From time to time, presidential candidates are going to have bad ideas. Barack Obama has certainly had a few; witness his hiring of the veep vetter with seamy insider connections. And here's a real beaut from John McCain:
To ensure that U.S. soldiers are not influenced by domestic political strife during wartime, he recommends (as the New York Times reported yesterday) "that military teach its recruits not only how to fight, but also the reasons for American foreign policies." McCain first made this recommendation in an essay he submitted to the National War College in 1974, and he reaffirmed in an e-mail message to The Times that he still supports the idea.
As the ex-POW wrote originally, the soldiers should be taught "a simple, straightforward explanation...some basic facts...of the foreign policy of the United States." And the candidate says this is still a good idea, because it would help the soldiers "understand the purpose and reason for the sacrifices they are asked to make for their country."
But McCain, in his younger incarnation, did admit that such an idea might be a tad controversial, because "a program of this nature could be construed as 'brainwashing' or 'thought control,' and could come in for a great deal of criticism."
Forget the loaded words such as "brainwashing." Let's just play out McCain's idea in the real world. Let's turn back the clock to 2002, when the Bush team was contriving to put war clouds over Iraq. The basic troop training lecture on American foreign policy might have sounded something like this:
"American foreign policy is based on our willingness to confront grave and gathering threats to our homeland - as currently demonstrated by Saddam Hussein. It is a tenet of our foreign policy that when we are faced with an aggressor holding weapons of mass destruction - and, in this case, there is no doubt - we are compelled to act. But we act with the highest ideals, which is why we will build a democracy in the heart of the Middle East, in accordance with our longstanding priority of spreading democracy around the world."
See the problem?
McCain's idea - then and now - is to train soldiers in what he calls "the basic facts" of U.S. foreign policy. But what if there is no consensus on what constitutes "the basic facts"? The danger is that a highly politicized administration would skew or twist the facts to serve its own ends, thereby enlisting the soldiers as ideological warriors, compelling them to implicitly pledge fealty to the regime in power.
And there are practical problems besides. A soldier trained on the principles of foreign policy as interpreted by the Bush administration might come away with a different world view than a soldier trained several years later on the principles as interpreted by (for instance) an Obama administration. The latter soldier, unlike the former, might get the distinct impression that war should be only a last resort, and that the blood-and-treasure burdens should be broadly shared with our western allies.
And, one wonders, would the "basic facts" include those that are inconvenient? Would McCain want the soldiers to learn the full history of America's efforts to export democracy, which by definition would include the many failures, such as Woodrow Wilson's botched mission to transform Mexico 92 years ago?
If soliders had been trained during the run to war in Iraq, would McCain have wanted to include the historical fact that America in the '80s aided and abetted Saddam Hussein? (Cue the famous photo of Hussein shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld.) And if soldiers were to be trained during a McCain administration, would the lecture on Iran include the historical fact that the CIA toppled an elected government in 1953 and installed the Shah, whose regime ultimately provoked the rise of the radical Islamist fundamentalists who still hold sway today?
I doubt those are the kinds of facts that McCain has in mind.
If McCain imagines that there is even a foreign policy consensus anymore, he is badly out of date. The last major consensus - opposition to communism - essentially died when the Soviet Union fell. Indeed, one of the key debates in the '08 election is what a new consensus - the means and ends of fighting terrorism, repairing our global relations - might look like.
It's hard to imagine that soldiers in training will become better fighters if exposed to the current civilian argumentation. Which is just one more reason why we have to chalk up the McCain brainstorm as a bad one.
I'm prepared to be wrong about this, but it would seem that Hillary Clinton's prospects for joining the Obama ticket have just plummeted.
Today, the Obama camp announced a slew of new hires. One of those new hires will serve the eventual vice presidential nominee as chief of staff. The lucky job recipient is Patti Solis Doyle.
That would be the same Patti Solis Doyle who ran Hillary's campaign until she was canned midway through the primary season. She was once a diehard denizen of Hillaryland, but reportedly she and Hillary have not spoken since the firing.
It's hard to imagine that Obama would tee up Solis Doyle for the job of veep candidate chief of staff, only to risk bad vibes down the road by pairing her with the ex-boss who dumped her.
No, this move seems like a signal that Hillary is out - and her camp seems to be reading it that way. As one Hillary insider reportedly said today, "There is no other way to interpret this, other than '(Expletive) you.'"