08/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

7 Days : The Week That Ended a War & a Candidacy, with Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin and Arianna, Bender & Green

Obama's "Rolling Thunder Tour" through the Middle East and Europe has likely decisively changed the arc of both the war and McCain's presidential candidacy.

Usually it's only in retrospect that history judges a moment to be a turning point politically, like the day in 1980 that Jimmy Carter's helicopters on a hostage rescue mission crashed in the Iranian desert -- and so did his chance for reelection.

But Senator Obama's trip this past week was like a rolling decisive moment, stylistically, substantively and politically. I'd be surprised if years from now we don't look back on these 10 days as when his 4-6 point lead hardened and expanded.

Our conversation with Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin -- and Arianna Huffington and David Bender -- converged on the conclusion that Obama looked "presidential" and like a commander-in-chief while McCain looked like a biblical Job wandering around from golf carts to supermarket aisles shopping for news and votes. Short of negotiating peace between Shia and Sunni, it's hard to conclude anything other than Barack Obama won the week, if not the election.

First, the contrast between the two candidates couldn't have been more pronounced. One was calm, cool, poised, positive -- the other was surly and defensive.

Second, one was vindicated on his Iraq position when Prime Ministers Maliki and Brown agreed with a 16 month timetable for withdrawal -- while Bush agreed on a time "horizon" and even McCain told Wolf Blitzer that "16 months was a pretty good timetable."

McCain's response to Obama's triumph was right out of the classic Republican playbook of patriotism-bashing media-bashing. McCain imitated McCarthy when he said, and repeated, that Obama was essentially unpatriotic if not treasonous ("he'd rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign"); imagine if Obama had comparably said that McCain would rather continue a war sacrificing the lives of young Americans in the hope of looking good by November? And then, channeling Phil Gramm's psychoanalysis of "whiners," his campaign serially whined about Obama's accepting his dare to go abroad, and whined about the New York Times rejecting his op-ed on Iraq. Only Obama's three pointer from 20 feet went uncommented on.

Third, McCain finally found his voice and hammered away that he was right on the surge and Obama was wrong. But analytically, that's like Bush saying his energy policies have been vindicated because, while gas prices ballooned from $3 a gallon to $4.10 a gallon over the past year, this week it fell to $4.02 a gallon! Would that be called "success"? Taking a more regional and historical and holistic approach, Obama will easily be able to show that his judgment on the invasion and occupation of a country that didn't attack us was far superior to McCain's...while the former POW is free to discuss not his judgment about Iraq but his tactics in Iraq.

Watching all this unfold, I can't get Phil Ochs's antiwar song "I declare the war is over" out of my boomer head. As Senator Levin explains below, America is now on an irresistible course to get out of Iraq, ideally by 2010, whether Obama or McCain is elected. The war may not be "over" today, but the debate is ... other than McCain shouting about the surge to a public that's already rendered its harsh verdict on our presence there.

True, I especially know that no one can predict with 100% confidence the course of a campaign. A year ago, most smarty-pants would have concluded that McCain couldn't win and that Clinton couldn't lose. But short of a an amplified gaffe by Obama or possibly an awful terrorist attack, its hard to see swing Democrats or Independent voters shifting to a candidate who's such an angry hawk proven so wrong about the Iraq invasion and who admitted being economically unschooled in a declining economy and computer illiterate in the global internet age. This Job will not get this job.

Listen to the entire show at


GREEN: Do you think that the Obama trip this week will have a long term political impact?

LEVIN: "I think it's going to be very significant. When Americans have an opportunity to see the way other publics around the Middle East and Europe respond to Senator Obama, they're going to be even more assured than ever that he has the stuff to be our president. It was an amazing response, I thought. It gave his candidacy some real momentum."

GREEN: What do you think of McCain's comment that "Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign"?

LEVIN: "Well, Barack Obama responded to that in a very very calm and very firm way. That's the best way to do it...the important points here are policy differences, rather than personality differences. And what Obama is doing with these kind of calm responses to these kind of attacks on him, I think, is showing the kind of character and the kind of temperament which people want in a president. Obviously I thought it was totally off the mark to suggest what Senator McCain suggested. It's totally unwarranted."

GREEN: On policy, this week doesn't it seem that the debate over the Iraq war and our exit is largely over? Obama says we'll mostly be gone by 2010, and McCain has come down from 100 years of occupation to acknowledging that we'll mostly be gone by 2012, or earlier. Isn't the momentum to withdraw from Iraq now essentially irresistible?

LEVIN: "Yeah, I think the American people want some kind of an exit strategy, they want a timeline. The president is now calling it a 'time horizon,' but the difference between a timeline, a timetable and a time horizon is pretty thin. The bottom line is that, my gosh, even the Iraqi Prime Minister now calls the Obama suggestion right, and he has basically adopted the approach that most Americans are going be out of there within sixteen months of an Obama presidency. Of course we've tried for years around here to have some kind of a timetable to put some pressure on the Iraqi political leaders to work out their differences, and to take responsibility for their own country. And then, finally, when the Prime Minister of Iraq does that, instead of welcoming it, the way we should, the President acts as though he's been undercut and undermined, which of course he was (laughs)."

GREEN: So what do you think will be the size of a residual American force by the end of 2010? What's your hope?

LEVIN: "Well, my hope has been that we give the Iraqis a reasonable timetable, which we have basically said would be roughly a year after we begin to shift the mission to a support mission and get the troops out of the middle of the conflict that exists in some of the cities. That has always been what our goal was, that's what we -- Jack Reed and I -- offered to the Senate. We got 53 votes basically to do [a couple of] things: One is to begin reductions promptly. Two is to shift the mission to one with limited purposes, including continued training of the Iraqi army, the need to have a limited force there for a counter-terrorism purpose, and force protection. In terms of the first part of your question, I can't put a fixed number on it; it would be a limited number far less than half of our troops."

GREEN: Democratic cloakroom question: Do your more senior Senate colleagues feel awe or envy at Senator Obama?

LEVIN: "No, we're delighted that he's got the kind of extraordinary ability to communicate and to work with people that he has shown. It's a very unusual quality. The last time I think I've seen it would be...well, Bill Clinton had it. And John Kennedy had it. We're just thrilled that we've got a candidate [with] the competence and the skills that Senator Obama has.... He speaks in a way which is warm, in a way which is sincere, in a way which is dramatic, in a way which is compelling in terms of its appeal to a common humanity, and the need to be allies, in a joint effort against the challenges we have. This reaching out for allies, to me, is critical. As a Korean War vet told me in a veteran's hospital, we've got to restore the respect in the world for America; and I believe that Senator Obama has got an unusual chance to do that."

GREEN: As Armed Services Chairman, you've watched Pentagon secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates. Is Gates so lauded because he's not Rumsfeld, or do you think that he's excellent in a bi-partisan kind of way?

LEVIN: "There's two reasons: one is that he's not Rumsfeld, and the other is that he's Robert Gates. A lot of this very positive feeling towards him has been because of his own approach to working with Congress and with issues. He's just open-minded; he's thoughtful, he's not arrogant; you know, Rumsfeld just sort of ran roughshod over anybody who disagreed with him. Gates has restored the respect, I believe, for the Secretary's position in the Pentagon because he genuinely respects different opinions and wants to listen to these opinions."

GREEN: Assuming a President-Elect Obama asks you for your opinion on how to fix the Pentagon, what would you tell him?

LEVIN: "I would tell him that the first thing he needs to do is to find some people who will shake up the whole contracting process. These weapons systems are way over cost and estimated cost - and it's been going on forever. We've got to have a much tougher approach to their cost. And then he's got to find a way to reign in some of the contractors that are overseas, whether they're in Iraq or anywhere else, to make sure that they are under the control of the commanders. That's now the law but they run wild without adequate accountability. So both on the weapons systems cost and on the contractors' accountability, I would tell him that he's just got to not only get a handle on it but to clamp down on the abuses."

GREEN: You're not just chairman over the Pentagon but also the Senator from Detroit. The red ink keeps flowing from the auto companies -- $8.7 billion this past quarter from Ford. How worried are you that one of the Big Three could go bankrupt -- or that all of our auto manufacturing would move off-shore, like television manufacturing did?

LEVIN: "Well, [we need] an administration which really will work as a partner, not just with the auto industry but with manufacturing [generally], because manufacturing is moving gradually overseas.... We've got to have a new approach which involves the government very deeply into a partnership with our manufacturing. The key here, Mark, is that our companies are not competing with companies overseas; they're competing against countries. And those countries manipulate currency, they support their research and development, they raise barriers to our products. Those countries have got to be taken on by our country because we've got some of our best jobs in manufacturing. No other country would tolerate what the Bush Administration has, which is a loss of three-and-a-third million manufacturing jobs."

GREEN: But isn't the bigger problem that while the technology to manufacture, say, cars is known now everywhere, the costs overseas -- largely labor costs -- are always going to be less in China and Korea and Mexico?

LEVIN: "Well, some of their costs are going to be less, but not all of them. As a matter of fact, during the last gubernatorial campaign in Michigan, when the Republican claimed that he would create jobs in Michigan because he had business experience, it was pointed out to him that he closed a factory in Michigan and he opened a factory in China. His answer was a very honest answer, it's a very important answer for people to understand - that the Chinese told him that if he wanted to sell his products in China, he had to make them in China. Now, that's not a market force, that's not cheap labor; that's an ultimatum from the Chinese government saying 'you want to sell here, you gotta produce here.' That is totally intolerable, and it should never be accepted. NAFTA had discriminatory features in it against American-manufactured products that were right in NAFTA. So I'm just very hopeful and optimistic that Obama's going to come down hard against those kinds of discriminatory practices."

GREEN: Beyond the impressive visuals and settings, did Obama's trip change the conversation on Iraq?

HUFFINGTON: "Ever since we invaded Iraq, really, George Bush and his cronies have been dominating the debate, and the Democrats have been playing defense. No more. Just because [Obama] stood firm on his position that troops should be withdrawn within 16 months, somehow he created the space where, for whatever reasons, Prime Minister Maliki agreed with that position -- and we we now have John McCain agreeing with that position! When McCain tried to change the subject and make it about the surge, he did not succeed. Because it's not about the surge; it's about, as Obama said, all the threats to America, and Iraq can not continue to dominate the way we respond to all of the threats."

BENDER: "John McCain now has flipped again, having told Wolf Blitzer just at the end of this week that 16 months sounds like 'a reasonable timetable'. He also threw in 'time horizon' because that's the new phrase of the Republicans. But here's John McCain, who was adamant about not having a timetable, now saying, 'well, maybe 16 months could be a timetable, depending on conditions on the ground.' What's so infuriating is that the mainstream traditional media are buying this argument that somehow the surge worked [and then ask whether] Barack Obama is willing to say that he made a mistake in judgment. When in fact, the larger question of judgment is John McCain's judgment on the war. If that doesn't get asked at the same time, or, frankly, in an overarching way, then McCain gets a pass."

GREEN: What do you think of some conservatives and McCain supporters struggling to disparage Obama's trip because it supposedly showed him to be a presumptuous, cocky guy playing up to foreigners? Can that stick?

BENDER: "Mark, I have it on good authority that Barack Obama does not windsurf, so we start there. Here's the difference...Obama, in his interview with Rolling Stone, told Jann Wenner that he doesn't do cowering, he's not going to back away from this kind of thing. John Kerry was incredulous that people would be attacking him for the things that they were, and he did not respond in a way that showed that kind of strength. At the end of the day, it is about that image of how you handle yourself, how you see yourself in this moment. What we saw of Barack Obama was someone who was enormously confident on the world stage. He made Americans feel good about being in the world.

GREEN: VP picks will be coming within the month. Arianna, were you Obama, who would be your choice - and why?

HUFFINGTON: "I would pick someone who strengthened the ticket on national security. Because that's where I'm a contrarian: despite the fact that so many Democrats think it will come down to the economy, I still think it will ultimately come down to security and who can you trust to keep you safe. So in that list, the ones with the most national security experience, whether it's Joe Biden, or people like maybe Jack Reed, or even Chuck Hagel, give him more, because they strengthen the ticket in that very crucial area where John McCain still has a big advantage."

GREEN: As I asked Senator Levin, do you think McCain's charge that Obama is unpatriotic, almost treasonous, for hoping to lose the Iraq war can stick?

BENDER: "I thought Obama's response was very important. He responded to Brian Williams, 'If he is saying that I am not concerned about my wife and daughters and my family, if he is saying that somehow these concerns about war and peace don't affect me, then I am deeply disappointed and very troubled by that.' He said it in an even-handed way, he said it with sadness, and he said it the way a president should respond. That was, I think, a very telling moment for Barack Obama. And I think he slammed John McCain in the best way possible, by making him look petty, which he often is."