“In order to effect practical change against a determined adversary, we do not need a would-be philosopher-king, but a seasoned gladiator who understands the fight Democrats will face in the fall campaign and in governing.” – Joseph C. Wilson
With the emergence of Sen. John McCain as the presumptive Republican nominee,
the choice for the Democrats in the 2008 presidential election now shifts to
who is best positioned to beat him, in what promises to be a more hard-fought
campaign – and perhaps a nastier one – than Democrats anticipated.
Sen. Barack Obama’s promise of transformation and an end of partisan
politics has its seductive appeal. The Bush-Cheney era, after all, has been
punctuated by smear campaigns, character assassinations and ideological fervor.
Nobody dislikes such poisonous partisanship, especially in foreign policy,
more than I do. I am one of very few Foreign Service officers who to have served
as ambassador in the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton,
yet I have spent the past four years fighting a concerted character assassination
campaign orchestrated by the George W. Bush White House.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of the few who fully understood the stakes
in that battle. Time and again, she reached out to my wife – outed CIA officer
Valerie Plame Wilson – and me to remind us that as painful as the attacks were,
we simply could not allow ourselves to be driven from the public square by bullying.
To do so would validate the radical right’s thesis that the way to win
debates is to demonize opponents, taking full advantage of the natural desire
to avoid confrontation, even if it means yielding on substantive issues. Hillary
knew this from experience, having spent the better part of the past 20 years
fighting the Republican attack machine. She is a fighter.
But will Mr. Obama fight? His brief time on the national scene gives little
comfort. Consider a February 2006 exchange of letters with Mr. McCain on the
subject of ethics reform. The wrathful Mr. McCain accused Mr. Obama of being
“disingenuous,” to which Mr. Obama meekly replied, “The fact
that you have now questioned my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics
for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep
respect for you.” Then McCain said, “Obama wouldn’t know the
difference between an RPG and a bong.”
Mr. McCain was insultingly dismissive but successful in intimidating his inexperienced
colleague. Thus, in his one face-to-face encounter with Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama
failed to stand his ground.
What gives us confidence Mr. Obama will be stronger the next time he faces
Mr. McCain, a seasoned political fighter with extensive national security credentials?
Even more important, what special disadvantages does Mr. Obama carry into this
contest on questions of national security?
How will Mr. Obama answer Mr. McCain about his careless remark about unilaterally
bombing Pakistan – perhaps blowing up an already difficult relationship with
a nuclear state threatened by Islamic extremists? How will Mr. Obama respond
to charges made by the Kenyan government that his campaigning activities in
Kenya in support of his distant cousin running for president there made him
“a stooge” and constituted interference in the politics of an important
and besieged ally in the war on terror?
How will he answer charges that his desire for unstructured personal summits
without preconditions with a host of America’s adversaries, from Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad to Kim Jong Il, would be little more than premature capitulation?
Senator Obama claims superior judgment on the war in Iraq based on one speech
given as a state legislator representing the most liberal district in Illinois
at an anti-war rally in Chicago, and in so doing impugns the integrity of those
who were part of the debate on the national scene. In mischaracterizing the
debate on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force as a declaration of
war, he implicitly blames Democrats for George Bush’s war of choice. Obama’s
negative attack line does not conform to the facts. Nothing could be farther
from the truth. I should know. I was among the most prominent anti-war voices
at the timeÃ¢â‚¬”and never heard about or from then Illinois State Senator
George Bush made it clear publicly when lobbying for the bill that he wanted
it not to go to war but to give him the leverage he needed to go to the United
Nations and secure intrusive inspections of Saddam’s suspected Weapons
of Mass Destruction sites. Who could argue with that goal? Colin Powell made
the same case individually to Senators in the run up to the vote, including
to Senator Clinton. It is not credible that Senator Obama would not have succumbed
to Secretary Powell’s arguments had he been in Washington at the time.
Why not? Obama himself suggested so in 2004. “I’m not privy to Senate
intelligence reports,’ Obama said. Ã¢â‚¬ËœWhat would I have done? I don’t
know.” He also told the Chicago Tribune in 2004: “There’s
not much of a difference between my position and George Bush’s position
at this stage.” According to press reports, Powell is now an informal
adviser to Mr. Obama.
In his tendentious attack, Obama never mentions that Hans Blix, the chief United
Nations weapons inspectors, declared that without the congressional Authorization
for the Use of Military Force the inspectors would never have been allowed into
Iraq. Hillary’s approachÃ¢â‚¬”and that of the majority of Democrats in
the SenateÃ¢â‚¬”was to let the inspectors complete their work while building
an international coalition. Hillary’s was the road untaken. The betrayal
of the American people, and of the Congress, came when President Bush refused
to allow the inspections to succeed, and that betrayal is his and his party’s,
not the Democrats.
Contrary to the myth of his campaign, 2008 is not the year for transcendental
transformation. The task for the next administration will be to repair the damage
done by eight years of radical rule. And the choice for Americans is clear:
four more years of corrupt Republican rule, senseless wars, evisceration of
the Constitution, emptying of the national treasury – or rebuilding our government
and our national reputation, piece by piece. Obama’s overtures to Republicans,
or “Obamacans” as the Senator calls them, is a substitute for true
national unity based on a substantive program. His marginal appeals have marginally
helped him in caucuses in Republican states that Democrats won’t win in
the general election. But his vapid rhetoric will not withstand the winds of
November. His efforts will be correctly seen by the Republican leadership as
a sign of weakness to be exploited. While disaffected Democrats may long for
comity in our politics after years of being harangued and belittled by the right
wing echo chamber, the Rovians currently promoting Obama are looking to destroy
him should he become the nominee. Obama’s claim to float uniquely above
the fray and avoid polarization will be short-lived. He is no less mortal than
any other DemocratÃ¢â‚¬“Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John KerryÃ¢â‚¬“all untouched
at the beginning of their campaigns and all mauled by the end. We should never
forget recent history.
In order to effect practical change against a determined adversary, we do not
need a would-be philosopher-king but a seasoned gladiator who understands the
fight Democrats will face in the fall campaign and in governing.
Theodore Roosevelt once commented, “It is not the critic who counts:
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of
deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually
in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives
valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, who, at the best, knows,
in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails,
at least he fails while daring greatly.”
If he were around today, TR might be speaking of the woman in the arena. Hillary
Clinton has been in that arena for a generation. She is one of the few to have
defeated the attack machine that is today’s Republican Party and to have
emerged stronger. She is deeply knowledgeable about governing; she made herself
into a power in the Senate; she is respected by our military; and she never
flinches. She has never been intimidated, not by any Republican – not even John
Barack Obama claims to represent the future, but it should be increasingly
evident that he is not the man for this moment, especially with Mr. McCain’s
arrival. We’ve seen a preview of that contest already. It was a TKO.