Monday, July 21, 2008

McCain casts Obama as Bill Clinton

McCain has found a line of attack against Obama with which he's very comfortable: he used it repeatedly against Bill Clinton. Here it is, as expressed on Jul. 20 by advisor Randy Scheunemann:
Barack Obama says he wants a 'safe and responsible' withdrawal from Iraq, but is stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal that places politics above the advice of our military commanders, the success of our troops, and the security of the American people.
In his foreign policy pronouncements, McCain has always struck a Churchillian pose, casting various opponents as Neville Chamberlain against a succession of dictators (Milosevic, Kim Jong II, Saddam) in the role of Hitler. When Clinton starred (as he did repeatedly) in this Kabuki play, McCain liked to add a particularly nasty twist: the unfit commander-in-chief was not only weak and vacillating, but corrupt in the most fundamental sense -- placing his personal political fortunes ahead of the national interest.

Elsewhere, I've reviewed several instances in which McCain impugned Clinton's core motives in this fashion. Here, let one example suffice: in a lengthy foreign policy address delivered at Kansas State in March 1999 -- doubtless an early effort to establish his own c-in-c chops as he geared up for a presidential run in 2000 -- McCain devoted the bulk of his speech to excoriating Clinton's "strategic incoherence" and "self-doubt." He saved his harshest accusation to explain Clinton's conduct in a now-forgotten 'crisis,' U.S. transfer of technology to China:

In addition to their strangely relaxed attitude toward what looks to be an extraordinarily damaging espionage incident, they have tolerated, indeed, insisted upon extremely liberal licensing practices for transferring dual use technology to China. It is a sad sign of the times, that the best face that can be put on these lapses in judgment is that they were mistakenly committed for the sake of a stable bilateral relationship,

Far more distressing is the charge that they are, at least in part, a consequence of the President placing his own re-election before the supreme national interest. Sadly, that charge grows more credible every day. And if it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it will bring more of history's shame upon the President than his personal failings will, indeed, greater shame than any President has ever suffered.

Back in February '07, Joe Klein shed an interesting light on McCain's fondness for casting opponents of all-out military effort as self-interested. Noting that unnamed active duty officers of his acquaintance shared McCain's belief that opposition to the surge was politically motivated, Klein wrote:
Mission is a sacred word in the military. When you are given a mission, you are trained to complete it, to keep on trying new tactics until the objective is achieved. It is a matter of duty and honor. And so, when politicians criticize a mission, the reflexive military reaction is to assume they are acting dishonorably, putting politics above duty.
Klein, to his credit, added the necessary corollary:
...politicians have sacred missions too. Their duty is threefold: to be judicious about sending the troops off to war, to give the military everything it needs to complete the mission and, if it appears the mission is futile or compromised, to change it or end it.

It is doubtless emotionally satisfying as well as politically, er, expedient, for McCain to cast opponents' attempts to "change or end" a military course of action as cynical calculations against the national interest. And charges of political expedience are not outside the pale in our politics: Obama leveled that charge against Hillary Clinton. But for McCain, it's plainly a one-size-fits-all political strategy.

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