Thursday, September 11, 2008

Who Will Keep Us Safe?

As the calendar strikes the 11th of September, our thoughts turn to the thousands of brave American women, men and children who died seven years ago this morning. As the memorial services begin, those of us whose loved ones did not perish watch them, and feel sympathy and kinship with those whose loved ones did, sharing again the anguish of their loss. And as we look backwards to the horror of the past, our thoughts naturally also turn forward, to the future of this nation in general, but on this special day, to its safety and security in particular.

John McCain’s past history as a Navy aviator and prisoner of war, along with his hawkish stance on military matters and his representation of the party that is traditionally supported by the military, has led to his standing as a “virtual incumbent” on this issue. Poll after poll shows that Americans prefer McCain over Barack Obama when it comes to national security and combating terrorism.

But as we all know, Americans have a tendency to make judgments about candidates based more on perceptions than on reality. I speak with citizens who tell me that, for example, John McCain would be better in the security area because he was in the military. But does that really follow? They say that John McCain cares more about our soldiers and sailors and marines than Obama because he was a sailor himself and he talks about the military a great deal. But does he really walk the walk? And they tell me that McCain’s experience means he is better able to keep America safe. But is that really true?

I think everyone would agree that the safety and security of this nation is too important to leave to impressions, reputation and narratives put out by the political parties. So I sat down and tried to really examine McCain and Obama in several areas. I challenged their reputations and examined the past records, policy proposals and personal characteristics of these two potential commanders in chief.

What I discovered was no surprise to me, but should be a real eye-opener to anyone who has been tricked into buying the myth of John McCain as a clearly superior commander in chief.


Who has more experience in international affairs? John McCain, undoubtedly.

But it is lack of experience that led, in part, to Barack Obama making a vice-presidential running mate selection intended to help him govern. Joe Biden has been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years and is its current chairman; he is widely considered an expert on foreign policy. John McCain, in contrast, chose Sarah Palin, a chiefly political move that brought in someone who did not own a passport until 2007, and whose resume is so thin that supporters tried to argue that Alaska’s physical proximity to Russia should count in her favor.

McCain wins over Obama in experience, but when you combine the two tickets the answer is less clear. Biden arguably has more experience in this area than McCain and Obama combined; Palin has less than even just Obama taken alone. This is not only relevant in terms of assessing how each pair would govern together; in the case of Palin, her lack of experience poses a serious risk to the nation because of the high chance that McCain will not serve out his term and she may be elevated to the role of the presidency.


John McCain has made a big deal about his support for the Iraq War “surge”, but this only became necessary because we went into this disaster of a war in the first place. McCain, by his own admission, was one of the top cheerleaders for starting this war; in fact, former counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke has said that McCain decided he wanted the U.S. to go to war in Iraq even before Bush did. Not only did he support the war and push for it, he also claimed that we would be greeted as liberators and that the fight would be brief.

In contrast, Barack Obama was one of the few of either party to take a firm stance against going into Iraq from the start. This illustrates a clear difference in the judgment of these two candidates.

Throughout this summer, we have seen another difference between the campaigns, with Obama calling for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, and McCain not only disagreeing, but mocking Obama for his stance. Yet Iraq’s own leaders have shown that they prefer Obama’s judgment in this area, and now, even the Bush administration has come around. Put in an untenable position, McCain flip-flopped, saying he thought Obama’s 16-month figure for withdrawal was a “pretty good timetable”.

While John McCain has been trying to keep the focus on Iraq, Barack Obama has been trying to emphasize the need for more focus on Afghanistan. He’s been calling for more effort to fight the Taliban since last year. Now we hear about growing concerns with regard to the war in Afghanistan on almost a daily basis. Who showed better judgment here?

Demeanor and Temperament

Barack Obama has a cool, calm, poised demeanor; he is widely regarded as being nearly unflappable. In contrast, John McCain has always been known as a hot-head: someone who is easily provoked, quick to lash out, impulsive and angry. Which of these men do you think is better suited to have the power to possibly start a nuclear war?

I have not heard anyone say that they would be afraid of Obama’s temper if he were commander in chief, but these comments are legion when it comes to McCain, even from former military leaders and Republicans:

“I like McCain. I respect McCain. But I am a little worried by his knee-jerk response factor. I think it is a little scary. I think this guy's first reactions are not necessarily the best reactions. I believe that he acts on impulse.” -- Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton.

“One of the things the senior military would like to see when they go visit the president is a kind of consistency, a kind of reliability. [Obama] is not that up when he is up and not that down when he is down. He is kind of a steady Eddie. This is a very important feature. McCain has got a reputation for being a little volatile." -- Retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Republican, former chief of staff of the Air Force and former fighter pilot who flew 285 combat missions.

“The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.” -- Thad Cochran, senator from Mississippi, who has known McCain for over 30 years.

The McCain campaign, naturally, plays down these concerns. They say that McCain has learned from the past and has shown that he can keep his temper under control now. But has he really changed, or is he just being on his “best behavior” for the election?

Are we safer with a calm, collected leader, or a hotheaded one?


Our leader must make thousands of important decisions, and in the event of a national security crisis, critical ones must often be made in a short span of time. This means decision-making ability is arguably the most important characteristic of a president. Unfortunately, not only does John McCain’s volatile temper lead him to make impulsive decisions, but he often takes a rather cavalier attitude about them even when he remains calm.

I need no go further than McCain himself for the defining description of his own decision-making process. In his own book, Worth the Fighting For (co-written with Mark Salter), McCain describes how he makes decisions as follows:

“I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can. Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint.”

It’s very noble of him to offer to live with the consequences of poorly-considered hasty decisions “without complaint”. But when he wants to make those decisions for 300,000,000 people, the stakes are a bit higher in terms of who suffers those consequences. John McCain is 72; my youngest son is 7. If John McCain starts a war that leads to an American city being nuked, I’m sorry, but doesn’t my son have a lot more to complain about than he does?

If we needed any more evidence of the start contrast between McCain and Obama when it comes to decisions, we need only look, again, at their vice-presidential picks. This is, after all, the only truly presidential decision a candidate makes during the election. Obama took his usual approach: careful, cautious, intelligent and disciplined. He weighed all the candidates and chose a solid, if unspectacular running mate, someone who would help him run the country. In contrast, McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin was politically-motivated, he ignored her lack of qualifications, and the evidence shows that McCain chose her impulsively, at the last minute, without knowing her well, and without looking into her background to the level expected of a candidate choosing a running mate.

Are your children safer with a president who makes decisions rationally, or one who makes them rashly?

Attitude: Diplomacy Versus War

In his acceptance speech, John McCain said: “I hate war.” And it is logical to believe that someone who served in the military and spent years as a POW would understand the harshness of war and seek to avoid putting other Americans through what he endured. Even leaving aside obvious questions about how someone who hates war so much could so casually joke about “bomb, bomb, bombing Iran”, it is hard to reconcile the statement of McCain’s with his own past history. McCain may hate war, but he seems to hate diplomacy nearly as much.

Over the course of the campaign, McCain has been relentless in attacking his opponent over Obama’s stated desire to negotiate with difficult nations. In May, he accused Obama of "inexperience and reckless judgment” over the latter’s stated intention to engage in diplomacy with Iran. When George W. Bush compared Obama to Nazi appeasers while in Israel the same month, McCain said he agreed with the remarks. When asked directly if he thought Obama was an appeaser, he replied:

“I think that Barack Obama needs to explain why he wants to sit down and talk with a man who is the head of a government that is a state sponsor of terrorism, that is responsible for the killing of brave young Americans, that wants to wipe Israel off the map, who denies the Holocaust.”

Yet only a few weeks later, we suddenly learned that George W. Bush himself was sending America’s third-highest-ranking diplomat to talks between Iran and other nations in Switzerland.

The difference between Obama and McCain was also obvious in the response to the conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Osettia. Obama predictably took a cautious approach, condemning the Russian invasion and called for high-level discussions and negotiations. McCain, also predictably, shot from the hip with a very bellicose statement that may have actually further provoked Russia at a time when the Bush administration and European leaders were trying to urge calm.

Is the United States ready to go to war with Russia over Georgia? John McCain seems to be. Are we safer with a man who prefers diplomacy, or one with an itchy trigger finger?

Support for the Military

Perhaps the most disappointing of all of the issues related to national security is the widespread myth that John McCain is a better supporter of the military than Barack Obama. Yes, McCain was a former serviceman and Obama wasn’t, something the former makes sure to mention at every opportunity. But what McCain and Obama did in the 1960s doesn’t have any impact on the lives of today’s military. McCain may have been a war hero in Viet Nam, but hearing his life story over and over again doesn’t help homeless vets, or servicemen and women who are exhausted from repeated tours of duty, or those who are injured and need medical care. Saying that you honor and respect and love our soldiers, sailors and marines is great, but it doesn’t matter much if you don’t walk the walk.

Let’s start by looking at McCain’s and Obama’s ratings from veterans’ groups:

None of that requires much explanation; it shows clearly which senator is really working for our military men and women, and which senator just talks about them a lot.

Then there was McCain’s truly bizarre and self-serving behavior surrounding the new G.I. Bill that came up in Congress. Obama strongly supported the bill, but McCain was one of its leading opponents, battling with its sponsor, Senator Jim Webb, back in April. McCain’s main complaint? That the bill was too generous and would harm re-enlistment (a position that George W. Bush agreed with, naturally). When McCain rightly came under fire for his position, McCain then tried to introduce a watered-down version instead. This didn’t work, and the original bill passed 75-22 in the Senate, with McCain not even bothering to show up for the vote.

What could be worse? Amazingly enough, McCain then tried to take credit for the bill he opposed and didn’t even vote for. George W. Bush was also happy to give McCain credit for the bill they both tried to shoot down.

But wait, there’s more:

  • Last September, he voted against another Webb bill that would have mandated adequate rest for troops between combat deployments.
  • On a badly needed $1.5-billion increase for veterans medical services for fiscal year 2007 -- to be funded through closing corporate tax loopholes -- he voted no. He also voted against establishing a trust fund to bolster under-budgeted veterans hospitals.
  • In May 2006, he voted against a $20-billion allotment for expanding swamped veterans medical facilities.
  • In April 2006, he was one of 13 Senate Republicans who voted against an amendment to provide $430 million for veterans outpatient care.
  • In March 2004, he voted against and helped defeat on a party-line vote a $1.8-billion reserve for veterans medical care, also funded by closing tax loopholes.

John McCain put on a big display at the Republican National Convention, with many veterans in uniform, lots of flag-waving, signs reading “service”, and repeated renditions of his own war stories. But when you look at the facts, you don’t find much to support the contention that McCain is an advocate for veterans or active duty personnel. The GOP has long exploited the patriotism of our men and women in uniform to suggest that it was the only worthy choice; now it seems to completely take their vote for granted.

In Closing – Are You Ready for More Wars?

I’m sure that some of those on the right will say that my assessment of McCain’s appropriateness to be commander-in-chief is influenced by my own political bias. And I won’t disagree with that. So let’s conclude with some comments from Pat Buchanan, who is not exactly a left-winger:

“You get John McCain in the White House, and I do believe we will be at war with Iran. That’s one of the things that makes me very nervous about him. I think we need an Eisenhower, who got us out of Korea, or a Nixon, who tried to get us out of Vietnam with honor. I think that's the kind of president this country needs.

There’s no doubt John McCain is going to be a war president. Can anybody see John McCain as sort of a peace-time Calvin Coolidge president? It’s preposterous. His whole career is wrapped up in the military, national security. He's in Putin's face, he’s threatening the Iranians. We’re going to be in Iraq 100 years. If we’re in Iraq 100 years, Joe, we will be fighting 100 years of war, just as the British, if they stayed in our country 100 years, would be fighting the Americans for a century.

I’m telling you, what John McCain is telling you, is what he’s promising you.”

And, last but definitely not least:

“McCain will make Cheney look like Ghandi.”

Is this the man who’s going to keep America safe? Really?

John McCain is ready for more wars. Are you?

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