The presidential election is little more than
eight months away and the battle lines already seem formed. The Democratic nominee,
whether Hillary Clinton, or as looks increasingly likely, Barack Obama, will
push economic and social issues while downplaying foreign policy. The presumptive
Republican nominee, John McCain, will emphasize national security while attempting
to appear modestly coherent on domestic matters about which he cares little.
The edge should go to the Democrats, since a majority of the
public favors the Democratic Party on virtually every issue. Yet
every poll shows John McCain to be competitive with both
Democrats in November. Much of his support is based on his
experience, even though he admits that he's paid little attention
to economics and he has been wrong on the most critical foreign
policy issues of the day. Indeed, while a majority of people
believe the Iraq war was a mistake, about half of those polled
improbably said McCain, who has feverishly supported the war, is
the best candidate to deal with the issue.
The Democrats might hope that economic bad news will tip the election in their
favor, but McCain isn't likely to do them the favor of fighting where they feel
strongest. He's already proved willing to shamelessly demagogue national security
controversies, making the most absurd claims to back his support for America
in Iraq today, tomorrow, and for years and even centuries to come.
For instance, McCain mocked Obama for saying that the latter would return
to Iraq "if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq." Al-Qaeda is already
there, said McCain, and if we left "They'd be taking a country." Naturally,
said the man who jokes about bombing Iran and writes about attacking North Korea,
"I will not surrender to al-Qaeda."
Of course, as Obama pointed out in response, al-Qaeda moved
into Iraq only after the Bush administration, with McCain's avid
backing, did al-Qaeda the favor of eliminating the Saddam Hussein
regime. And al-Qaeda has no chance of winning a civil war. It
has always made up a small percentage of insurgents, and one of
the most important reasons violence has dropped over the last
year is because Sunni tribes have turned against al-Qaeda. The
terrorist group would be the loser in any all-Iraqi battle for
But why let the facts get in the way of another neocon
Since McCain is determined to make Iraq his signature issue,
Democrats have no choice but to fight back. And they should take
the offensive. After all, the American people agree with them
that the war was an awful, costly mistake.
Even McCain knows that he
could lose based on this issue. He admitted that he must convince the country
that the policy in Iraq is succeeding: if he fails, "then I lose, I lose,"
he opined. Although McCain later downplayed the importance of Iraq to his electoral
chances, he's right that the issue could prove to be political poison: abundant
personal courage and political determination cannot disguise his poor strategic
Denying control of the famed nuclear "button," as well as
the most powerful conventional military ever created, to someone
who is notably temperamental, possesses an explosive temper, and
got the most important foreign policy issue of our time wrong is
simple good sense. But McCain's defeat is critical for another
reason. The most important question is not, would he initiate
another conflict, in addition to Iraq? The right question is,
how many conflicts would he initiate, in addition to Iraq? He
has spoken of "many wars" in the future, and they, like Iraq,
almost certainly would be unnecessary wars of choice.
Even if the American people vote based on domestic rather
than international issues, a McCain victory would enable him to
carry out his foreign policy agenda virtually without constraint.
As evident even after the Democrats seized control of Capitol
Hill in the 2006 elections, Congresses routinely wilt when
confronting presidents, even when the latter clearly violate the
Constitution. Presidents routinely misuse the trust placed in
them, but few legislators will challenge them.
Moreover, a McCain triumph at the polls would be proclaimed,
by McCain and the neocon war lobby which brought us the Iraq
disaster, as an affirmation of the Bush policy of
counterproductive preventive war. President George W. Bush says
as much. He told the Republican Governors Association that the
voters will elect a Republican president who would continue the
Iraq occupation. He explained: "I understand the mentality of
the American people" and they "will elect somebody to the White
House who will keep up the fight to make sure Iraq is secure and
free." Of course, President Bush defines "secure and free" the
same way that President Bill Clinton defined "is."
But it isn't enough to criticize just the individual policy
in Iraq, foolish though it is. Unfortunately, both Clinton and
Obama agree with McCain on the virtue of Washington engaging in
coercive social engineering around the world. They only differ
on the prudence of the war in Iraq. That intelligent, though
limited, judgment obviously is laudable, but it is insufficient
to protect against the War Party's campaign for an attack on
Iran, Syria, and North Korea, intervention in Darfur,
confrontation with China and Russia, and more.
We need a genuine debate over America's routine, but
routinely flawed, intervention in other lands. At least Barack
Obama, if he is the Democratic nominee, can credibly criticize
the Iraqi imbroglio. Hopefully many Democratic congressional
candidates – joined, perhaps, by a few Republicans in the Ron Paul
mold – will go further and advocate a return to a more restrained
foreign policy. And the American people need to respond
favorably, lest an even more aggressive administration conscript
their sons and daughters for even more bloody adventures abroad.
Domestic issues are important, but the U.S. government's
policy of promiscuous intervention, its foolish determination to
insert itself in the middle of endless controversies around the
globe, is what brought the horror of 9/11 upon the American
heartland. Doing more of the same creates the risk of suffering
the far, far greater horror of nuclear terrorism at home. In
November the American people must insist that their government
adopt the humble approach that President Bush spoke of in his
campaign eight long years ago.