The Choice


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!