Steven Stark recently penned a piece for the Boston Phoenix suggesting that playing up the spectacle will be the name of the game come electoral season, not “issues.” Citing examples from across history, from Lincoln to Jefferson, Van Buren to Cleveland, he swiftly dispels the fantasy that there was once an issues-oriented American political process that got polluted somewhere along the way. Barack Obama and John McCain have each built a reputation as men of principle who go against the grain of convention on matters ranging from immigration to diplomacy. They both want us to believe that they will be the men who bring issues back to the forefront of the discussion. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the chances that neither will live up to his own hype appear rather high and the current debate over U.S. relations with Iran already provides not a stark contrast, but a striking similarity between the two likeliest nominees of the two major parties.
Obama, the appeaser
Debate over whether use of the term “appeaser” by President Bush in the Israeli Knesset referred to Barack Obama is in most respects doomed to be fruitless. However, it’s quite clear that he served a talking point to opponents of the Illinois senator who have since hugged the pigskin running. Used in broad strokes, with unspecific historical context and in service of a philosophical idea, the word is useful enough. Used in reference to a specific person in this particular election and in service of a smear, the word is clearly over-freighted, inaccurate, and misleading. Even some of the more thoughtful conservative commentators have ceded this point, as when Victor Davis Hanson wrote, “Most define appeasement not by the mere willingness on occasion to negotiate with enemies (i.e., the heads of nation states rather than criminal terrorist cliques). Rather, appeasement is an overriding desire to avoid war or confrontation to such a degree so as to engage in a serial pattern of behavior that results in an accommodation of an enemy’s demands.” Right on.
But what did John McCain say when asked if he thinks Obama is an appeaser? He said, “I think that Barack Obama needs to explain why he wants to sit down and talk with a man who is the head of a government that is a state sponsor of terrorism, that is responsible for the killing of brave young Americans, that wants to wipe Israel off the map, who denies the Holocaust.” To pundits, wonks, and journalists, that was a light tread that leaves room for parsing. To the broader population of information consumers, the answer was far more to the point: Yes, I do think that Obama is an appeaser and he should explain himself. So much for the maverick bucking the trends, staying honest, and sticking to the issues.
But more to the point, how tough can we expect Mr. McCain to be with respect to Iran? McCain doesn’t believe it was an “accident that the hostages came home from Iran when President Reagan was president of the United States. He didn’t sit down in a negotiation with the religious extremists in Iran.” Well, not in 1980 he didn’t. But only a few years later, Reagan shuffled weapons to Iran in order to get another set of hostages released and fund the fight against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Obviously McCain has a dose of Reagan’s memory deficit, since Robert McFarlane, Mr. Iran-Contra himself, enjoys a privileged spot on McCain’s foreign policy advisory board (an appointment that not even the sharp mind of a Robert Kagan can balance out). So it’s fair to ask, since he’s touted Reagan’s stance as the more effective one and given jobs to those shamed by some of Reagan’s worst policies in Iran: will McCain play Iran the way Reagan did?
Does McCain think we believe him or care what he’ll do? As Stark pointed out, “no one can foresee the issues a president will have to confront” and “politics in this country early on became a branch of popular culture — prized as much for its entertainment value as its social one.” Reagan couldn’t be a worse example where Iran is concerned, but where McCain’s constituency is concerned, where entertainment and enjoyment fuse with nostalgia and sentimentality, it’s hard to think of one better. He’s not playing an issues game; he’s invoking old heroes that play well on TV to his base.
“George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for,” said Obama replying to the kerfuffle in front of a cheering South Dakotan crowd. Leaving aside that among the things McCain has to “answer for” is the success of the troop surge, the message was clear: McCain equals Bush, and I’ll offer you something different, better, and truly elevated above all this distraction. At this point, some of us hoped that Obama might proceed to articulate a foreign policy that inaugurated a more robust tradition of humanitarian interventionism and the global promotion of liberal values as opposed to interest-oriented realism and isolationism (realpolitik for short, which, let’s be fair, is what most of his foreign policy depressingly sounds like). But if that was asking for the moon, perhaps the least one could ask for was a reply less tailored for TV. What we got instead was a nod to JFK: “If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because that’s what he did with Khrushchev.”
As has been rightfully pointed out by many since, JFK’s negotiation with Nikita Khrushchev was hardly any more of a success than Reagan’s dealings with Iran. But again the point is that Obama and McCain never seem to tire of insulting all of us by claiming that they are the serious politician, the one who is above the hype machine, the entertainment factor, and the smear tactic. There are at least as many liberals who elevate JFK to saint status as conservatives who hold Reagan in the same pseudo-divine light, despite the fact that both presidents managed to commit some of the most revolting and brazen blunders — both foreign and domestic — in recent memory. Homage to the pseudo-divine makes the one who pays it the cheapest kind of disciple.
So while Bob McFarlane sits on McCain’s advisory team and McCain lectures us about Iran, Obama cavorts about with Zbigniew Brzezinsky, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter. And what great accomplishments can we thank the Carter-Brzezinski team for with regard to the Middle East? The triumph of Khomeini over the secular and liberal elements of the Iranian revolution. The green light for Saddam Hussein to invade Iran, sparking one of the bloodiest wars the region had ever seen. That war, it is worth noting, served the mullah regime in Tehran a golden opportunity at a time when those very liberal and secular elements had begun realizing the revolution had only supplanted one tyrant with another. In a time that might have seen another people’s revolt, a corrective to the new theocracy, Iranians instead coalesced around their nationalist bond and went to war against serial aggressor Saddam.
Obama, to his credit, has since cut Brzezinski loose but now spares no effort in endorsing the equally realist policies of George H.W. Bush. He told David Brooks, “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush. I don’t have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm.” The adviser to that Bush was none other than Brent Scowcroft, himself a “realist” who these days doesn’t seem to tire of smugly flaunting his vindication over the fact that people no longer ask him why they didn’t go into Baghdad in 1991. One wonders if the smirk would fade if he were asked the more pointed question of why, when the support of the Iraqi people for American action against Saddam was so great that they themselves did rise up and choose freedom over despotism (as so many anti-war liberals today suggest should be the condition for Iraqi regime change), the administration he kept watch over allowed that uprising to be squashed by Saddam’s helicopter gunships. Those helicopters, which were given permission to fly by General Schwartzkopf himself, mowed people down by the thousands and in the process squandered the faith of more Iraqis than anyone suspected in any future American-led intervention. That loss of faith has unquestionably been a key factor in the difficulties that arose after the recent Bush administration’s choice to do what Obama’s heroes wouldn’t.
It may be difficult to determine whether Scowcroft would stop smiling in self-congratulation, but it’s easy to understand what his answer would be because he’s offered one. The decapitation of the regime was undesirable because the U.S. didn’t want to give up its chess piece in the Iranian game. Never mind if that game had already required U.S. inaction in the face of the Kurdish genocide or the mass murder of Shiites, the essence of billiard ball realism is as follows: it doesn’t matter the moral content of the ball as long as it bounces against the others in a way that suits your interests. Obama, who would have his constituency believe his is a more ethical politics and a more compassionate foreign policy, really must explain why we should trust his vision for Iran while his policy gurus seem to offer only a legacy that ranges from malicious action to callous inaction.
Re-tooling the Janus faces
McCain, Obama, and every cheerleader who has defended their positions in this debate need to consider how having done so reflects upon their ability to comprehend and communicate the truth. The arguments and responses have been crafted in solid opposition to facts, history, and good sense, and in collusion with the kind of populist sentimentality that requires any clip of Ronald Reagan or JFK to play in slo-mo with swelling orchestras behind. American policy in Persia has few heroes and many villains. The heroes, unfortunately for McCain and Obama, don’t have names or legacies that stir the emotions of information consumers.
Nobody who is serious about a future policy vis-a-vis Iran can engage this debate without first dismissing everything both candidates have said and done as mindless drivel and cynical P.R. It’s the kind of thing both senators claim dominates conventional politics and that each, in this case, has failed to rise above. Stark may be right when he says “it’s rather un-American to have an election that focuses on the ‘big issues.’” But as anyone knows, what is and isn’t “American” is subject to redefinition and refinement, though both generally come at the behest of the people and not without some clamor and wrangling. Voters should force each candidate to make their practice match the promise.