Coming to Terms With Terrorism
Regardless, 40 percent of voters claim that a candidate's position on terrorism is still important, and in examining the respective positions on the issue in this fourth installment of the Pass the Pundits series, clear differences emerge aside a few striking similarities. Both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama begin with the premise that the federal government is not doing enough to strengthen the security of the homeland, but their means of arriving there are strikingly different. Indeed, they get to the fundamental difference between the two parties' approach to terrorism. It starts with terminology, and this in itself is revealing. Obama couches his plan as "homeland security," while McCain repeats the mantra of a "global war on terrorism."
It continues with the overarching basis of their approaches. Obama is apt to emphasize issues on the domestic front like the security of nuclear power plants, local water supplies, and emergency response plans. In effect, he takes a defensive stance on the issue. McCain, by contrast, speaks of a missile defense system, an expanded and modernized military, and an aggressive pursuit of terrorists throughout the world. In Mayor Rudy Giuliani's words, McCain prefers to play offense.
These general themes specified, let's dive into the specifics. McCain's policy proposals are certainly more general than his less-experienced, but more nuanced opponent, but a perusal of his position paper is particularly revealing, especially when placed beside that of Obama's. McCain centers his plan around a strong military, not surprising given his family background. He laments the overextended tours of duty borne by our troops and their families, arguing that they deter reenlistment, even recruitment. In response, he suggests that the size of our military must match our national threat, meaning that both the Army and the Marines should be expanded. Moreover, benefits should be increased for current and retired members of the Armed Forces. McCain is firm in his commitment to America's veterans.
McCain places military modernization beside expansion, urging our armed forces to adopt 21st Century technologies, training tactics, and intelligence gathering to meet contemporary threats quite different from those posed during the Cold War. Moreover, McCain, ever the deficit hawk, deplores pork barrel spending in all corners. In his words, "Too often, parochial interests - rather than the national interest - have guided our spending decisions." In an apparent jab at President Bush, McCain argues that military spending should be included in the regular budgeting process, not in emergency spending bills that open the gates for "pigs" to feed at the proverbial trough.
Obama, as highlighted earlier, is almost entirely homeland-focused. The largest similarity between the two candidates is their suggestion that homeland security dollars should be allocated on the premise of risk, not political expediency. Obama touts his record as an Illinois state senator in helping the state prepare an emergency response plan, including policies to protect individuals with disabilities during times of disaster and to help families locate loved ones in emergency zones (i.e., Katrina). He promises more money for first responders and strengthened communications systems.
Much of his position paper on the issue of terrorism is devoted to infrastructural protection for both man-made and natural disasters. This applies to chemical plants, nuclear waste, airline and port security, public transit, and local water supplies. In every case, he recommends stricter oversight and more monies directed toward these areas. Obama and McCain also dive into border security, but I will save this topic for my tenth and final post on immigration.
Finally, Obama enters the area of intelligence gathering, promising greater coordination of domestic operations, along with expanding analysis at the state and local level. The bulk of his attention is centered on reforming the USA PATRIOT Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the restoration of habeas corpus for enemy combatants. He calls for greater oversight of the PATRIOT Act and FISA (watch his vote on the latter in the coming days as Congress has crafted a bipartisan compromise), and praised the Supreme Court's decision last week striking down the Military Commissions Act for failure to offer enemy combatants held at Guantanamo the right to appeal. McCain, by contrast, called it one of the worst decisions in history. However, both condemn torture and promise to close down the notorious detention center in Cuba.
Overall, Obama has shown a willingness to reject Republican claims that he holds a Sept. 10 mind set, even though his policies mirror those of 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, who fell susceptible to these charges. The junior Illinois senator contends that the GOP has no credibility on the issue given that Osama bin Laden is still on the run and it was distracted from prosecuting our legitimate operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan by invading Iraq under false premises.
Looking at the two candidates' records, Obama has proposed a variety of legislation in the realm of homeland security (chemical plant security, nuclear waste disposal, water supply protection), but has little to show for his initiatives in terms of substantive legislation. He has served on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and did realize some success in this realm as a state senator (see above). McCain, by comparison, pushed for the creation of the 9-11 Commission, the largest investigation of our government in history, the recommendations of which Obama embraces. The senior Arizona senator also sponsored the creation of the Dept. of Homeland Security, along with the U.S. Northern Command, responsible for domestic defense.
Experience aside, the two candidates take diametrically different positions on how to combat terrorism. Like the Iraq War and fiscal policy, Americans will face a stark choice when it comes to approaches to defeating terrorism come November. To invoke a couple of football analogies, Obama argues that the best form of offense is a good defense. McCain, on the other hand, wants to put early points on the board, demoralizing the enemy from the outset. Seven years into this post-9-11 world where Americans face the daily fear of terrorism, we are left to decide which coach will lead us to victory.