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updated 9/4/2008 11:03:45 PM ET 2008-09-05T03:03:45

Hidden from view during much of the Republican convention here, a fierce struggle has been under way for the foreign policy heart of John McCain.

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It centers on the deep schism inside the Republican Party over how to engage with the rest of the world, a running debate that has consumed different wings of the party and the Bush White House for the past seven and a half years. All week here, it was an undercurrent running just beneath the message of party unity and experience that Mr. McCain emphasized in his acceptance speech on Thursday night.

Many Republicans here — and some of Mr. McCain’s own advisers — have been looking for hints as to whether he will appeal to the base by leaning toward the more confrontational, go-it-alone approach of President Bush’s first term, or whether he will adopt the somewhat chastened, let’s-negotiate tone of the second term, an approach that has driven many of the hawks in the party to despair.

There is little question where the majority of the speakers at the convention came out on that issue: In seeking to portray Barack Obama as weak on terrorism and confused about American national interests, they have sounded a lot like Mr. Bush sounded five years ago.

Romney talks of 'Axis of Evil'
On Wednesday night, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts was at the lectern praising Mr. McCain for understanding that there is an Axis of Evil seeking to harm America, a term Mr. Bush has deliberately not used since he opened direct talks with its two surviving members, North Korea and Iran. Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York mocked Mr. Obama for, he said, avoiding discussion of the Sept. 11 attacks and advocating taking the Russian invasion of Georgia to the United Nations Security Council.

“Apparently, none of his 300 foreign policy security advisers told him that Russia has a veto power” in the Council, Mr. Giuliani said, skipping over the fact that after the bombing began, Mr. Bush’s secretary of state spent days helping draft a Security Council resolution on the subject.

But wander outside the convention hall, where advisers to Mr. McCain were talking about what the next president would face, and the tone was very different. On Thursday morning, the man Mr. McCain often describes as one of his heroes, Henry A. Kissinger, 85, was warning about the need for a bit more modesty in the use of American power.

“As a nation we have to understand our reach, but also our limits,” Mr. Kissinger told a packed audience of delegates and others at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He urged the next president to go slow on promoting democracy around the world — one of the centerpieces of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy — and suggested that lessons could be learned from Mr. Kissinger’s own cold war encounters with the Soviet Union.

“Our major effort with the Soviets,” he said, recalling his time as President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary of state, “was not to democratize them, but to normalize them.” It was a lesson worth thinking about, he suggested, as the next administration considers how to deal with China.

Democracy or stability?
The debate over whether to seek democracy or stability is part of what Richard N. Haass, who directed policy planning at the State Department in Mr. Bush’s first term, calls “the single most important fault line in American foreign policy today.” At its core, it is a debate over how deeply America is willing to intervene inside the boundaries of sovereign states to bring about political change — whether the country will pursue the “humble” foreign policy Mr. Bush talked about in 2000, the unilateral one he executed after 9/11 or the middle road has been forced to pursue in his second term.

Mr. McCain has been described by his advisers as a man so experienced in foreign policy that he knows his own gut, but he defies easy categorization. His threat to throw Russia out of the Group of Eight industrial nations went far beyond anything Mr. Bush has said, and he has often sounded more hard line than Mr. Bush about doing whatever it takes to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“There are things John has to say to point out the differences with Obama, like never negotiating with rogue states without preconditions,” one of Mr. McCain’s senior foreign policy advisers said the other day, declining to be named because the campaign had not authorized him to talk to the news media.

“But I wouldn’t overread that,” he said. “Who argued for normalization with Vietnam when the conservative wing of the party got ill at the idea of sitting down at the table with a bunch of ex-Vietcong?”

Similarly, Mr. McCain all but accused Mr. Bush of timidity on Iraq for his refusal, until late 2006, to increase the number of American troops there to contain the insurgency — a position that often put him at odds with the White House. But his refusal to compromise with Vice President Dick Cheney on what interrogation techniques constitute torture aligned him with many in his party — and many Democrats — who argued that America could never regain the respect of the world until it cleaned up its treatment of detainees.

He has similarly split with Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney on global warming issues, and on the need to renegotiate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, something a White House allergic to treaty obligations of all kinds has refused to consider, for fear it would force the United States into reductions in its own arsenal.

This story, Foreign Policy Factions Unsure Who Will Prevail, first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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