December 30, 2007
Agonizing Over the Candidates and Who They Really Are
by Steve Clemons
Will Hillary Clinton really keep stroking the most anti-Castro crazed elder generation of Miami's Cuban-American community? Or will she look at the demographic and polling data that show that most Cuban-Americans want a new course in US-Cuba relations, particularly with regard to travel to and from Cuba for Cuban-American families?
Some near Hillary Clinton tell me that given Fidel Castro's recent hint that he is moving from the front line of Cuba's political machine to a row further back (or up) in order to make way for a new generation of leaders, she is considering a full-scale policy review of her stated US-Cuba policy (i.e., potentially changing her position away from embracing the Bush administration's direction in US-Cuba relations).
This would be good -- but the bottom line is that we are forced to guess about what she might do and don't have certainty about what she will do.
Will Barack Obama tilt more towards campaign advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski's vision of tough-minded calculation of how to re-sculpt America's place in the world or will he tilt more towards the priorities of his other campaign advisor Anthony Lake?
Lake is actively promulgating a "Concert of Democracies" initiative that seems to ignore the fundamental reality that American power has deteriorated and that most of the challenging problems ahead are with areas of the world where democrats and democracies are practically non-existent. This isn't to say that a Concert of Democracies doesn't have some appeal as a sideshow at some point -- but it does little to re-establish a stable global equilibrium and to get America's national security portfolio on a positive rather than destructive course.
Obama was brave and visionary in suggesting an alternative course for US-Cuba relations. One could think that his willingness to think out of the box and to escape the incrementalism of the current strategic class and the vested interests of today's national security circumstances would be worth embracing and supporting.
But then what happened when the next opportunity came to show the same sort of boldness Obama did on Cuba? Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and nearly all of the candidates -- except perhaps Biden and Christopher Dodd and the non-candidate Chuck Hagel -- went silent during the Annapolis Peace Summit which drew together most of the Arab world, the P-5 nations, Israel, and many European and Southeast Asian nations in an effort to restart negotiations between Israel and Palestine over their long-term standoff. They all went silent as best I could tell.
I agree completely with Zbigniew Brzezinski that America's "defining challenge" in this era is its challenge in the Middle East -- and that not to get America back in a situation where it can help birth a cascading set of positive trends will ultimately turn America into a 'hegemonic has-been' (although the trend may be irreversible). The fact that the leading Democratic contenders had nothing to say about the Annapolis Summit raises legitimate questions about whether they have the commitment and wherewithal to tackle the complexity of America's defining challenge in this era.
John McCain and all of the leading Democrats are all clearly anti-torture while Mitt Romney has been working hard embracing George Bush's tough brinksmanship on Iran and recommended doubling Guantanamo. At the same time, Romney's national security adviser has written articles suggesting that America must engage Syria. In fact, Romney's national security team is about as pro-engagement with some of the world's trouble-making regimes as Obama said he would be during the debates.
But this begs the question of who is the real Mitt Romney and what would the real Mitt Romney do in the Middle East or anywhere else? It's hard to say with confidence.
Ron Paul is the less cluttered and complex version of Jack Murtha -- completely anti-war and wants America's military engagement in Iraq to end now.
Paul is attracting anti-war Republicans and Democrats far beyond the libertarian base that he would normally draw from. He is attracting a lot of progressives who believe in global justice, want the war over, and want to return to a benign American model rather than a view where America is the dangerous destabilizer of the international system.
But then Ron Paul shocks this crowd by running an advertisement that is as hostile to immigration that I have ever seen. He actually has a shocking, Jesse Helmsian line, that outdoes anything that Rudy Giuliani has said: "No more visas for students from terrorist nations." This kind of position would appeal to those buying John Bolton's new book as a Christmas present and who are reverential to the kind of pugnacious hyper-nationalism that Dick Cheney manifests.
Who then is the real Ron Paul?
I could go on in a similar way about Edwards, about Giuliani, even about Huckabee -- who flip-flopped and was pro-economic engagement with Cuba when Arkansas' Governor and now is harsher than George W. Bush when running for President.
One can do this with all of the candidates.
The fact is that no matter who emerges at the top in the coming set of primaries and caucuses, we aren't going to know the real candidate. . .perhaps ever. All of these candidates are vessels for the interests and perspectives that surround them.
I remember sitting in the kitchen of a very close friend who is one of John McCain's closest personal advisers. This friend was deeply disturbed by McCain's speech at Liberty University and his triangulation on the the war and the Bush administration, designed to try to court the Republican "establishment" that Bush and Cheney presided over.
But this person who knows McCain better than most made the point that sometimes the "person" that the candidate is just doesn't matter all that much -- at some point, the candidate becomes a franchise of so many interests and perspectives, sometimes in internal conflict with one another, that what the candidate really thinks or feels becomes less important.
That is why I spend a lot of time looking at advisers, funders, and other interests that surround these candidates. Each is somewhat of a free trade zone unto himself or herself for political interests vying to steer him or her this way or that.
It's lousy that this is the case -- but it is, and we need to be engaged as American citizens in trying to compel the candidates one direction or another -- and to punish or reward based on the positions that they are occasionally brave enough to articulate.
I'm personally sick of platitudes from the candidates.
I want to see pragmatism and steely-eyed commitment to solutions-oriented efforts on both America's domestic and international fronts. I want to see some evidence of sensible judgment. I want to see someone who has an understanding of where incremental trends are taking the nation and some Acheson-like wizardry in re-imagining a different set of global and domestic arrangements (with detail) that can help the country leapfrog out of the morass it is in into a better, sustainable position.
It is really easy to understand why most of the candidates have not captured a decisive edge in the competitions ahead. Few of them want to sculpt in fine detail their political and policy personas and want to remain blurry.
They want us to guess what they might do -- and some of us who turn our guesses into votes for an ultimate winner will still find ourselves disappointed that the reasons we supported this or that candidate got shelved in the end.
Despite all of the drama of this campaign process, when I think this through, I can very easily constrain my enthusiasm for any of the candidates.
-- Steve Clemons is publisher of the popular political blog, The Washington Note.