Bye bye cowboy diplomacy

I would go listen to former Colorado Senator Gary Hart give a lecture on just about anything, even sea slugs, but I don’t think my editors would let me write about it. Luckily, today the Obama campaign hosted a “round table” with Hart and Congressman Ed Perlmutter on national security, a more palatable topic for a political column. Hart has become something of a well respected elder statesman and Perlmutter has quickly established himself as one of our delegation’s go-to guys on the issue, so you can imagine that as a former Military Legislative Assistant I really enjoyed this forum.

Naturally, both speakers praised Obama’s ability to lead America on the world stage, and Perlmutter argued that Obama’s election by itself would help to restore our tarnished image. He said Obama has the “Three I’s: intelligence, inspiration, and integrity.” (Really, Congressman, you know I love you but this whole “Three I’s” thing sounds like how I memorized for tests in high school.) He called Obama, “The right man at the right time,” who correctly saw that the conflict in Iraq would not end after 60 days and a nice photo op on an aircraft carrier, but that it would take years and years.

Hart, well, he must not have read the memo about going easy on the McCain campaign. He said McCain has been a good friend for 30 years, and he’d even been invited to join McCain’s wedding party when he married Cindy. But Hart believes the conflicts we’ll fight in the 21st century will have little to no relation to how we fought in the 20th century, and he “wants a commander in chief who understands that [and] I can tell you from my experience that John McCain does not.” Whoa, harsh.

Overall, though, the approach outlined by Hart and Perlmutter was rational, reasoned, still idealistic and hopeful — and certainly represents a change from the cowboy diplomacy of the last eight years.

Hart noted we must recreate our traditional alliances that won the Cold War as well as create new alliances. He believes McCain “would be much more likely to intervene without our allies.” This could cause problems for, say, an operation in the suburbs of Hamburg, where Germany likely won’t allow our Delta force to just parachute in.

No surprise here, but another large part of the discussion centered around Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, Hart has a very different take from General Petreaus on preserving the progress we’ve made in Iraq. First of all, he gives far less credit for our recent success to the troop surge than to the strategy of convincing militants to join our side; otherwise known as “buying them off.” Following that logic, he believes the time has come for Iraqis to decide their own future and for America to leave.

“Either the Iraqis want a nation or they don’t, and no amount of money or troops can force it on them,” Hart said. He calls it a “question of national [Iraqi] will, not of the American military.” He also points out America has had troops in Iraq for longer than we had them in Europe during World War II, and notes the British spent 25 years in Iraq trying to unite all the various interest groups before finally giving up and going home. Most importantly, Hart believes McCain needs to make it very clear what he defines as “victory” in Iraq, and if it’s some utopia of “lions and lambs laying down together” then we’ll never be able to leave.

Perlmutter, meanwhile, focused more on detailed mechanics of Obama’s planned 16-month withdrawal, as well as stressing the importance of giving our overstretched military some time back at home. He also said the next president will need to examine Vice President Dick Cheney’s “one force approach” that treats National Guard units the same as active duty, but without giving them anywhere near the same benefits.

On Afghanistan, Hart offered that building up that nation would take even longer and cost even more than building a nation in Iraq. He cited experts who have said it would take at least 20-30 years because the Afghani people’s tribal ties currently trump any sort of national identity. He also quoted former CENTCOM commander Admiral William Fallon as saying we must build an economy not 50 percent based on heroin, and concluded “until we solve that problem we will fail in Afghanistan.”

As a side note, at one point Senator Hart began to tear up while explaining why he became a Democrat. He said he grew up in the same church as Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, but “I ended up a Democrat because of what I learned there… Jesus came to tell us to care about one another.” He got that from the same church as Dobson? Really?

Colorado Independent’s blogumnist (blogger-columnist) Jeff Bridges has worked in Democratic politics for the last 10 years, serving as communications director for two congressional races in Colorado and two governors races in the Deep South. Bridges also worked as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C., with a focus on military and small-business issues.

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