Presidential candidates, for good or ill, are crucially defined by war. That is as true in 2008 as previously, but the superior candidate in this election is not the one everyone thinks.
Perceptions of the candidate and, less obviously, perceptions by the candidate are influenced by their experiences of war. In recent elections, the images of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole were shaped by their relationship to World War II. Similarly, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and John Kerry found themselves defined by the Vietnam War. And it is not just any war that does the defining. Instead, it is the generational war, the dominant war of a particular era: Vietnam, for example, rather than Panama.
What wars define the candidates of 2008? For Senator John McCain, the answer is easy: Vietnam. His years as a POW are foundational to him, and the McCain campaign and McCain himself highlight those experiences as much as possible. Senator Barack Obama, by contrast, came of age in a military era that, as much as anything, was about recovering from Vietnam. The two candidates’ differing martial experiences has led to a media narrative that gives the advantage of experience to McCain.
But what is not discussed as often is how the wars shape not just the perceptions of candidates, but their outlooks. Wars mold how candidates view the world. The war that shaped President Bush’s viewpoint and those around him—Cheney and Rumsfeld particularly—was the Cold War, the decades-long struggle against the Soviet Union. Thus, almost immediately after 9/11, the administration looked for a nation to blame. The target became not Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but Iraq. This was a classic Cold War reaction, when guerrilla or terrorist movements around the world were fronts for one side or the other. So the Bush administration found itself simply unable to believe that Al Qaeda had acted without some kind of state support. There had to be an “axis of evil.” Iraq would become an example of the perils of being part of that axis.
We have seen how that turned out. Iraq surely became an example, but one of imperial hubris. So the question for 2008 is not just what war shapes each candidate’s image, but also what war shapes each candidate’s outlook? In this case, McCain’s major war is not Vietnam, but—just as it was for Bush—the Cold War. The Senator from Arizona came to adulthood in the 1950s, the era of a growing nuclear threat and the Berlin Wall. His service in Vietnam was the suspended animation of a POW. His command experience afterwards was defined by the confrontation with the Soviet Union. McCain views the world with the same Cold War perspective that the Bush administration brought to the table, characterized by a continuing fixation on nation-states. Witness the two foreign policies about which McCain is insistent: staying in Iraq and confronting Iran. McCain, like Bush, cannot understand our deeply fractured world without reaching for the comforting simplicity of the Cold War, a reaction notably on display when Russia invaded Georgia. Experience leads McCain to take refuge in a vision driven by a comforting fantasy, not by the dangerous reality.
Obama’s outlook, by contrast, was defined in a more complex period. The late 1980s and 1990s, when the Senator from Illinois came of political age, was an era of collapse and confusion. The fall of the Soviet Union and the First Gulf War seemed to usher in a period of American dominance, only for a wave of terrorist attacks to reveal a world dominated less by nations and more by ideologies and movements that cross international boundaries. Obama’s focus on Afghanistan and desire to wind things down in Iraq are reflections of a world in which war has become globalized and personalized, and where states are less important than global networks: Al-Qaeda, rather than Iraq.
McCain has more experience than Obama, but it is the experience of a previous generation, whose comprehension of the world coexists uneasily with the radically-changed facts on the ground. “9/11 changed everything” was repeated endlessly after the towers fell. In 2008, only one candidate behaves as if that is true.