When asked last week at the misnomered Democratic "debate" if they believed in a notional "global war on terror," Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd raised their hands. To their credit, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel did not.
As a purely political matter, the responses among the Big Three -- Clinton, Obama and Edwards -- were predictable. Both Clinton and Obama are vying for undisputed front-runner status, so in their internal calculations this is a two-, not three-person race. Startling audiences with any perceived unorthodoxy is risky and therefore frowned on. If caution isn't the soul of conservatism, it at least breeds it.
On the other hand, Edwards lies just far enough outside the Big-Two circle that rocking the boat is an advisable excercise. Orthodoxy itself is Edwards' enemy, since by and large it fails to inspire and convert; hence risk-taking -- such as his Walter Mondale pledge to raise taxes -- is risky only if not taken.
That almost surely was Edwards' calculation on stage last week, nevertheless it didn't substract from the genuine thoughtfulness of his response to the "global war" question. If this were an Edwards vs. Clinton or Edwards vs. Obama race, we wouldn't have heard what needs to be said, which is, as Edwards put it, this:
"I think there are dangerous people and dangerous leaders in the world that America must deal with and deal with strongly, but we have more tools available to us than bombs. And America needs to use the tools that are available to them so that these people who are sitting on the fence, who terrorists are trying to recruit, the next generation, get pushed to our side, not to the other side. We've had no long-term strategy, and we need one, and I will provide one."
Whether as president he would or not, I have not a clue. But a smart, long-term strategy -- one other than bombing the bejesus out of these "dangerous people" -- is so overdue it makes one's brain ache.
Like everything else, the Bush administration has politicized the threat of terrorism for short-term gain only; like everything else, it has given not a second's thought to what might, or should, come next. Immediate firepower is the exclusive answer to every immediate threat, which procreates more threats, which calls for more firepower, and so and on it goes. Patiently and thoughtfully getting to the root of any problem is simply beyond the immediate-gratification mentality of the cutthroat, Rovian political animals who populate this wretched administration.
Yet pretty much the rest of humanity already sees that to which Americans are just now being introduced: that the term "global war on terror" and all the military immediacy that comes with it are self-defeating, long-term losers. In a largely overlooked speech at New York University earlier this month, Britain's Development Secretary sketched the global, and thus Bush-isolating, consensus:
"In the UK, we do not use the phrase 'War on Terror' because we can’t win by military means alone, and because this isn’t us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives.
"It is the vast majority of the people in the world — of all nationalities and faiths — against a small number of loose, shifting and disparate groups who have relatively little in common apart from their identification with others who share their distorted view of the world and their idea of being part of something bigger.
"What these groups want is to force their individual and narrow values on others without dialogue, without debate, through violence. And by letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength."
According to the London Times, the Labourite secretary further argued that "Britain and America should do more to use the 'soft power' of values, ideas and reform to bring about lasting change in the failed and angry states where terrorist groups prosper."
With Tony Blair rightfully on his way out, Britain "gets it," and it's now freer to say so. To ease this national transformation in attitude and leadership, even the prime minister has been downplaying the struggle's martial elements lately.
But it's going to be a tougher challenge in the U.S., given the nearly seven-year brainwashing campaign that Americans have undergone at the hands of the exclusively bellicose. I salute those pols, such as Mr. Edwards, who, be it from brains or political necessity, have accepted the challenge.