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 control.
But why let the facts get in the way of another neocon fantasy?
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 judgment.
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.
Read more by Doug Bandow
- The Rise of ISIS: Iraq and Beyond – July 16th, 2014
- Squaring the Pentagon – March 12th, 2009
- Balancing Beijing – February 27th, 2009
- The Asian Century – February 20th, 2009
- Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty: The Battle Continues – February 6th, 2009