Deconstructing the Debate

I was going to live-blog the debate, but it was so boring that I fell asleep before I could post it on Takimag. In any case, this was supposedly a debate about foreign policy, but more than half of it was taken up with the peculiar obsession of the insufferable Jim Lehr, of PBS, who manages to combine earnestness and pretentiousness in what comes off as schoolmarmish pedantry: he started off by citing Dwight Eisenhower, who apparently once said something about how we must achieve both economic solvency and security, and then asked the question that was and is on everybody’s lips: Where do you stand on the financial recovery plan?

Obama: We are at a defining moment in our history. Two wars, and the worst financial crisis since the great depression. So what’s his anticlimactic solution for this looming apocalypse?  He’s in favor of “€œoversight”€ “€“ but give them the money. Now come the caveats: Taxpayers should get money back. (Fat chance!) None of the money is going to pad CEO bank accounts or golden parachutes. (Slim to anorexic chance!) We have to help homeowners. (By bailing out billionaires!) This, he averred, is a final verdict on Bush and McCain “€“ shedding regulations hasn”€™t worked.  Now come the buzzwords: Trickle down. Middle class. Fair shake. No mention of Alan Greenspan’s responsibility for any of this.

McCain: Never at a loss to pose and preen, Mad John announces that Ted Kennedy is in the hospital. Does this mean he”€™ll suspend his campaign “€“ again? Unfortunately not. He thanks the sponsors of the debate while the world waits for his answer to the economic crisis. Finally, he gets down to business:  Isn”€™t it wonderful that Dems and Reps are finally getting together in support of the bailout? And, yes “€“ since everything is about him “€“ he points out that he went back to Washington to help solve the problem he and his congressional confreres spent years creating. Oh, and to underscore his utter ignorance of economics, he throws out yet another non sequitur to the effect that it’s all the fault of “€œforeign oil.”€ Oh yeah? What about all those foreign lobbyists on his campaign staff?

Obama: How did we get into this situation in the first place? Too bad he has no answers to that intriguing question. He claims to have warned of the crisis. He spends a lot of time not answering the question, which is: Where do you stand on the issue of the bailout? According to the Mulatto Messiah, we “€œshredded”€ too many regulations: An economic philosophy that says regulation is always bad is the culprit. No mention of the moral hazard created by government-backed mortgage “€œsecurities”€ that pumped up the bubble to the bursting point.

McCain: I have a fundamental belief in the American worker, oh, and by the way, everything’s coming up roses.  With his talent for making irrelevant points, he comes up with a new one, attacking congressional earmarks. Obama is one of the worst offenders: one millions dollars for every day he’s been in the Senate. As Ron Paul has pointed out, however, earmarks are simply a re-taking of tax dollars that will be spent in any event”€”the question is, where will they be spent, and by whom? But never mind that”€”the earmark “€œissue”€ is a cheap way to score points with clueless conservatives.

Obama counterattacks, coming after McCain for advocating tax cuts. Oh, the shame! Tax cuts! Who ever heard of such a thing! So far, no mention of foreign policy “€“ or of the three trillion dollar war we”€™re fighting in Iraq. McCain keeps harping on the earmarks issue “€“ Obama apparently requested 900 million bucks worth “€“ but none of this has anything to do with either the bailout, or foreign policy. This is a debate that has veered out of control early on.

Jim Lehr has a new question: given the passage of the “€œrescue plan,”€ what are you going to have to give up in terms of the priorities you are coming into office with? Obama’s up first: he goes into a riff about “€œenergy independence.”€ This must be the non sequitur of the week, if not the year, beating even McCain’s record. He has three items, but it all boils down to this: he’s not gonna answer the question! He will spend and spend, and spend again “€“ the bailout be damned! Full speed ahead!

McCain says “€œno matter what, we”€™ve got to cut spending.”€ Attacks Obama as too far to the left. Says get rid of ethanol subsidies. Well, good for him: he then goes on to attack wasteful military spending. (Is aid to Georgia included in that? Not on your life!) Lehr stays on the bailout issue “€“ looks like we won”€™t get to hear McCain rant about poor little Georgia and the evils of Putinism, at least any time soon. Lehr is as much a participant as the two candidates, shaping the questions and awkwardly trying to get the two candidates to engage each other.

Obama is the first to draw blood with the point that we”€™re spending 9 billion a month to Iraq, when those guys have a surplus. McCain looks pained. End the war, says Obama, and redirect our resources. McCain flinches visibly.

Lehr keeps harping on the bailout issue, trying to get them to say that the financial crisis will alter their respective visions of how they will “€œrule the country,”€ as Lehr puts it. Frustrated, he finally moves on: Okay, so what are “€œthe lessons of Iraq”€?

McCain: We”€™re winning. The Surge worked. No problem.

Obama: The question isn”€™t one of strategy, but whether we should have gone in in the first place. His answer: Iraq was a diversion. He mentions the price tag “€“ soon to be one trillion bucks “€“ and deftly brings the economic issue into the war issue. We have to use our military wisely: and Iraq didn”€™t measure up to that.

Score two for Obama.

McCain: The next president will have to decide what we will leave behind in Iraq. He attacks Obama for attacking the surge, and sneers at the Democratic nominee for not going to Iraq until urged to do so.

Obama, calm as a stone, knocks McCain upside the head: You said we would be greeted as liberators, that it would be over early on, that we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were stored “€“ and you were wrong, wrong, wrong!

McCain, supposedly at his best on the foreign-policy issue, is weakest here: he babbles. Iraq is “€œpeace and prosperity”€ and he keeps repeating the phrases “€œwe”€™re winning.”€ How so? Well, “€œthey passed an election law”€”€“hip hip hooray! For this thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died, with many more wounded, at a cost of a trillion bucks?

He then says that Obama voted against funds for the troops. Obama comes back with the news that McCain voted against a bill that would have funded the troops with a timetable attached. Draw.

Obama: We need to get out of Iraq because we require more troops in Afghanistan. In 16 months we should be leaving Iraq. We don”€™t have enough troops in Afghanistan because they”€™re all tied up in Iraq.

Lehr asks if we need more troops in Afghanistan, when and how many?

Obama: ASAP. Two to three additional brigades should be sent in. It’s Afghanistan AND Pakistan”€”the first mention of the most pressing foreign policy issue in the debate. We”€™ve got to deal with Pakistan, says Obama, where al Qaeda has safe havens. The Pakis haven”€™t done what needs to be done. Until we deal with this Americans wont”€™ be safe at home.

Where have we heard this sort of thing before? Change? The only thing that’s changing, here, is the battlefield, not the rationale or the futility of our endless overseas crusade.

McCain: Our big mistake was leaving the Afghanis on their own after funding their jihad against the Russkies. He attacks Obama for advocating an attack on Pakistan “€“ not that he disagrees, in principle, but “€œYou don”€™t say that out loud! You do what you have to do.”€ Yeah, that’s right, keep it on the downlow “€“ and keep it from the American people. One’s an honest warmonger, and the other is an even more reckless albeit devious warmonger. Isn”€™t democracy wonderful?

Obama bristles at this weird role-reversal, in which Quiick-Draw McCain is portraying him as the hot-head, and says that coming from someone who threatened North Korea with extinction, and took to singing songs about bombing Iran, “€œI”€™m not sure how credible he is.”€

McCain comes back at him by reminding the audience that, as a freshman congressman, he voted against sending US troops to Lebanon. This is remarkable, really, and a measure of how aware McCain is that the anti-interventionist vote is huge, and growing, so that he even must pander to it. But all that is forgotten when Lehr asks his next question: Iran—is it a threat?

McCain turns on a dime, and his first concern is that Iran represents “€œan existential threat to the state of Israel, and, by the way, to the rest of the region, as a new arms race starts in the region. Then the pandering: We cannot allow a second holocaust. They “€˜re loving it in Florida: you know, where all those Pat Buchanan voters reside. He then segues, somewhat confusedly, into his “€œleague of democracies”€ pitch, which really marks him as an oldster. Who, after all, uses the word “€œleague”€ anymore, aside from the League of Women Voter and the Spartacist Leaague, both relics frozen in amber?

McCain is just getting started, as the warmonger in him takes over. He attacks the Russian for obstructing the UN Security Council. You see, once we have a League of our own, we get the added bonus of our own Security Council, one that will do Washington’s bidding as automatically as the nations of the Warsaw Pact ratified Moscow’s edicts to the letter.

Now that he’s warmed up, McCain gets to the real meat of the matter, but gingerly, carefully: he speaks only of the need to impose “€œpainful sanctions”€ on Iran “€“ via his imaginary League. Lashing out at Tehran for a host of alleged sins “€“ they”€™re going nuclear, they”€™re “€œkilling young Americans,”€ and, implausibly, “€œthe Republican Guard in Iran is in Iraq.”€ He takes out after Obama for voting against the Kyle Amandment, which would have designated the Republican Guards “€“ an official agency of the Iranian government “€“ as a terrorist outfit, along with Al Qaeda. This legislation should really have been called the Tripwire Amendment, because it would justify “€œhot pursuit”€ of the Guards into Iranian territory: it was essentially a pretext for war with Iran, and e need to impose painful sanctions on Iran, via this new league. Have no doubt, the Iranians continue on a path to the acquisition of nuclear weapons, they”€™re killing youing americans in Iraq, the republican guard in Iran is in Iraq. Denounces Obama for being against the Kyle Amendment. Another bid by the Israel lobby to bring us closer to the brink of war is a resolution sponsored by Rep. Gary Ackerman, Democrat of New York, to impose a naval blockade on Iranian ports.  “€“ the next logical step in the progression from economic sanctions to military action.

Obama’s very weak comeback is that, well, yes, the Guards are indeed a terrorist organization, but he was still against the amendment because … well, just because. My notes read: “€œno explanation,”€ and that is really the crux of the matter, and the reason why Obama lost this round. He cannot present a clear alternative to McCain’s warmongering without violating the pledge he made to AIPAC, and has repeated endlessly since then: that noting is “€˜off the table”€ where Iran is concerned. It is not to be treated as a normal country: it is, as Obama averred on this occasion, a “€œrogue state”€ “€“ meaning it refuses to follow Washington’s diktat and disarm itself before nuiclear-armed Israel.

“€œJohn McCain is right,”€ declared Obama “€“ well then, why the heck should anyone vote for you, bud? Obama also makes the curious claim that the Iraq war has somehow “€œstrengthened”€ Iran “€“ and yet one has to wonder how strengthened the Iranian people feel with one hundred and fity thousand Yanks on their border. But then again, Obama isn”€™t running for president of Iran. “€œJohn McCain is also apparently right about the primacy of Israel as being first and foremost among our tasks in the region: we “€œcannot tolerate a nuclear Iran,”€ because “€œit would also threaten Israel. We need tougher sanctions,”€ and “€œwe need to engage in tough direct diplomacy with Iran.”€

This last sets off a tiff that underlines the real differences “€“ if such they can be called “€“ between the candidates in the foreign policy realm, and that is the difference between two styles of imperialism. Lehr asks McCain: “€œWhat about talking [to the Iranians]?”€ McCain’s answer defines a style that is at once Napoleonic and Sovietly: full of grand flourishes and officious pronouncements, and also rigidly and self-righteously ideological.

McCaiin: “€œWe cannot sit down with Ahmahdinejad.”€ Why not? “€œBecause he “€œadvocates the extermination of the state of Israel. We legitimize this by talking to him. “€œ

We legitimize him “€“ in whose eyes? He has been elected by the Iranian people: I”€™m sure these elections wouldn”€™t measure up to the high standards of either the League of Women Voters or McCain’s “€œLeague of Democracies,”€ but that’s more of a democratic opening than most of our allies in the region, notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the monarchies of the Gulf.

Obama deftly slithers around the Ahmadinejad minefield by accurately noting that he “€œmay not be the most powerful person in Iran, so he may not be the person to talk to.”€ He gets in a crosscut punch by citeing Henry Kissinger’s call to talk to the Iranians without preconditions, and underscores Kissinger alleged role as a top McCain advisor.

The essential unity of the candidates on the Russian Question is confirmation, if any were needed, that our two-party system represents merely different wings of a sing party “€“ the War Party. Russia “€“ in imagined coalition with China and, naturally, Iran “€“ is the latest Major Threat, one that threatens at times to usurp that role from the villains of Tehran. If Obama is the latest incarnation of John F. Kennedy, then the cold warrior mentality that motivated Kennedy’s many foreign policy blunders”€”Bay of Pigs, the escalation of the Vietnam war, all that crap about the alleged “€œmissile gap,”€ which fueled the arms race and escalated tensions that eventually led to the Cuban missile crisis “€“ is back with a vengeance. Obama declared, in his most stentorian tones, that “€œour entire approach to Russia has to be reevaluated.”€ Russia, he averred, is “€œaggressive and resurgent.”€ They “€œmust leave Ossetia and Abhkazia.”€ I”€™m impressed he knows about Abhkazia, but he should understand that there are two Ossetias: North and South. The southern region, claimed by Georgia as a “€œprovince,”€ voted to secede and join the Russian Federation. Abkhazia, as everybody knows, is an independent country, and has been since ancient times when it was known as Colchis, the land of the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology. For championing the right of these two peoples to national self-determination, the Russians, according to Obama, are “€œacting like a 20th century dictatorship,”€ rather than “€œa 21st century democracy,”€ whatever that is. Oh, but don”€™t get him wrong: “€œWe cannot return to a cold war posture.”€ Oh really? If resurgent Russia is aggressively threatening its neighbors, and acting like a certain 20th century dictatorship “€“ a certain central European power’s actions in the Sudentenland comes to mind “€“ then perhaps we are returning to the pre-cold war era. No? In any case, Obama wants to make it clear that he’s not soft on the Kremlin, and that he’s maybe a bit harder than McCain “€“ sure, he”€™d meet with Putin, but there”€™d be none of this nonsense about looking into the Russian leader’s eyes and seeing his soul. Why, every good liberal Democrat knows that Czar Putin has no soul “€“ that is, if he wants money and support from George Soros, Alleged Russian “€œaggression”€ in the Caucasus must be met, declared Obama, with “€œa sharp response.”€

McCain attacks Obama for not being pro-Georgian immediately “€“ he started out by saying that both sides ought to stop the violence “€“ does this mean he didn”€™t endorse what everybody knows was a Georgian invasion of South Ossetia and the shelling of its capital city? Up on his high horse, McCain warms to what is clearly one of his favorite subjects: the evils of Russia and the heroism of “€œ a great young president,”€ Mikheil Saakashvili, who grabbed power after the U.S.-Soros “€“sponsored “€œRose Revolution”€ of 2003. He recently jailed the opposition parties”€™ leadership on charges of “€œtreason.”€ Oh, but according to McCain, “€œRussia is run by the KGB.”€ He mentions the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, darkly implying Russian designs on its continued operation,, and comes out for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. He angrily recounts the story, which he’s told often, of how he traveled to Ossetia “€“ he’s a good one for smelling out potential battlefields, the man has the instincts of a vulture “€“ and saw a giant poster of Vladimir Putin, emblazoned with the words “€œOur President.”€ This, to McCain, is an outrage “€“ but who does he think put that sign there?

There is a sinister aspect to McCain that reared its head when he said “€œWatch Ukraine. This whole thing has got a lot to do with Ukraine.”€

Uh oh ….

This orgy of warmongering reached a crescendo of self-righteousness as Obama chimed in: “€œSenator McCain and I agree on this issue. He admits calling for an end to the bloodshed in Ossetia, but denies he ever thought the Russians weren”€™t the bad guys. Now, he opined, “€œwe have to rebuild the Georgian economy.”€ It’s the economy, stupid “€“ but not the Georgian economy. If Obama knows what’s good for him and his campaign “€“ and he clearly doesn”€™t “€“ he”€™ll concentrate his talents on rebuilding the American economy. Because it may not exist by the end of the week.

Obama claims he warned of the coming crisis, because “€œthere were Russian peacekeepers on Georgian territory, “€œ and this, he averred, posed an inevitable danger. What he doesn”€™t say is that they were sanctioned by the United Nations, which has in the past admonished the Georgians for making their mission difficult and violating previous agreements. Obama goes on to say that Russia has too much oil”€“which is why we need “€œenergy independence.”€ Also caviar independence? Vodka independence, perhaps?  

Lehr intervenes to spare us any more of this, by asking one of his characteristically dumb-ass questions, and his one is a doozy: “€œWhat is the likelihood of another 9/11 attack on the US?”€

We are safer, McCain says. We”€™ve diverted the terrorists in Iraq “€“ or is that vice-versa? At any rate, he bloviates on, taking credit for the 9/11 Commission. Bipartisan. Reaching across the aisle. He attacks torture”€”it’s a relief to agree with him, for once”€“and then mentions, almost parenthetically, that we have to do a better job guarding our borders”€“this from Senator Open Borders McAmnesty!

Obama very cannily”€”and accurately, I believe”€”takes the opportunity to opines that the biggest danger is a suitcase nuke, not nuclear missile coming at us over the water. Says nuclear proliferation is a big danger. He reiterates that we must get Al Qaeda: in Afghanistan AND Pakistan. He wants to end on a “€œtough”€ note, but merely winds up sounding like McCain Lite. He has the gall to imply that his election will make a favorable impact on the world’s perception of the US “€“ but surely after listening to these two candidates threaten, posture, and preen, targeting any and all who presume to defy America’s will in the world, the world’s peoples will tremble just as much at the prospect of an Obama presidency as they will in anticipation of McCain in the White House. The supposed “€œantiwar”€ candidate goes on to point out the multiplicity of foreign threats that are supposedly gathering at the frontiers of our empire: “€œWe

We are borrowing trillions from China, and they are active in Asia and Latin America (not to mention Africa)”€”we”€™re losing to the chinks!

McCain’s response is really … weird. He attacks Obama for his mulishness , reiterate that he didn”€™t recognize Russian aggression in Georgia, and says “€œwe”€™ve seen this stubbornness before.”€ “€œJust like Bush”€ is the clear implication. I don”€™t know how many others picked up on that, but I had to sit and wonder if I”€™d heard him correctly. McCain the Maverick, the Agent of Change”€”attacking George W. Bush, his old enemy and putative leader of his party. The irony is delicious”€”he is cashing in on Obama’s Bush-bashing, and very deftly turning the tables on the Democrats.

Obama stupidly ignores this, goes into a riff about his Kenyan heritage, and gives his vaguely uplifting spiel about “€œfulfilling peoples dreams.”€ Is he running for class President, or President of the United States?

This debate was worthwhile if only for demonstrating, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that between McCain:—a pompous, pious, self-important, bloodthirsty old man “€“ and Obama, a pendantic technocrat with an earnestness we have every reason to fear “€“ the choice is reminiscent of the one Ulysses had to make between Scylla and Charybdis. In the Greek myth, he chose to pass by Scylla “€“ who had the body of an alluring nymph festooned with the heads of wild ravenous dogs “€“ rather than Charybdis, a vortex of water with a single gaping mouth that sucked in everything in the vicinity. The rationale being that he only lost a few of his crew to the former, while avoiding a complete loss with the latter. Whether this foretells the result of the election, I suppose we”€™d do better consulting the Sibyls.



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