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What are the differences between Senator Clinton and Senator Obama, after all? A lot of pundits have said it’s personal, not political. They say their programs and policies are an inch apart. Hell, I’ve said it. But will the articulation of these differences disable the Democratic Party in the general election?
The personal is political, as we all know. That’s why a “dream ticket” of the Senator from New York and the Senator from Illinois won’t happen. That’s why you want to be looking carefully at who the candidates are, not just what they bring to the table. That’s why you want to judge their character as well as their policies.
And regardless of what you want, you have to make that judgment because a president’s decisions will have instantaneous effects all over the world—at 9:00 o’clock in the morning as well as at 3:00 o’clock in the morning. You already know that. You already know that voting is a risky business because you’re banking on somebody you haven’t even met in person.
Obama’s programs and policies are, in fact, different from Senator Clinton’s, as I’ll try to make clear. But meanwhile, let’s understand that the contest is good for the party, and good for the people. No matter how you feel about lawyers, you don’t want to go to trial with just one side represented. More of the truth comes out precisely because both sides have to argue the case.
The same goes for an election. Everybody learns more by the elongation of the argument. Even the candidates learn more about the reach of their policies, more about the voters, and more about themselves, by arguing with each other. So let’s get on to Pennsylvania. We’ve got a lot of arguing and learning to do.
Now, as for the policies and the programs. There are three programmatic areas that will matter in November. These are health care, the economy, and national security. Democratic positions win in all three areas, according to polls, primary turnouts, and anecdotal evidence. Voters want to make decisions, and they’re with us—that is, with the Left. John McCain can’t win unless he can equate the national security issue with the Iraq war.
On health care, Obama’s program is, in fact, different, from Senator Clinton’s. My emphasis is on insuring children and affording choice to those with policies in place. So he leaves some room for the private sector, on the assumption that Hillary’s train wreck of 1992-93 should teach us something, and in the knowledge that most Americans won’t tolerate government command of markets. Not for long, anyway.
On the economy, Obama’s program is also different. The pundits say “He can’t act on these statements about NAFTA, he can’t mean this about what most of them call ‘tax hikes.’ ” Sure he can. If we are to believe her on the question of “experience,” Hillary was present at the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. I wish Barack had been there, he could have offered some amendments with respect to environmental and labor standards.
But we are now in a position to renegotiate bilateral and other agreements, mainly because we’re in a difficult situation with respect to the international system of payments. I mean that because the financial meltdown here is so severe, and because US debt is part of every private fund and every country’s portfolio, we have some leverage—just like Mexico and Brazil and the “Asian Tigers” did about ten years ago. When you owe the bankers 500 dollars, it is your problem—when you owe them 500 million dollars, it becomes their problem, and they want to “work with you.”
The way beyond the current debacle is to look at domestic income distribution and to try to do something about it. The big question is, How can we shift income shares toward consumption—knowing that consumers, not profits, saving, and investment, drive economic growth? The collateral question is, Are tax policies or interest rates the key to that growth? Or are we looking at a financial crisis that resembles the stock market crash and subsequent disaster of 1929-1932, when nothing worked? Is there anything we can do about this crisis without mustering the massive government resources assembled during the Great Depression?
Maybe. The Federal Reserve is already making unprecedented moves, but without much effect. All the economic news is still bad, and getting worse. The only good news is that the regulatory reach of the central bank is already longer. In any case, the president inaugurated in January of 2009 will be faced with an ailing economy that can’t be cured by “balancing the budget.” That president will be faced with an economic crisis unlike anything seen in 80 years, and, like FDR, that president will have to improvise a recovery program rather than recite the wisdom of the past.
Finally, let us note the differences on national security. You may have noticed that Senator Clinton is running as a Republican. That’s what the 3:00 in the morning TV ad is about—you’d better get all afraid, she tells you, and you’d better check your hopes at the door.
No time for learning or speeches at 3:00 AM, no, just reflexes. Apparently, the president has no time to put on pajamas, either. The national security “policy” on display here is an adolescent approach to the real problem of terrorism because it pretends the bogeyman is still there under your bed—or about to invade your home with criminal intent. It pretends that if you’re afraid enough, and angry enough, you’ll somehow escape what’s “happening in the world”—I don’t know, maybe by burying your head in the covers.
But we can’t let our fear and our anger guide us now. For if we do let our real fears and justifiable anger guide us—as this ad demands—we might as well be teenagers in a horror movie. We might as well be stand-ins for citizens, waiting silently in the cinema for that happy ending, when the sun comes up and the vampires disappear.
But this ain’t a movie, and we’re not stand-ins for anybody else. We’re adults, and we want to change this world precisely because it’s way too scary.
So let’s start thinking like adults rather than the terrified children Hillary thinks we are. Let’s see what would follow for the so-called war on terror, and for the very real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For it is on this terrain of national security that the differences between Clinton and Obama become measurable, actionable—and not just because he opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning.
There are important differences across the board. For example, the so-called incompetence of the Bush administration is a result of its ideological commitment to the privatization of everything. It can’t get things done in Iraq because it won’t mobilize public opinion and the public sector—neither over there nor over here.
Now Hillary wants to think that the deadly disaster in Iraq is a matter of competence, not ideology. If only Bush and Rumsfeld had received—and delivered—better intelligence, if only their advisors were better prepared, this disaster could have been averted. If only she knew then what she knows now!
Well, millions of us knew then what she says she knows now. That’s right, there were millions of Americans who knew better than to take Dick Cheney’s word for it on weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s supposed links to Al Qaeda. There were millions of us who knew better than to believe George Bush on yellowcake. And there were millions of us, many of us in the military, who knew better than to believe a war of choice was in the national interest.
Hillary really thinks that if we can just get the best and the brightest back in office, back in power, why, we’ll be fine. What we need instead is return to the founding principles of American foreign policy. That means we must reject the so-called Bush Doctrine, which encourages unilateral war-mongering on the cheap, with no regard for long-term consequences. That means we must reject the idea that American power in the world is projected only by our military might.
Hillary wants you to believe that our differences on foreign policy are matters of experience. She is cast as the grown-up in that ridiculous red phone ad, for example, and Obama is cast as the invisible man who might put you and your children in harm’s way. But neither of them has answered that phone. The difference between them is not experience, it’s judgment, just as Obama has said.
So let me explain how his judgment sets him apart.
Obama follows John Edwards in saying that the so-called war on terror is a slogan, not a realistic way of engaging a dangerous world. This so-called war is an evasion of reality, and as such, it has become a huge problem—an obstacle to clear thinking about foreign policy. Hillary Clinton and John McCain think it is a solution. They’re wrong. We’re not fighting a “war on terror,” we’re not besieged by terrorists—we’re confronting a world in the throes of terrifying changes, changes that threaten almost every tradition, changes that challenge almost all conventional wisdom. These are changes we feel close by, right here at the source of globalization.
American power and policies have caused a great many of these terrifying changes in the world, at home and abroad. So our responsibility to the world runs deep. But again, Obama understands that it is not terror we’re fighting. He also understands that military power can’t win this fight.
He knows that as long as we think we’re in a “war on terror,” we’ll be unable to address its causes in the world elsewhere. He knows that as long as we think we’re in a “war on terror,” we’ll be unable to address its effects right here in the US—in the unconstitutional expansion of presidential power, the erosion of our civil rights, the evasion of the Geneva Conventions, all of the atrocities accomplished in our name by the Bush administration.
Obama has also said that the war in Afghanistan is the real deal, not a sideshow. He’s said that he’ll go after Osama bin Laden in the borderlands of Pakistan if necessary. For making these statements he has been ridiculed by Hillary Clinton and John McCain—who have of course cited their long experience, their warm relationships, with General Musharraf, the man who would be king of Pakistan.
Finally, he has said that he would personally speak with our enemies, on the assumption that he would be negotiating from a position of strength. He has included the president of Iran on the list of enemies with whom he would speak. For this, too, he has been ridiculed by Hillary Clinton and John McCain, on the grounds that his openness is naïve—another symptom of his supposed inexperience.
They are both wrong on this—as wrong as the Bush administration—and their mistake will cost many more lives in Iraq. Here’s why: Iran is the key to a peaceful withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. If we don’t talk to Ahmadinejad, either we stay as long as McCain urges us, or we withdraw in the manner Clinton proposes.
Now we know that McCain’s urge to stay bogged down in Iraq for a century is demented. Neither the Iraqi nor the American people will stand for it. We also know that Clinton’s aim of withdrawal is worthwhile. So the question is not whether but how to withdraw.
Like it or not, the exit ramp goes through Iran.
The so-called surge did not pacify Baghdad or Anbar province, where the fiercest fighting has taken place. Senator McCain is deluding himself—and us—when he claims that the addition of more troops explains the reduction of violence in these two troubled areas. According to the new field manual sponsored by General David Petraeus, it would take about 120,000 counter-insurgents to pacify just the city of Baghdad, with its population of 6 million.*
We have 160,000 troops in all of Iraq, and we can’t rely on the National Police or the National Army to help us “pacify” anything except a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad—mainly because the great majority of these armed Iraqis are aligned with Shi’ite militias.
So who’s kidding who? Baghdad is less violent because Moktada al-Sadr’s Shi’ite militia has stopped its attacks on Americans and has reduced its raids in Sunni neighborhoods. But when Moktada al-Sadr told his Mahdi Army to stand down last fall, he was acting on instructions from Iran.**
Anbar is less violent because we have been arming and bribing the Sunnis there. They are the former insurgents who know the Mahdi Army is the well-equipped embodiment of Iranian purposes. They are the former terrorists who know they’d better get ready for the renewal of civil war.***
It’s not a pretty picture. We should take four steps to change these grim realities. First, we acknowledge that the so-called surge is not a success. We acknowledge, accordingly, that the reduction of violence in Iraq is a result of the increased influence of Iran. We act hereafter on the twin assumptions that more troops are not the answer to any problem we face in Iraq, and that we have no margin of error—our military is already stretched too thin.
Second, we announce that we have no intention of keeping permanent bases in Iraq. In doing so, we announce to the world that the purpose of our invasion was not, or is no longer, the control of that country’s oil reserves and its obvious diplomatic corollary, the intention to slow China’s development as a world power
Third, we acknowledge that Iran is the key to a peaceful settlement of both chronic and recent Middle East conflicts. We know that a reduction of violence in Iraq is a function of Iranian involvement. So we also know that a peaceful withdrawal of American forces, and the maintenance of peace after our departure, is predicated on the same involvement. We should therefore start talking with Iranian leaders about how to keep our soldiers and marines safe as we get out, and what it takes to keep Moktada al-Sadr from slaughtering Sunnis.
Fourth, we convene a conference to which all parties to regional security, including Israel, Syria, and Iran, not to mention Iraq, are invited. The goal here is not to help Iran procure a client state in Iraq, and thus to embolden Hamas and Hezbollah. The goal is to make Iran a partner in the pacification of Middle East conflicts, including the civil wars in Iraq and Lebanon. The goal is to make all parties to the bargain, especially but not only Israel, safer.
These steps cannot be taken by the two candidates who are running as Republicans—the two candidates who are now trying to scare you or to convince you of the surge’s success. Or is that the same thing? Obama is the only one who can even suggest this scenario, because he’s the only candidate who intends to talk to our enemies. He’s the only Democrat left.
*See The U.S Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 23: “Twenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density for effective COIN operations.” Compare General Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Knopf, 2007), chap. 7.
**See James Livingston, “Sick of the Surge,” www.politicsandletters.com November 28, 2007, for relevant citations.
***See Nir Rosen, “The Myth of the Surge,” Rolling Stone, March 6, 2008.
James Livingston: Articles on Election 2008