Saturday, September 27, 2008

Obama's wide-angle lens

In post-debate commentary, I heard many versions of the verdict, "this was a draw." On one level that seems the intuitive reaction. Neither candidate made a fool of himself. Neither failed to articulate his core positions on foreign policy. Neither scored the stereotypical knockout punch.

But this debate was no draw. Throughout, Obama displayed a broader strategic vision, the ability to put his position on a particular issue in the context of his broader goals. Above all, he returned over and over to the misallocation of our resources in Iraq, and how it's fixated and distorted and enervated our engagement with the world. Near the end, he summed up masterfully the full extent of this strategic disaster (as he's done repeatedly since March, but few have been listening), and in the process he also summed up McCain:
Look, over the last eight years, this administration, along with Senator McCain, have been solely focused on Iraq. That has been their priority. That has been where all our resources have gone.

In the meantime, bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qaeda is resurgent.

In the meantime, we've got challenges, for example, with China, where we are borrowing billions of dollars. They now hold a trillion dollars' worth of our debt. And they are active in countries like -- in regions like Latin America, and Asia, and Africa. They are -- the conspicuousness of their presence is only matched by our absence, because we've been focused on Iraq.

We have weakened our capacity to project power around the world because we have viewed everything through this single lens, not to mention, look at our economy. We are now spending $10 billion or more every month.

And that means we can't provide health care to people who need it. We can't invest in science and technology, which will determine whether or not we are going to be competitive in the long term.

There has never been a country on Earth that saw its economy decline and yet maintained its military superiority. So this is a national security issue.

We haven't adequately funded veterans' care. I sit on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and we've got -- I meet veterans all across the country who are trying to figure out, "How can I get disability payments? I've got post-traumatic stress disorder, and yet I can't get treatment."

So we have put all chips in, right there, and nobody is talking about losing this war. What we are talking about is recognizing that the next president has to have a broader strategic vision about all the challenges that we face.

That's been missing over the last eight years. That sense is something that I want to restore.

We have viewed everything through this single lens. That is McCain in a nutshell. In fact, it's McCain at his best, because if he still believes in anything but his own right to power, it's that we must win in Iraq. In that coda above, though Obama didn't personalize the diagnosis, he was literally describing the McCain we had just seen, the McCain who reiterated and reiterated:

This strategy has succeeded. And we are winning in Iraq. And we will come home with victory and with honor. And that withdrawal is the result of every counterinsurgency that succeeds.

And I want to tell you that now that we will succeed and our troops will come home, and not in defeat, that we will see a stable ally in the region and a fledgling democracy.

The consequences of defeat would have been increased Iranian influence. It would have been increase in sectarian violence. It would have been a wider war, which the United States of America might have had to come back.

So there was a lot at stake there. And thanks to this great general, David Petraeus, and the troops who serve under him, they have succeeded. And we are winning in Iraq, and we will come home. And we will come home as we have when we have won other wars and not in defeat.

This is not to say that McCain was not right about the surge, or about the terrible price of leaving total chaos in Iraq. But the reason he was right on that point is embedded in a world view that led us headlong in the disaster of invading the wrong enemy -- a one-size-fits-all Churchillian pose for every foreign policy challenge we face. McCain is more invested than anyone except Bush in the monomania of our Iraq entanglement. His insistence that a 100-year presence in Iraq would be acceptable was an almost poetic expression of the extent of his own investment. It's as if the possibility of victory there is so sweet that it encompasses his vision of the United States' place in the world.

Throughout the debate, Obama showed that he has a wider lens, a fuller grasp of the interconnection between economics and energy and security and America's place in the community of nations. He was in command of his facts, he was in command of his emotions, he was in command of the terms of the debate. I think polls will show that for a significant segment of independent voters, tonight he crossed the commander-in-chief threshold.

p.s. One caveat: since McCain kept insisting that Obama was bent on failure in Iraq, Obama might have mentioned that the Iraqi government has basically endorsed his timetable, and even Bush has essentially acceded to it.

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