Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 1, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

NATIONAL SECURITY....The emerging consensus about the lovefest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton last night is that Clinton was better in the first half, when they discussed domestic policy, and Obama was better in the second half, when they discussed Iraq.

Maybe so. But here's the difference I noticed: they were both good in the first half and they were both lousy in the second half. When they were discussing domestic issues they were both sharp, well-briefed, and obviously engaged. But when the conversation turned to foreign policy, they became mushy, vague, and meta. For my money, they both need to hone their foreign policy message considerably for the general election.

Another thing the debate brought home to me is something Matt Yglesias complains about frequently. Both candidates claimed that Democrats understand national security and terrorism issues better than Republicans ("Democrats have a much better grasp of the reality of the situation," as Hillary put it), and both agreed that a successful Democratic candidate would need to be able to make that case to the public. Obama thought he could make that case better because he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, while Clinton thought she could make the case better because she's better prepared. But neither of them actually made that case. Both Obama and Clinton had a national stage where they had more time than usual to explain the liberal position on how to combat terrorism and make the world safer, and neither of them did it. They just said they needed to do it.

And they're right. They do need to do that. So why didn't they start last night?

Kevin Drum 12:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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Because if they talked about the tried and true way, detective work, infiltration, etc. The repubs would have a field day calling them weak because they didn't mention bombing or invading countries.

Posted by: dontcallmefrancis on February 1, 2008 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

francis: OK, but when do they start? They're going to have to figure out a way to make a persuasive case eventually.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on February 1, 2008 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

Making the case on national security is difficult because we are locked into often meaningless and incorrect language.

One example.

If we bring our troops home from Iraq we will lose the war. We want victory. Of course no one has ever defined victory, or if they have they have changed the definition repeatedly to conform to the situation.

Perhaps more important what is happening in Iraq is not a war, it is a battle in the war on terrorism. It happens to be the wrong battle at the wrong time and in the wrong place. In some respects Iraq is the Gallipoli of the war on terrorism.

This is a hard concept to explain in sound bites and buzz words. It is hard to explain and perhaps even harder for most people to comprehend. No one in the non-print news media would ever spend any time on this type of discussion.

It is just one of many examples of the difficulty is making the national security argument.

Posted by: Stuart Shiffman on February 1, 2008 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

After they win, jeez!

Posted by: dontcvallmefrancis on February 1, 2008 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

On the one hand, I'm sympathetic to your frustrations. But, to be fair, foreign policy is based on contingency and reaction to a much greater extent than domestic policy is. Complicating that, there's a substantial group of people in this country that believes that foreign policy is very simple and straightforward, as demonstrated by the enormous traction that Bush's ridiculous "smoke 'em out // fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here" formulation of the GWOT had for a very long time.

I know we all want to hear the liberal position on foreign affairs, but I'm afraid that it doesn't have much support nationally and that it would probably be a bad idea to get into it right before Super Tuesday. I'll be interested to see how the dialogue changes once we have a nominee. My feeling is that Obama will drift to the left, while Hillary would move towards the center.

Posted by: Adrian on February 1, 2008 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

well Obama couldn't 'explain' a liberal foreign policy because he really doesn't know what he's talking about and is essentially a one trick pony ["I was against the war from the beginning aren't I just wonderful etc etc"]; Hillary can't defend liberal foreign policy concerns because she's a centrist or realist when it comes to FP and sounds muddled when it comes to FP talk because she's struggling to appease the anti-war left wing faction without dooming her chances in a general election.

Posted by: orso on February 1, 2008 at 12:27 PM | PERMALINK

Nice to have you back Kevin.

I think the national security issue is not being discussed because the one time Hillary did bring up the potential for us to be attacked by Al Quaida again, all the Obamanians turned purple and started screaming that she was just repeating Bush's terra,terra,terra meme.

National security is a serious issue and we should be discussing this in great length. Here, actually is where Hillary will come out looking much stronger. She has done a lot of good for getting REAL homeland security measures installed.

These are not nice people. And making kissy kissy oh I will talk with them, isn't going to do it.

Posted by: optical weenie on February 1, 2008 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I suspect the reason why they didn't make the case is that there isn't one that can BE made. Iraq is a failed state that we can either stay and keep waiting forever to revive or leave and watch disintegrate. For what I hope are obvious reasons, President Bush prefers to have 150K U.S. troops remain in Iraq until the end of his term and leave it to his successor to fish or cut bait.

Posted by: David W. on February 1, 2008 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

I pretty much agree with Kevin Drum. Whenever I hear the "surge" question, I keep expecting someone, finally, to rebut it in public. Instead, they end up playing it safe. I suppose this is understandable, but they better have something better in mind when they are debating McCain. Otherwise, the lie will prevail.

Posted by: Outis on February 1, 2008 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Well Hillary is screwed because of the the popular mis-memory of the Iraq war vote. Once again it wasn't a vote to invade Iraq, but it was a vote to use force if Saddam didn't comply with UN Inspectors. And voting for the resolution was the right thing to do. Saddam did start complying with the UN Inspectors days after the vote.

And the beauty of the Bush Administration they are so irrational they are able to leave rational people with no good choices. If Congress voted against the resolution, Saddam would have dragged his feet, been outright aggressive against the US and the UN, and Bush would have the justification to invade without congressional approval. And of course we see what a Yes vote brought us.

Needless to say, the democrats have a nice handy doctrine for National Security, it's called the Powell Doctrine.

Posted by: Dervin on February 1, 2008 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

In the area of foreign policy, Ann Coulter thinks Hillary has the edge:
She said on Hannity & Colmes last night that Clinton "is more conservative than he is" and adds that in that scenario "she will be our girl." As president she would be "stronger in the war on terrorism" and would not pull the troops out of Iraq, pointing out that she jumped to her feet at the State of Union speech when President Bush said the surge was working (and Obama did not).

And don't forget that Hillary is to the right of McCain on the torture issue, too. So as long as Hillary gets the nomination, I think you're worrying too much.

Posted by: bobb on February 1, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: I didn't (couldn't) see the debate last night, but your summary sounds familiar. When I have seen these two candidates discussing foreign policy, particularly when they are asked to address recent developments, they worry the hell out of me.

Adrian has the start of an answer:

But, to be fair, foreign policy is based on contingency and reaction to a much greater extent than domestic policy is.

He's right, but the Democratic presidential contenders (eventually, the Democratic contender) must find a way to inform themselves about what is really going on in the world. They need a team of briefers who are better informed than those who will be prepping the Republicans. Considering that the Republicans have been fatally wrong about everything, spurring revolts and defections from our intelligence and diplomatic agencies, that shouldn't be hard.

The elements of a brain trust superior to the idiots who continue to support Bush/Cheney should be willing to cooperate with a receptive candidate who wants to steer the country away from the abyss (abysses, actually; we need to steer very carefully).

But even with the superior brain trust in place, the Democrats will need information. The Bush/Cheney criminal administration will continue to collect, manufacture, and hoard information, doling it out to whichever poor chump wins the Republican nomination. The Democrats will need accurate information to counter the disinformation that the Republicans will unleash. This is not a guess. The Republicans cannot start to tell the truth about what they have been doing after 7 years of lies and coverup.

I hope that everyone in a position to know better--inside and outside of government--will pause to reflect on what he or she may be hiding from the American people. If they can't step forward in public, they can still get in touch with the right people.

Who are the smartest, best-informed people outside of government today? Are Obama and Clinton hearing what they have to say?

Posted by: Boolaboola on February 1, 2008 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

Kevi, it's because neither one will actually do anything going beyond the current "bipartisan foreign policy establishment."

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 1, 2008 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

Once again it wasn't a vote to invade Iraq,

Once again, Bush said it wasn't a vote to invade Iraq, but everyone who wasn't bamboozled by Bush recognized that he was lying.

OTOH, her support for the war, surge, torture, etc., may end up helping her. See Ann Coulter's endorsement of Hillary over McCain.

Posted by: bobb on February 1, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

optical weenie sez "National security is a serious issue..."
I call BS. Global warming is a serious issue. Our failed drug policy (which sponsors terrorism, among other things) is a serious issue. Universal disenfranchisement due to corporate influence in the legislative process is a serious issue.
Terrorism is a run-of-the-mill issue to be handled by various law enforcement agencies, not by the military, and not by the prez him/herself. Just ask the Brits, who have way more experience with terrorism than we do.
When is everyone going to wake up and realize that the terrorism boogeyman is not really living in our closet?

Posted by: Govt Skeptic on February 1, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

Also, since there's a pretty broad consensus among us Dems now that the war was a bad, bad idea, I'd argue that the more relevant issue in a Dem debate is how best to make the case to everyone else.

Besides, Obama's right about the argument they're going to make -- because they've made it time and time again. How often have we all heard that the "Clintons were for it as far back as 19__", as if that's supposed to be a justification that it was a great idea or something either then or in 2003. Actually I have no idea what that argument means because it only works if you believe the Clintons are the embodiment of ALL liberal thought (one reason I'm not a big Clinton fan: way too cozy with some neocons during the 90s), but it works much, much better if they're actually arguing with a Clinton who really did vote for the war.

And, I know we all love to bash Wolf Blitzer, but "naive" is probably the most hopeful construction you can put on her vote. I knew Bush was determined to go to war regardless of whatever facts were known, and I'm just some guy who follows the news sometimes. How come this policy wonk Senator was so clueless? Rachel Maddow on MSNBC was right -- her argument on this point is idiotic. She would have been much better off arguing that she thought the WMD made it a vital US interest to attack immediately, because that was the only actual unknown factor at the time.

(I was actually very impressed with Hilary otherwise and, being an Obama guy, feared she might be "winning" last night early on.)

Posted by: Bob on February 1, 2008 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

Once again it wasn't a vote to invade Iraq, but it was a vote to use force if Saddam didn't comply with UN Inspectors

Oh come on now. Everyone knew that Bush was going into Iraq and didn't give a fig about the inspectors. The language was out there so people like Hillary could take cover and later claim "If I had known then what I know now..." That's the same thing as Condi's "Who could have predicted..." It's bullshit.

Posted by: tomeck on February 1, 2008 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

Obama came in with the goal of showing how he would be better against McCain and I thought he did a good job of that.

Obama has a habit of talking in meta, which always seems to bug you. But it works for me and many others, as it shows not just where he stands but also what he is thinking.

Posted by: Mark on February 1, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

Everyone should read FDR's famous speech at the Commonwealth Club in SF in September 1932 - when he was running against Hoover. A great speech and, looking back, the most complete, compelling, and comprehensive rationale for what would become the New Deal.

I agree it's almost impossible to lay out a new approach to foreign policy in a debate format, but Obama should be laying it out NOW in those kinds of terms. What it is about the traditional approach to FP that has been a failure? How has this war made us less safe? How should we engage with the world? What, exactly, are our "national interests.?"

I don't think Obama can afford to wait until he gets the nomination to lay this out in a comprehensive way. It may be too late. He needs to do it now and then use that speech as a reference point in the debates and on the campaign trail.

Posted by: David68 on February 1, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

I think they don't do it because there's no "there" there. The problem with Republicans is one of competence and bad intentions more than anything else. I do think there is a major difference between the parties on preemptive war, but on core national security issues I think both parties are in general agreement. Sometimes fighting terrorism will require war, in the case of state sponsorers. Afghanistan won't be the last country that thought it could get away with sponsoring terrorism. If anything, the Democrats are more aggressive on Pakistan.

So I'm just not sure there's much to articulate about a liberal foreign policy other than we won't start any senseless wars.

Posted by: Adam Herman on February 1, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

Dervin --

You're the one with the faulty memory. I have to quote Rachel Maddow again, but the name of the resolution stated pretty clearly that it authorized the President to use force in Iraq.

Was there any reason on God's green earth to trust Bush that he would only go to war as a last resort at this point? As anyone who bothers to study these things knows, you never get out of these situations without a war if you don't allow your opponent a face-saving way out of the conflict and you'd have to be as big an idiot as Bush not to see clearly that he was against any approach which could have conceivably avoided a war.

Let's face it, Hillary has (or being optimistic, "had") neocon tendencies, or she buys (or hopefully "bought") the complete and utter BS that the only way Dems can be "strong" on foreign policy is by being as warlike as the Republicans. Either way, it's the strongest argument against voting for her.

Posted by: Bob on February 1, 2008 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

So why didn't they start last night? They're going to have to figure out a way to make a persuasive case eventually. -Kevin

Domestic policy has always been a strength for Democrats and the primary reason people are going to come out and vote for them. They need that turn out! Also, they know that the Republicans are going to play the "stability in Iraq success" card really heavy. It would be a better idea to let them play that one FIRST-then respond to that as needed. Let the Republicans make all of their warhawk noise and let the pubic turn off on THEM. What Adrian said upthread about foreign policy being based on contingency is true. Why should the Dems give the R's a bunch of hypothetical nonsense they can use to beat us about the head with, when we can just let them do all of the jabbering about war to a war weary public who will not vote for them?

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on February 1, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Doc says Let the Republicans make all of their warhawk noise and let the pubic turn off on THEM.

I'm just not confident that passivity won't kill us. Maybe the candidates themselves don't have to slap down every misrepresentation of our military and international status, but somebody needs to. If not, crap like "the surge is working" starts to take hold as common knowledge.

In a "debate" setting, it is the candidate who needs to answer. The next time some media jackass frames a question with "Now that the surge is working " or "With casualties declining in Iraq " it's up to the candidate to set the questioner straight, by dealing in facts, defining "the surge" and "casualties" and then to address what is actually happening from a solid base. Their silence signals assent.

Posted by: Boolaboola on February 1, 2008 at 1:15 PM | PERMALINK

If the Dems lose this race to a guy whose foreign policy position is that we should be starting MORE wars, the party should just fold up shop.

Posted by: howie on February 1, 2008 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Boolaboola, I don't think the Dems have to be entirely passive about national security and Iraq. I just think the Republican's strategy is to make that the *focus* of the entire campaign because that is the only card they've got in their hand and it's not even that strong. I just don't think the Dems should allow the tables to get turned on the national conversation and allow that issue to become dominant. The Dems focusing too much energy and talk about it will do just that. Big mistake IMO. The economy is going to be souring and people are going to worrying about JOBS and health insurance. That's where the focus needs to be.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on February 1, 2008 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

Great post. But when you complement and criticize them both, I cannot tell who you are in the tank for . . .

Posted by: TFisher on February 1, 2008 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

They didn't because they aren't perfect nor will they ever perform up to every monday morning pundit's review. Sorry! But there are only two choices: Do the best they can under the circumstances or read the predebate comments of pundits who make every effort to provide a script.
I suggest that they did very well on their own and I admire both of them.

Posted by: fillphil on February 1, 2008 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

And they better get better at this because the Straight Talk Express/War Machine/Surge-A-Thon is coming and it will have the full force of the entire media industrial complex behind it....

Posted by: Hank Essay on February 1, 2008 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

When is everyone going to wake up and realize that the terrorism boogeyman is not really living in our closet?

The flu kills more Americans every year than terrorism could ever hope to, short of a nuclear bomb strike in a major city.

Maybe the Democrats can make the case that they would not have let Pakistan pardon A.Q. Khan and simply taken their word that they would "investigate" his alleged selling of nuclear secrets to terrorists and rogue states. We are just as vulnerable to a small nuclear device being detonated in a U.S. city as we were before GW Bush launched his treasury depleting, credibility eroding, military weakening adventure in Iraq.

The Republicans need to be called on this bullshit repeatedly during this election cycle. Being afraid of being called "weak" is the very definition of "sissy." I'll be looking for both Hillary and Obama to repudiate the Bush doctrine in simple, stark terms.

Military intervention as a "solution" to the problem of terrorism is ineffective, costly and likely to exacerbate factors that support the militant anti-U.S. culture.

People who blow themselves up in public cafes and fly planes into buildings are not impressed by our superior military technology and training. In fact, they're literally dying for the chance to inflict damage on our military personnel. Every invasion will turn out the same. The only thing these evil idiots fear is irrelevance.

Terrorists are like comic book villians. They always come back next issue.

Posted by: lobbygow on February 1, 2008 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

The problem is Clinton is a no nonsense realist and Obama knows nothing about foreign policy. Tough to win Dem votes unless they both talk in the meta narrative.

Posted by: paging Drs. Bacevich and LaFeber on February 2, 2008 at 8:53 AM | PERMALINK

Spin it, twist it, Bill Clinton was right, fairy tale. Obama's anti war stance is an Axelrod generated opportunistic win by any means strategy. To win the primary Obama has played this up. He will then play up his pro war voting record and where will that leave the true fanatic? Oh, yes, they don't care as long as the "anointed" one says it. But, it will not bring in the imaginary indie friend. So, it will be the classic, "mccain showed leadership and consistency, Obama waffled, flip flopped and never took leadership" Gee, which one wins?

Posted by: stellaa on February 2, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

Very good question, Kevin.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 12:00 PM | PERMALINK

Orso:

True. Cynical...but true.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

Optical Weenie: These are not nice people. And making kissy kissy oh I will talk with them, isn't going to do it.

In other words....snake charming.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

Dervin: And the beauty of the Bush Administration they are so irrational they are able to leave rational people with no good choices.

That's one of the most cogent statements I've ever read. Bravo! Damn, there are some smart people on this blog. Keep it coming.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 12:18 PM | PERMALINK

Gov Skeptic: When is everyone going to wake up and realize that the terrorism boogeyman is not really living in our closet?

Yep...I/we need to be whacked upside the head and reminded of that more often. Thanks.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 12:24 PM | PERMALINK

Bob: Was there any reason on God's green earth to trust Bush that he would only go to war as a last resort at this point?

Yes, because there was still a huge residual respect...even after Watergate...even after Iran Contra...even after Lewinsky...for the office of President of the United States. Sigh.

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 12:34 PM | PERMALINK

Oy! Where is everybody? I feel like a wallflower at the prom. LOL

Posted by: Sharon on February 3, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

If there were any real concern about terrorism, we wouldn't have almost all the candidates supporting the infiltration of 13,000 illegals across the border each day, including 25% OTM's and many infiltrators from the Middle East. Illegal supporters also choose to ignore widespread Chinese spying.

For the Democrats, vote fraud is the prime objective--breeding millions of future Democratic voters through the jackpot baby program. Hispanic voters are going close to 3 to 1 for Democrats, so the more jackpot babies, the rosier the future for a Democratic stranglehold on our nation. For the Republicans, illegally importing millions of low wage workers for business cronies is the primary objective--marrying Mexican labor with U.S. capital.

Posted by: Luther on February 4, 2008 at 2:06 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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