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.

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