On the campaign trail, the two presidential teams have been savaging each other over what they contend are stark differences between how Barack Obama and John McCain would lead the United States in its multibillion-dollar war on terrorism.
Obama declared in his convention speech: “McCain likes to say that he’ll follow Bin Laden to the gates of Hell -- but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives.”
At the GOP convention, Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate, fired back: “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America -- he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?”
But beneath the harsh rhetoric, the two candidates -- who meet today in New York City to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks -- seem to be moving toward consensus on their broad-brush strategies, an unexpected development in what was the most contentious issue in the presidential race four years ago.
“The process of political campaigning has exaggerated the differences of the two candidates on trivial issues,” said Brian Michael Jenkins of the Rand Corp., who is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on terrorism. He has studied the issue in the last seven presidential races. “But when it comes to where the campaigns have outlined their platforms on Iraq, Afghanistan and national security, there isn’t a great deal of difference.”
Both McCain and Obama have pledged to retool much of the Bush administration’s self-declared war on terrorism, saying it has been heavy-handed, too militaristic and unpopular at home and abroad.
On Iraq, one of their most fundamental initial disagreements, the two candidates’ proposals have converged. Both now say they would withdraw troops within the next several years. Obama would draw down the troops by mid-2010 and McCain by 2013, but each with significant caveats that could prolong the U.S. military deployment.
Both say more troops are needed to quell a rapidly intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan and support a larger military force overall. They say a fresh approach is needed to capture Osama bin Laden and deal with the growing terrorist activity in Pakistan.
They pledge to stop the torture of terrorism suspects. They vow to engage in more public diplomacy and “soft power” tactics that emphasize winning the hearts and minds of those leaning toward extremism and anti-American beliefs. And they want to sharply curb nuclear proliferation.
Both want to close the controversial U.S. military detention facility for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and try such defendants elsewhere.
And both have come to support legislation that ensures at least some court oversight of the electronic eavesdropping in terrorism investigations to protect the privacy of American citizens.
And neither has said much about reforming the intelligence community or the Department of Homeland Security.
One advisor to Obama, a counter-terrorism expert, attributes to presidential campaign politics the disconnect between the perception of the candidates and their policies.
Both candidates, he said, are happy to talk tough on terrorism and to criticize their opponent. But they are reluctant to talk specifics because it is there -- in the nuts and bolts of how to fight Al Qaeda and the spreading ideology of anti-Western Muslim extremism -- where the controversies lie and the risk of alienating voters is potentially great.
“There is not a big incentive to articulate the details. These are complex questions that don’t lend themselves to short answers during presidential debates,” said the advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity because his role in the campaign is not public.
But Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s senior national security advisor, said that the two candidates are “profoundly different on a range of issues.”
Scheunemann said Obama “refused to see the obvious that Iraq was the central front in the war on terrorism,” whereas the Obama campaign said McCain erred in emphasizing Iraq over the terrorism problem in Afghanistan.
Officials with both campaigns acknowledge that the two candidates’ positions have grown closer on at least some security issues in recent months, in part because of the improving security situations in Iraq and deteriorating stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The reason people think there is a coming together is because McCain has been forced to move on issues like Iraq and Afghanistan in Obama’s direction, because the world has moved in that direction,” said an Obama national security advisor, Richard Clarke, a former Clinton and Bush administration counter-terrorism official.
And both camps say that despite any similarities on paper, there are fundamental differences in the candidates’ approach to counter-terrorism, which stem from how they see themselves and the world at large.
Team McCain portrays the Arizona senator as a fighter who is not afraid to stand up to bullies and state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran, and who knows firsthand the tragic consequences of war. The Obama campaign paints McCain, however, as a warmonger whose overly militaristic approach to counter-terrorism will backfire and create many more enemies than America already has.
Obama sees himself as a tough but more sophisticated peacemaker who will opt for a more cautious, diplomatic and inclusive approach to the counter-terrorism effort. The McCain camp says the Illinois senator is naive, lacks the experience and toughness to stand up to terrorism and its sponsors, and that his proposal to fight Al Qaeda through expanded law enforcement is outmoded and ineffective.
“It is certainly a matter of personality of character and world view” that separates the two, Clarke says.
Both camps said that they would offer more details of their national security plans in the coming weeks. But several counter-terrorism experts say they have grown increasingly frustrated by the tough rhetoric but lack of substantive details.
They acknowledge that the issue is not at the top of the agenda as it was in 2004, because of the economic downturn and the distance from the Sept. 11 attacks.
But they argue that the counter-terrorism effort will test the leadership abilities of the next president perhaps more than any other issue, and that potential missteps in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous other hot spots could be catastrophic.
“I haven’t seen or heard much nuance or cognizance of the complexity of the issues from either candidate,” said Frank Cilluffo, a former Bush administration counter-terrorism official who directs George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute in Washington.
“How do we realistically address Pakistan and the safe-haven issue? How would you recalibrate our counter-terrorism strategies and policies? To achieve what specific aims? What are the criteria for success?” Cilluffo asks. “How will you communicate your priorities to the world to drive constructive change? How would you differentiate your policies from the current administration?”
About this series
Voter anxiety over the weakening economy and other problems is a central feature of the 2008 presidential election. This series will examine how the candidates are responding to the discontent and how they would approach the country’s biggest challenges.