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Alan Fein

Alan Fein

Posted: August 1, 2008 11:32 AM

It's Not Good Luck, It's Consensus


It has been described as Barack Obama's "good fortune" at the beginning of his recent trip. But what we've witnessed over the last few weeks was not a string of luck, but a culmination of a process of thought that has spanned much of the new century. Finally, in the "marketplace of ideas," choices have been made. Some "big ideas" have been tested and exposed, and others embraced. Consensus has been reached on some of our most pressing issues: consensus on energy policy, from wildly different sources; consensus on the economy; consensus on what was truly wrong with the Iraq war and what we need to do to right it; consensus on Afghanistan; and consensus on whether we should engage not just our friends, but our enemies as well.

In this way, the last few weeks can be viewed in rather monumental terms. But what we've seen upon Obama's return to the States is a pivot away from the big ideas, from the clarity and enormity of the consensus, into a discussion of very personal minutiae. John McCain, finding himself alone in the corner at the party and apart from the consensus, wants to talk about something else, and that would be the character and core of his opponent. Obama is happy to lose a war in order to win an election. Obama would rather go to the gym than visit wounded troops. Obama is arrogant and full of hubris. Obama disrespects older people and middle-America's culture. Obama is just like Britney Spears.

We need to go back to talking about where America and the world need to go, and the fact that, somehow, amazingly, most people agree on what needs to be done.

Let's begin with energy. Who would have believed, just weeks ago, that America's most famous self-described "oilman," T. Boone Pickens, would be spending millions of dollars on an advertising campaign to convince Americans what had been obvious, but what had been denied by just about every other "oilman" in America: we can't drill our way out of our energy problems. Three weeks ago I described how John McCain, Charlie Crist and others had been carrying Big Oil's public relations water by suggesting that oil prices were high because the oil companies can't drill off of Florida and California. This was, of course, nonsense, now exposed by an oilman. Now, T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore are in basic agreement about what needs to be done and our ability to do it: a "man to the moon" style commitment to develop alternative sources of energy.

While Mr. Pickens may or may not agree with the next point of consensus, over the past couple of years, just about every scientist has: our planet is warming at an alarming rate, and carbon emissions are a palpable part of that problem. McCain and Obama actually agree on this. But this consensus only came after years of debate, and millions of dollars spent by the oil companies and the White House trying to convince us that this was just junk science. The vast majority of us now seem to understand the problem.

We've reached consensus that our government's laissez faire attitude toward our financial system had allowed a relative handful of people to become very rich while forcing the rest of us to bear the risks of a so very predictable disaster. Just this morning, the economics editor of the Wall Street Journal was on NPR talking about the broad bipartisan consensus now reached in Washington: our flimsy regulatory structures needed to be tightened. Even the Bush White House has admitted that leaving everything to the free market was not such a good idea.

We've reached consensus that the war in Iraq was not worth the cost in blood or treasure. That Saddam was not responsible for 9/11. That Al Qaeda was not in Iraq before we invaded Iraq, and, indeed, Saddam didn't like Al Qaeda. That a trillion dollars could have been better spent building roads and bridges and schools in our country. And now, incredibly, we've reached consensus on what needs to be done: we need to remove the vast majority of our troops over about 16 months. The leaders of Iraq agree. Senator McCain has grudgingly agreed, subject to "conditions on the ground." And even our President (upon whose performance there is a broad consensus of opinion) agrees to the concept of a "time horizon."

We've reached consensus that we remain a nation of laws, and that some basic human rights need to be respected. That we lose respect and stature around the world when we hold people in prison camps for years without charges and torture them. Even a very conservative United States Supreme Court has gone out of its way to consistently remind the Bush Administration about this in a number of opinions.

We've reached consensus that we began to go astray in Tora Bora, that we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, and allowed the leadership of Al Qaeda to escape into the mountains of Pakistan. That we failed to effectively engage Pakistan's leaders to root them out of the mountains.

When we watch the Hagels and the Bidens of the world discuss these matters, we see broad agreement.

We've also reached consensus that military force alone cannot effectively counter those who are willing to use terror as a strategy. Just a few years ago, the Bush White House and its supporters in Congress branded anyone who suggested that counterterrorism should be built around law enforcement strategies as "sissies." Now, just this week, the conservative Rand Corporation has issued a 200-page study for the Defense Department, finding that al Qaeda remains both "strong" and "competent"; that what's needed is a "fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy" minimizing overt military action and increasing law enforcement and intelligence action; and that using the label "global war on terror" has skewed our priorities. "Almost all of our allies, from Great Britain to Australia, have stopped using the concept of a 'global war on terror'," one of the authors of the report told congressional staffers.

We've reached consensus that in order to solve our interlinked problems of oil dependency, violence in the Middle East and terrorism, we need to engage not only our friends, but our enemies. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group embraced this consensus when it announced its recommendations two years ago, specifically recommending that we should engage Iraq's neighbors in Iran and Syria. Barack Obama embraced this consensus during the campaign, only to be called a naif and an appeaser. But now, even President Bush has sent his representative to meet with the leaders of Iran, just like our allies have been doing in our absence. In this regard, we've reached a consensus that it makes it easy for people like Ahmadinijad to rally his people when they are scared to death of a United States that speaks loudly and carries a big stick. That we can best expose him by shining our light.

It took quite a while for the right ideas to be chosen in the marketplace of ideas. It wasn't the result of Obama's good luck, but rather the years of bad results from putting bad ideas into action. I think part of the blame for the delay has to go to those who were "refereeing" the debate over the last few years. For a long time, you had Fox News, which provided a one sided "debate" featuring those who would argue that the world was flat. The only counterweight was the mainstream media, offering debates between people arguing about whether or not the earth was flat: whether the folks at Big Oil were profiteers, or just good guys making a fair profit; whether all government needed to was lower taxes and get out of the way; whether global warming was real, or "junk science"; whether Saddam was responsible for 9/11; whether Saddam really was an imminent threat to the United States, poised to attack our eastern seaboard with plywood drones carrying atomic bombs; and whether those who refused to see this threat were tough enough or patriotic enough or un-French enough to protect us.

Finally, bad ideas were exposed because they were built on falsities and because they didn't work in practice. The grown ups from each party seem to have reached agreement on so many of these issues. Unfortunately for John McCain, the last few weeks of the campaign have shown us that his opponent was on the right side of the consensus, often before the consensus was reached. That seems to be evidence of good judgment. So, McCain's only hope is to steer away from Obama's ideas, and to attack his core and character. I believe Obama's comportment and humility will protect him from the mis-perception of his character. After that, McCain will be successful only if we allow ourselves to forget the monumental shifts in consensus that we've been able to achieve.