In foreign policy debate, politics the likely victor

Updated
FILE - In this May 8, 2010 file photo, a tattoo on the back of U.S. Army Sgt. James Wilkes of Rochester, N.Y., is seen through his torn shirt after a foot...
FILE - In this May 8, 2010 file photo, a tattoo on the back of U.S. Army Sgt. James Wilkes of Rochester, N.Y., is seen through his torn shirt after a foot...
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File

In a many ways it’s fitting that Melissa Harris-Perry began Sunday’s show, on the eve of the presidential debate on foreign policy, with a brief obituary to the late George McGovern, who died earlier that morning at the age of 90. In the 24 hours since his death, McGovern, the erstwhile Democratic presidential candidate and South Dakota Senator known for his brutal honesty and opposition to warmongering, has been reintroduced to a new generation of Americans not so much as the man who lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon in 1972, but as a breed of Democrat quickly becoming extinct. The Nation’s William Greider, in a slightly maudlin column today:

The hardest question to ask about George McGovern’s legacy is whether he made any difference at all. In some aspects, we can say yes. But for the central thrust of what he believed and tirelessly advocated, we have to say, honestly, no. Like McGovern, I imagined with millions of others that Americans would learn from the tragedy of Vietnam and never let it happen again.

That was so wrong. We are replaying the tragedy instead, repeating the same brutal mistakes and, worse yet, pretending that the bloodshed is noble business. Since 1972, I count four American wars fought on foreign soil and many more smaller skirmishes, all in the name of national security. Each time, the American dead are honored in sentimental public celebrations. The speeches express gratitude to their families and admiration for acts of bravery. No one of any prominence in politics dares to ask whether they died in vain or if the killing of many thousands in target countries has any moral justification. Think of the questions George McGovern asked. To what end? How are we any safer as a nation? Is it possible we are inventing even more risks?


In this lionizing period after his death, it could be said that George McGovern appears to be the kind of president that liberals wish they had, making Barack Obama the one we’re stuck with. Imagine our president uttering words akin to, “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

As a liberal, it may make me feel better to wax and wane over this prospect, lamenting that a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president whose drone attacks have claimed the lives of thousands of innocents is probably the best we can do. Conor Friedersdorf, writing recently in The Atlantic without seemingly any recognition of his privilege as a straight white man of means, feels he can’t cast a ballot for President Obama again, only because of that drone warfare. As if nothing else mattered.

But given Monday night’s final presidential debate, the temptation is even greater to narrow one’s focus on its chosen topic – foreign policy – we should recall that important domestic issues such as women’s rights, gun control, poverty, climate change, and education reform either have received the short shrift of talking points or utter silence from the candidates in the debates thus far. There’s a lot more at stake within our borders, yet we’ll have an evening tonight dedicated to what Republicans (prior to Mitt Romney, it seems) in particular claim is the most important issue in a presidential campaign: whether or not a president can do what isn’t even outlined in his or her Constitutional duties – protect the lives of every American from foreign threat.

And if Americans thought these two roosters were puffing their chests out at the last debate, wait until tonight. We should hear, rightfully so, a reminder from the President that Osama bin Laden is dead, as we’ll hear from Governor Romney a variety of twists and turns, including more tough talk about Libya, China and Iran – perhaps even referencing the Sunday report about direct nuclear talks being denied by the White House.

But where will that get us? Will the conversation truly be furthered? Or will we end up with another night of pundits scoring this as they would a boxing match? We’ll see. But part of the reason we’re likely not to get the most frank and honest debate about the differences between Democrats and Republicans on these issues is that they’re fewer and further between than ever. That is hardly to say they’re the same – if elected, Romney would make some utterly frightening personnel choices to defend the peace and end (or exacerbate) our worldwide conflicts, which may prove the Obama campaign’s point to many that the former Massachusetts governor with no foreign policy experience is not ready for the challenge. They are very different men. But they could be more different.

One of the only salient points about McGovern I’ve read since his death came from Salon’s Joan Walsh, who wrote about his downfall. It wasn’t just that Nixon and the Republicans sought to destroy McGovern once he secured the nomination, saddling him with associations to labor and lefty activists/thinkers. It’s that his campaign considered them a saddle, and didn’t fight for them. The sad part about this foreign policy debate is that we’ll only learn in a second Obama term, if he gets one, whether he learned the lessons of the failed McGovern campaign, and fought for the stances liberals care about.

Until then, I suspect we’ll have to endure the puffing of chests tonight, and for some time to come.

Click here to watch the entirety of Melissa’s conversation with her guests about foreign policy.

In foreign policy debate, politics the likely victor

Updated