On the day Barack Obama was born, there
were already 15,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin
incident, the (alleged, inflated, exaggerated or invented—depending on
which account you believe) North Vietnamese attack on U.S. warships
that led to the widening of the war, was exactly three years away. The
Berlin Wall was constructed the same month that Obama was born. Obama’s
mother birthed him into a world in which McCain had already graduated
(barely) from the Naval Academy.
If one candidate was in a military
uniform when the other was born, it is silly to argue about which one
has the most experience. Of course John McCain has more experience than
Barack Obama; the question is, how has that experience shaped him? What
does it tell us about how he is likely to lead the nation? Two
incidents in U.S. history, Vietnam and the Cold War, tell a great deal
about McCain, and how he would conduct our foreign policy.
As far as the current war, the one in
Iraq, McCain has made his mark by egging on Bush, and vowing a longer
and larger commitment of U.S. forces there. In his repeated pledges to
win the war that we have already lost he comes off as that worst of old
soldiers—one who would continue to send the next generation off to
redeem the loss suffered by his own comrades.
It’s possible to project from Obama’s
experience and world view how he will approach the rest of the world.
He is an internationalist with a rooted awareness of life in Africa,
who knows a lot about Indonesia. His work as a community organizer and
his early travels indicate a desire for collaboration and consensus.
The rap on him is that he is not a man of action, and might want to
deliberate a bit too much rather than get real. His response to the
charge that he is all talk and no action, should be a simple one: “Go
ask Hillary Clinton.”
We can’t read too much into Obama’s rhetoric and
experience. The only honest responses to Obama’s candidacy is either to
believe in him, yes, to hope, or else to shy away because we don’t know
him well enough.
McCain we know all too well. He is a
warrior who has a unique talent for picking the wrong war. In the midst
of the Cold War, McCain teamed up with Bob Dole, that other honored
veteran in the Senate, to thump their collective wounded chests and
rain down death and destruction on the mighty republic of Nicaragua.
Since 2003 he has been the nation’s most vocal proponent of a bigger,
better war in Iraq.
We don’t know much about McCain as a negotiator or a
diplomat. I have only had one occasion to observe him in that role,
when he came to Nicaragua in 1987 as a first-term senator and member of
a group of senators monitoring the Central American peace talks. He was
along with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who has since created a bit of
a stir by telling the press that McCain grabbed a Nicaraguan official
by the shirt and tried to clobber him.
That story is probably not true, but there is another
piece that is true, and telling. When McCain walked into the room to
meet the Nicaraguan president, Daniel Orte
ga, he had just come from Honduras where he met the leader of
Nicaragua’s contras, Enrique Bermudez. “Colonel Bermudez sends his
regards,” said McCain sarcastically. It was like waving a red flag in
front of a bull. “You tell Colonel Bermudez he should stop killing
Nicaraguan children,” replied Ortega.
The meeting didn’t go very well. No one
expected that it would. The positions of both sides were fixed like
bayonets, and to top it all off, Dole had brought along a camera crew
to film a commercial for his presidential campaign. It was hardly
diplomacy’s finest moment.
What struck me was that the U.S.
delegation had all the power. McCain and Ronald Reagan and Dole had
already put unbearable pressure on Nicaragua—war, embargoes, diplomatic
isolation, covert actions. There were plenty of sticks in place, and
few carrots. When the moment came to talk, McCain’s instinct, or his
plan, was to stick his thumb in his adversaries’ eye.
Sometimes it is the devil you know that you should fear the most.