You might expect that the election of 2008--seven years after the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, five years after the invasion of Iraq, and 19 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall--might be a referendum on American national security in a vexing era.
The candidates get a C, or perhaps an Incomplete
Well, it is, sorta. The presidential candidates get partial credit. I don't expect someone with an eye on the Oval Office to tackle every difficult issue, especially those that the opposition might deliberately misinterpret. Therefore, don't expect to hear Obama and McCain debating over how many foreign or domestic terrorists are actually plotting to kill Americans civilians. And what's definitely off the agenda is anything like a proposal that the number is significantly less than most Americans assume it to be.
Still, I expect better from the candidates. Let's leave aside the fact that, when I go to Obama's web site (www.barackobama.com), I'm immediately re-directed to a donations page. (Note to Democrats: if you think you can compete on money alone, without mobilizing people to do other things like ensuring bigger voter turnout, prepare to get your ass handed to you.)
I'm talking about something more substantive than the set of bullet points you'll find here, in the Defense section of his platform. A lot of undecideds, independents, and Republicans might be surprised by some elements of Obama's defense policy, such as a limited ballistic missile defense. And how can I argue with rebuilding the overstrained military?
And don't get me started on McCain's issue breakdown. Iraq? Check. Homeland security? Uh, OK. National security? I kinda thought that "homeland security" was just part of national security, which in McCain speak means counterterrorism, expanding the size of the military, and modernizing its equipment. And the rest of the defense issues are nowhere to be found. Ahem. Interesting that the McCain campaign has more to say about Values with a capital V than NATO, Afghanistan, Russia, China, the horn of Africa, the G-8, counterinsurgency outside of Iraq, and Latin American combined.
The press earns an F
The limb of the body politic that seems to recoil completely from national security is the mainstream press. To measure the depth of their commentary, let's take a look at some representative topics of some recent op-ed pieces from Washington Post columnists:
- "Maliki Votes For Obama"
- "Bush's War Triple Play"
- "How Hostages, And Nations, Get Liberated"
- "Russia's Power Play"
- "The Troop Funding Trap"
Forget Kennan's long telegram. These topics are more tactical than the average Walter Lippmann column. At a time when we should be talking about US grand strategy, and the lower level strategies that flow from it, the press seems incapable of doing more than responding to today's events.
Every candidate says that big issues are at stake in every election, but in 2008, these claims have the virtue of being true. Putting the threat of terrorism into better perspective requires a much different discussion than, say, how much money should go to SOCOM in the next budget. Reviving our nation's indolent non-proliferation efforts starts with a discussion of what sort of threats biological, chemical, and nuclear technologies pose if not constrained. Building a missile defense is a second-order question.
The people who have nothing to do with their time but raise important questions instead prefer to talk about, at best, derivative questions like, "So, when are we leaving Iraq?" At worst, newspeople and the commentariat waste valuable time talking about about trivia. The real core questions, around which there is still no national consensus, receive practically no attention at all.
The grand strategy debate that isn't
Here are some examples of what real grand strategy questions look like. Feel free to throw in any you'd like to hear discussed this election season:
- How worried should we be about future 9/11-like attacks?
- To what extent does US foreign policy depend on hard power? Soft power? (I like the term "leverage" a lot better, but you get the point.
- To what extent does US national security depend on alliances?
- Should we tailor our national security policies to fit within prescribed budgetary limits, or are we willing to sacrifice more national wealth to address these concerns?
And so on. Maybe the highly-paid people in the press don't know what grand strategy is. After all, they're less concerned about the significance of Iraq than whether we win the war (or leave it). That attitude, the static-filled hiss of lesser issues, makes it hard to discern what all the noise about terrorism, Iraq, or Iran are all about. It also drowns out lots of other issues that need to be aired in a presidential election year.