Friday, February 29, 2008

War: Still "Fan-tastic"?
I've written before on this site about how I think America's political establishment has a structural bias toward the aggressive use of force. The reasons for this include the volunteer nature of the military--the Princeling of Wales aside, few sons and daughters of the rich and powerful find themselves in harm's way--the political adrenaline shot of state-sanctioned violence, and the ongoing fear on the part of Democrats to be labeled weak on defense or anti-military. These factors all pushed the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party in particular to support every potential war that's come down the pike, most notoriously Iraq. And it informs a fear-mongering mindset that the Hillary Clinton campaign evidently has seized upon as its last, best chance to wrest the nomination away from Barack Obama.

Putting aside the dubious merits of the argument (and the quick, and to my biased eye effective, response of the Obama campaign), I'm most interested in seeing whether or not this works and what it means for the general election race. John McCain, whatever his other merits and demerits, has an approach toward war that makes Hillary Clinton look like Dennis Kucinich. He's already starting to advance an argument that, boiled down, Obama is a wimp. Coming from McCain, famously a prisoner of war in Vietnam and the father of an active combat veteran, this attack has an obvious emotional resonance--as do the appeals to "honor" that I think he will start advancing.

But both logic and recent history much favor Obama's side of the argument. Considering Iraq through the realist's prism--national interest and opportunity costs--the engagement there ties us down in the region and around the world, it doesn't allow us to get past the severe damage done to our international prestige by Abu Ghraib, it strengthens Ahmadinnerjacket in Iran, and it cripples our leverage to solve Israel/Palestine--which remains the pivot point of security issues and politics in that part of the world. (Take Israel off the table and suddenly it's a lot harder for the repressive Arab regimes to justify or divert attention from their internal governance practices.) Of course, our occupation of Iraq also remains the best recruiting tool for Al Qaeda--while, in terms of those opportunity costs, keeping bin Laden off the hook for what he did to us. And in human terms, it's brutal on the too-small military and their families--perhaps explaining why they've given more money to the neo-isolationist Ron Paul and to Obama than any other candidates.

I'm fairly confident that Obama has the independence of mind (and the rational advisers) to resist the institutional pull toward a more pro-war stance, and the communication skills to cut through the media's pro-war bias and make these points to the electorate. But we won't know until he does it, and if nothing else this late attack from the Clinton campaign should give a hint as to how this will play out.

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