THE CHINA CARD….Matt Yglesias isn’t happy with Hillary Clinton’s “politics of militarism,” but he’s even less happy that Barack Obama doesn’t seem willing to offer the full-throated alternative he ought to be capable of. Instead, in last week’s debate, he responded to Hillary’s provocation (“I am better positioned and better able to take on John McCain or any Republican when it comes to issues about protecting and defending our country and promoting our interest in the world”) with a weak, rambling appeal to “overcome the politics of fear in this country.” Says Matt:
I’m sympathetic to what I think Obama was trying to say, but the point is better put more simply — to have the best shot at winning national security arguments with John McCain, the Democrats need a candidate who didn’t support the invasion of Iraq.
….For months, [Obama] has been unwilling to make a forceful case from the left on national security issues in a Democratic primary, so it’s far from clear that [in a general election] he would, in practice, make the sort of strong arguments his record leaves him capable of making. If McCain (or, for that matter, Mitt Romney) starts talking about how in a Democratic administration North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Syria, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and some Iraqi dude who doesn’t like having a foreign army occupy his country are all going to team up and kill your children, it won’t do to respond by whining about the politics of fear. He’ll have to learn to say something in response, perhaps about how the real best way to keep Americans safe is with a focused, targeted effort that gives us the maximum chance of actually killing or capturing our deadliest foes rather than one that lets them escape while needlessly stirring up unrelated trouble that multiplies the number of adversaries we face.
OK, but here’s the thing. There are two reasons Obama might not be making this argument. The first is that he doesn’t believe it. If that’s the case, then we’re stuck. Obama just isn’t the change agent we’d all like to think he is.
But let’s assume he really is less militaristic than Hillary. The second reason he might not be making the argument Matt wants to hear is that he believes it would be electoral suicide. Americans, perhaps, just aren’t open to the idea that a “focused, targeted effort” is what we need. Maybe the politics of fear works really well, and once the genie is out the bottle then you either adopt a hard-edged, interventionist rhetoric or else you sound like a wimp.
If that’s the case — and it might well be — then what we need is a new way of convincing average voters that there are better ways of staying safe and increasing our global influence than fighting lots of overseas wars. Matt himself might have some ideas on that score. But here’s another one: make an appeal to national chauvinism. In the Parag Khanna piece I mentioned below, there’s a bit of discussion about how China interacts with the world, and none of it has to do with projecting military power. So what would happen if you played off that? China isn’t fighting foreign wars, they’re doing X, Y, and Z instead. And they’re winning. So we’d better get on the stick and start doing what they’re doing.
A lot of Americans — maybe most — instinctively think that the best way to react to a threat is via force. Logic isn’t going to change their minds, but an argument that our dumb interventions are causing us to lose ground to other countries that are smarter than us just might. Even Joe Sixpack doesn’t want us to lose ground to a billion wily Chinese, after all. Maybe it’s worth a shot.