WASHINGTON — Fundamental differences on foreign policy and national security separate John McCain and Barack Obama.
Here’s where they stand on four major challenges the next president will face:
McCain, who called for ousting the late dictator Saddam Hussain for years before the 2003 invasion, says the 80 percent drop in violence there is "a direct result" of the 2007 surge of 30,000 extra U.S. troops and that "victory . . . is finally in sight."
He opposes a timetable to end the occupation, which will cost an estimated $1 trillion plus before it's over. McCain believes that stability and democracy can take root in Iraq only if U.S. troops stay until there is political reconciliation, economic revival and Iraqi forces can operate alone.
A premature pullout, McCain warns, could bring renewed strife. Iraq, he says, could become a "failed state" where al Qaida would gain a safe haven, Iran would hold sway through Shiite Muslim militias and violence would threaten neighboring states.
Obama, who opposed the invasion and the surge, admits that the surge has worked "beyond our wildest dreams." But he says that Iraq's Shiite-led government and its sectarian rivals will put off real reconciliation unless pressured to take responsibility for their own fate by a pullout of most U.S. forces.
He promises a "responsible and phased" 16-month U.S. troop reduction that would allow more U.S. forces to be sent to Afghanistan, which he sees as the front line of the war on terror. His troop drawdown would be accompanied by initiatives on reconciliation, refugee returns and regional stability.
Obama also would leave a "residual" U.S. force in Iraq to conduct "targeted counter-terrorism missions" and protect U.S. diplomats and civilian personnel.
Most experts agree that the surge greatly reduced violence. But, they point out that other factors helped, too: Shiite militia leader Muktada al Sadr declared a truce, minority Sunni Muslims had already been driven from large parts of Baghdad and former Sunni insurgents in Anbar Province had joined U.S.-funded groups to fight al Qaida-linked extremists.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander who oversaw the surge, says that ground conditions, which he calls "fragile" and "reversible," should govern any U.S. withdrawal. But most Americans want the troops home, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki wants a U.S. pullout by 2011.
Obama says the diversion of U.S. troops to the "unnecessary" war in Iraq allowed the Taliban and al Qaida to rebuild after their 2001 defeat and to establish sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal region, where al Qaida is plotting new terrorist attacks.
He calls Afghanistan "the war we have to win" and says he would send thousands more troops to Afghanistan to bolster the 72,000 U.S. and NATO forces there now. He also pledges to press NATO allies for more troops and would step up the training of Afghan forces and non-military aid programs.
Obama says he won't "tolerate a terrorist sanctuary" in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and implies that he would send U.S. troops across the border if Islamabad fails to act. He also backs a bill to triple non-military aid to Pakistan.
McCain, who's said the United States could "muddle through" in Afghanistan, denies that the rising violence there is due to "our diversion to Iraq." He says he would launch an Iraq-type troop surge to beef up U.S.-led counter-insurgency efforts. But he backtracked from a pledge to divert 14,000 troops from Iraq, now saying he would press NATO allies to provide some of the forces and equipment.
McCain also would appoint a White House "czar" to oversee Afghanistan strategy, including boosting non-military aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also would recruit local tribes in Pakistan’s tribal area to "fight foreign terrorists," the approach used against al Qaida-linked terrorists in Iraq's Anbar province.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the Iraq war has restricted the fight in Afghanistan to an "economy-of-force operation." Army Gen. David McKeirnan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wants another 20,000 troops, but most cannot be made available unless there is a manpower reduction in Iraq.
Military officials discount the idea of an Iraq-style surge. The Iraq surge was mostly to pacify Baghdad, whereas the Taliban insurgency is based in the countryside.
McCain, who once publicly sang "bomb, bomb, bomb _ bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of a Beach Boys song, says that Iran is the "world's chief sponsor of terrorism" and is seeking nuclear weapons that would pose "a danger we cannot allow."
He rejects direct talks with Tehran and would seek tighter U.N. sanctions to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear program. If that failed, he would lead "like-minded countries" in imposing their own sanctions, including strangling Iran's gasoline imports. He also would press for a private investment cutoff. McCain says he wants a peaceful solution, but he does not rule out using force.
Obama agrees that "there is no greater threat" to Israel and the region than Iran. But he says that he would hold direct negotiations without "self-defeating preconditions" — such as requiring Iran to first suspend uranium enrichment — and would offer it incentives to halt the program and end support for terrorism. If Iran refused, he would push for tougher U.N. sanctions and work with allies on unilateral measures, including a gasoline sales ban.
Obama also refuses to rule out force, but he says first exhausting all diplomatic options would ensure that such action would enjoy greater international support.
Russia and China resist tougher U.N. sanctions even though Iran has accelerated its nuclear program and refuses to cooperate with U.N. investigators despite three rounds of U.N. sanctions and unilateral actions by the United States and Europe.
Many analysts and European officials doubt the issue can be resolved peacefully without direct U.S.-Iranian talks on all outstanding disputes. "To make some headway, we have to enlarge this issue," said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.
Even then, Iran may have to be allowed to continue producing low-enriched uranium for power plants — its right under international law — if it accepts tougher U.N. safeguards against developing weapons.
When it comes to dealing with a Russia that is increasingly aggressive abroad and repressive at home, McCain and Obama share some similar stands on specific issues but would pursue different approaches to the overall relationship.
McCain has taken a more combative stance. In an essay last year, he called for Russia's expulsion from the G-8 group of industrialized countries — which is unlikely to happen because the other G-8 partners don't want to do it.
After the Aug. 8 Russian invasion of the nation of Georgia, he urged quick action on admitting Georgia and Ukraine to NATO. He said he told Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in a telephone call, "Today, we are all Georgians."
Obama has been equally vocal in criticizing Russia's actions in Georgia and called for international peacekeepers to replace Russian troops in contested regions. But he's been more cautious on NATO membership for Georgia — favoring it in principle, but not calling to accelerate it in a time of tension. Many experts warn that admitting Georgia to NATO could provoke Moscow further and would commit the United States to come to Georgia's defense in the event of war.
Obama puts great emphasis on working with Russia to secure loose nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union that could fall into terrorists' hands. He puts diplomacy first, front and center, as his preferred way to work with Moscow.
The candidates' "tone is very different. … McCain clearly seems to have a tougher line, which I think would exacerbate the already abysmal state of U.S.-Russia relations," said Hope Harrison, an associate professor at George Washington University.
Still, Harrison said, the differences on Georgia's NATO membership are a matter of degree. "McCain wants to do it faster. Any democrat with a small 'd' has to say, ‘The door (to membership) has to be open,' " she said.