The American political system is set up to persuade citizens that they must choose between starkly different policies. In reality, campaigns are mostly a showy exercise in what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” <p> When it comes to defense, history suggests that the two major parties offer a choice on the order of McDonald’s and Burger King. Anyone looking back 50 years from now at objective indicators would have trouble identifying a meaningful difference between the current president and the last one.
For that matter, it’s easy to assume that when President Obama began addressing national security policy, he accidentally picked up John McCain’s platform instead of his own. Critics suspect Obama is a closet Muslim. But maybe his real secret is that he’s a closet Republican.
The administration and its opponents both make much of its plan to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by this summer and to pull the rest out by 2012. What both prefer to forget is that the previous president agreed to the same timetable. Obama’s policy on the war he once opposed is not similar to Bush’s: It is identical.
Afghanistan? Dick Cheney faults the president for allegedly failing to “talk about how we win,” as if Obama were doing far less than the Bush administration. In fact, Obama has agreed to more than triple the U.S. troop presence in a war that his predecessor only talked about winning. McCain called for a “surge” in Afghanistan like the one in Iraq. Obama has given it to him.
Republicans nonetheless entertain the fantasy that at heart Obama is a pacifist, bent on gutting our military might and naively trusting the good faith of our adversaries. Bush White House adviser Karl Rove recently complained that under this administration, “defense spending is being flattened: Between 2009 and 2010, military outlays will rise 3.6 percent while nondefense discretionary spending climbs 12 percent.”
Read that again: Rove believes that when defense spending rises 3.6 percent, it’s not really rising. Why? Because the rest of the budget is growing faster. By that logic, if I gained 10 pounds over the holidays but Rove gained 20, I’d need to have my pants taken in.