The real issues of the American presidential election are the future of the economy and the future of American foreign policy. The one seems already settled. The second seems to unite John McCain and Barack Obama in support of a program doomed to fail.

The first is economic ideology. McCain, who admits that the subject doesn’t really interest him, has made the traditional Republican argument that cutting taxes, particularly for the rich, causes economic growth. It says markets are the best available mechanism for making economic choices, and should not be regulated, since in the end individuals acting in their selfish interest always collectively make the best economic judgments.

This now is all but impossible to defend, since Alan Greenspan himself has confessed that his lifelong convictions have been disproved. These ultimately rested on the teaching of the cult writer Ayn Rand, that individual selfishness is the highest public virtue. American finance and business have now conclusively demonstrated that this is not true.

Obama believes that markets should be regulated and that government has an indispensable role to play in the direction of the national economy. McCain attacks him as a “socialist,” a meaningless term of abuse in America. The only socialists currently active in the modern industrial world are members of major European parties who alternate with conservatives and centrists in the direction of successful and competitive national economies, such as those of the European Union.

In this respect, the vote has to go to Obama, who clearly is in better touch with the realities than McCain, whose economic convictions are part of the ruins that stretch from Wall Street to the family with the foreclosed mortgage.

The second big issue is foreign and security policy, where the two candidates have disputed how and when the United States should withdraw from Iraq, and whether priority should be placed on the struggle in Afghanistan. Circumstances are likely to prove the argument about Iraq pointless, since the current reality is of political and sectarian rivalry over Kurdistan and who controls Mosul and its oil revenues; and over a status-of-forces agreement for U.S. troops, the timetable for their departure from Iraq, and whether they really will all go.

In the end, the matter is out of American hands and in those of the Iraqis. They will settle who gets Mosul; the U.S. is not going to stay around to police a partition of Iraq. It’s the Iraqis who have the possibility (at even more cost to themselves, admittedly) of making continued American occupation of the country militarily and politically unsustainable, no matter who is president in Washington. Iran will also have an enormous influence on the decision because of its proximity, military threat to American forces in Iraq, and influence over the Shia political and religious groups in that country.

Afghanistan by January is likely to bear little resemblance to today’s situation, and there is even a remote possibility that the talks that have been going on (and off) among the Afghan and Pakistani governments, tribal leaders and certain Taliban leaders, may stop the fighting before then — or change it into something worse.

Obama’s exceedingly ill-advised promise to make Afghanistan the “real” war, and “go in and get” Osama bin Laden if the Pakistanis won’t produce him, may sound very hollow by then, as may McCain’s demands for “victory” over terrorism (victory over just whom, where, how decided, and to what actual political result?).

Civil war could be going on in Pakistan by January, with American troops in the middle of it (even fighting the Pakistani army to seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons). Pakistan today, as the analysts say, provides a “scenario-rich” situation, fraught with unpleasant possibilities, and far better left to the peoples involved, while Americans and NATO leave as discreetly as possible. But this last is unlikely to happen unless they are forced out.

The fundamental question that should be put to the candidates is whether they are committed to a program of continuing American unilateral military and political interventions in the Muslim world intended to make despotic and “failed” states into democracies on good terms with the United States. They undoubtedly would both say yes.

That’s too bad for the rest of us, who will be among those paying the price. Such a policy is the conventional wisdom in Washington, and certainly that of the array of former Clinton advisers so far reported to be associated with Obama. The people publicly connected with McCain are all or nearly all survivors of the neoconservative wing of the Bush administration (and not the brightest lights among the neocons either).

They all seem eager to press forward with the democracy offensive of the discredited Bush administration. Naturally they intend to make a better job of it, having noticed that under Bush the record thus far consists exclusively of failures.

Since the candidates currently seem agreed on this policy, the final question is not who would do it better, but which of them would be quickest to realize that it’s impossible. Intelligence isn’t everything, but Obama is seriously smart. He gets my skeptical but hopeful vote.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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