WASHINGTON — When it comes to fighting terrorism, John McCain and Barack Obama share some common ground. Both promise to intensify cooperation with other nations, boost U.S. intelligence-gathering and bolster homeland defenses.
There also are profound differences in their approaches, however, beginning with Iraq.
Obama's strategy hinges on withdrawing most of the 152,000 U.S. troops from "the wrong battlefield" of Iraq by the end of 2011 to deprive al Qaida and other groups of what he charges has been their best recruitment and propaganda tool.
The U.S. occupation, Obama declared in August 2007, encourages terrorist attacks, "ties down our military, busts our budgets, increases the pool of terrorist recruits, alienates America, gives democracy a bad name and prompts the American people to question our engagement in the world."
While Obama would keep a small U.S. force in Iraq to target al Qaida-allied extremists, he'd send some 20,000 more American troops to fight al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which the Democrat calls "the war we need to win."
McCain also pledges to send more troops to Afghanistan. However, he considers Iraq the "central front" in a global struggle with radical Islam. Defeating its violent adherents, he says, is "the national security challenge of our time."
The Republican nominee argues that a premature U.S. withdrawal would turn Iraq into a "failed state" where al Qaida-allied extremists could establish sanctuaries in which to plot a takeover of the Middle East and new terrorist strikes.
"Their ultimate goal is not Iraq. Their ultimate goal is us," the Arizona senator asserted in April 2007. "They want to destroy us, and if we leave, they will follow us home."
McCain and Obama start from different places in their overarching approaches to terrorism.
McCain doesn't appear to have a comprehensive strategy, instead making counter-terrorism a facet of individual policies toward Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. McCain's campaign never responded to McClatchy's repeated requests to speak to a counter-terrorism adviser, so his approach had to be deduced from his interviews, speeches and writings.
Writing last year in Foreign Affairs magazine, McCain promised to "employ every economic, diplomatic, political, legal and ideological tool" to help moderates in the Muslim world counter extremist ideology and propaganda.
In a number of speeches, however, McCain has made it clear that U.S. military power would be "the most important part" of his approach, arguing that the "ruthless" use of military muscle can "change permanently the mindset" not only of terrorists but also of ordinary Muslims who sympathize with them.
He promises to create a new "nimble, can-do" intelligence agency modeled on the CIA's predecessor, the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services, to "fight terrorist subversion around the world and in cyberspace." He'd also create a U.S. information agency with the "sole purpose of getting America's message to the world — a critical element in combating Islamic extremism and restoring the positive image of our country."
McCain has criticized Obama for openly pledging to strike al Qaida targets in Pakistan's tribal area if there's solid intelligence on which Pakistan refused to act. But McCain has indicated that he'd also stage such raids.
Obama convened an advisory group of more than 70 experts last year who developed a multi-pronged strategy based on the idea that fighting terrorism requires more than military power — which often proves counterproductive by causing civilian casualties — including law-enforcement, diplomatic and poverty-alleviation components.
"The overall philosophy is to move away from a predominantly military approach," said Obama campaign adviser Richard Clarke, who served as the Clinton administration's top counter-terrorism official and remained in the job early in the Bush administration. "That means using the military when appropriate."
In an August 2007 speech, Obama said he'd send more diplomats and aid experts to countries that were wrestling with terrorism and would start a $5 billion program to boost cooperation with other countries on intelligence-sharing, border security, policing and anti-corruption programs.
He pledged to lead a global effort to prevent terrorists from obtaining a nuclear weapon by securing all vulnerable storage sites within four years of taking office.
The Illinois senator's strategy includes doubling annual foreign assistance to $50 billion to help nurture independent judiciaries, well-trained police forces and more transparent financial systems in terrorism-prone nations, and he'd start a $2 billion fund to build schools in Muslim countries as alternatives to radical seminaries.
Like McCain, Obama promises to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and both oppose the use of torture.
Obama would use regular military courts instead of military commissions to try terrorism suspects. McCain was a key supporter of legislation that overrode a 2007 Supreme Court decision that declared the controversial panels unconstitutional.
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