's positions bear an eerie resemblance to those of Hillary Clinton, who vigorously favored her husband's decision to act in the Balkans. "I urged him to bomb," she said later. "You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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