06/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Straight Talk on the Stakes

As the Democratic primary race comes to a close, John McCain goes prime time in New Orleans on Tuesday night to present himself as a government reformer, a contrast to the catastrophic bungling of the last eight years. But that's packaging, not straight talk. McCain is no more interested in reforming government than Barack Obama is in bowling.

McCain's already defined what his campaign is about, summarized best in a stirring speech at the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, California. There he repeated his main theme: we must "confront the transcendent challenge of our time: the threat of radical Islamic terrorism."

"Any president", he said, "who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House." ... "Prevailing in this struggle will require far more than military force. It will require the use of all elements of our national power: public diplomacy; development assistance; law enforcement training; expansion of economic opportunity; and robust intelligence capabilities."

Now 40-60,000 radical and suicidal Islamic terrorists across the world no doubt constitute a serious threat. But in a nation headed into recession, struggling with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, selling off assets or borrowing $2 billion a day from the rest of the world, facing catastrophic climate changes that spark increasing disruption across the world, dealing with threatening global pandemics and hunger, a spread of nuclear weapons, a broken and unaffordable health care system, rising poverty, and a declining middle class, some might question McCain's monomania. But that's nothing, compared to McCain's notion of what our mission must be.

What does it require to meet this "transcendent threat?" Nothing less than implanting democracy across the Islamic world:

"If you look at the great arc that extends from the Middle East through Central Asia and the Asian subcontinent all the way to Southeast Asia, you can see those pillars of democracy stretching across the entire expanse, from Turkey and Israel to India and Indonesia. Iraq and Afghanistan lie at the heart of that region. And whether they eventually become stable democracies themselves, or are allowed to sink back into chaos and extremism, will determine not only the fate of that critical part of the world, but our fate, as well....

"Success in Iraq and Afghanistan is the establishment of peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic states that pose no threat to neighbors and contribute to the defeat of terrorists. It is the triumph of religious tolerance over violent radicalism."

This is the most extreme, bellicose statement of neo-conservative lunacy: America, the uber power, mobilizing "all elements of our national power" to create "peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic states" in Iraq, Afghanistan and then through the great arc from Indonesia to Egypt. It is a true civilizing mission. And it is an imperial nightmare that would squander the lives of young men and women, the resources of our nation in unending occupations of distant lands and proud peoples, riven by historic national, religious and ethnic enmities about which we know little. It is a recipe for America's decline.

This is the mission that stirs the passion and the imagination of John McCain. This is why he says he is running for president. This is what he continually will make the centerpiece of his argument against Barack Obama. All else is wrapping paper.

That imperial vision contrasts starkly with how Senator Obama's defined the race this week in Troy, Michigan: "There is no doubt that the Bush economic policies have done little to help the working families of Michigan or build a better future for America. That is, in large part, what this election in November will be all about."

"There's a reason the problems we face today are so much bigger than they were several years ago. A big part of it is that George Bush and John McCain have been so focused on pursuing a flawed and costly war in Iraq that they've lost sight of our mounting problems here at home. Instead of working to fix our economy and lift up hardworking families, they've fought to extend a war that's costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars without making us any safer..."

"And now it seems like all Senator McCain is talking about on the campaign trail is Iraq - instead of offering real solutions to the problems you face every day. In fact, Senator McCain conceded not long ago that he didn't know much about the economy. That's not his interest. That's not his priority. But it will be mine."

The differences are stark; the choices clear. McCain will try to package himself as a moderate reformer. Obama will no doubt seek to prove he is tough enough to be president. But the fundamental choice is whether Americans want once more to enlist in the neo-conservative's imperial mission, or focus on making America strong from the inside out. That's why McCain will peddle fear, while Obama defends hope. And why the choice this year may, in McCain's words, "determine our fate."