Monday, September 29, 2008

Pulling Punches

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Cif America
Buying into the neocon worldview
In Friday's debate, Barack Obama conceded too much to John McCain and the neocon consensus on US foreign policy, Saturday September 27 2008 20:31 BST

Barack Obama won on points – just - in Friday's debate. It should have been a knockout, but he pulled his punches continually, particularly on foreign policy.

From the point of view of American electoral politics, Obama has a handicap, in fact several. As a pioneering black candidate, he has to avoid at all costs any hint of anger or a chip on the shoulder, and that spilled over to his relative youth as well. Americans are deferential to seniority, so it would have been counterproductive for him to be as snippy with McCain as the ornery old coot deserved.

There were many occasions when McCain deserved to be put down resoundingly. Each of his jibes about naïveté and inexperience was begging for a riposte about McCain's quarter-century as an insider in a Congress and a party that had done so much to bring the nation and the world to its present and sorry pass.

Where were the cutting references to McCain's starring role in the Keating Five and the savings and loan scandal and his panoply of advisers who have been lobbying for the earmarks that he obsessed about?

McCain's call for a League of Democracies contrasts sharply with his tolerance and praise for the military dictatorship in Pakistan and his characterisation of the country as a failed state when Pervez Musharraf took over from the democratically elected government. When he said "The Iranians have a lousy government, so therefore their economy is lousy," I was longing for Obama, to reply: "And we have a lousy economy because we have a lousy government – whose policies you have been supporting!"

McCain's outright false assertions about Obama's positions, not to mention his dissimulation about Henry Kissinger's views on meeting with foreign leaders, which does indeed match Obama's, may come back to haunt him, as indeed may his appointment of Sarah Palin if she crosses moose antlers with Joe Biden.

Obama was, on balance, probably right to restrain himself. But even so, it was disturbing to see how much he conceded to McCain, and to the neocon consensus, on foreign policy. Obama accepted shibboleths like the sacredness of the defence budget, the alleged success of the troop surge in Iraq, missile defence and Nato expansion.

There are many legitimate objections to the acceptance of Georgia and Ukraine in Nato, even from those who think Vladimir Putin has gone too far. The whole Star Wars project has been a complete boondoggle for the aerospace industry. The cost of the Iraq war may not be as high as the banker's bailout, but it is accepting the Republican recasting of the issue to confuse the defence budget with "voting against money for our troops", when so much of it, as McCain himself alluded, is pork-barrelling to Boeing and similar companies.

Obama also took as axiomatic that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons, which is far from proven, and talked of an arms race in the Middle East, without mentioning the one country that has nuclear weapons there and has refused to sign any of the non-proliferation treaties.

He was sharp on McCain's bluster about Spain, but perhaps should have spelled it out for the millions of viewers who were not fully aware of the gaffe from someone who was in the fore of the Frog and Bosch bashing at the time of the invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps Obama's most adroit tactic was his triangulation over Afghanistan. Far from being anti-military, he repeated that that Iraq was the wrong war, fought in the wrong way against the wrong enemy. Even if his repeated assertion that Osama bin Laden should be hunted down and "killed" sounds somewhat atavistically vindictive to people outside the US, it will not cost him many votes at home.

Obama probably restrained himself too much this time, for understandable reasons. Next time, he should go for a knockout.

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