The 3AM moment and the third rail

By John Grant, special correspondent to ProgressiveNetworkSEPA
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No one ever went broke underestimating
the intelligence of the American people.
– P.T. Barnum
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Following the Russian invasion of Georgia, suddenly it was all over the network news shows and the cable opinion shows.

“Is this a 3AM moment?”

In an Associated Press story on Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s responses, the invasion was described as “the first major U.S. foreign policy crisis of the presidential campaign.” What would they do when they got the 3AM call?

McCain predictably threatened Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (he called him “President Putin” with “consequences” such as expelling Russia from the G8 conference, while Obama, equally predictably, said US, European and UN diplomats should get together and try to mediate the crisis. Both condemned the invasion.

Not wanting to appear like a deer caught in Russian headlights, the actual, still-serving President made a 3AM decision and sent a small contingent of US troops to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Georgian officials were quoted as seeing this as an indication the US would defend the Tbilisi airport. Not so, the US audience was told; our troops are there only to deliver humanitarian supplies and to protect themselves.

It felt like a case of “the War President” keeping his image up.

Meanwhile, the Russian generals and tank crews interviewed by reporters seemed ecstatic at finally being able to roar their war machines around and kick some serious ass — or to “get some,” the term of art heard amongst our troops in our invasion of Iraq.

Despite the media obsession with the 3AM moment, it’s clear the invasion of Georgia is something on a different time scale — more like a 3-decade moment. That is, whatever chess moves are being made among Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush it should be clear what we’re living through is a climactic moment following three decades or more of big power decisions during and after the Cold War. Putin made a bold chess move, and whatever move is to come from Washington will require calm intelligence, the grasp of a wide range of options and an appreciation of past history and events moving forward with long-term consequences for everyone — not just for Mr Putin.

Sending a small contingent of US troops into Georgia to facilitate humanitarian concerns feels like a half-ass cowboy move so we won’t notice the egg all over George Bush’s face.

A three-decade moment

As the story goes, Ronald Reagan drove the Soviet empire into bankruptcy, leaving in its ruin the nation of Russia with a gangster class fighting over the spoils. As the ruins smoldered, the current US president’s father spoke of a “new world order.” Cold Warriors changed their names to “neo-conservatives” and shifted their gaze to the Middle East, oil and Israel. But the same old philosophy of exceptionalism ruled the day as it had prevailed since the turn of the 20th Century.

It was our duty, President Theodore Roosevelt argued in a pamphlet in 1910, to “manage small states which are unable to manage themselves.” The Philippines was his prime example of this need, and of course we flat-out colonized the Philippines. International oversight and international agreements were limp and useless, Roosevelt said. What was needed was for a strong state (like us, of course) to go in and kick some ass for the sake of the order of those poor slobs who were “unable to manage themselves.”

Roosevelt saw no need to ask the poor slobs what they thought.

As one might expect, insurgent forces rose up against our or other nation’s perceived duty to manage such states. Eventually, the game really got rolling. Consider, for example, the French and the US in Vietnam.

This western imperial impulse based on our perception of our exceptionalism eventually got all mixed up with a countervailing Soviet imperial impulse of similar expansionist arrogance. The resultant stand-off dominated the second half of the 20th Century.

OK, maybe that was a quick fly-over. The point is, when the Soviet empire fell, the US instinct for imperial expansion and control did not end. In fact, in certain quarters, the feeling that we had vanquished the countervailing empire only fed our sense of exceptionalism. Some might argue it was a matter of momentum, like the shark that must keep moving at all times to keep oxygenated water rushing through its gills; if it stops it suffocates.

The first Bush led to the second Bush and an administration that seemed obsessed with holding on to a sense of American exceptionalism. Countries in the sphere of the former Soviet Union were actively seduced and courted. Donald Rumsfeld referred to places like Georgia as “new Europe,” versus the “old Europe” of nation’s like France who did not approve of the excesses of Bush militarism.

Georgia became one of the Bush administration’s prime points of nibbling away at the edges of the former Soviet empire. Presumably the nibbling away policy was overseen and managed by Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice, who, we are told, is a brilliant Russian scholar.

Meanwhile, the insidious former KGB operative Vladimir Putin waited and planned, mobilizing his demoralized military forces for the day he must have known would come.

Looking back, we should not be so shocked to see Prime Minister Putin follow his nature and set up a causa bella trap in Ossetia that Bush’s encouraged client falls into. Bush and his compadres are naturally caught flat-footed, since they seem to expect the world will cringe at the thought of their magnificence. Remember those aluminum tubes, Curveball, the yellow cake from Niger and Colin Powell’s performance at the UN, our trumped up causa bella for the “shock & awe” invasion of Iraq? Mr Putin certain remembers them, and he knows anything Mr Bush says will be hollow.

Vladimir Putin looked into George Bush’s eyes and saw his soul, too. He knows that Bush’s United States has been feeling like King Of The Hill pumping itself up to the point it is so full of itself it has lost touch with reality. He also knows Bush is a lame duck and very unpopular, a man burdened with his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter a place Putin is, of course, very familiar with, since his nation was humiliated there by US-financed guerrillas. Those guerrillas have now turned on the US and are now arguably doing something akin to what Reagan did to the Soviets, making us spend ourselves into a paranoia-induced bankruptcy. This must bring an ever so slight grin to the lips of the emotionally flat-lined Putin.

All this is so tremendously costly in blood, destruction and wasted resources that might have been used for positive things that all there is to say is, a plague on both their houses. I still have a vote, here, and I want something different.

I don’t care if Barack Obama is black or that he has not worn a military uniform. The current white, air national guard veteran who has been President for the past two terms has gotten us into one mess after another. It’s time for a new brand of leadership.

The long story on Obama by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker with the controversial cartoon cover reveals an ambitious and tough politico who survived and flourished within the notoriously rough school of Chicago politics. The guy is not soft. At one point, as a freshman state senator he’s ridiculed on the legislature floor by a south Chicago black state senator named Rickey Hendon. Obama doesn’t seem to this man to be black enough. The guy makes fun of his African name. In a later incident on the floor, the man picks up on the ridiculing theme, and the two men begin shouting. Obama moves closer to Hendon and tells him, “I’m going to kick your ass!” At that point, the two are separated and the exchange is over.

According to his autobiography, Obama was taught to box by his stepfather. Recently, Obama even suggested he is distantly related to Wild Bill Hickock. “At least that’s the family lore,” he said. How’s that for genes? Wild Bill was the kind of guy who would have understood the importance of quick over smart – except for that one fatal time, holding aces & eights, he failed to analyze correctly the danger in the room.

So which of these two candidates is better suited to lead a team to deal with a major US foreign policy crisis? The brilliant young guy with change on his mind and no military experience? Or the old guy who bombed cities and spent five years in a Vietnamese POW camp?

Touching the third rail

During a controversial war when our soldiers are killing and dying, it’s hard to raise the question whether John McCain’s war experience is good or bad for America’s future. Since it is the third rail of this campaign, it’s necessary to preface all remarks on this topic by saying John McCain deserves every citizen’s respect and sympathy for what he suffered at the hands of the Vietnamese. No question.

I still recall with a visceral sense of awe an F4 Phantom roaring at tree top level over my head in the forest west of Pleiku. You heard nothing, then it went over like an explosion, and soon there was the sound of the mini guns and explosions. I have nothing but the greatest respect for anyone able to strap himself into the cockpit of one of those things and, at mach whatever, even attempt to make a responsible decision. Of course, I know nothing of what it might be like to fly a supersonic jet over a city like Hanoi with MIGs shooting at you — let alone what it’s like to have dropped 500 pound bombs on people and how that must knaw at the conscience and goad the forces of rationalization.

But even considering all that, and after considering the mess we are in now in this country and how one might deal with facts on the ground like the Russian invasion of Georgia and emerging China’s hold on so much of our vast debt, it’s fair to ask: Why does a military career dropping bombs from a screaming jet on targets (people!) in Hanoi and other cities make one good material to be President Of The United States at such a time? It’s not like we’re Rome or some nation where Caesar or a Magistrate is expected to hop on an armored horse and lead his army into battle or to strap himself into an F16 and lead a squadron over Iraq.

No. As the Marine platoon sergeant in the excellent HBO series Generation Kill puts it to his men, “We’re just skilled labor in the machine.” Our armies are incredibly complex and mechanized – no, computerized – instruments to be used on the world chessboard. Yes, incredible competence and courage are still required on the ground. But we don’t necessarily want somebody presiding over the nation who sees it from the vantage point of the trees. We want him or her to see the forest and beyond and to grasp what’s really going on. He should guide and employ the machine, not be a moving part in it.

It’s terrifying to think what it must have been like to have been John McCain on a bombing run over the city of Hanoi, to have his supersonic jet disabled by fire and, then, to parachute into the lake in the center of the city, where he was assaulted and abused by angry city residents. McCain, then, served five very terrible years in confinement. All true. But why does that make him Presidential material? Prison of any kind is never a good place for one’s health and frame of mind. Prison is, instead, a good place to generate feelings of righteous vengeance, even martyrdom.

My fear is that John McCain’s POW experience symbolically resurrects the old and tired notion that, had it not been for the antiwar movement and the press, we might have prevailed in Vietnam. There’s also something about the imagery of a young John McCain as a POW suffering in some lonely, dank cell that carries the symbolic weight of a Christ symbol, the notion that this man suffered for America’s greater humiliation at the hands of the Vietnamese. Some might say he suffered for our sins. Either way, it’s destructively tragic baggage to carry as the United States forges its way into the world of the 21st Century.

Since I haven’t yet been incinerated by the third rail, what the hell, let’s go for broke. What is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a dishonorable condition, and many of my Vietnam and Iraq vet friends suffer from it. Some of them have been granted 100% disability status for the condition. I don’t know what kind of psychiatric consultations John McCain has had following his POW years, but it is clear he has a powerful, reactive temper, something fully consistent with PTSD. Again, this is not something he should be blamed for, as he should not be absolved for its consequences.

PTSD can be a fashionable buzz word, but it is the label for something that has followed soldiers into civilian life since Homer wrote about it, and it can affect both ordinary veterans as well as the son and grandson of powerful Navy admirals. Hey, truth be known, from some of the kinkier stories told of John Kennedy’s fetish with drowning, he may have had a whopping issue with PTSD rooted in the horrors of the PT109 affair before it was given a name and a place in the psychiatric literature.

But enough pop psychology.

The question that arises from all this is: Do we want a man with such intense experience and such a temper at the helm of the United States Of America? Or do we want a calm, smart guy who knows how to wait a few beats to consult a range of wiser heads, some with differing opinions, so he can analyze things before he acts — and not just react based on what he’s pumped himself up to think is going on. The fact is, the so-called 3AM call is really not the sort of instant, life-or-death reaction test a pilot flying past the speed of sound or, for that matter, the likes of Wild Bill Hickock had to deal with.

Americans want the man or woman making decisions for them about international crises to be able to think quickly, for sure, but equally important, maybe more important, is the ability to marshal a whole orchestra of facts and options, so that when the decision to act must be made it is not of the order of those made during the current administration. Haven’t we had enough of the would-be gunfighter who struts the White House lawn to and from his copter with his arms swung wide as if he’s ready to fast draw six-shooters?

The Georgia crisis has been long in gestation and could have been avoided if only our national leaders had been more forward thinking to anticipate this kind of thing. Did they think, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russians would remain weakened and in awe of our great power forever. Don’t they understand cyclical patterns in history? Instead of a short-term vision looking for the main chance to score a coup from an adversary’s weakness, if at least some of them had shifted to a more long-range, diplomatic vision with a respect for the certainty of unexpected consequences and the ups and downs of fortune, we might not be in the mess we are in today.

It doesn’t take a national security wizard to grasp that, especially concerning Russia’s invasion of Georgia, everyone would have benefited from a US leadership not so much driven by the old exploitative, imperial model set into motion by presidents like Teddy Roosevelt a hundred years ago.

A P.T. Barnum moment

All the above has been based on reason. But one thing that’s become quite evident about American Presidential elections, reason doesn’t cut it. Right now, Jerome R. Corsi’s book Obama Nation, a “swift boating” tract out to trash Obama that suggests he is a Muslim sleeper and uses drugs, is now number one on The New York Times bestseller list. Corsi is the author of Unfit For Command, the book that trashed John Kerry and was the model for the term swift boating. And this is only the beginning.

P.T. Barnum is grinning from ear to ear.

The irrational trashing ploy floated about Obama that I really like is that he’s not Presidential because he’s “a bean pole” — he’s too skinny to be President. It will be tested, and if it has irrational traction we’ll no doubt see TV ads featuring the model Twiggy and images of pieces of fluff being blown by the wind. Maybe the pachyderm President William Howard Taft will become a symbol of gravitas, and John McCain will take up cheeseburgers. I hope not. You’d think in an age of crisis-level sustainability issues, the nation might really go for a guy who seems constitutionally able to get by on less. A hybrid President.

Let’s hope the rumors are true that the Obama campaign has used its pre-convention “vacation” to work up TV campaigns and a line of argument for the post-convention debates to attack head-on the question whether John McCain is right to be President Of The United States beginning in 2009.

If Obama can box, it’s time to quit the rope-a-dope and throw some real punches.

John Grant is a Vietnam veteran who works with Veterans For Peace to end the occupation of Iraq. He is a writer/photographer and lives in Plymouth Meeting.

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