If the American people should have learned one lesson from the past seven years, it is that the careless mix of tough talk and wishful thinking gets good people killed – and pushes even powerful nations to the brink of bankruptcy.
Yet, the current and possibly future Republican presidents combined these two dangerous elements on the same day: George W. Bush eschewing “appeasement” in the Middle East and John McCain offering a dreamy image of military victory in Iraq by 2013.
On May 15, in Columbus, Ohio, McCain put his listeners in some imaginary time machine and plopped them down in the happy future at the end of his first term.
“By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom,” McCain said.
“The Iraq War has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension. Violence still occurs, but it is spasmodic and much reduced.”
Meanwhile, half a world away speaking to the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem, Bush showed off his vintage tough guy-ism, mocking Americans, such as Democratic presidential frontrunner Barack Obama, who favor talks with Iran and other Middle East adversaries.
“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said, shaking his head in disgust.
“We have an obligation to call this what it is: the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
Bush then likened these “appeasers” to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and other political leaders in the 1930s who tried to negotiate with Adolf Hitler.
Back in Ohio, asked about Bush’s speech, McCain embraced Bush’s harsh rhetoric.
“Yes, there have been appeasers in the past, and the President is exactly right, and one of them is Neville Chamberlain,” McCain said.
But there might be a more recent historical analogy that comes to the minds of American voters: rather than Chamberlain’s false hope about “peace in our time,” Americans might recall the wishful thinking of pro-Bush neoconservatives promising a flower-strewn “cakewalk” for the U.S. troops invading Iraq in 2003.
The voters also might remember how the Bush administration aimed its tough talk at American skeptics of the Iraq War whose patriotism was questioned and whose judgment was ridiculed. [For details, see the book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.]
Then, in 2004, as the Iraqi insurgency grew and American casualty lists lengthened, President Bush continued to dangle the prospect of “victory” just around the corner to get the American voters to give him a second term.
In 2007, with Americans growing increasingly angry over the war, Bush came up with the “surge” that supposedly would do the trick, finally. Despite favorable press clippings, it’s now clear that the “surge” only bought Bush time to run out his presidency.
So, more than five years into the war – with more than 4,000 American soldiers dead, tens of thousands maimed and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, not to mention total war costs estimated in the trillions of dollars – Sen. McCain is now dusting off the prospect of a glorious outcome if the voters only buy in for another four-plus years.
The Arizona senator seems to be counting on the lingering visceral appeal of Bush’s good-guy-bad-guy dichotomy, combined with patriotic paeans to the can-do capabilities of the U.S. troops.
The residual appeal of this tough-talk-and-wishful-thinking blend is that it plays on both the public’s hatred for an “enemy” depicted as pure evil and America’s characteristic hopefulness about the future.
For Americans brought up with the macho myths of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, there’s a strong bias in favor of shooting the “bad guys,” not talking to them.
Plus, since the future is unknowable, there’s the added benefit that Bush-McCain glorious predictions can’t be proved wrong, at least until long after the election.
The Bush-McCain approach also continues to paint war critics, who favor using more diplomacy, as effete, naïve and unpatriotic. They’re disdained for viewing the “bad guys” as possibly having at least some legitimate grievances and for doubting the boundless capacity of the U.S. troops to achieve “victory.”
In recent weeks, McCain has sought to link Obama to Hamas, the radical Palestinian organization that governs Gaza, because a Hamas spokesman expressed hope that an Obama presidency might lead to a better day in the Middle East.
Though it’s unclear what an Obama presidency actually might do – since the Illinois senator has denounced Hamas as a “terrorist” organization and his maneuvering room regarding Iran and Syria would be limited – McCain appears to be betting on a willingness of the American voters to approve at least a four-year renewal of Bush’s bellicose approach to the Middle East.
The real test of the Obama campaign – assuming he secures the Democratic nomination – will be whether he can sell a more nuanced approach to foreign policy as hard-headed realism, not soft-hearted idealism.
But the battle lines have now been drawn.
On one side is a commitment from America to fight what the neocons call “the Long War,” “the clash of civilizations,” or simply “World War III.” On the other, there is the belief that reason and negotiations still can work to spare the world an open-ended conflict that could escalate into a global catastrophe.
The Bush-McCain “Long War” position trusts that the old appeals will get American voters to reenlist for four more years, while Obama is counting on a new public attitude that is more willing to seek compromise and less eager to rely on violence.
Obama’s gamble rests on his assessment that the American people have taken to heart a painful lesson about the dangers of mixing tough talk and wishful thinking.
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This story was published on May 16, 2008.