Saturday, September 27, 2008

Deer (plural) in the headlights

I watched the first presidential debate last night, as I expect many of you did.

My basic takeaways:
  • I was surprised to find myself liking Obama's foreign policy points more than McCain's.
  • McCain seems really worried about the effect of a defeat in Iraq on the U.S. military.
  • Neither candidate has a clue about the financial meltdown, either what to do about it or how it would affect his administration.
The conventional wisdom was that McCain understands foreign policy better than Obama.

Certainly he's travelled to hot spots far more than Obama has.  This is partially a function of the amount of time that McCain has been in the Senate.  But McCain has also been more interested in going places than Obama, and I'm disappointed that Obama hasn't taken better advantage of his ability, as a Senator, to go places and see first-hand the situation on the ground.  As a leader I think you always have to spot check the information you are getting, otherwise you end up with travesties like Colin Powell presenting bad evidence to the U.N.

But I like Obama's take on South Ossetia better than McCain's.  McCain espouses a simple response: The Russians went in, we want them out.  He made the more interesting point that six months ago he had called for replacing the Russian "peacekeepers" in South Ossetia with troops from other areas, since the Russians were hardly neutral.  Obama called for both sides to cool down, which is significant because he's acknowledging that Georgia's president was being provocative.  He didn't mention any details during the debate, but I think his position may be more realistic here.

Obama tiresomely pointed out that going into Iraq was a bad idea in the first place, which I agree with, but as McCain points out, the next president decides when and how we get out, not whether we go in.  But McCain seems to think that withdrawal is driven by avoiding the stigma of defeat, both for its effect on our military and on also for the effect on our adversaries.  I thought it would have been useful for McCain to point out that there is a real link between our defeat in Somalia and the 9/11 attacks: bin Laden took specific inspiration from our debacle in Mogadishu, as reported by one of his lieutenants in the 9/11 commission report.

Obama is right when he points out that the current administration has been completely occupied by Iraq.  As he says, we took our eyes off the ball, which was nailing bin Laden and al Queda.  I think there is real value in killing this man and his organization, because it sends the right message to other asymmetrical adversaries: any single person will become exhausted before the U.S. military does.  I think the rest of the world expects us to tear up a lot of ground while uprooting al Queda, and we should.

McCain made a good point that Obama has made tactical mistakes: Obama should never have explicitly said that we would attack from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and he should have been more careful about suggesting that he himself, as President, would meet with and thus legitimize Ahmadinejad.  These are screwups, I think reflective of Obama's inexperience, but I think we can live with these kinds of screwups.

What I am impressed by is Obama's view that our Iraq engagement has prevented us from using our military power elsewhere to apply pressure to al Queda.  To some extent we've managed to attract foreign adversaries to a field where we are clear to fire, but I think the larger effect has been to grow new adversaries.  Although there is an aspect of bean-counting to it, I think Obama has the more useful perspective of Iraq in the context of the world.  I would like to see him frame our withdrawal as a balance between the risk of emboldening adversaries, as in Mogadishu in 1993, and allowing adversaries to flourish unopposed, as in Afghanistan during the rise of the Taliban.

Obama mentioned taking four divisions out of Iraq and putting two into Afghanistan.  I wish people would use numbers of troops instead of words like "division", because folks like me don't know how many people are in a division.

Given significant prompting, neither candidate offered a clue about how to react to the financial meltdown, nor how the meltdown might affect their administration. They were like deer in the headlights of an oncoming car.  Obama made the distinction of "Main Street" vs "Wall Street", but that's just a sound bite.  I think the more interesting distinction is whether the government should buy partial interest in houses whose present owners face foreclosure, or if the government should buy credit default swaps whose values are unknown because of the prospect of widespread foreclosures.  More disappointingly, neither candidate had any suggestions for how we might stick the bill to the people who profited so hugely from this debacle ($62 billion in bonuses in 2006!).

Both candidates came out in favor of nuclear power, and the distinction was over their approach to waste storage and reprocessing.  Fabulous!  Their differences are over waste: Obama wants to see a better solution, which has been used in the past as a passive aggressive stall tactic on nuclear.  McCain seems convinced that there is some solution to the waste problem, although I suspect he thinks Yucca Mountain is it.  McCain twice pointed out that Obama's position is passively antinuclear, as you can't have powerplants unless you store the waste.

On the whole, I was impressed with the dignity of the debate.  Last year some friends predicted a McCain-Obama contest, and I said then that I'd be happy with either result.  I still think that's true.

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