Political campaigns should clarify. Sadly, they rarely do. Instead, they obfuscate.
In the presidential campaign now underway, the need for clarification is especially great. In recent decades, US foreign policy has been a muddle. One failing outranks all others: a persistent misuse of American military power. Costly efforts to “fix” the Greater Middle East have accomplished next to nothing — apart perhaps from facilitating the rise of the Islamic State.
On such matters presidential candidates should have plenty to talk about. Yet talk that goes beyond the recitation of platitudes will occur only if the campaign includes voices willing to acknowledge how far we have gone astray. Former Senator James Webb, who last week announced for the Democratic nomination, is one such voice.
Webb defies easy categorization. An authentic war hero, accomplished writer, and former Pentagon official in a Republican administration before winning a Senate seat as a Democrat, he has a resumé that sets him apart from the one-dimensional career politicians cluttering the field. Yet what Webb uniquely brings to the race is this: an informed critique of US policy that is not antimilitary, yet recognizes the limits of what armed might can achieve. When it comes to using American military power, Webb represents pragmatism and restraint.
This might sound like a perspective certain to be warmly welcomed. Yet the subdued response to Webb’s announcement illustrates the impediments to being heard. The New York Times consigned the story to page A12 and labeled Webb a “long-shot.” The Globe misleadingly described him as an “outsider.” The Washington Post marginalized Webb by placing him “squarely to the right” of others in the Democratic field.
On television and the Internet, Webb’s announcement went all but unnoticed, buried by Donald Trump’s buffoonery. Yet take Webb out of the equation and here’s how the 2016 presidential campaign stacks up.
Republican candidates will compete with one another in declaring their fealty to “American global leadership,” while vowing to shovel ever more money at the Pentagon. Rather than educating, the Republican race is guaranteed to propound ignorance.
On the Democratic side, frontrunner Hillary Clinton will do her best to ignore foreign policy, running on her experience while dodging any substantive discussion of her record. Only Webb has the bona fides to promote a serious debate that looks beyond bogus issues such as Benghazi.
For voters, the issue immediately at hand is not who should be our next president. Nor is it even who should win the nomination of either party. Rather, the issue is whether the process of choosing a president can — against all odds — actually illuminate our present national security predicament.
On that score, Webb deserves a hearing.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a Boston University professor emeritus.