We must not fear old white men: Here's how we get past the John McCain/Fox News problem

Avoiding another disastrous Middle East war requires voicing our convictions bravely -- then trusting in democracy

Published February 22, 2015 4:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Chris Usher/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Jonathan Ernst/photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Chris Usher/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Jonathan Ernst/photo montage by Salon)

America has forgotten how to talk about important things. Instead we talk about politics, and mostly just the personalities. It’s worse on the left than on the right. For six years, debate among Democrats centered on Obama. Was he everything he seemed? Had he done all he could? Was it wise to criticize him? Now all the talk is of the next set of contestants: Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, perhaps Sanders or O’Malley or Webb.

Electoral politics devours all other politics. It consumes three of every four calendar years. Its debates are empty but entertaining. Signing on to a presidential campaign is like running off to join the circus. Crafting an agenda or building a movement is like doing your chores. Caught up in horse-race politics, we neglect other vital duties.

But if you go too long without a fight, you forget how to challenge the conventional wisdom, a political establishment -- or even yourself. You lose track of your own bottom line, as well as the nerve and skill to defend it. You dream of elections and miss opportunities to engage the nation in vital debates. It’s a terrible waste. And it’s happening right now.

After 12 years of chaos and bloodshed, first in Iraq, then throughout the Middle East, President Obama seeks a declaration of war, which he chooses to call an “authorization for use of military force.” It is a chance to challenge the first premise of our failed foreign policy, that our military interventions can ever make us safe or bring democracy, prosperity or safety to others. It’s a debate we didn’t have before we entered Afghanistan or invaded Iraq on a lie; it's a debate we’ve not had since the end of the Vietnam War.

The country wants this debate, but only the left can force it. One reason is because so few politicians of either party want to have the discussion. Rand Paul could once be counted on to make the classic libertarian case against empire, but he too is busily positioning himself for 2016. Only progressives can articulate a whole policy and build a movement to support it. The question is whether they’ll free themselves up for the task.

Obama won’t lead the discussion. If anything, he's less inclined than George W. Bush toward a public debate of military policy. He speaks of transparency and due process in national security decision making, but believes that we should trust him to be the "decider" of the kill list. He’s not looking to strike up a conversation. His Javert-like hounding of whistle-blowers attests to his fondness for state secrets. His State of the Union devoted exactly one colorless sentence to his proposed “authorization of military force.”  He has never sought to clarify the legal basis for his tenfold increase in drone strikes.

Obama, like many Democrats, shuns these debates partly out of fear of the right -- or to be more precise, of angry white men. Republicans smell this fear from a mile off. It’s why Karl Rove wanted Congress to vote on the Iraq War three weeks before the 2002 midterms. It works like an evil charm every time: Some emotionally underdeveloped blowhard rattles his toy saber and Democrats lose all courage of their convictions. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Thirty years ago Neil Postman wrote his prescient classic "Amusing Ourselves to Death."  He portrayed our cultural descent into an all-enveloping fantasyland in which politics and news are but other sources of addictive entertainment. On any given Sunday you can watch John McCain or Lindsey Graham on some network news show acting out Postman’s dystopian vision.

Years ago I glimpsed a different McCain. A group I worked with funded and staffed trips he and John Kerry made to Vietnam pursuing reconciliation. I met him again while working for Bill Clinton on tobacco regulation and campaign finance reform. On both issues he was far out in front of the Clinton White House, to say nothing of his party. Whenever I bumped into him he was doing something brave.

Today he personifies the infantilization of politics -- “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” — as well as its descent into delusion and anger-laced incoherence. In his endless call for armaments, airstrikes and invasions, real wars seem nothing more than violent video games. Ever belligerent, he’s turned into the guy muttering at the end of the bar with whom no one makes eye contact for fear of setting off a brawl.

McCain’s fall, like that of so many angry old white men, is a sad one. And while he, Graham and their ilk may scare Democrats, they’re more to be pitied than feared. America has grown up and thus away from them. It’s safe to call them out on their puerile behavior; to tell them that to be a man you must also be an adult, and that adulthood is defined by reason, responsibility and restraint. If progressives are ready to say it, the public’s ready to hear it.

Obama isn’t just afraid of old white men. He’s afraid of all of us, or at least he mistrusts us. By this I mean he doesn’t fully believe in our ability to receive facts, apply reason, make judgments and act responsibly on them. In this he is like many of our Founders—all of the Federalists, really-- who were apt to view any public assemblage as a mob in the making. Like much of our modern meritocracy, he is more trusting of elites. He naturally identifies with an establishment wise enough to elevate him long before he entered politics. His jealous guarding not just of secrets, but of all of the prerogatives of power, reflects that identification.

It may be why Obama gives his best foreign policy speeches in other countries. The quality of his 2008 and 2009 speeches in Berlin and Cairo may account for his having the opportunity to give another fine speech in Oslo in 2010. Days before his Nobel laureate’s address, he delivered a foreign policy speech at West Point that wasn’t nearly so eloquent, almost as if he were dumbing it down for us.

Even if Obama weren’t jealous of his secrets and prerogatives, even if he weren’t afraid of the right and skeptical of everyone else, he still might not give the kind of speech or lead the kind of discussion we need.  It isn’t his style. One of the great disappointments of his presidency has been his inability or unwillingness to make the case for his own reforms. It’s why Bill Clinton got to be his explainer in chief.

Obama is justly praised for his insistence on civility, rejection of ideology and commitment to reason. But too often his commitment to reason seems more like a determination to appear reasonable; a pose perfected by Joseph Lieberman, whom Obama once said he chose as his mentor. Obama seems heavily influenced by people like Drew Westen, who says voters are ruled by emotion, not reason; and George Lakoff, who tells Democrats to tell better stories and find better metaphors to frame their ideas; and of course by his consultants.

Such influences draw Obama away from concreteness and specificity, toward language that is more thematic, imagistic and tactical. But the biggest reason for his failure to make a clear case is simple. He doesn’t want to. When a person as smart and articulate as Obama fails to make himself understood it’s usually on purpose. He doesn’t want to foster a genuine debate because he fears that the public, once informed will weigh in against him, and he’s right.

If you haven’t heard it from a neighbor or friend you can read it in a poll. Most Americans fear and despise ISIS and support taking some military action to contain or defeat it. They support it even though they don’t think it will work. In a November CNN poll, 78 percent of all respondents favored U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, but only 18 percent felt "very confident" they’d succeed. Outside the hard right, virtually no one favors the granting of broad or open-ended authority to wage war.

Obama seeks the power to do what most Americans don’t want to do, so he must be clever in how he goes about it. He puts a seeming three-year limit on operations but retains broad authority claimed under a 2001 resolution to wage war not only in the Middle East but around the world. His draft language bars only “enduring” ground operations, a limitation almost without meaning.  According to an analysis by the National Priorities Project we already spend over $300,000 an hour battling ISIS -- but we’ve seen no budget or any indication of the cost of Obama’s plan.

This is the moment for a debate we’ve long postponed and for which America now hungers. Our choices are hard ones. Our first concern is the safety of the American people and of all who live under the shadow of ISIS. But we know our efforts to secure our own and others’ safety too often fail and that the wars we wage have led to more wars. And we know we must end the practice of going to war without real authorization or oversight.

How we translate this into policy is a debate progressives must have. At minimum, we must insist on a legal termination of prior authorizations of the use of force and their replacement with a document far narrower and clearer than the draft the president proposes. We should insist on a real budget with real oversight, a reassertion of congressional power and an independent review of the legality of all foreign military operations under such international laws as we purport to honor.

We must soon debate larger issues including that of unilateral military intervention itself. But our immediate problem is that our country slips far too easily into war. It began with Congress ducking its duty. It got worse when George Bush put first one and then another trillion-dollar war on a credit card; worse again when the nation whose father crossed the Delaware to surprise the sleeping Hessians began hiring mercenaries to fight its battles before finally handing the job over to machines. It is a genuine crisis of our democracy.

Bringing this fight means openly opposing the president. That’s something most progressives have never done and are still reluctant to do. For many it means conceding a point they’ve long resisted, that on many vital issues his views are those of the very establishment they hoped he would transform. Many will have to forsake electoral politics for a while, and also all its tools and tactics. We’ll win not with slogans or metaphors, but with fierce logic and tireless exposition.

Above all we must be fearless and trust in people, seeing them not as they seem in images filtered through media but as they truly are. We’ll see we don’t hate each other nearly as much in real life as we do on cable TV, and that most people have good hearts and try to keep open minds. Knowing our audience, we’ll aim our appeal high. It’s the case we want to make anyway and the one the country yearns to hear.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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