Last week we saw our candidates debating in front of a muzzled audience, encouraging independent thought over partisan cheering and ballyhooing. Indeed, we need to stop, listen and think.
The debate discussion at times delineated policy or philosophy differences, but descended into something different. I saw last night's debate as a microcosm of the country's polarization on the Iraq war, the biggest concern to voters for half a decade, until overshadowed by more recent economic turmoil. Obama unemotionally explained the many ways the war was impacting the U.S. economy and people, refusing to ignore that it was a historically enormous mistake in the first place. McCain urged it was most important to "win" so our troops can enjoy the idea of "victory" .
Though Jim Lehrer and Obama acknowledged war and economy were directly related, McCain was lost in the idea that earmarks were the biggest cause of our financial woes. Obama and Lehrer also seemed to have McCain cornered on the idea that he simply catered to rich folks. Under the crushing weight of the current financial crisis, it would seem the perfect time to hammer home the point that trickle-down has utterly failed to create jobs and deregulation has led to rampant greed, corruption, consolidation and exploitation. But McCain skillfully side-stepped the issue, triangulating high business tax rates when confronted about personal income tax breaks for the wealthy. Few noticed.
As the debate progressed it seemed McCain grew bolder, so confident in his foreign policy chops he began to belittle Obama, turning aggressive and dismissive of any viewpoint but his own. McCain had visited many international hotspots and spoken to leaders there, but seemed to me to focus solely on military solutions to complicated political and socioeconomic conflicts. McCain's approach looks at everything through a soldier's prism, for example suggesting that an Iraq-style troop surge in Afghanistan will allow us to convince Taliban and al Qaeda sympathetic fighters hidden in the mountains to "come around" and help our cause.
McCain repeated several times "Senator Obama just doesn't understand", channelling Reagan's "there he goes again". But it also showed a glimpse of McCain's impatience and hubris, sarcastically mirroring George W. Bush's "my way or the highway" attitude, perhaps a preview of the same domineering, iron-fisted approach McCain will engender. This pompous, close-mindedness is particularly odious in combination with inferior reasoning and poorly vetted intel.
I was protesting the Iraqi invasion before it happened in 2003 because I was following international news reports, including U.N. weapons inspectors. It just seemed improbable that the U.S. would be attacked by Iraq in the post-9/11 environment, and the evidence presented seemed cobbled-together and fishy. I'm just an average citizen and I knew it was a horrible mistake going into Iraq, joining with millions worldwide protesting in the streets in Paris, London and Australia. So why does McCain get a pass for this fundamental lack of judgment? He ignores any discussion of the original decision to invade. Obama needs to nail him down on the original pre-war intel because the issue is being eclipsed by the financial crisis. But voters who chose Obama over Hillary Clinton cited this as the main reason.
Many also feel the discovery of a "McCain Wins the Debate" ad a day before the actual debate was surprising, but not to students of media manipulation. I suggest it was just like Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" celebration, but this digital banner was planted on websites off to the sides of online articles where they seep into the subconscious through casual peripheral viewing. After the debate, both sides naturally claim they each won, but what does it mean to truly "win" a debate? We know what it means to win an election, but a debate win is intangible. Logically, the "winner" would be the one who garners more votes, but this is as-yet not simple to measure. Then too, the pundits and water cooler talk all centers around who was more convincing, more presidential, or more informed. But this is completely subjective.
So what does "winning" a war really mean? When the other side surrenders? McCain told us we are "winning" the war in Iraq, and that the surge he fought so valiantly for has been wildly successful. But why does McCain say in the same breath that the gains made are so fragile? Because, "winning" is all in the mind, a product of subjective perception, public relations and revisionism. The whole idea of the surge was to send in an extra 30,000 troops, so it is small wonder violence is down. But what will happen if and when these troops pull out? Obama needs to emphasize that the success of the surge can't be claimed until those troops pull out - then we can say, "hey that worked". In the meantime, U.S. troops are the reason for the improved security, at an incredible price tag. Obama's plan for phased withdrawal has also received wide support in Iraq, including the endorsement of Prime Minister Maliki who wants a firm timetable.
Sadly, Americans measure the success of this war only by how much bad news we hear back home. We are being distracted from considering the financial cost and the toll on military families. McCain said himself he wants to stay the course and see this war through to "victory" so we can claim "we won!" instead of "we lost". But no one knows what that means in terms of violence rates, political progress, restoration of infrastructure or anything else. McCain is more concerned with the abstract concepts of "victory" or "defeat" then the realities on the ground. This is a land besieged by thousands of years of repression, civil war, invasion, occupation, violence and since 2003 has become a labyrinth of militias and mercenaries intermittently swapping loyalties amidst five years of foreign occupation, lost infrastructure and collateral violence including the high-profile Abu Ghraib scandal.
The "enemy" is also an abstract concept, with attacks against U.S. and Iraqi targets being launched by underground factions representing any number of different causes, including Saddam's Baathists, the anti-Sunni Shia, the anti-Shia Sunnis, Sadr's Mahdi Army, Iranian interests, general anti-West extremists or al Qaeda, the name attributed to the tiny, secretive band of perpetrators who attacked the U.S. on 9/11 but who had no presence in Iraq. The sole reason for the presence of al Qaeda in Iraq today is attributed to the U.S. invasion.
As top analysts believed in mid-September 2001, the purpose of the 9/11 hijackings was an attempt to draw us into a protracted ground war and slowly bleed the U.S. economy, extending hardship unto every corner of the country. This was explicitly stated by Osama bin Laden. Instead of having the patience and intelligence to combat the 9/11 perpetrators using international law enforcement, we bumbled right into two Mideast ground wars. And this snap-decisiveness by our leadership has not met it's aims - despite eliminating Saddam, we haven't avenged 9/11 or appreciably improved Afghanistan or Iraq, especially considering the costs to future generations.
McCain shows the same anti-skills Bush applied in foreign policy leadership. The American people "just don't understand" what McCain knows, but he cannot explain to voters just what he knows. Hillary went down like this as well, claiming "experience" in the ways of Washington, she implied we simply need her but don't ask why. McCain is making this same arrogant claim, even boasting he knows how to catch bin Laden, but we have to elect him first. On the economy, McCain admits our government is corrupt and wasteful, but wants us to trust him to go agency by agency to implement reform.
Obama's proposal is more transparent and inclusive, suggesting we do it as a people, using all the collective eyes and ears and intelligence of a nation of awakened, involved citizens who see top-down representation as a outmoded concept. McCain's earlier judgment and ethics gave us the Keating Six scandal (known later as the Keating Five scandal when McCain slithered his way out), gave us the invasion of Iraq and the long, deep commitment to deregulation and the country's powerful wealthy class. In the end, victory is for the individual to decide. McCain's arrogant overconfidence, lack of foresight and checkered personal history tell the story his words never will.