Forget the 3 am phone call

[By way of acknowledgment of the news, this political post o’ the day is not a post about E***t S*****r and his curiously bad sense of what a governor should do on a night out. But as Cutty put it just now on ILX, “this has nothing to do with sex, it has to do with a lawmaker and governor abiding by the fucking law, no matter what the moral stance on it is.” Sounds about right.]

Ever since Hillary Clinton came out with that 3 am phone call ad to use against Obama — and especially since there was a poll result with people going “Gee, in that situation I’d most prefer McCain answering the phone” — there’s been a understandable focus on the question of national security in a crisis situation.

Problem is, most of what’s been discussed is folderol, or misses the point. To explain:

Consider what happened on 9/11, conspiracy theories aside (please — for your sanity, for mine). That Bush struck a weirdly dull figure at various points during the day I’m actually not so concerned about; personally I always ascribed it to being as shocked and horrified as most of the rest of us. If you want to assume otherwise, feel free, but to my mind the more important reactions were those of the national security apparatus as such, from the FAA to the military to the executive branch chain of command. There’s a lot of grist for the mill there and a good amount of it isn’t positive, but even so, there was something operating, however haphazardly, responding to a crisis.

In otherwards, it’s not so much the 3 am phone call as the means by which the 3 am phone call is placed, the process of getting information up the chain and responding otherwise in the meantime. That there’s a ‘buck stops here’ role the president plays in such a situation is clear. The whole missed point of that ad and all the kerfluffle that followed from it, though, is that it’s a rarity — not an impossibility, not even necessarily an improbability, but a rarity. It’s what’s to be expected from an ad as well as from general rhetoric, a melodramatic heightening of a situation.

What I’d prefer to see and sense in a president is how they handle — or more accurately, how well they delegate and work with others to handle — and address the long term foreign policy concerns, not the crises. What do they do with the slow unfolding situations, the irresolvable ones or the ones that will take much longer than four or even eight years to settle, and how would they address those? It’s not that those questions aren’t asked either, but they’re still framed in terms of near-immediate danger, the ‘gift’ of 9/11 that keeps on giving.

Here’s three items of note to keep in mind, for instance:

  • The other day China reported the resolution of a planned terrorist attack during the Beijing Olympics as well as a foiled airline attack. Many reactions have been typical, including trumpeting about a purported worldwide jihad and skepticism of what the centralized government’s been up to. The folks over at Stratfor, meanwhile, mentioned in a mailing that what’s often forgotten is that China, as much a ‘go west young man’ state entity as America has been, reached out and claimed its western territory as part of a process of centuries, with the question of who is ‘Chinese’ something that has never fully been resolved as a result — and that the occasional outbursts of pseudo-‘reconquista’ paranoia here are as nothing in comparison.
  • The just-concluded Spanish elections reveal a society that has a deeply polarized political split dealing with an annoyed populace — hauntingly familiar in and of itself. But as an integrated part of a larger European community itself riven by question of internal identity — notably they were one of the votes against recognizing Kosovo, in large part precisely because of the debates over separatism within its own country, including Galicia, Catalonia and most notably the Basque region — it can serve as a microcosm for larger political issues at play in general democracies in the 21st century, however conceived.
  • Elsewhere in Europe, the question of the anti-missile system being set up in Eastern Europe which has riled Russia hasn’t gone away, and the latest move — on the part of a recently elected Polish government — is to ask for the US to commit resources towards modernizing its military. The current Polish premier, Donald Tusk, has noted that Poland should “not be subjected to any undue security risks” by the missile deal, muddying waters that were already murky to begin with.

In all these cases what you’re seeing here is the type of thing that a president, when consider overseas interests, has to keep in mind far more regularly — and constantly — than a middle-of-the-night phone call. Which of these three situations, for instance, most immediately concerns the US? Do any of them have a truly high priority? If they do, how should they be addressed? Should they even be addressed? Can certain things be shrugged off?

This all may sound like a political science class exercise, or something from Model United Nations. But there’s a serious point to be made here, even if I am making it somewhat haphazardly. However much we respond emotionally to the kind of scenarios that a show like 24 makes people think are unfolding every second of the day, that sites like Jihad Watch are trying to browbeat us into thinking we are a step away from the destruction of the nation, there are other security issues here — and I’ve not even touched on intertwined national economies and energy issues yet — which will be of more paramount importance, and will require more than a fantasy of barking a coolly competent order to some professional military strike squad to save the day. From negotiations to communications, that’s the day to day world that a president deals with 99% of the time, internally as well as externally.

So dream or have nightmares about 3 am phone calls all you’d like — I’d be more interested in thinking about 3 pm meetings where a bunch of diplomats, having worked for months upon a resolution of a festering situation that is deemed important to the national interest, find themselves at an impasse and turn to a president or high ranking cabinet member for even a bit of inspiration or a way to rethink the problem in a different light. And I’d rather vote for the one who will best show they can deal with that. Political Blogger Alliance


21 Responses to “Forget the 3 am phone call”

  1. This isn’t a birthday party, there aren’t that many surprises « The United States of Jamerica Says:

    […] Published March 10, 2008 policy , politics Tags: foreign policy, hillary clinton Ned Raggett has some good commentary over the substance of Senator Clinton’s “3AM ad,” which […]

  2. gasdocpol Says:

    The actual girl in the ad is now 18 and says she would prefer that Obama pick up the phone.

  3. wickle Says:

    I’d say that the 3am phone call is a (not the only, but a) legitimate issue.

    The President might have to deal with a Pearl Harbor, a 9/11, USS Cole, or invasion of Kuwait.

    But it doesn’t work in Clinton’s favor. Aside from the McCain side of it … the 3am phone call to Hillary Clinton would be followed by her calls to figure out who thinks what and how each move might affect her overall standings.

    I don’t want to jump the gun, but I rather thought that this might be her Dukakis-in-a-tank ad.

  4. MJ "revoltingpawn" Says:

    I was disappointed that Hillary used Karl Rove tactics in the use of fear in the the 3am phone call ad. The people are desperately looking for someone that reminds them the least of Bush and this will hurt Hillary in the long run. McCain has shown no smarts in world matters by saying he would stay in Iraq for 100 or 1000 years and singing about bombing Iran. It is time for change and wondering if it will happen soon enough.

  5. Ned Raggett Says:

    I’d say that the 3am phone call is a (not the only, but a) legitimate issue.

    Yeah, I wouldn’t discount it, but I wouldn’t overemphasize it either. In respects, the way to think about it isn’t ‘What will the president do at 3 am’ but ‘What will the president ask the government/emergency/military structure to do at 3 am having already been contacted by said structure’ — which is elaborate but also points out the correct order of what’s going on.

  6. in2thefray Says:

    ‘What will the president ask the government/emergency/military structure to do at 3 am having already been contacted by said structure’

    Or is the question what will the government/emergency/military structure look like given the occupant of the Oval office ? The next President will be in a position to continue,refine or replace many policies that make up the parameters those entities work within.Be it McCain or Obama one would do well to think along those lines.

  7. Ned Raggett Says:

    True, and yet: it’s not that a emergency command can’t be reorganized — we’ve obviously seen it in this presidency — but it’s the case that a structural reorganization, rather than an electorally-mandated staffing change, tends to be prompted by an emergency. So let’s assume that whoever is next in office is inheriting something that — allegedly — has been made better/has responded to ‘reforms’ based on the failures of the past, counting not only 9/11 but Katrina. Would that inherited structure be changed radically before a (possible but hopefully not probable) new emergency? I’d doubt that, whatever cosmetic changes are introduced.

  8. in2thefray Says:

    So Ned just so I’m on the same page before saying anything else. The things I’m talking about are the possible reasons we haven’t had the phone ring other than updates from existing theaters.The phone rings for a lot of reasons and I think managerially and personally Obama can sit through a briefing as well as anyone.
    Patriot Act does it live or die under Obama ? I say it dies. Funding for the military,Homeland Security and all the alphabet groups. I’m not going to say Obama does a Reagan on Carter kind of thing but his dreams need $$$ and he’s as much said he believes an Iraq pullout is like a check for his plans. At some point his promises and the concept of change coming to D.C. means something right ?

  9. Ned Raggett Says:

    Couple of responses for now and then I need to get back to some work!

    * In part this is why I think we really have to see what happens over the next few months here, in Iraq and elsewhere — McCain’s crew is betting on the idea of “We’ve made things safer and I was right on Iraq, so why change things?” So the question of change is two-sided, since McCain is saying, “Not only is it not broke, it’s better than ever, so why fix it?” A conservative argument in a nutshell! If things really go south on a lot of fronts, Obama’s rhetoric, if he is the nominee, serves him better; if they don’t, McCain’s implicit-into-explicit “Change? Why?” becomes a big sticking point.

    * For Obama, if he is nominee and victor, to carry out even a partial dismantling of that apparatus means a not-impossible combination of a Democratic congress still (very likely) and selling the voters on the specifics of whatever is proposed as a substitution, the perceived lack which is what prompted this ad and the attention in the first place. I’m having trouble stating this to my full satisfaction right now, so forgive me this vagueness, but if he stays consistent to his general rhetoric and approach, Obama would need to be able to say, sooner rather than later, something like “Things like the PATRIOT Act were understandable responses to crises, but are flawed and go against core values of this country. Here’s the basics of my substitution for it, which provides us with both security and our moral and political dignity.” His official overviews on foreign policy and homeland security don’t seem to have this yet, though I could be missing something, certainly.

  10. MJ "revoltingpawn" Says:


    Trying to figure out what you mean when say – “his dreams need $$$ and he’s as much said he believes an Iraq pullout is like a check for his plans.”

    I am pretty sure Obama and the majority of America want to pull out of Iraq because we can’t afford it anymore, should not have been there in the first place, and don’t want anymore of our troops dying for it and not because he thinks it will be a blank check to use for something else. As a matter fact, almost the whole war has been paid for by borrowing money from China so even if we left tomorrow it’s not like there would be any money to use for something else.

    I find it odd you would be worried that Obama rather invest in America and its people which would be cheaper and more beneficial then spending on never ending military expansion and wars.

  11. in2thefray Says:

    @MJ he said what he said ok.His talk is also applicable to overall defense cuts. Government isn’t meant to be the investor in America. You and I are on different ends of the spectrum. The Great Society would beg to differ about your cheaper more beneficial mindset.

  12. MJ "revoltingpawn" Says:


    What the government should not be spending our money here instead of over seas? Are you saying we should never have built the highway, school, water, and public park systems we have today? Hate to see what America would be like if not for FDR. I see a backwards communist third world nation myself.

    Of course we need to expand and invest in our falling part infrastructure. This would create jobs here and not in China. This has been neglected for way to long and now we see things like bridges falling down, poorer drinking water, and us now behind many other nations in high speed internet technology.

    Almost 50% of our federal budget goes to the military and related spending and that does not even include the war. That is where our money is going and not social programs.

  13. in2thefray Says:

    FDR was a socialist. The highway system was defense money under IKE. The parks were Tedy and local activists.I’ll give you Hoover and TVA to FDR the anti Constitutionist philandering big government guy.Defense spending is 23 %that includes foreign policy outlays, entitlements ie. SS,Medicare etc 36% and social programs are 19%. States and feds spend a ton on infrastructure. It is misspent thus we’ve got the roads we do. Union hacks well paid my suspension taking a pot hole beating.

  14. MJ "revoltingpawn" Says:


    First of all I miss spoke when said – “Almost 50% of our federal budget goes to the military and related spending and that does not even include the war.” I should have said that war spending IS included in the total.

    Your figure of 23% really is not correct. That type of figure does not include veterans benefits which end up in the social spending side which is wrong nor the money spent on the war.

    Check out this link…

    This covers what I said and other issues that distort the budget picture. (they had the figure over 50% but I went with under 50% to be more fair)

    Whatever figure you like to use does not matter because we can cut 20% to 30% from the military budget. No nation on earth poses a conventional threat to our homeland and do we really need military bases in places like Germany? Its time to stop feeding the beast of militarism and divert the money to something more useful like our infrastructure and health care.

    I did not mean every thing I listed in regards to our infrastructure was funded by FDR but that he started the whole concept.

    FDR was not a socialist, sorry but your history knowledge is no better then your economics. All change does not start with politicians but from the people on the streets. At the time our nation was suffering from the depression and the people wanted change in government even if it meant communism. FDR heard the people and did create socialist programs but only for progress to benefit the people and was able stop the call for a socialist government. These programs were economically successful because the people started to believe in our system again.

    The people are restless again and are looking for change and thats why Obama is getting the support that he is and we will see a new progressive revolution like it or not, sooner or later. History bears this out…

  15. in2thefray Says:

    In no particular order..
    Actually my education speaks very well of my history knowledge. FDR was a socialist and anti Constitutionist. He faced wide opposition to his measures which is why he attempted to stack and expand the SCOTUS. His programs didn’t do as much as his romantic fans want to believe. WWII solved it all. People didn’t want communism and it shows that his alphabet programs were in decline before the War started.
    Bases overseas protect assets and project power which is crucial to our foreign policy. Bases help stage oversea operations without them we have a very long commute to our enemies.
    My % were from the US government and the defense does indeed include VA etc.. I will also add that the sitting 2009 budget has entitlements at 1.7 TRILLION. Defense and ALL other expenses are 1.4t$. When you want to use facts go to the source not a group that has an agenda.
    I for one as a student of history am excited that people are embracing the word progressive again. I hope people will remember how Wilson was a progressive. I won’t drive Ned’s thread much farther off topic perhaps I’ll drop by your place when you post something.

  16. Ned Raggett Says:

    Well I’ve actually enjoyed the back and forth. Will have a separate post on some thoughts regarding this today, hopefully (work crunches and all).

  17. MJ "revoltingpawn" Says:


    Sorry your history is just not correct. Of course his programs had wide opposition because there are people who will always resist change. FDR was hated so much he had what four terms? If not for FDR the continuing depression would have caused a revolt against the government. People believed in FDR’s programs and that is all that mattered. He was the right person for that time.

    FDR was an anti-Constitutionist? I wonder if you would call George Bush a anti-Constitutionist?

  18. in2thefray Says:

    Well I don’t have wiki links for you because I used real books in my history courses. You are so stubborn and wrong about FDR and the Depression. The Depression was actually going to end before the War with or without FDR. Four terms well the war year reelections are much like all war Presidents. The other election welll look who was running against. As for Bush you are obviously wrapped up about the Patriot Act but I’ll close with this. Bush hasn’t had anything ruled unConstitutional by the SCOTUS. I’m done with you bud have a nice life.

  19. MJ "revoltingpawn" Says:


    Do you even read my comments? I have not been talking about FDR ending the depression. I have been talking about FDR giving the people hope to weather the depression and stopping a people’s revolt.

    You did not answer my question directly but you seem to be referring that Bush is not a anti-Constitutionist but FDR is. LOL You have now lost all creditability.

    The American Bar Association seems to think there is a Constitutional problem with George’s signing statements…

    Patriot Act you say? Lets see how many times federal court have ruled parts of it unconstitutional…

    The case of Brandon Mayfield…

    American Civil Liberties Union v. Ashcroft (2004)…

    I know you hate Wiki links but I can’t post books since this is the internet but feel free to point out anything wrong referenced in the links.

    There are many other provisions that have been cited as unconstitutional by different organizations and will have their day in court. I haven’t even gotten into Bush’s other assaults on our civil liberties beyond the Patriot Act. Don’t be confused because the conservative Supreme Court is not doing their job and the Bush Administration will be known for their abuses of our Constitution.

  20. Eve Says:

    I realize I could be totally missing the point, but for much of my career experience, it has all been about putting out fires. Most of my days are spent dealing with ’emergencies’ which leaves little time for planning. I don’t see it being any different in the political arena because it is, ultimately, just another career.

  21. Ned Raggett Says:

    It could be the experience of our own jobs talking, then! In my case, most of my work involves planning, improving, setting up things so they run smoothly, a bit of careful negotiation to satisfy all sides, things like that. I have fires to put out but that doesn’t define my work by any means; rather they’re notable for their comparative rarity. That one should be prepared to deal with them at any time is true, but it does not define what I do by any stretch of the imagination.

    In observing political cycles and presidencies now for a few decades, my sense has not been one of a series of constant crises day by day, but legal proposals, budgets, negotiations internal and external, judicial approvals…the mechanisms of a massive organization, where the president has a role and sets a tone but doesn’t hop to every second of the day (or night). In thinking about this current presidency, I’m trying to sense where beyond 9/11 there’s been an overt and immediate crisis; Iraq and even Katrina were not out-of-nowhere surprises, and neither is the current economic situation of the country, to name my particular hobbyhorses.

    The subtext of the commercial — that a major and immediate crisis happens often enough to make responding to that a central point of electability — is an emotional one and an understandable one, certainly, but is not entirely supportable — and admittedly, the longer time goes by without a 9/11-style event repeat (speaking domestically rather than internationally, I should note; an acquaintance of mine died in the London tube bombings so I’m not discounting the sorrows that have occurred since), the more that will have been seen as a possible aberration rather than a sign of things to come. We shall have to see.

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