a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Rating the Debate

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 28th, 2008

I didn’t get to see the knockout blow by Obama last night I confess I’d been crossing my fingers for; instead, the debate was a vivid demonstration of how narrow the field of debate is, and/or how unwilling Obama is to run outside the hash marks and set up some of that change he’s been promising. Examples (debate transcript via the New York Times):

I actually believe that we need missile defense, because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons  […]

Senator McCain is absolutely right that the violence has been reduced as a consequence of the extraordinary sacrifice of our troops and our military families.  […]

And to countries like Georgia and the Ukraine, I think we have to insist that they are free to join NATO if they meet the requirements, and they should have a membership action plan immediately to start bringing them in.  […]

[Iran has] gone from zero centrifuges to 4,000 centrifuges to develop a nuclear weapon.

To the contrary: if we’re ever hit by a nuclear weapon in the U.S., it will almost certainly arrive here not by missile, but in a container on a ship, truck, or train. The surge didn’t reduce violence, the successful conclusion to ethnic cleansing and al-Sadr’s decision to pocket his gains did. Fast-tracking Georgia into NATO is of less than no value to American interests compared to locking down loose nukes, something Obama said in the next breath was something he also wanted; he may have to choose. And while I seem to be the last person on the East Coast who remembers it, it was not one year ago that a National Intelligence Estimate stated, and I quote, We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.

Even on Iraq, Obama couldn’t forebear to lead his criticisms with the observation that “We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens,” as if our capacity to project power is itself the goal and point of American foreign policy.

I think Josh Marshall misses the point here: “I know that many Obama supporters are disappointed that he passed on various opportunities to deliver a smackdown that McCain couldn’t recover from. But having watched the guy for 18 months now, for better and worse, that’s not who he is.”  I realize that Obama is temperamentally not inclined to go for the jugular, and that may even be smart politics.  As hilzoy argued, his graciousness compared to McCain’s rudeness may be the dominant impression that many take away from the debate — something that burnishes his “bipartisan, get it done” credentials (not to mention his “not an angry old coot” credentials) much more than McCain’s.

The point wasn’t that Obama failed to smack McCain down, though I wish he had — say, on voting against the Webb G.I. bill, given McCain’s teary praise for vets.  (Bonus: would have got McCain mad, always good to watch for those just tuning in.)  No, it was actually and simply that he agreed on too much with McCain. As Jim Henley wrote after the debate:

As a symptom of the constriction of elite opinion, the debate was instructive less for the answers than even the questions. “Foreign policy” consists of wars and nothing but wars. It’s about whom you bomb or don’t, and whom you do or don’t convince to help you bomb someone.

The debate certainly also proved that there’s plenty of important stuff Obama is right about and McCain is wrong about.  But even if and when Obama wins this election, that will not be the end of all that’s wrong with our military and foreign policy.

Not all of that is Obama’s fault by any means.  Tonight, I saw a video by a group heretofore unknown to me: United Against Nuclear Iran.  It featured lots of ominous music, and repeated yet again the claim that Iran was building nuclear weapons. The video has one Richard Sokolsky talking about military measures as a way of stopping Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions. And while known neocons Fouad Ajami and James Woolsey were two of the talking heads involved, so were ex-Clintonistas Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke.

One Response to “Rating the Debate”

  1. Nell Says:

    This is why I don’t watch debates.

    That, and the unfortunate incident in Iowa in 1984 during the Mondale-Reagan foreign policy debate, when our candidate started saying things that made me flee into the kitchen and smash one of the hosts’ lovely crystal wine glasses into the sink before I regained my senses. Profuse apologies, offers of money (of which I had none), etc. etc. I learned my lesson: If you’re determined to vote for them, stop listening to what they say until after election day.

    It’s an inevitable side-effect of lesser-evilism. Libs like tristero who aren’t happy until we’re actually joining him in active approval of Obama’s Russia-baiting and missile defense can bite me.

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