Why won’t Obama go for the knockout?

September 29, 2008

When it comes down to it, the Democratic presidential candidate agrees with his Republican opponent about more than he differs.

ONE OF the emerging critiques of Barack Obama's performance against John McCain in their first presidential candidates' debate September 26 was that Obama was too kind to McCain, explicitly agreeing with him on at least eight (by my count) occasions.

Some of these statements of agreement were rhetorical tricks, as when Obama agreed with McCain that "the earmark process is abused"--and then went on to point out, in his often professorial tone, that $18 billion in earmarks is nothing compared to McCain's plans to give away $300 billion to the rich in tax cuts.

Another was a mere evasion, agreeing with McCain that the government needs more "responsibility" to hold Wall Street accountable. Coming in the context of both candidates' attempts to sidestep taking a firm position either for or against an unpopular bailout of bankers and financial firms, Obama's support for "responsibility" had the all the conviction of his agreeing with McCain that the sun rises in the east.

And he agreed with McCain on the "importance of energy," which no politician with the hope of getting elected these days would deny. He went on to attack McCain for failing to vote for a single legislative initiative to fund "alternative" energy sources. But perhaps lost in this joust was Obama's definition of "alternative," which, in addition to "green" technologies like solar and wind, included nuclear power.

So Obama appears ready to sign on to a large increase in the use of unsafe nuclear power under the guise of combating global climate change.

The only dispute between McCain and Obama on this score was over where nuclear waste would be stored. In one of Obama's characteristic pulled punches, he looked set to point out McCain's hypocrisy in supporting the burying of nuclear waste in Nevada, instead of his home state of Arizona. But Obama let moderator Jim Lehrer move on to the next topic, instead.

That topic turned out to be whether the U.S. was safer since 9/11. Again, Obama and McCain agreed that the U.S. was safer, but then moved on to elaborate a few differences between them.

In the midst of his remarks, Obama slipped in this aside, which may have come as a surprise to his supporters: "We are spending billions of dollars on missile defense. And I actually believe that we need missile defense, because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons."

Say what? Obama had endorsed one of the most sacrosanct articles of faith among neoconservatives in Washington, and few commentators even noted it.

YET IF Obama's endorsement of nuclear power and missile defense--certainly two of the Bush administration's top policy goals as well--didn't raise eyebrows, neither did some of the more fundamental areas on which Obama said he agreed with McCain.

At the top of that list was "We cannot allow a nuclear Iran." After McCain raved that an Iran with nuclear weapons would precipitate a second Holocaust, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad standing in for Hitler, Obama didn't disagree with either of these preposterous claims.

The debate bogged down into a rather obscure dispute over what McCain adviser Henry Kissinger meant by saying the U.S. should be willing to meet with Iran "without preconditions." But the key point was that Obama was committing the U.S. to years of confrontation with Iran, albeit carried out in a less ham-handed way than McCain would.

Even Obama's refusal to back down from his earlier pledge to meet with Iran came with a caveat that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (and the professional liar Kissinger) would agree with: "[I]t may not work, but if it doesn't work, then we have strengthened our ability to form alliances to impose the tough sanctions that Senator McCain just mentioned."

So in a circuitous way, Obama's disagreement with McCain ended up as agreement with McCain!

Just after their consensus on policy toward Iran was their policy toward Russia and Georgia. After McCain blasted Russia's recent invasion of Georgia and reaffirmed his commitment to bringing most of the rest of the former USSR into NATO, Lehrer asked Obama if he had any disagreements with McCain. Obama responded: "No, actually, I think Senator McCain and I agree for the most part on these issues."

In effect, Obama endorsed a policy of continued confrontation with Russia, and the flashpoint could be the pro-U.S. government of Georgia, whose attacks on South Ossetia and Abkhazia actually precipitated the Russian invasion. Had Georgia already been a full NATO member, the U.S. would have been treaty-bound to go to war with Russia!

Even though many people might feel more secure with Obama rather than John "Bomb Bomb Iran" McCain and Sarah "I can see Russia from my front window" Palin in charge, they shouldn't expect much change in U.S. foreign policy. In fact, among the strongest disagreements between Obama and McCain came when Obama struck the more hawkish pose of the two: pledging to "take out" Osama bin Laden even if it meant carrying out an attack on Pakistani territory without that government's consent.

What about the main foreign policy difference between McCain and Obama--the issue that has been the subject of the hopes of millions over the last two years--namely their attitude toward the war in Iraq?

Obama's best barbs against McCain were the series of "you were wrong" charges Obama flung at McCain's predictions that Iraq possessed "weapons of mass destruction," that the U.S. occupation would be welcomed and so on.

But that's about the past. Regarding the future, Obama noted that "in 16 months, we should be able to reduce our combat troops."

Perhaps lost on most listeners, Obama's choice of the word "reduce" rather than "withdraw" may be a tip of the hand. Formerly, Obama had pledged to withdrawal "combat troops" from Iraq, which would have still left thousands of support troops and mercenaries deployed in Iraq. On September 26, he pledged only to lower the number of combat troops in Iraq.

We'll see if this was merely a rhetorical misstep in the heat of a debate. But if it isn't, Obama may be laying the ground for backing off even his original promise to withdraw combat troops within 16 months once he is president.

At that point, opponents of the Iraq war who voted for Obama may ask themselves just why they voted for him.

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