Obama’s Vacuum.

September 16, 2007

Obama’s Vacuum.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, September 16, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: I’m going to give you a compressed characterization of the debate between John McCain and John Kerry on the war policy and ask for your thoughts. McCain’s argument is that military success is a precondition for political reconciliation by Iraqi leaders. Kerry’s position is that a military strategy forestalls the need for Iraq’s political leadership to come to terms with their own political situation. Obviously, more details and nuances on both sides, but these are the fundamentals that they differ on. Who’s right?

Newman: They’re both wrong.

Salit: How so?

Newman: It’s neither a military issue nor an issue of standing up this phony new government that was elected.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: Frankly, George Will put it best in his article last week about Iraq. The real question remains, as Will said: Is there such a thing as Iraq and are there such things as Iraqis? That question has to be resolved. Even to call it a civil war is a mistake, because a civil war, at least as we Americans understand it, is a conflict between sides that are part of one whole.

Salit: Who understand themselves to be part of the same nation.

Newman: Exactly. It’s not clear that’s what’s going on over there. The U.S. position, I take it, is that we need that to be the case. But the evidence indicates it may not be. Consequently, that raises the question of what the “it” is that we’re making more secure.

Salit: In the broadest terms, it’s about having a unified government, democratic in nature, that takes pro-Washington D.C. positions. That’s the best scenario for America.

Newman: But that could be said of any place in the world. How does that deal with the actual specifics of Iraq?

Salit: True. But, I think if McCain and Kerry were sitting in this room…

Newman: It would be crowded.

Salit: Yes, it would be very crowded. But, besides that, McCain would say the issue of whether there is or isn’t an Iraq isn’t fundamental. What’s fundamental is that it’s in American interests to destroy Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda is operating in Iraq and we have to continue to engage them militarily in order to accomplish that objective. And Kerry would say, whether there is or isn’t an Iraq has to be decided by a political process – perhaps there’s a partition solution here that would work – but the longer we get in the way of the political process by our military presence, the longer we put off the resolution of the political design.

Newman: There are people who argue that if the U.S. withdrew, the Sunnis and Shia would crush Al Qaeda and drive it out of Iraq completely. Al Qaeda is there because the United States is there. If the United States withdraws, Al Qaeda will go someplace else, through some combination of their being driven out and leaving. As for the partition idea, it’s one thing to talk about putting partitions up in this room. You put one of them there, another goes from there to here, etc. But, how do you use partitions to create spaces when you don’t even know where the partitions would go? There’s not a high enough degree of unity to divide the country in thirds. Something has to have a degree of stability before it can be divided and it’s not clear that there’s that degree of stability.

Salit: Which might simply mean that it’s not so clear that the Kurds and the Sunni and the Shia want to be together – at any level – including getting together to figure out how to stay apart.

Newman: So, that takes you back to working out a plan for them to be together. But, it’s not clear that they, at their current historical growth and development, want to be together.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Why not put the Shia together with the Northern Mongolians, and as a third element, add the Eskimo population of Antarctica? You say, well, wait a second, they just don’t go together. Well, it’s not so clear that the three groups in Iraq go together either.

Salit: How did you react to the characterization that Bush used in his speech about an “enduring relationship” with Iraq?

Newman: I think he was speaking to the American oil interests. He was saying ‘Don’t worry. We will be there some way or another. We’ll cut some deal.’ But, of course, a lot of Americans are asking ‘Why didn’t you cut that deal instead of running to war? Given the amount of money you spent on the war, why didn’t you just cut that deal before? Why did we have to have a war to force together some things which don’t appear to want to go together? Why is that our policy?’

Salit: Well, arguably that was Saddam Hussein’s policy.

Newman: What do you mean?

Salit: To put those groups together that didn’t want to be together into a unified nation. He had to use force and torture and violate human and religious rights in order to hold it together, and that’s what we overthrew. The U.S. argument is, you can hold those things together, you can hold them together through democratic process. Saddam was a butcher, he was a dictator. That’s a bad way to do it. We can stitch it together on the American model, which is a good way to do it.

Newman: That argument is invalid, through and through.

Salit: It’s certainly proven to be.

Newman: Well, it’s invalid on its face, though. If Saddam Hussein was as bad as we claimed he was which justified our going in – WMDs aside – then how could we think that these forces would, in any manner, shape or form, want to come together under anything other than that brutal and coercive arrangement. That doesn’t seem like very good thinking to me.

Salit: On the political side, one story is what happens with John McCain off of General Petraeus’ visit and the reported “success” of the surge. Is McCain “surging” off of the success of the surge? Does his position improve?

Newman: He might see a slight gain in the polls over this. But, I don’t know that it holds up unless he does something more.

Salit: Okay. What about a scenario where he holds to his position, he’s a critic of Bush, he’s a critic of Rumsfeld, he’s a critic, not of the decision to go to war, but of the management of the war. He’s a supporter of Petraeus and says Now we’re doing the right thing, we’re seeing concrete gains on the ground. The other side of the story is the Democrats have failed to stop the war, they’ve failed to effect a significant withdrawal of troops, or to really turn the tide of the American involvement, as the 2006 midterm elections mandated them to do.

Newman: To the extent that the Democrats are identified as failing to stop the war, that is probably the thing that in the long-run, could most help McCain. Because if that’s the picture by the time of the general election, people could say, Well, since the Democrats are not going to stop the war, and if people don’t think they will, What’s the point in voting for someone other than McCain to manage the war? He comes as close as anyone to being the right management person for a war. The Democrats don’t seem capable of stopping it. Even if, as Eleanor Clift predicts, the Democrats pick up five or six seats in the Senate, that’s still not enough to override a presidential veto. So, that’s very touchy and the American people will reflect on that.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: McCain is trying to win this on the basis of his being the best person to challenge Hillary. The Republicans are going after Hillary now, since Obama has left a vacuum because he hasn’t really gone after her. The Republicans are doing it because it’s getting to be the time to start thinking about voting for someone in the primary on the basis of their being able to win in November.

Salit: That was Giuliani’s strategy this week. He came out strongly against Hillary and against the “left wing of the party,” defending General Petraeus against the MoveOn.org ad and going after Hillary for not criticizing MoveOn.

Newman: That’s a superficial play by Giuliani. I think you can make the case that McCain has much deeper pro-war credentials than Giuliani.

Salit: That’s an important point. Giuliani took out a couple of ads in the New York Times, ginned up the media about MoveOn.org, and tied Hillary in, but that doesn’t change the fact that his experience is being Mayor of New York City. New York City has a police department, but it doesn’t have a standing army, it’s never fought a war and never deployed troops. McCain’s experience in the military, on the battlefield and relative to foreign affairs has much greater depth and resonance than Giuliani does. Nonetheless, Giuliani is attempting to grab that slot of being “the person who can beat Hillary.” I think your observation about Obama having left a vacuum is a pointed one.

Newman: McCain’s thinking must be that if it comes down to McCain vs. Giuliani, which it might not come down to because there are other candidates who might prevail, but if it does, I think McCain believes that his case for him managing the war is stronger than Giuliani’s.

Salit: That’s a good case to make to the Republican primary base. Giuliani’s counter would be I can manage the war well. In fact, I can even have John McCain manage it for me. But more importantly, I can beat Hillary and McCain can’t.

Newman: Well, McCain has an argument on his side also. He says, Forget whether the war has been badly managed. We are in it, we can win it. The Democrats say they want to stop it but they’re equivocal on that. They haven’t stopped it, even with their so-called big mandate from the midterm election. Hillary might be attractive to independents because they wanted to end the war, but I’m saying to the independents – I’ve been your man, I should be your man again. McCain says I’ll get the war done, and then we can go back to dealing with immigration, we can go back to dealing with other issues we are close on. So, rather than give this to Hillary – who’s not going to stop the war, she’s just going to mismanage it further – give it to me, I’ll manage it and end it. He might believe he can convince independents of that.

Salit: That was the McCain/Giuliani dynamic last week. Let’s talk about the Democrats. John Edwards, through his wife, criticized the MoveOn.org ad. Biden did too, but Biden’s not a player outside of the Senate. Clinton didn’t. And, she took Petraeus on during the hearings, so the story there is a) she doesn’t want to do anything to alienate the party’s “left” and b) she wasn’t forced to do anything to alienate the center.

Newman: Right.

Salit: On “Meet the Press” Chuck Todd described how very volatile the party’s anti-war left is, how it’s champing at the bit. How consequential is this dynamic in the Democratic Party, do you think?

Newman: What dynamic?

Salit: The dynamic relative to the party’s left wing. It got a lot of ink this week. Some people said, ‘Oh this was great because MoveOn really went over the top with this General Petraeus ad. Now the Democratic Party is going to be able to free itself from the yoke of the party’s far left wing, because they discredited themselves by doing this thing that was over the top, so they’re going to be more marginalized now.’ Others said, ‘It’s an expression of their power, they’re continuing to assert their political strength at the grassroots of the party. They’re an important power force in the party and in rebuilding the party. They’re taking control of the party, etc. and so forth.’ If you assume for a moment that the McCain scenario doesn’t come to pass and that a Democrat will win the White House, these dynamics are all about the future power conflicts within the Democratic Party and that’s why they’re important.

Newman: That story was there long before that ad came out in the Times. It will be there long after. It’s the story of who’s going to control the Democratic Party. That’s one of the major and interesting stories of this whole campaign. I’ll give you something of an answer after the election.

Salit: Okay. Within the “second tier” candidates on the Democratic side you have candidates like Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who are opposed to the war, calling for a halt to the funding of the troops and so forth. How effective are they in carrying these issues?

Newman: The task that Kucinich and Gravel have, which is somewhat monumental, is to convince the top-tier candidates – or at least one of them – that the voters are way to their left and they have to move there to keep pace with them. That’s hard to do, because the Democratic Party is a centrist political party, and the top people aren’t so easily moved to the left.

Salit: Not at all.

Newman: Actually, what’s happened in the last 20-30 years is that they’ve moved consistently to the right, towards the center. And now the Democrats see this as a winning election and the more they see it as a winning election for them, the less inclined they are to make major moves of this kind.

Salit: And how would you characterize the influence of independents at this stage of the process? Independents were a catalytic force in the 2006 midterms, changing the direction of the Democratic Party relative to the war.

Newman: That’s how I would characterize what independents did. They turned the Democrats as a whole into opponents of the war. And now, as always, whether it’s before an election, after an election, or during a stay in office, what happens is the major parties, the big money forces, the candidates grab ahold of these independent ideas and then spin them so they can appeal to the independents. But, they’ve also taken the issues away from the independents because they’ve distorted them in their re-formulations of them. And that’s what’s going on.

And the Democrats, hands on hips, feel they are in control. They look at the independents and say If you’ve got another candidate and the money to back them, bring her or him out. But, the independents don’t have that.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.