Rattling the Cage: Rethinking McCain vs. Obama

Obama is less likely to stumble into a war America would do better to avoid.

February 15, 2010 11:31
larry derfner 88

larry derfner 88. (photo credit: )


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In January I wrote a column in favor of John McCain for US president, and since then I haven't wavered. Well, now I'm wavering. I haven't gone over decisively to Barack Obama, but I'm less uncomfortable about him than I was before, while I've become more uncomfortable about McCain. As of today, I'm undecided. I'm moving in Obama's direction, but not irreversibly. For me, it comes down to deciding which of the two candidates seems less likely to screw up disastrously in the overriding issue facing an American president - the war on terror, as it's called. Iraq is part of that war, and I came out for McCain mainly because he understood, in a way Obama and the Democrats didn't, that abandoning Iraq was unthinkable - for the Iraqis' sake, America's sake and everyone else's sake. But now, with security and stability gradually taking hold in that country, thanks to the change in US military policy that McCain championed before just about anyone else, there seems to be an Iraqi-American consensus for a measured withdrawal of US troops, which makes the Iraq war less of an issue in the presidential race. Still, Iraq is America's hottest front, the one in which America has the most at stake, and I trust McCain more than I do Obama to handle it right. If the withdrawal goes well, then it won't matter much who's president. But there's no guarantee at all that the withdrawal will go well, which is where the difference between the two candidates comes into play. If the withdrawal goes badly - if the radical Shi'ites, Sunnis and al-Qaida types who've put down their arms decide to take them up again - then the thing for America to do would be to stop the withdrawal and very possibly send troops back in. Again, it is unthinkable for America to let Iraq go to hell. If it turns out that the withdrawal from Iraq should, by rights, be reversed, I think McCain would be fully prepared to stop on a dime and change course. It's extremely hard for me to see Obama and the Democrats doing that if it became necessary. So I think the war in Iraq is a riskier matter with Obama as commander-in-chief than with McCain. WHAT I'VE come to learn about Obama, though, is that while he has virtually no experience in foreign policy - a big minus, of course - he is not the starry-eyed dove his true-blue liberal "base" imagines him to be. He just criticized President Bush for not sending enough additional troops into Afghanistan. "The central front in the war on terror," he said, "is in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the terrorists who hit us on 9/11 are still plotting attacks seven years later." He's not the guy Moveon.org wants him to be, for which I'm thankful. Another thing that struck me favorably about Obama was an interview he gave in May to conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks. "I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush," Obama said. "I don't have a lot of complaints about the handling of Desert Storm." Neither do I; it was the finest performance, the wisest and most courageous, by an American president in my lifetime. H.W. wasn't afraid to use force, but he also knew the limits of force - something very, very few Republicans or Democrats know. For Obama to single out the elder Bush's foreign policy and war leadership for praise is a very encouraging sign. He spoke in the interview about the necessary "blend of military action to diplomatic action," about the idiocy of equating diplomacy with appeasement. "The generals are light-years ahead of the civilians," he said. "They are trying to get the job done rather than look tough." This is something McCain either doesn't know or isn't telling anyone - that all this gung-ho hogwash that goes over so well at GOP conventions makes American military leaders wince. Unlike Republican audiences, American generals tend to be very sober and cautious about war, possibly because they actually know something about it. If there is one message the US military-intelligence establishment has been trying to get out in the past year, it is this: Don't attack Iran. So I think that in all, a President Obama might have a closer meeting of the minds with the Pentagon and CIA than a President McCain. FURTHER ON the subject of minds, I think Obama's is clearly the superior one. It's not just that he no doubt has the higher IQ, it's that his decision-making process is more deliberative than McCain's, he weighs the pros and cons more thoroughly, he's more curious and open-minded. McCain goes more from the gut, and with his Cold War instincts and right-wing support, that worries me some. When the fighting between Georgia and Russia broke out, he distorted it into a war between the children of light (Georgia) and the children of darkness (Russia), and sounded like he wanted to send in the marines. Now he's just picked a running mate who is abysmally unfit to be president - a grossly irresponsible decision for a 72-year-old presidential candidate with a history of skin cancer to make. Obama's lack of experience in foreign policy and crisis management make him a very risky choice to become the world's most powerful leader. But McCain's wing-nut, shoot-from-the-hip tendencies, which have emerged more vividly during the campaign, make him no less a risk. In McCain's favor, his tendencies would almost certainly be tempered by a Democratic-controlled Congress (a likely outcome of the November 4 election), the Pentagon's wariness about starting another war and the American public's wariness too, regardless of how much they cheer and boo. In Obama's favor is the entire slate of domestic and economic issues, from taxes to health care to abortion to the Supreme Court, on which he and the Democrats are infinitely better than McCain and the Republicans. Also in Obama's favor is Joe Biden, especially when compared to Sarah Palin. But America is at war, and it may be more deeply and broadly at war in the future. In a war of no choice, one that demanded great sacrifice of Americans at large, there's no question that McCain would be the preferable president. But on the other hand, Obama is less likely to stumble into a war America would do better to avoid. McCain has the experience necessary in the White House, Obama doesn't. But Obama has the proverbial first-rate intellect and first-rate temperament for the job - and I'm not sure McCain does. As for who's better for Israel, I'm sure both would be good for Israel, just like every other American president, in his own way, has been. So I'm left undecided. Until recently, my heart was with Obama but my mind was with McCain; now my heart is still with Obama but my mind is divided. I'd say the odds are a little better than even, say 55-45, that by Election Day, I'll have gone over to Obama. But it's still early, and this is such an exciting election; anything could happen.

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