Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What To Do About Tyrants A Key Issue In 2008

It was the poet W.H. Auden who suggested Hitler was "a psychopathic god," and wrote the classic short poem, "Epitaph On A Tyrant." It is certainly pertinent to the security debate now raging in the presidential campaign that I quote it here:

"Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand
He knew human folly like the back of his hand
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter
And when he cried, the little children died in the streets"

That is not just a fanciful poem. In the world today, we have tyrants like that: Than Shwe in Burma, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Bashir Assad in Syria, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. There are others in The Sudan and Belarus. Not to mention terrorist leaders who call for the extinction of Israel, but primarily just slaughter other Muslims.

Just today, there are reports that Al-Qaeda is vowing to obtain nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and use them against the West. This is no more fanciful than Auden's poem: It could actually happen. Who is the new American president will be preoccupied with trying to see it doesn't happen.

That's a good reason that the vital debate over the security of the United States and other free nations shouldn't be just a series of gaffes, one-liners and provocative television spots.

The fact that Barack Obama refers to his great-uncle liberating Auschwitz when he should have said Buchenwald is not consequential. Neither is a Hillary Clinton ad suggesting she is ready for a call about a terrorist attack at 3 a.m., while Obama as president would not be. And neither are the one-liners John McCain is fond of throwing out: "I will never surrender in Iraq." "We might be there 100 years."

The trouble with the last, by the way, is not that McCain is not expressing his true sentiments. It is just that the American people will never have the patience to keep armed forces in Iraq for 100 years. Unless our leaders can figure out how to wind this operation up expeditiously, we are going to lose in Iraq, or at least have to concentrate the War on Terror somewhere else.

As we go forward in the fall campaign, I hope it's not just a tit-for-tat between McCain and Obama to see which one can one-up the other. I'm sure both men will be diligent campaigners, leaving no stone unturned in their efforts. It's obvious that neither is lazy.

But what is most important is that it be a substantive discussion, that it draw out each of the candidates to give us a clear idea of how they think, how they would begin confronting the pro0blems we face, in short what kind of president each would be. That is what individual voters have to decide for themselves in choosing how to vote.

We haven't always had that in campaigns. Lyndon Johnson ran as the peace candidate in 1964, but within three weeks of his inauguration sharply expanded the fruitless war in Vietnam. Woodrow Wilson ran in 1916 on the slogan, "He kept us out of war," but a month after his inauguration called for, and got, a declaration of war against Germany. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn't completely candid about the options facing the U.S. in 1940.

Can we do better this time?

I'm not at all adverse to McCain's suggestion that he and Obama campaign on occasion together throughout the country with a series of discussions about the issues. It would not be necessary to have ambitious, attention-seeking reporters moderate these talks, thus possibly avoiding the pointless negative questioning of some recent candidate encounters. Maybe, it wouldn't work, but I think it's worth trying. I see no merit, however, in McCain's suggestion that he and Obama take a trip to Iraq together.

We already know, to their credit, that neither McCain nor Obama want to make much of divisive racial issues. Both have denounced religious supporters who were peddling hate and nonsense. Both have fired campaign advisors who decided to go off on their own tacks. We have the sense that both want to be good presidents, and, are not, as the Clintons have been doing, simply grabbing for power.

But the two candidates do profoundly differ with each other on such issues as talking with our enemies, Iraq, and, as it will likely develop, a whole range of other issues.

So, let's go ahead. Let's not cede the field to clever lobbies, fake advertising arrangers, and people with hidden agendas. The times are critical. It is to be hoped that our democracy will live up to them.

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