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National Security: The Forgotten Issue By: Stephen F. Hayes
Weekly Standard | Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In July 2007, pollsters for the New York Times and CBS News asked respondents to name the issues most important to them as they considered which candidate they would support for president. The top choice for both Republicans and Democrats was national security--Iraq for Democrats, terrorism for Republicans.

That was then. Today national security has virtually disappeared from the presidential campaign. In a New York Times/CBS poll taken in mid-October, 57 percent of respondents cited the economy as their top issue. Only 9 percent cited terrorism, and 7 percent cited the Iraq war.

These results are hardly surprising. The housing market is in tatters, a Republican administration is aggressively defending its decision to partially nationalize America's biggest banks, and nearly every economist in the prognostication business is saying that the United States is heading toward a severe recession.

But the shift remains stunning. For seven years, the country has been obsessed with national security. The New York Times carried more extensive coverage of the Iraqi elections in 2005 than statewide contests in the United States. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad became a household name. So did David Petraeus. And as late as this spring, national security issues helped decide the nominees of both political parties. Barack Obama won, in no small part, because primary voters believed that he was more sincerely antiwar than the other Democrats running, especially Hillary Clinton. And John McCain won largely because voters believed he would be a better commander in chief than his Republican counterparts.

Judging from his remarks to an enthusiastic crowd in Dallas, Texas, on the March night he passed the 1,191 delegate mark needed to make him the GOP nominee, McCain expected--or, perhaps, hoped--that national security issues would play a major role in determining the next president. After thanking his supporters and speaking broadly about public service, McCain moved right to national security.

Presidential candidates are judged on their records, their character and the whole of their life experiences. But we are also expected to concentrate our efforts on the challenges that will confront America on our watch and explain how we intend to address them. America is at war in two countries, and involved in a long and difficult fight with violent extremists who despise us, our values and modernity itself.

McCain defended the decision to remove Saddam Hussein and spoke of the need to win in Iraq, where "our most vital security interests" are involved. He said that a mismanaged exit could result in sectarian conflict, even genocide. He warned about terrorist attacks with "weapons we dare not allow" terrorists to possess and called for a stronger allied effort against al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

He was not finished.

The next president must lead an effort to restructure our military, our intelligence, our diplomacy and all relevant branches of government to combat Islamic extremism, encourage the vast majority of moderates to win the battle for the soul of Islam, and meet the many other rising challenges in this changing world.

McCain did mention the economy and health care and jobs. But it was clear then that he saw a president's duties as commander in chief as more important than any other role.

McCain still believes this, but his campaign does not reflect his view, and his advisers seem to have convinced him that it is unwise to talk about anything other than the economy. Last weekend, in an appearance on Fox News Sunday, McCain was asked what the country might look like under four years of an Obama presidency with a Democratic Congress. It was a broad question, but McCain, who has made his reputation on national security and foreign policy issues, spoke exclusively about the economy.

In an interview aboard his campaign plane that same day, October 19, I noted the oversight and asked him about his answer.

TWS: Have we gotten to the point where it's almost dangerous to talk about foreign policy and national security?

MCCAIN: No, not at all. But it's obvious that the economy is in crisis and that's what Americans really care about today and they are in a ditch. I don't have--you know you can only give so much in an answer--but obviously national security I mention in my speeches. We're in two wars, very dangerous times. And I mention in my speeches that Senator Obama would bring our troops home in defeat, and I'll bring 'em home in honor and victory. Right now, with people having trouble staying in their homes, keeping their jobs--we've lost over 700,000 jobs already this year--Americans, and I understand it, are focused on the economy.

Later in our conversation, McCain responded to a question about Iran's nuclear program by warning that failed diplomacy makes an Israeli strike against Iran more likely and that such an attack "could create a situation of crisis in the Middle East that is heretofore of unknown proportions."

So I tried again.

TWS: One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview is my sense that we in the national media sometimes switch topics and focus on one thing. And I think it's striking the lack of discussion of these issues at this time. Do you agree with that, or do you think we have to focus on the economy as we have?

MCCAIN: I think that there are major national security challenges we face. But, like at the beginning of our conversation, people are having trouble staying in their homes, can't keep their jobs, can't afford their health care. I think it's understandable a person would say what's happening halfway around the world is not as important to me as my family's economic security. I think it's unfortunate, but I think it's understandable.

You know when we do these groups of Americans and say we're going to win in Iraq and succeed in Afghanistan. Hey great! If you ask them what priority one through ten are--the top nine are economic. We were just in Toledo. Houses all over Toledo are being foreclosed and abandoned.

I asked McCain if he still would make good on his pledge to hold a National Security Council meeting as the first thing he would do after being sworn in.

Oh yeah, I think we'd still have to do that--the security of the nation, even if the American people aren't entirely focused on it. You have to do that. But at the same time you have to assemble the best minds on the economic issues.

At other times in the interview, McCain directly answered my questions about threats, and he answered them well. (His denunciation of the Bush administration's new deal on North Korea was particularly stirring.) But, ironically, it was clear that McCain--who last year told the Wall Street Journal, "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues"--wanted to be talking about economics.

At roughly the same time I spoke with McCain, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden was rather inexplicably making national security relevant again.

"Mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy," Biden said at a Seattle fundraiser. "The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America."

He added: "Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

The McCain campaign pounced, putting out several press releases about Biden's outburst and, later in the week, holding conference calls with McCain surrogates like former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former CIA director Jim Woolsey. Both McCain and Palin highlighted Biden's comments in their stump speeches. "We don't want a president who invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in crisis and Americans are already fighting in two wars," McCain said. "Yesterday Senator Obama tried to explain away this warning by saying that his running-mate sometimes engages in 'rhetorical flourishes.' That's another way of saying that he accidentally delivered some straight talk."

That same day, the McCain campaign released an ad focused on Biden's comments and touting McCain's national security credentials. Including national security as part of McCain's closing argument is long overdue. No one argues that McCain should ignore the economy, but some McCain advisers point to the fact that national security issues are the only ones in which McCain continues to hold a sizeable polling advantage over Obama. They have been making the case internally that McCain should broaden his message. He's doing it now, but is it too late?

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