Presidential hopefuls take firm stand on foreign policy

For many Tech students, this November represents an important first: their first chance to vote in a major election. Of course, the big question many of them will be asking themselves about the candidates and the issues is, “How is this going to affect me?”

For some issues (such as taxes, abortion rights, and others), the answer to this is obvious, but, for others, the possible repercussions aren’t quite as clear, even though they might drastically affect the lives of new voters. In today’s global society, this is particularly true of foreign policy.

When asked how much importance voters should put on foreign policy as opposed to domestic and economic policy, Richard Barke, an Associate Professor in Tech’s School of Public Policy, said, “It’s simplifying to say that there’s a distinction between domestic and foreign policy…[you] can’t separate them anymore. For the past twenty or thirty years, you can’t say there’s such a thing as a pure American economic policy.”

Though Obama and McCain agree on several points (such as defending Israel’s rights as a sovereign nation, promising to close Guantanamo Bay and encouraging nuclear disarmament), their positions on foreign policy as a whole differ greatly.

Barke describes McCain’s strategy as one that makes more use of the military and has a clearer, though less nuanced, goal. Obama’s strategy, on the other hand, he describes as using a more balanced approach, mixing military, economics and diplomacy. He also noted that this is likely to attract voters currently disgruntled by current Bush-Cheney strategies.

Both candidates have made statements that back up Barke’s views. Obama has been highly critical of the Bush administration’s handling of international relations, with his campaign website stating that, “The United States is trapped by the Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don’t like.”

Obama himself has stated that, “Strong presidents talk to their adversaries,” and points to Reagan’s meetings with Gorbachev while questioning why the Bush administration refuses to talk to leaders in countries such as Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela which, he claims, “Don’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us.”

McCain, on the other hand, has tended to take a more hard-line approach to international relations, particularly concerning the countries of Syria and Iran. His campaign website states that, “The answer is not unconditional dialogues with these two dictatorships from a position of weakness. The answer is for the international community to apply real pressure to Syria and Iran to change their behavior.”

The candidates’ differences of opinion on foreign policy also becomes evident when they deal with the metaphorical elephant in the room of foreign policy: the Iraq War.

Obama, who voted both against the Iraq War and the 2007 troop surge, has advocated a plan that calls for the phased withdrawal of 1-2 brigades per month, meaning that by the summer of 2010, only a small, residual force would be left behind. These troops would then be used to bolster operations in Afghanistan.

McCain, on the other hand, voted both in favor of the Iraq War and the troop surge. His website stresses the importance of maintaining a strong military presence in Iraq: “[It is] [essential for the United States to support the Government of Iraq to become capable of governing itself and safeguarding its people. [McCain] strongly disagrees with those who advocate withdrawing American troops before that has occurred.”

One issue of particular interest to Tech students is the current trend of outsourcing jobs to other countries—especially those in the computing and technology fields. Here, too, Obama and McCain differ, with McCain supporting free trade while Obama only supports expanding trade when the potential partner agrees to certain labor and environmental standards.

According to Barke, though, neither candidate would have too dramatic of an effect. When asked if either candidate had any plans to help or hinder this trend, Barke commented that, “Outsourcing will continue regardless of who is elected.”

When asked why, he said, “I took ten students to study in Vietnam and saw a Pennsylvania-based, American company on the outskirts of Saigon that did a lot of really technical work with optics equipment.” After six months of intense training, Barke explained, workers at the factory made an average of $68 a month. “There are policies in place that provide incentives not to outsource, but [they] can’t compete with costs that low.”

How will the low costs of labor in Saigon affect soon-to-be Tech graduates and the rest of the American workforce? Perhaps the presidential candidates, just like Dr. Barke, will realize that there is no simple answer when it comes to international economic competition and foreign policy.

When asked which country he believed would play the biggest role in Tech students’ lifetime, Barke’s response was, “Other than the fact that China will be our biggest economic competitor, it’s impossible to say. Today, it’s impossible to accurately forecast even five years ahead.”