Vietnam as Politics, Part III: 2008

Part I here,

Part II here.

None of the three main Democrats in the primary campaign had any substantial military knowledge. Rather than attempt to run another war hero, the Democrat voters decided that Iraq would neutralize the national security issue. But that required a candidate who was not tainted by Iraq. Hillary Clinton voted for Iraq war in 2003 in order to shore up her credentials on the military/foreign policy side, but in 2008 that vote haunted her during her primary campaign, especially as her main rival, Barack Obama, had voted against it. But the same problems remain: the most important name on Obama’s National Security advisory group is former Senator Sam Nunn, a Southern Democrat in the Scoop Jackson mould. To find military expertise, Obama was essentially forced to reach back to a dying breed of conservative, southern Democrats, because there are currently no senior Democrats with anywhere near Nunn’s credibility on defense matters. But Nunn is 69 years old, barely younger than John McCain, and is of an older generation of Democrats which means that he carries substantial political baggage within the party.

The result for the 2008 has been that Obama has had to establish his credibility on national security issues as quickly and effectively as possible. The trip to Europe was an attempt to do that for foreign policy (and by proxy national security). The picking of Joe Biden as Obama’s VP candidate brings some needed experience in foreign policy and national security. But, though the Obama campaign has put forth a detailed national security program, its message is complex and drowned in bullet points. There is no simple, easily comprehensible vision of national security, except for withdrawal from Iraq.

Nonetheless, having said that, the nomination of Obama is critical in another sense. He is a generational candidate, the first post-Vietnam Presidential candidate, and one who had no part (however small) in the domestic chaos that marked that war. He symbolizes the healing of that split, a healing that can also be seen in the growing number of Democratic candidates who served in the military. Moving past the Vietnam division is a critical start for the Democrats if they are to stop conceding the national security issue to the Republicans. With Obama, they have started.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have retreated further into the fantasy. Though a fair number of veterans of Iraq have run as GOP candidates, at the upper level the Republican vision has looked firmly backward to the comforting truths of the Cold War. Nominating John McCain, who came of age during the pre-Vietnam/Vietnam era, is a step back to earlier verities that—no matter how outdated—are still soothing. Such a quest led to Bob Dole’s nomination in 1996, as the Republicans sought the reassurance of the Cold War and the “Greatest Generation” of World War II. McCain’s approach to national security is, if anything, worse than the current administration’s. McCain combines a rigid commitment to the American presence in Iraq, echoing the Bush administration, with a determination to view the rest of the world through Cold-War tinted glasses. The recent Russian invasion of Georgia had nothing to do with a resurgence of the Cold War, but for McCain it might have been 1950 and Korea all over again. While the Democrats are moving forward from the divisiveness engendered by Vietnam, the Republicans are moving back.

Whether or not McCain wins, it is not a good omen for the United States that the GOP has tied its flag to a candidate shaped—as Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were shaped—by his experiences in a world that no longer exists. The military challenges facing the United States during the Cold War were daunting but they are not the trials the United States faces in the era of 9/11. That only one of America’s major political parties seems to be shifting to recognize that is ominous, indeed.