WASHINGTON -- Foreign policy has slipped to the periphery of presidential politics, displaced by a nonexistent recession as the voters' preoccupation. Come autumn, however, Iraq and Iran might be central subjects, Iraq as a bigger problem for the Democratic nominee than for John McCain, and Iran as a problem for McCain. And the presidency might be won by the candidate who embraces a modest conception of that office.
Regarding Iraq, Democrats have won a retrospective argument: Most Americans regret the invasion and execrate the bungled aftermath. But that will not enable the Democratic nominee to argue prospectively that what America's sacrifices have achieved should be put at risk by the essentially unconditional withdrawal of forces that both Democratic candidates promise.
Nancy Pelosi says the surge has not "produced the desired effect." "The"? The surge has produced many desired effects, including a pacification that is a prerequisite for the effect -- political reconciliation -- to which Pelosi refers.
The Democratic nominee will try to make a mountain out of McCain's molehill of an assertion that it would be "fine" with him if some U.S. forces are in Iraq for "maybe 100" years, if Americans are not being harmed. Voters are not seething or even restive because U.S. forces have been in Japan and Germany for 63 years and in South Korea for 58. McCain's real vulnerabilities are related to four questions about Iran and one about Iraq. By answering all five he will reveal what constitutional limits -- if any -- he accepts on the powers of the presidency regarding foreign and military policies.
First, he says war with Iran would be less dreadful than an Iran with nuclear arms. Why does he think, as his statement implies, that a nuclear Iran would be, unlike the Soviet Union, undeterable and not susceptible to long-term containment until internal dynamics alter the regime?
Second, many hundreds of bombing sorties -- serious warfare -- would be required to justify confidence that Iran's nuclear program had been incapacitated for the foreseeable future. Does McCain believe that a president is constitutionally empowered to launch such a protracted preventive war without congressional authorization?
Third, why would any president not repelling a sudden attack want to enter the pitch-black forest of war unaccompanied by the other political branch of government?
Fourth, President Bush has spoken of the importance of preventing Iran from having "the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." Does McCain think it is feasible and imperative to prevent, or destroy, such "knowledge"?
The fifth question concerns Iraq and Congress' constitutional role in the conduct of foreign policy. On Nov. 26, 2007, Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a "Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship." Pursuant to this declaration, a status of forces agreement -- or perhaps something substantially more sweeping than such agreements often are -- is to be completed by July 31. The declaration says that the agreement will include "security assurances and commitments" requiring the United States to defend Iraq "against internal and external threats," and to "support" Iraq's attempts to "defeat and uproot" all "terrorist groups," including "al-Qaeda, Saddamists, and all other outlaw groups," and to "destroy their logistical networks and their sources of finance."
In a Dec. 19 letter to the president, Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said constitutional law and "over 200 years of practice" establish that such an agreement would require congressional authorization in the form of a treaty, statute or concurrent resolution by both houses. Sen. Hillary Clinton has introduced, and Sen. Barack Obama is co-sponsoring, legislation to deny funds to implement any such agreement that is not approved by Congress. Hundreds of such agreements, major (e.g., NATO) and minor (the Reagan administration's security commitment to the Marshall Islands and Micronesia), have been submitted to Congress. Does McCain agree with Clinton and Obama?
"War," wrote Randolph Bourne in 1918, "is the health of the state." War especially enhances presidential power, which probably is one reason why Theodore Roosevelt, Bourne's contemporary and one of McCain's heroes, relished war. "No triumph of peace," Roosevelt said, "is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war." Roosevelt, who also said, "I don't think that any harm comes from the concentration of power in one man's hands," was the archetype of the modern, hyperkinetic president.
McCain, who sometimes seems to regard his enthusiasms and disgusts as self-legitimizing and grounds for government action, probably would be TR's sort of president. The Democratic nominee will probe, and voters have nine months to ponder, the implications of that probability.