Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Truman Show

“I think the problem if you’re John McCain and you’re watching the scenes that have been playing out overseas [is that] the Americans are finally being greeted as liberators. The problem is, they’re the Americans getting off the plane with Barack Obama.”

Ebony/Jet columnist Del Walters, speaking today on MSNBC's "Hardball," thus nails the challenge of perception facing the Arizona senator, the same challenge that Obama has so far responded to in masterful terms. On what is nominally a campaign trip but really a global coming-out party for the junior senator from Illinois, Obama has burnished his bona fides in a whirlwind trip that’s so far combined a hoorah for American troops, numerous visits to world leaders of consequence and — in a press conference today — a reassertion of the civilian leadership of the U.S. military, an unequivocal line in the sand to those who’ve supplanted the commander-in-chief with the commander on the ground.

“What I’ve consistently said is that my job, should I be commander-in-chief, is to set a vision, a strategic vision, of what’s best for U.S. national security,” Obama said today in Amman, Jordan. “I strongly believe that what is best for U.S. national security is to initiate a phased withdrawal and to set a timeframe that’s very consistent with what the Iraqis are now saying, and can be accomplished.”

“The notion is that either I do exactly what my military commanders tell me to do, or I’m ignoring their advice. No, I’m factoring in their advice but placing it in this broader strategic framework that’s required.”

It was an expansive way, of course, of saying The Buck Stops Here — of reviving the spirit of strong command responsibility that President Truman distilled in those four words. But it was also a throwdown to those who figured Obama couldn’t handle the moment of world exposure, or the ones who thought he’d do the okey-doke and concede the broad “strategic vision” of the U.S.-Iraqi military situation to the generals. Like President Bush has done, more or less consistently, since the Iraq war began.

The Truman Doctrine was its own line in the sand against a perceived bid for world domination by the Soviets; philosophically, the W Doctrine ain’t much different; it still promulgates a binary, us-vs-them, zero-sum-game view of the world and everyone in it.

Barack Obama appears to have the good political sense to know that, whatever geopolitical doctrine may bear his name in years to come, a policy starts with an in-house doctrine of accountability — a willingness to own responsibility for the vision that sets things in motion, for better or worse.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama’s Amman address was one of those moments over the last five days that have helped solidify the idea of a President Obama in the world’s mind’s eye. The cosmetics of this tour — the visuals you’ll be seeing in Team Obama campaign ads from next week until November — couldn’t have been better. Obama huddling with U.S. Gen. David Petraeus; Obama sitting in conference with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president; Obama walking with Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister; Obama with King Abdullah of Jordan (before Obama rode shotgun in the King’s Mercedes back to the airport, with the monarch at the wheel).

Anything can happen, of course. Israel, Germany, France and the UK are dead ahead. The biggest challenge may be addressing the ever-delicate Israeli-Palestinian issues, a farrago of history that’s snagged more than one well-meaning American. But to this point, Barack Obama has hardly disappointed the folks back home. On the contrary: he’s proven himself a master of international stagecraft and someone with a solid command of the need for the kind of overarching vision that has been (being charitable) a more infrequent thing for the Bushies.

Meanwhile, back at the McCain campaign, the whiteboards are out, the Maalox is flowing freely and the Arizona senator may be regretting his recent complaints that Obama hadn’t seen things on the ground in other countries, that he didn’t know enough of the world to be the leader of the world’s leader. For McCain, the chance to have the stage to himself must have initially seemed like answered prayers.

But we’ve heard of their dangers before.

“Answered prayers cause more tears than those that remain unanswered.”
— Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582)
Image credit: Harry S. Truman: Public domain.

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