The Choice

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I'm not sure I'm ready to agree with reason contribitor Jonathan Rauch that "The country can thank its lucky stars that the process has pushed forward…. the two most widely admired political figures of their generations against each other in a presidential race," but for my money the best thing by far about the coming McCain-Obama cage-match is that it will present a stark choice on the one issue I care about most—the war, and U.S. foreign policy.

From John McCain's victory speech last night:

[N]ow comes the hard part and, for America, the bigger decision.  Will we make the right changes to restore the people's trust in their government and meet the great challenges of our time with wisdom, and with faith in the values and ability of Americans for whom no challenge is greater than their resolve, courage and patriotism?  Or will we heed appeals for change that ignore the lessons of history, and lack confidence in the intelligence and ideals of free people?

I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change that promises no more than a holiday from history […]

The most important obligation of the next President is to protect Americans from the threat posed by violent extremists who despise us, our values and modernity itself.  They are moral monsters, but they are also a disciplined, dedicated movement driven by an apocalyptic zeal, which celebrates murder, has access to science, technology and mass communications, and is determined to acquire and use against us weapons of mass destruction.  The institutions and doctrines we relied on in the Cold War are no longer adequate to protect us in a struggle where suicide bombers might obtain the world's most terrifying weapons.

If we are to succeed, we must rethink and rebuild the structure and mission of our military; the capabilities of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies; the purposes of our alliances; the reach and scope of our diplomacy; the capacity of all branches of government to defend us.  We need to marshal all elements of American power: our military, economy, investment, trade and technology and our moral credibility to win the war against Islamic extremists and help the majority of Muslims, who believe in progress and peace, win the struggle for the soul of Islam.

McCain's Cold War analogy -- arguing that, if anything, this new twilight struggle is even more transcendent, requiring even more national and structural resolve than the four-decade battle against an actual empire encompassing actual countries armed with actual nukes and an actually quasi-seductive ideology -- is not only horribly inapt, it's a recipe for military expansionism abroad and at home. At a time when, arguably, we can't afford it, in more ways than one.

In contrast, here's Obama:

[P]art of keeping you safe is also deploying our military wisely. And the war in Iraq was unwise.

It distracted us from the fight that needed to be fought in Afghanistan against Al Qaida. They're the ones who killed 3,000 Americans. It fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment. It has cost us dearly in blood and in treasure.

I opposed this war in 2002. I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home.

But I don't want to just end the war; I want to end the mindset that got us into war.

We will set aside, for the moment (and only for the moment), the creepiness of having a president-to-be wishing to end mindsets (to say nothing of saying, in a breath or two later, that we should intervene in Darfur).

Part of McCain's mindset, as aptly demonstrated in this recent New Yorker profile, is beating back the last bits of anti-interventionism in a GOP for which anti-interventionism was the norm as recently as the late 1990s.

Recently, McCain said, he had read "The Coldest Winter," David Halberstam's account of the Korean War and its era. "I strongly recommend it," he told the reporters. "It's beautifully done. It's not just about the war, but it's a very good description, whether you agree with it or not, of the political climate at that time-the split in the Republican Party between the Taft wing"-Senator Robert Taft, of Ohio-"and the Eisenhower wing, and Harry Truman's incredible relationship with MacArthur." He added, "At least half the book is about the political situation in the United States during that period-the isolationism, who lost China, the whole political dynamic. That's what I think makes it well worth reading."

It was a telling reference and points to McCain's transformation between 2000 and 2008-from a Teddy Roosevelt Republican to an Eisenhower Republican. In 2000, McCain railed against corporate power and the influence of lobbyists and money in politics. Today, the only mention of corporations in his stump speech is a demand that the corporate-tax rate be lowered. After 2000, McCain seemed briefly to be considering leaving the Republican Party, just as Roosevelt had. But, once terrorism and the war in Iraq became the preëminent issues, he decided instead to take over the Party, just as Eisenhower and the Republican moderates did when, in 1952, they vanquished the Old Guard isolationists who supported Taft. Instead of battling the corporate wing of his party, McCain has decided that it's the isolationists-a group that he defines broadly, and which includes the left and the right-who are the real threat.

One afternoon, McCain talked about his surprise at the resurrection of this element in his party, which has been particularly visible in the candidacy of the libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul. "We had a debate in Iowa. I mean, it was, like, last summer, one of the first debates we had. It was raining, and I'm standing there in the afternoon, it was a couple of hours before the debate," McCain said. "And I happen to look out the window. Here's a group of fifty people in the rain, shouting 'Ron Paul! Ron Paul!' " McCain banged on the table with both fists and chanted as he imitated the Paul enthusiasts. "I thought, Holy shit, what's going on here? I mean, go to one of these debates. Drive up. Whose signs do you see? I'm very grateful-they've been very polite. I recognize them and say thanks for being here. They haven't disrupted the events. But he has tapped a vein.["]

McCain is careful not to mock the broader libertarian right, which makes up a far larger share of his party than Paul's followers do. Nonetheless, his victory is a repudiation of small-government conservatism, a development not seen in the years of Barry Goldwater, Reagan, and the two Bushes. "For the first time since Eisenhower," Newt Gingrich told me, "you have someone who has clearly not accommodated the conservative wing winning the nomination. That is a remarkable achievement."

And they said this election wouldn't be about the war!

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  1. John McCain wants to commit us to a rollback strategy against an enemy that doesn’t have a center.

    He wants to conquer and occupy the territory of a movement that doesn’t have a homeland.

    He’s fighting the last war, with a strategy that didn’t even win that war.

  2. The phrase “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” scares me poopless, frankly.

  3. I like that McCain’s willing to say “shit” during an interview, but he’s still a giant douche.

  4. Im glad my choice isnt just between McCain and Obama. And, although it rarely occurs here, just to cut off the “waste your vote” argument, only one of those two will be president. If you vote for the other, you will be “wasting” your vote in the exact same way I will be “wasting” mine – by voting for a loser.

    Also, if you vote for the eventual winner, I guarantee that you wasted your vote. 🙂

  5. I think Halberstamm is spinning in his grave… This is almost as bad as when 43 tried to steal Tom Petty’s I won’t back down as his theme song.

  6. McCain would do well to read this insightful interview with Vladimir Bukovsky, the brave Russian dissident who certainly cannot be accused of being an isolationist. Not only for his warnings against the “War on Terror” but also for his comments on the Cold War, UN, NATO and more.

  7. I had a vision where the Republican national convention takes on the pall of a wake on accounta Iraq has turned very ugly over the course of the summer, and their candidate managed to win the nom solely by pimping our open ended imperial occupation there.

    Supposing that happened. Is the party trapped? Stuck giving the nomination to a rabid chipmunk zombie who won it by whoring war to the chicken shit fear worshiping constituency that dominates (what’s left of) the GOP?

    Could the party kick McCain to the curb and nominate someone who isn’t married to the (destined for failure) surge?

    If not, McCain’s gonna play Mondale (to Obama’s Reagan) come November. Rout.

  8. McCain still could see those Ron Paul signs, at the convention…

    The delegates are being picked at county and state conventions, and many could be uncommitted or RP delegates.

  9. McCain should just go all the way in his Teddy R. fetish and form the Bull Moose Party. Then all the pro-war types in the GOP could join that and maybe the GOP could be basically recast as a libertarian party.

    HAHAHAHA, I amuse myself. Maybe I can have a pony too.

  10. Sure, Episiarch, they could take Joe Lieberman and Zell Miller with them.

    Hey, it would be Labor, the Tories, and the Lib Dems, right here in the USA.

  11. The fact that McCain is widely admired is deeply discouraging to me.

    And I say that as someone who found a way to accept that people admired Nixon until the day he died.

    I’d rather deal with people who admire Che than people who admire McCain.

    I frankly would have felt better with Huckabee as the Republican nominee, and Huckabee makes me sick.

  12. … but for my money the best thing by far about the coming McCain-Obama cage-match is that it will present a stark choice on the one issue I care about most — the war, and U.S. foreign policy.

    Matt, just curious, do you care about the war? Or, about ending the war?

  13. “…Americans for whom no challenge is greater than their resolve, courage and patriotism?”

    Patriotism never has been, isn’t and never will be a challenge for me.

    “We need to marshal all elements of American power: our military, economy, investment, trade and technology and our moral credibility to win the war against Islamic extremists and help the majority of Muslims, who believe in progress and peace, win the struggle for the soul of Islam.”

    How many of those Muslims, the ones who believe in progress and peace, support John McCain’s vision of America’s role in the struggle for the soul of Islam?

    “And they said this election wouldn’t be about the war!”

    But about the Cold War? …what, for McCain, is this really about Vietnam?

  14. do you care about the war? Or, about ending the war?

    Both.

  15. “The country can thank its lucky stars that the process has pushed forward…. the two most widely admired political figures of their generations against each other in a presidential race,”

    [hurl]

    McCain: We need to marshal all elements of American power: our military, economy, investment, trade and technology and our moral credibility to win the war against Islamic extremists

    Sorry, all those assets are committed to winning the war on drugs. And the war on poverty. And the war on global warming. And…

    Obama: And the war in Iraq was unwise. It distracted us from the fight that needed to be fought in Afghanistan against Al Qaida.

    He’s not against interventionism. He’s against Republican interventionism. His wars are justified.

  16. We will set aside, for the moment (and only for the moment), the creepiness of having a president-to-be wishing to end mindsets

    I keep reaching around for some interpretation of Obama’s words that I find “creepy,” and I’m not coming up with anything particularly plausible. It seems pretty plain that he means to set forth a foreign policy doctrine based on principles other than…whatever principles can be said to underlie our present adventures. I’m guessing that he’s not proposing re-education camps or anything.

  17. Matt, caring about ending the war is the key thing for most voters, including majority of republicans. Just “caring about the war” can go either way. McCain cares about the war, but is willing to stick to it no matter how long it takes. That, to me (and probably to many attentive voters), does not quite make the cut. I think the candidate (most likely a Democrat, especially Obama) that would win the thing is the one that emphasizes not just caring about the war, but also about ending it, which implies also caring about it in a general sense.

  18. The election is only about the War if Obama wins. If McCain wins, Matt will be on here telling us how it was about everything but the war. Welch is only willing to commit to it being about the war eight months out when there is still question about who will win. If the wrong guy wins, expect to see Matt Welch, “why the election wasn’t about the war” post sometime on the second Wednesday in November.

  19. He wants to conquer and occupy the territory of a movement that doesn’t have a homeland.

    Oh, I dunno. It certainly has geographic havens and political supporters, without which it becomes virtually non-existent.

    Take away Syria, Iran, and the Pakistani hinterlands, and the radical Islamists have a much, much harder time operating in any effective manner.

    Sure, they’ve got a geographic presence in Morocco and a few other African countries, but nothing like what they’ve got in the Mideast.

    That’s not to say the way to attack their core in the Mideast is with heavy armor, but not pretending that radical Islam doesn’t have geographic and political bases and supporters that are essential at least allows us to ask the question of how do we reduce their base?

    Say what you will about the Bush strategy, but he has removed Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq from the list of governments that tolerate/support radical Islamists. Pakistan as well is probably a somewhat less hospitable environment. For awhile it looked like Lebanon would also fall off the list, but a lack of willingness to engage Syria effectively allowed Hez to retrench there.

    The real question is, how do we bring an end to the support/haven offered by Iran, Syria (and by extension, Lebanon) for radical Islamists? How do we help Pakistan to root them out of its hinterlands? I don’t think “doing nothing, really” is going to result in progress.

    I’m no McCain fan, but I think that Matt is completely misreading McCain’s “Cold War analogy”. McCain is saying the Cold War approach won’t work here, and that we need a different approach that is not based on heavy armor.

  20. I think the candidate (most likely a Democrat, especially Obama) that would win the thing is the one that emphasizes not just caring about the war, but also about ending it, which implies also caring about it in a general sense.

    For many voters, ending it on any terms whatsoever is also not going to be adequate. You’ll get more Americans to support a candidate who seems able to end it successfully than one who stakes out a “peace at any price” position.

  21. McCain should just go all the way in his Teddy R. fetish and form the Bull Moose Party…

    Well, he certainly wouldn’t form the Rein Moose Party

    /nauseatingly bad humor


  22. Say what you will about the Bush strategy, but he has removed Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq from the list of governments that tolerate/support radical Islamists.

    Libya and Iraq were no friends with the Islamists. In fact neither is Syria. Their hosting of Hamas and HA members is not out of love for the Islamists, but out of political convenience.

    I disagree with your assessment of a few things above, but I agree with you on this:

    I’m no McCain fan, but I think that Matt is completely misreading McCain’s “Cold War analogy”. McCain is saying the Cold War approach won’t work here, and that we need a different approach that is not based on heavy armor.

    Military action will never root out radicalism. Better ideas, alternatives, and elimination of the conflicts/injustices on which the extremists rally on (e.g., P/I conflict) will certainly help in reducing the influence of the extremists.

  23. R C Dean @ 10:22am,

    That’s exactly what I mean. Caring about ending the war means caring about doing so gracefully and with some “success”.

  24. I think it’s unfair to compare McCain to Eisenhower.

    Eisenhower was elected — at least in part — to end the Korean conflict, which he did. And he was no interventionist.

    And ask yourself if McCain has any problem whatsoever with the “Military industrial complex.”

  25. Say what you will about the Bush strategy, but he has removed Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq from the list of governments that tolerate/support radical Islamists. Pakistan as well is probably a somewhat less hospitable environment

    Pre war Iraq was probably as inhospitable of a place for Islamists than anywhere else in the Mideast, the Bush admin failed to realize that, or just didn’t give a shit. Afghanistan is having a hard time keeping the Taliban under control, and Pakistan is in major upheaval – not to mention being widely believed to be where OBL is hiding. Libya, however, does seem to want to join the rest of civilization, but hasn’t France done more towards that end than anyone?

  26. John and/or RC Dean, please define “winning/success/victory” in Iraq and tell me what it would look like. Because it seems that war supporters keep changing the definition of what it means.

  27. If McCain wins, Matt will be on here telling us how it was about everything but the war.

    No, I wont.

    Welch is only willing to commit to it being about the war eight months out when there is still question about who will win.

    I’ve been saying this will be about the war from the beginning, and I have no idea how/why you think that’d change depending on who wins.

    If the wrong guy wins, expect to see Matt Welch, “why the election wasn’t about the war” post sometime on the second Wednesday in November.

    You can expect that, but you’ll be disappointed.

    Look, there’s every possibility that the election will be about the war and McCain will win. In fact, McCain is counting on that.

  28. I don’t want to vote for a pro-war republican, but I value divided government enough that I just might have to.

  29. I want to join the Rein Moose party. Are there any officer positions available?

  30. John and/or RC Dean, please define “winning/success/victory” in Iraq and tell me what it would look like.

    Try this: A legitimate government (meaning one that has some democratic accountability, is widely viewed as such by its citizens, has some minimal regard for human rights, etc.) that is capable of acting as a night watchman that can protect itself and the Iraqi people against violence, both criminal and political.

  31. davek

    I’m afraid that the eighties and nineties have taught me that divided government only works one way.

    After all, we had divided government all through the 80s and still got runaway spending and practically exponential growth in public debt.

  32. A lot of terrorism directed at the U.S. will stop when we stop bullying other peoples. And the remainder we can take care of ourselves (and with allies who won’t be embarrassed to help us.)

  33. Recently, McCain said, he had read “The Coldest Winter,” David Halberstam’s account of the Korean War and its era.

    From the tone of his victory speech, it sounds like he’s been reading Niall Ferguson instead.

  34. RC Dean, that would take decades of an occupation.

    Putting casualties aside, do you realize how much that will cost our treasury?

  35. davek, I don’t think McCain is the kind of Republican that would veto any Democrat bills.

    Cesar, just print it! The inflation tax doesn’t exist. :/

  36. Nick, thanks for reminding me why going to the grocery store gets more painful for my wallet every week. By the time I’m 40 milk should be $12/gallon at this rate.

  37. davek et al.,

    You know what is needed? I think what is needed is to get the Democrats, in fact the post socialist Democrats, into all branches of government for the next say 12 years or so. We should give them a chance to make all their socialist stuff. Then, when it becomes obvious that nothing seems to get any better, if not in fact worse, we can then tell them from thereon, see it doesn’t work! Enough already with welfare.

    Then for the following 12 years (if the 8 last ones do not suffice), we’d give pro-war republicans their chance to have all the big, pro-war government they wish. When it all fails (or has it?), in 24 years, libertarianism (more likely classical liberalism) emerges as the norm.

  38. … I guess libertarians can do that since, well, if they can’t get their presidential candidate elected, they must do better at getting others’ presidential candidates elected.

  39. Ali, it sounds good in theory, well sort of, but when after 12 years the socialism doesn’t work, they’ll just blame the Republicans that didn’t go along with it, or they’ll blame the corporations, or they’ll blame global warming, or they’ll blame libertarians for not “believing” enough in the grand socialist experiment, subverting their plot, etc.

    I say we start over. Throw the bums out, and have no government for one year. I don’t think that much would change other than all the charities would handle the welfare and stuff. People would see they don’t really need the scumbag politicians.

  40. Oh, I dunno. It certainly has geographic havens and political supporters, without which it becomes virtually non-existent.

    We have 130,000 guys on the ground in Iraq and terrorists operate there with near impunity – certainly with more impunity than anywhere other than the occupied territories and parts of Lebanon.

    If we can put that many troops into the field and terrorists can still carry out attacks, why should we believe that we will be able to use military force to defeat them?

    That’s the reason they call it asymmetrical warfare. There is no military victory you can achieve that will make it impossible for 19 guys to buy box cutters. This mythology that the “terrorist havens and financiers” are the entire problem is demented and sad. The sums of money in play and the anonymity or capacity for concealment of most terrorists makes it so. I’m sure that it’s easier to terrorists to operate with the backing of a state or from a haven, but the backing of a state is not necessary. The Red Brigades didn’t operate from havens, and they certainly could have carried out spectacular Al Qaeda style attacks if they had had the will to do it. The Basques certainly could have.

  41. Taktix –
    The Rein Moose party is looking for qualified candidates who value hard work sitting around and are dedicated to making the world a better place smoking pot. Other qualifications include knowing how to make people contradict themselves in diner arguments and knowing how to take long vacations. Oh, and spelling. You gotta be able to spell.

  42. The Rein Moose Party is the dominant political organization (aka drinking club) on Rainbow Puppy Island. I’m firing up the grill, fellas.

  43. Indeed. It gives different meaning to politicians making deals in a smoky room 😉

    If you’re not into that, Rainbow Puppy Island also has the resources to make excellent cigars. And since the Rein Moose party is a libertarian organization, we don’t actually have any dealings to make in the back, smoky room anyway (except maybe some relating to a round of poker).

  44. “Rainbow Puppy Island also has the resources to make excellent cigars.”

    Cubanos?

  45. McCain’s trying to mend fences with the Torture Now! crowd:

    http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5g6SZlJHXgjMOdFhCzXpbioaeXCuQD8UU7G700

    good thing he’s so “widely admired”

  46. This mythology that the “terrorist havens and financiers” are the entire problem is demented and sad.

    I really disagree. So does Osama bin Laden, by the way, who went to a lot of trouble to create an AQ haven in Afhganistan, and hasn’t been able to launch a significant attack outside the region since he lost it.

    RC Dean, that would take decades of an occupation.

    I’m not so sure. Most of Iraq right now has a very minimal US presence and is under the control of the Iraqis themselves. The trend lines in the remaining hot spots are running our way.

    Libya and Iraq were no friends with the Islamists.

    They sure provided a lot of material support for them back in the day.

    In fact neither is Syria. Their hosting of Hamas and HA members is not out of love for the Islamists, but out of political convenience.

    Sure, whatever. They still support them, and if they withdrew that support, Hamas and Hez would be crippled. It just raises the question of how do we get them to withdraw that support?

  47. A lot of terrorism directed at the U.S. will stop when we stop bullying other peoples.

    Given the history of terror strikes at the U.S., this would seem to mean that we need to stop doing things that even Bill Clinton was doing.

    Just what do you think we are doing that, if we stop, the the Islamists will leave us alone?

  48. I don’t want to vote for a pro-war republican, but I value divided government enough that I just might have to.

    Indeed. If this was only about the war, the choice would be clear. Although I’d have to say that even with everything else considered, Obama offends me slightly less than McCain.

    I doubt I’ll be able to bring myself to vote for either one of them. I’ll probably go with a 3rd party. How about the Constitution party? It a.) lets the Republican party know I didn’t care for their candidate, while b.) doesn’t signal I agree with the Democrats, either, and c.) it’ll antagonize the Cosmotarians to boot. How sweet is that?

  49. RC Dean,

    Take away Syria, Iran, and the Pakistani hinterlands, and the radical Islamists… move,and set up shop somewhere else. Unlike Soviets, or the Germans, in World War 2.

    Not to mention, as the French learned in Algeria and as both we and the Soviets learned in Afghanistan, and as we learned in Iraq, conquering and occupying the territory in which their supporters live doesn’t seem to do very much to keep the terrorists from being terrorists. That’s why they’re terrorists, and not the Jihadi Armour Brigade.

    Thinking that main-force military actions will deny them their “base” in the pre-9/11, Cold War thinking I was referring to.

    Say what you will about the Bush strategy, but he has removed Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq from the list of governments that tolerate/support radical Islamists. And despite this, terrorist attacks worlwide by radical Islamists have skyrocketed since we denied them the support of those governments.

    You are engaging in the same obsolete, mid-20th century thinking as McCain.

  50. The celll that carried out the 9/11 attacks was based in Germany, and trained in the United States.

    The financial costs of the operation are estimated at $200,000.

    So much for the necessity of a friendly state’s territory and resources.

    As for “not launched attacks outside that territory,” I guess you forgot Bali. And Madrid. And London.

    Not to mention, the period between the first and second WTC attacks was longer than the time from the 9/11 to the present.

  51. “robc | February 20, 2008, 9:03am | #

    Im glad my choice isnt just between McCain and Obama. And, although it rarely occurs here, just to cut off the “waste your vote” argument, only one of those two will be president. If you vote for the other, you will be “wasting” your vote in the exact same way I will be “wasting” mine – by voting for a loser.

    Also, if you vote for the eventual winner, I guarantee that you wasted your vote. :)”

    So you think McCain and Obama are equally bad? You really don’t care which of the two is president? That’s the message you send when you vote for a non-viable third party candidate. It’s voting to not to vote.

    Which is fine. However, if (and when) McCain attacks Iran and greatly expands the war in Iraq, you then can’t really complain about it much, because you didn’t vote for the guy who was going to talk to our enemies and get out of Iraq. You say, with your vote for the Libertarian candidate or whoever, Obama’s attempt to give health care to all is just as bad as starting World War III (which is a fairly likely scenerio after an attack on Iran). If that’s really what you think, well then, vote for the LP candidate.

    But I doubt that very much.

  52. “LarryA | February 20, 2008, 9:56am | #

    Obama: And the war in Iraq was unwise. It distracted us from the fight that needed to be fought in Afghanistan against Al Qaida.

    He’s not against interventionism. He’s against Republican interventionism. His wars are justified.”

    Um, Afghanistan (that is, Al Queda/Taliban) attacked us on 9/11. That’s not interventionism; that’s defending yourself against an enemy that attacked you first. Remember, even Ron Paul voted for the war with Afghanistan.

  53. So you think McCain and Obama are equally bad? You really don’t care which of the two is president? That’s the message you send when you vote for a non-viable third party candidate. It’s voting to not to vote.

    The president is elected by the electoral college, not the popular vote. Given that my state is overwhelmingly Democrat, there’s not much secret which way our electoral votes are going to go, regardless how I vote.

    However, if I vote for the Democrat in protest to McCain, I signal to the Republicans that I want to vote for a liberal candidate, and if they want my vote, they’d better offer liberal candidates.

    But – if I vote for the Libertarian or Constitution parties, I signal there are conservative and libertarian votes they are leaving on the table, and if they want my vote, they should run conservative and libertarian candidates, as well as signaling I found their current offering unacceptable.

    Obviously, the Republicans are going to look at where the votes are going if they get clobbered in this election. If all the votes they aren’t getting are going to the Democrats, what does that tell them? And what would it tell them if 10% of the vote went to a conservative 3rd-party?

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