Joe Loconte is concerned about Barack Obama's preparedness to be America's Commander-in-Chief with so many gathering storms on the horizon.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—For a flickering moment, at the start of the New Hampshire Democratic debate on Saturday night, Barack Obama had the stricken look of the school boy who discovers he can’t answer the opening essay question on the final exam.
For months Obama mostly has dismissed any serious discussion of America’s national security threats with his tidy mantra: “I’m for a politics of hope instead of a politics of fear.” Hope is our friend, he constantly reminds us. And he’s definitely not for fear. No more fear-mongering politics, please. "We can't afford the same politics of fear that invokes 9/11 as a way to scare up votes." We just can’t afford it anymore. It’s scary to scare up votes that way. So I’ll say it again: “I don’t want to talk about fear.”
But there was the debate moderator, Charlie Gibson of ABC News, and all Charlie wanted to talk about was fear and the politics of fear.
GIBSON: Let me start with what is generally agreed to be, I think, the greatest threat to the United States today, and, somewhat to my surprise, has not been discussed as much in the presidential debates this year as I thought would be, and that is…nuclear terrorism.
What a minute! That’s the Bush Administration’s bogeyman routine! They’ve even turned news anchormen into their marionettes! Where’s that talking snowman when you need him?!
GIBSON: And for some background, here’s ABC’s Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross.
BEGIN VIDEO CLIP
BRIAN ROSS, ABC CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: After more than six years of trying, the United States still does not have a reliable way to spot nuclear material that terrorists might smuggle into the country, much as ABC News twice did in demonstrations without being caught. And after six years of trying, the United States has yet to capture the man who says it is his religious duty to get nuclear weapons: Osama bin Laden.
GIBSON: Well, Osama bin Laden, as he pointed out, has said it is his duty to try to get nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda has been reconstituted and re-energized in the western part of Pakistan. And so my general question is, how aggressively would you go after Al Qaeda leadership there? And let me start with you, Senator Obama…
Gibson reminded Obama that he pledged as president to launch a military strike in western Pakistan if he had “actionable intelligence” that bin Laden was there—whether or not the Pakistani government agreed. Obama implied he would take this action with or without approval from the United Nations Security Council, meaning he would act “unilaterally” to violate the sovereignty of a U.N. member state. He would do this not in response to an attack against the United States, he suggested, but to prevent another anticipated attack, meaning he would act “pre-emptively.” In other words, he would act pre-emptively and unilaterally if the security of the United States depended on swift military action.
GIBSON: Do you stand by that?
Obama’s lips begin to move, slowly.
OBAMA: I do stand by it, Charlie. What I said was that we should do everything in our power to push and cooperate with the Pakistani government in taking on Al Qaeda, which is now based in northwest Pakistan…What I said was, if they could not or would not do so, and we had actionable intelligence, then I would strike.
GIBSON: I’m going to the others in a moment, but what you just outlined is essentially the Bush doctrine. (Italics added)
There they go again! The politics of fear!
OBAMA: No, this is not the same thing…this is not speculation.
Hence the Obama antidote to the politics of fear: Be certain, very certain, about the intentions of the bad guys before you apply the Bush doctrine to international threats to U.S. security. And be certain, very certain, never to call your doctrine pre-emption or imply you might approve unilateral action or that you suspect the Patriot Act might have prevented another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
The problem with Barack Obama is not his personal story or his themes of hopefulness and change. It is heartening that Obama, an African-American, could generate such enthusiasm among voters of all ages and races, as his electrifying victory in the Iowa caucus suggested. For the cause of race relations in America, that is a very good thing.
But there are other causes facing Americans at this political moment. There are gathering storms that can’t be wished away because they’re unpleasant to think about, as ABC’s Charlie Gibson had the temerity to suggest. Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of genocidal jihadists, rebuilding the failed states of Afghanistan and Iraq, prodding democratic reform in the Arab world—these are not causes to be undertaken by those armed only with hope. Wisdom is needed as well: the ability to make difficult strategic and moral decisions, and to get them right when it really matters. Liberals like to imagine that wisdom emerges spontaneously, without effort or depth of character. No need for the crucible of experiences in leadership that produce humility, offer perspective, and sharpen judgment. Barack Obama not only lacks these experiences, but wears their absence as a badge of honor.
This character deficit may not, at the end of the day, trouble many voters. It hardly registers among our media elites—who remain obsessed with superficialities, in awe of Obama’s political momentum, and sympathetic to his appeal. The day after the Bush administration released its latest intelligence report, “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” The New York Times followed its predictable script. Its lead editorial, “The Politics of Fear,” accused the White House of stoking anxiety for raw political gain by highlighting the terrorist activities of al Qaeda in Pakistan and beyond. That was back in July. Five months later Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto was murdered in broad daylight by the forces of extremism.
Well, so much for the politics of fear. Senator Obama’s first response to Bhutto’s assassination was to castigate the Bush White House for continuing its efforts to stabilize Iraq—and, by golly, he’s going to change that. His media cheerleaders don’t seem to mind. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News noted that Obama grew up in Hawaii and spent a lot of time surfing. “What he’s got to do,” he gushed, “is just ride this wave of change.” NBC’s David Gregory captured the effervescent mood: “At the end of the day, Barack Obama is going to make people feel something.”
If that’s all we really expect of our leaders—emoting but not thinking, riding the change wave regardless of the reefs and the undertow—then perhaps the greatest threat to the United States is already among us.
Joe Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and a commentator on religion and politics for National Public Radio.
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