With a single speech on Friday Barack Obama showed he is no John Kerry. He will fight back immediately against scurrilous charges with reason and fact, not empty rhetoric.
Obama has the benefit of voters who've turned away from Bush and the Iraq invasion in droves. Kerry did not have that advantage. Incredibly, the verdict on Iraq was still out for many American voters in 2004 even though it was exceedingly clear to those not fooled by patriotic propaganda and fear-mongering that the war was the world's worst foreign policy blunder since the Soviet's 1980 invasion of Afghanistan.
Even without strong popular support, Kerry lacked the resolve to quickly respond to false charges against him with passion and facts.
Obama has ridden a tsunami of support precisely because he has been mostly speaking his mind since before Iowa. After eight years of Bush the American people are ready for a little truth.
Hence Obama laid it on the line in his speech in Watertown, South Dakota. He attacked men who use the flag to cloak aggressive wars for economic and political gain and then challenge the patriotism of those who dare question their motives.
"George Bush and John McCain have a lot to answer for the failed policies" in the Middle East that have allowed terrorism to flourish, Obama said. He accused both of "hypocrisy, fear peddling, fear mongering ... bluster" and "dishonest, divisive" tactics.
"If George Bush and John McCain want to have a debate about protecting the United States of America," Obama said, "that is a debate I am happy to have any time, any place."
The facts are on Obama's side, as they were on Kerry's, but Obama is quick on the draw. He is bold. And he will have all summer to pound McCain on the dangerous course he is plotting and to pull back the patriotic drapes to unveil his unvarnished militarism. Obama will try to dispel Americans' fears by downgrading foreign threats to their rightful place, to be managed with diplomacy -- a lost American art.
"What's puzzling is that this in any way would be controversial," Obama said about meeting with international opponents. "This has been the history of U.S. diplomacy until very recently." Even Bush's father sent James Baker to sit across a table from Tariq Aziz before launching the 1991 Gulf War. It may have been pure theater, but George W. Bush's administration has been too arrogant to at least make a show of diplomacy.
With this kind of feisty defense and counterattack during the general election campaign, Obama should not only challenge McCain's specific attacks on him, but should also confront the prevailing militarist myths, purveyed by McCain, that have ensnared Americans since the end of World War II.
That was a just war that pulled America out of the Depression. It left the U.S. the first global power standing astride a devastated world. What did America do with that overwhelming wealth and power? Did it use it to advance social and economic progress or exaggerate a manageable threat from a devastated Soviet Union? *
The military industry's profits proved too good to give up. Peace could ruin a militarized economy. Truman devised the National Security state that has propped up external threats to keep the armaments factories humming, has ignored America's domestic needs and has overthrown governments, including democracies, to spread American power. These interventions in developing nations were often cloaked in the language and symbolism of World War II: a simplistic good vs. evil that masked aggressive American intentions. That's why when post-war America launches aggressive wars we hear targeted leaders compared to Hitler and anti-war Americans branded "appeasers."
Despite Bush's WWII references at the Knesset, this is not the same U.S. military that defeated the real threats of Fascism and Japanese militarism. To keep on the offensive securing resources and markets after the Soviet collapse, Cold War alarmists like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Perle and Wolfowitz updated the exaggerated threat with Islamic terrorism. America dresses up like a World War II soldier to once again fight an "evil" it helped create with its offensive policies.
To sell wars and defense contracts presidents must sell fear. Obama marked McCain as both a fear and a warmonger. McCain is a champion of the post-war bonanza for the Pentagon and the military industries. This trend was only briefly set back with defeat in Vietnam. But it was restored seven years later by the Reagan counter-revolt, which we are still suffering under.
This is the best chance since 1947 for a presidential candidate to confront these WWII myths and the glorification of violence and rein in American militarism. The time is right and Obama is showing he has the stomach to do it. The biggest battle though will come if he is elected, when he must confront the brass and the oligarchic interests that have grown so wealthy selling the American people with the myth that we are still fighting World War II.
That is when Obama will really be tested as a leader.
This is the theme of my new book written with Sen. Mike Gravel: "A Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man's Fight to Stop It," out later this month from Seven Stories Press. It is a history of American militarism and how to overcome the fear it thrives on.