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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

please vomit

Obama press conference (24 min video)

this article about Obama's books doesn't add anything particularly insightful, but does remind me to tell you that if any of you are interested I have his books in .mp3 form (read by him - he won Grammys!) and would be happy to send out data discs if you think you'd listen to them. Just let me know.

I just got around to reading the articles I linked to last week, and since I realize you guys don't have time to read everything I send out I thought I'd pull some quotes from the two articles about McCain's foreign policy vision so you get the most important points. Please do read these snippets, it's stuff everyone needs to know:

Matt Bai's "The McCain Doctrine," hits on a theme that I expect we'll be hearing A LOT more about... that being the connection, whatever it may be exactly, between McCain's experience with the Vietnam war and how that affects his outlook on our current quagmire:

There is a feeling among some of McCain's fellow veterans that his break with them on Iraq can be traced, at least partly, to his markedly different experience in Vietnam. McCain's comrades in the Senate will not talk about this publicly. They are wary of seeming to denigrate McCain's service, marked by his legendary endurance in a Hanoi prison camp, when in fact they remain, to this day, in awe of it. And yet in private discussions with friends and colleagues, some of them have pointed out that McCain, who was shot down and captured in 1967, spent the worst and most costly years of the war sealed away, both from the rice paddies of Indochina and from the outside world. During those years, McCain did not share the disillusioning and morally jarring experiences of soldiers like Kerry, Webb and Hagel, who found themselves unable to recognize their enemy in the confusion of the jungle; he never underwent the conversion that caused Kerry, for one, to toss away some of his war decorations during a protest at the Capitol. Whatever anger McCain felt remained focused on his captors, not on his own superiors back in Washington.

Not all of McCain's fellow veterans subscribe to the theory that the singularity of his war experience has anything to do with his intransigence on Iraq. (Bob Kerrey, for one, told me that while he was aware of this argument, he has never believed it.) But some suspect that whatever lesson McCain took away from his time in Vietnam, it was not the one that stayed with his colleagues who were "in country" during those years — that some wars simply can't be won on the battlefield, no matter how long you fight them, no matter how many soldiers you send there to die.

"McCain is my friend and brother, and I love him dearly," Max Cleland, Georgia's former Democratic senator, told me when we talked last month. "But I think you learn something fighting on the ground, like me and John Kerry and Chuck Hagel did in Vietnam. This objective of 'hearts and minds'? Well, hello! You didn't know which heart and mind was going to blow you up!

"I have seen this movie before, and I know how it ends," says Cleland, who lost three of his limbs to an errant grenade during the battle of Khe Sanh. "With thousands dead and tens of thousands more injured, and years later you ask yourself what you were doing there. To the extent my friend John McCain signs on to this, he is endangering America's long-term interests, and probably his own election in the fall."

By the time McCain ran for president in 2000, he was the one arguing in debates for a more robust military presence in humanitarian crises, while George W. Bush forswore "nation building" and vowed a more "humble" foreign policy. During that campaign, McCain introduced the closest thing he had found to a doctrine for foreign intervention: the "rogue-state rollback," under which he proposed arming and training internal forces that might ultimately overthrow menacing regimes in countries like Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

McCain's more ambitious view of American power made him a natural ally of neoconservative thinkers like William Kristol, the editor of the fledgling Weekly Standard (now a New York Times columnist), and Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Empowered during the Reagan era, the neocons were largely shoved aside during the '90s by the more isolationist, anti-Clinton voices who dominated Republican politics. By the time McCain expanded his circle of influence to include Kristol and other neocons in the late '90s, they had rallied around a single unifying cause: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In 1998, McCain was one of the sponsors of the Iraq Liberation Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton, which officially changed American policy from containing Hussein to deposing him, and he became a leading figure in the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a lobbying group founded by Randy Scheunemann, who is now his chief foreign policy adviser. McCain met with Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth Iraqi dissident who was a favorite of the neocons, and supported him publicly.

After the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the sudden elevation of Al Qaeda as a defining national security threat, McCain never had any doubt that Iraq, with its supposed capability to unleash or share weapons of mass destruction, posed an existential threat to the United States. Reading his statements from the time, there is no indication that he ever judged the invasion of Iraq by the standard he had used earlier in his career — whether it had the potential to become another Vietnam. Instead, as American troops swarmed Baghdad, McCain repeatedly compared Hussein to Adolf Hitler and predicted that the occupation of Iraq would be remembered in much the same way that history celebrated the liberation and rebuilding of Europe and Japan.


A LOT OF McCAIN'S fellow veterans in Washington seem confounded by what they see as his obvious failure to absorb the lessons of Vietnam. Jack Murtha, the Pennsylvania congressman and decorated Vietnam vet who became an early and outspoken critic of the war, told me that watching Iraq unfold convinced him, for the first time, that American troops could never have prevailed in Vietnam, no matter how long they stayed. "These kinds of wars cannot be won militarily," he said flatly. Another Democratic congressman with a Purple Heart, Mike Thompson of California, told me that promises of victory in Iraq sounded painfully familiar. "When I was in Vietnam, the members of Congress knew that we weren't going to be there forever, that we would have to redeploy, and in the time between when they knew that and when we redeployed, a lot of boys were injured and killed," Thompson said. "I think Senator McCain has been an outstanding public servant, but I think he's wrong on this."

In McCain's mind, however, there is a different kind of symmetry linking Vietnam and Iraq. Talking to him about it, you come to understand that he has, indeed, applied lessons from the first war to the second — but they are the lessons that he learned not in combat or in the Hanoi Hilton but in the pages of the books he read at the National War College in the 1970s. To McCain, the first four years of the Iraq war, as prosecuted by the Bush administration, seem strikingly similar to the years in Vietnam before Creighton Abrams arrived on the scene.

"It's a little bit eerily reminiscent, in that search-and-destroy is basically the same tactic that Rumsfeld, Casey, Sanchez, et al. employed," McCain told me, referring to George Casey and Ricardo Sanchez, the two previous generals to command coalition forces in Iraq. "Go out, kill bad people and then go back to base. That's basically what search-and-destroy was. We obviously failed to learn that lesson in history." In McCain's war, then, David Petraeus, the more innovative general who took over in 2007, is now playing the part of Abrams, pursuing a winning strategy that needs only the patience of the American people and their government to ultimately succeed.

"After nearly four years of a failed strategy, the difference in one year is dramatic," McCain says. "If they make that same progress in the next year," he predicts, "I think it's going to be quite impactful on American public opinion, as well as, more importantly, events on the ground."

The lesson McCain drew from Vietnam all those years ago is that you cannot turn your back on a war when at last you figure out how to win it, and he is determined not to let that happen again. Far from having failed to internalize the legacy of Vietnam, as some of his friends in the Senate suspect, he is, if anything, entirely driven by it. "I don't think you can isolate John's views in Iraq from his experience in Vietnam," Gary Hart told me. "Whether he is aware of it or not — and I want to tread carefully here, because I don't like psychologizing people — I don't think he can separate those things in his mind. In a way, John is refighting the Vietnam War."


It doesn't help that McCain has never put his argument for staying into some larger context that might explain what he really means by "winning" the war in Iraq. If you ask him to define victory, his answer is that Americans soldiers will have stopped dying, and that the Iraqi military and government will be functioning on their own. That would be a great day, no doubt, but surely the overarching purpose of a war can't be to stop more soldiers from dying in it. (On the one notable occasion when McCain tried to put a more hopeful spin on progress in Iraq, during a visit there last spring, the result was an unqualified public-relations debacle: strolling through an outdoor market in Baghdad market wearing a flak jacket and surrounded by what seemed liked a regiment of U.S. soldiers, McCain declared that life for Iraqis was at last returning to normal. The next day, by some accounts, 21 Shiite workers at the market were abducted and killed.) McCain's main reason for continuing on in Iraq seems to be that we're already there and must not accept defeat, and that's an argument that probably feels all too familiar to many Americans who lived through a decade of aimless war in Vietnam, to no discernible end.

Matthew Yglesias's essay for The American Prospect, "The Militarist," hits McCain harder:

Despite neoconservatism's close association in the public imagination with the Bush administration, and despite McCain's image as a moderate, a look at the record makes clear that McCain, not Bush, is the real neocon in the Republican Party. McCain was the neocons' candidate in 2000, McCain adhered to a truer version of the faith during the early years of hubris that followed September 11, and as president McCain would likely pursue policies that will make what we've seen from Bush look like a pale imitation of the real thing. McCain, after all, is the candidate of perpetual war in Iraq. The candidate who, despite his protestations in a March speech that he "hates war," not only stridently backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq but has spent years calling on the United States to depose every dictator in the world. He's the candidate of ratcheting-up action against North Korea and Iran, of new efforts to undermine the United Nations, and of new cold wars with Russia and China. Rather than hating war, he sees it as integral to the greatness of the nation, and military service as the highest calling imaginable. It is, in short, not Bush but McCain, who among practical politicians holds truest to the vision of a foreign policy dominated by militaristic unilateralism.


McCain explained his new approach in a March 15, 1999 speech at Kansas State University. The cornerstone of his thinking was a sweeping doctrine, "call it rogue-state rollback if you will" of "supporting indigenous and outside forces that desire to overthrow the odious regimes that rule these states." All decent people, of course, greatly admire the work of dissidents laboring under autocratic rule. But actually making support for such dissident movements the centerpiece of our approach to these countries carries significant dangers. In particular, most observers in and out of government thought it was likely to prompt a new fiasco along the lines of the Bay of Pigs. But at a time when a full-scale invasion was unthinkable, this was the leading hawkish alternative to the Clinton administration's containment policy, backed by the same group of pundits and analysts, from Paul Wolfowitz to William Safire to Charles Krauthammer to Christopher Hitchens, who would later beat the drums of war in 2003. McCain sought to associate himself with this alternative, arguing in Kansas that the flaws of the Clinton administration's overall strategic approach to Iraq have "been on full display."

But one important factor separated McCain from the rest. Wolfowitz had argued in congressional testimony that regime change could be effectuated easily in Baghdad, saying the United States need only "muster the necessary strength of purpose." Speaking in March, however, McCain seemed perfectly aware that counting on the opposition might not work. "If you commit to supporting these forces," he cautioned, we must be willing to "accept the seriousness of the obligation" and not "abandon them to the mercies of tyrants whenever they meet with reversals." In other words, McCain believes that supporting opposition elements, financially or logistically, implies an obligation to come in and bail them out with direct military intervention if they get into trouble. To McCain, however, this was not a reason to reconsider the wisdom of the rollback strategy. Rather, he cryptically remarked that "character counts, my friends, at home and abroad" and left rollback as the centerpiece of his approach.

McCain repeated this trope throughout the speech, drawing on his personal history and adopting the rhetoric of moral seriousness about the consequences of committing American forces. But awareness of the consequences was, for McCain, no reason to avoid starting a war. Indeed, McCain almost seemed disappointed that the Clinton administration managed to peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis with the "agreed framework" of 1994. He remarked in Kansas that "a firmer response to North Korea might have triggered a war, a war we would win, but not without paying a terrible price." McCain was sophisticated enough to recognize that other policy options such as refusing aid to the North might nonetheless have resulted in conflict "as the North's last desperate measure."

This analysis, in the hands of a normal person, becomes a defense of the Clinton administration's policy, though a bit distasteful, the agreed framework was the only way to avoid a destructive war. Not, however, to McCain. In his view, efforts at conflict prevention are fundamentally misguided. He told the Kansas State audience that notwithstanding the Clinton administration's efforts, Korea's leaders "remain quite capable of launching in their country's death throes one final, glorious war. But now, they are much, much better armed." In short, war is inevitable, so better to get it over with as soon as possible. McCain, unlike most neocons, is no chicken hawk, but while his rhetorical points of emphasis are different from typical neocon fare, his strategic ideas are the very essence of the neocon notion that threats of unilateral preventive war should play the primary role in America's approach to nonproliferation. It was, in short, the essence of the "Bush doctrine" several years before Bush ever articulated it.


But despite McCain's loss in 2000, the strategic concepts he outlined back in 1999 came to be at the core of what we today term the Bush doctrine. Most significant is the emphasis on preventive war as a tool of policy. As outlined in McCain's disquisition on North Korea, the fact that some state does not, in fact, pose an imminent threat to the United States is no reason to refrain from attacking it. On the contrary, the fact that a state is nonthreatening is a reason to attack it as soon as possible, lest it become more powerful over time. In Bush's hands, this concept has led not only to the fiasco in Iraq but also to North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons and to several missed opportunities to secure the verifiable disarmament of Iran.


Perhaps most disturbingly of all, McCain appears to be grounded not only in dangerous ideas about international relations but also in an active hostility to prudence. In David Brooks' 1999 McCain-lauding essay, "Politics and Patriotism: From Teddy Roosevelt to John McCain," Brooks writes that McCain and others worry "that we have become a nation obsessed with risk avoidance and safety." The cure? To follow Roosevelt who "saw foreign-policy activism and patriotism as remedies for cultural threats he perceived at home." De-euphemized, Roosevelt saw war as a positive good; in his years as New York City Police Commissioner he yearned for a now-obscure 1895 border dispute between Venezuela and the British colony of Guiana to turn into a great power conflict. "Let the fight come if it must," Roosevelt wrote to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. "I don't care whether our sea-coast cities are bombarded or not; we would take Canada ... the clamor of the peace faction has convinced me that this country needs a war." Only three months later Roosevelt mused that "it is very difficult for me not to wish a war with Spain, for such a war would result at once in getting a proper Navy." The indifference to questions of national strategy here is a bit frightening, but to Brooks' way of thinking, it's a small price to pay to combat cultural threats at home.


The military, and an expansive view of the extent to which it should be deployed around the world, is at the very core of McCain's personal and political identity. His father and grandfather were both admirals, the former led Pacific Command during the Vietnam War, and the latter sailed in Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet and helped put down the Philippine Insurrection. McCain got his introduction to politics as a kind of bloody-shirt prop of the Nixon administration, which liked using the returned POW as a political club against anti-war activists. He became a frequent guest at Ronald and Nancy Reagan's dinner table, and his first political job was as the U.S. Navy's liaison to the Senate, where he helped spike a Carter administration effort to kill plans for a new "supercarrier." There's cynicism and opportunism aplenty in McCain's record, but it's the vision of leading America in a neo-Rooseveltian, neo-imperial direction that forms the part of the agenda that McCain is least willing to deviate from.

According to Matt Welch, author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, while McCain was imprisoned in Vietnam, "submerging and channeling his individuality into the 'greater cause' of American patriotism became McCain's reason for living" and has been the guiding star of his political career. In McCain's view, politics should be understood as an ongoing battle between selfishness and the search for a higher cause. This is the vision that has driven his more admirable domestic-reform efforts (as well as his more bizarre ones like his quest to ban mixed-martial arts fighting), but when applied to foreign policy the results are frightening. McCain's Rooseveltian vision is not of a willingness -- even an excessive willingness -- to use force to advance the national interests or important dearly held moral principles. Rather, he sees the nation as having an interest in fighting wars. The combat itself constitutes the advance of important moral values, elevating the country from such banal national security concerns as "safety" and creating the opportunity for heroic displays of courage of the sort McCain himself made in Vietnam. In the context of the 1990s, and McCain's 2000 presidential bid, this sort of nationalistic fervor struck some as a useful tonic for a nation whose politics seemed dominated by quibbling over the meaning of the word "is."

The neocons' first choice may have lost the primary in 2000, but through Bush we've had the opportunity to observe seven years of neoconservative high drama and higher causes, and most people don't like it very much. Most, that is, except for McCain, who gives every indication of wanting to shift neoconservatism into higher gear. He is the foremost proponent of an imperial conception of America's role in the world since Teddy Roosevelt, the most persuasive advocate of "national greatness" in practical politics, and the most loyal adherent of neoconservative ideas in Congress. And possibly the next president of the United States.


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