Barack Obama not only had the good judgment to oppose the war in Iraq, he argued for the need “to end the mindset that took us into” that war. So it was troubling that tonight—in the first of the three presidential debates– a man of such good judgment called for an end to the war in Iraq in order to escalate US military forces in Afghanistan. (This holds true not just for the two men on the Democratic ticket but for too many Democrats in Washington who argue, mantra-like, that we need to leave Iraq in order to free additional troops to serve in “the right war.”)
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an e-mail. “Here is a future dictionary entry for Afghanistan,” he wrote.
“Afghanistan. The place where the dreams and hopes of the Obama Presidency are buried.”
I flinched when I read the note. But it rang true. Obama risks creating a bipartisan consensus that will entrap the US in another costly occupation—draining resources needed to fulfill his (already limited) promises for economic growth, health care and social justice at home. Such escalation will also crowd out other international initiatives and alienate those allies we need to reengage the world on terms other than the so-called “war on terror.”
At other times, though not tonight, Obama has spoken forcefully as the first 21st century candidate—addressing the limits of military force in a world whose central challenges are pandemics, nuclear proliferation, global inequality, and climate change. These are issues which McCain has no clue how to address. He is a man who craves the reassuring reflexes of the early Cold War era, when military power was the appropriate response to any provocation. Tonight, though, at too many key moments, Obama played on McCain’s turf. Instead of playing to the future, forcefully, with toughness and passion, Obama was the young hawk trying to out-hawk the old uber-hawk. Obama can do better. We can do better. I know Obama wasn’t courting me –but those elusive —and infuriating –swing, undecided voters. (And the post-debate polls show Obama beating McCain among this group!)
Still, we confront grave, new security issues : a metastasizing financial crisis that threatens to evict millions from their homes, kill their kids’ hopes for college and ravage their pensions . And in the long haul, we’re going to face a ferocious fight to preserve the progressive agenda. Already tonight, debate moderator Jim Lehrer pushed the candidates to tell us what they would give up considering the bailout’s costs. But as economist Jamie Galbraith argues, these are times not to balance budgets but to invest in the infrastructure which has made this country strong. Obama will need to speak more effectively, more boldly, more passionately about the new challenges ahead.
If elected, Senator Obama has the chance to be a transformational president. His election, if followed through with smart and just policies, could turn a page on the reckless and destructive ones of the extremist Bush Administration. But tonight he showed himself to be a raging minimalist.