Whether President Obama gets his second term or Mitt Romney enters the Oval Office, there’s a third candidate no one’s paying much attention to, and that candidate is guaranteed to be the one clear winner of election 2012: the U.S. military and our ever-surging national security state.
The reasons are easy enough to explain. Despite his record as a “warrior-president,” despite the breathless “Obama got Osama” campaign boosterism, common inside-the-Beltway wisdom has it that the president has backed himself into a national security corner. He must continue to appear strong and uncompromising on defense or else he’ll get the Democrat-as-war-wimp label tattooed on his arm by the Republicans.
Similarly, to have a realistic chance of defeating him candidate Romney must be seen as even stronger and more uncompromising. Whatever military spending Obama calls for, however much he caters to neoconservative agendas, however often he confesses his undying love for and extols the virtues of our troops, Romney will surpass him with promises of even more military spending, an even more muscular and interventionist foreign policy, and an even deeper love of our troops.
Indeed, with respect to the national security complex, candidate Romney already comes across like Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco in the classic film Key Largo: he knows he wants one thing, and that thing is more. More ships for the Navy. More planes for the Air Force. More troops in general—perhaps 100,000 more. And much more spending on national defense.
Clearly, come November, whoever wins or loses, the national security state will be the true victor in the presidential sweepstakes. To explain why, one must consider not only the pro-military positions of each candidate, but their vulnerabilities—real or perceived—on military issues.
Mitt Romney is the easier to handicap. As a Mormon missionary in France and later as the beneficiary of a high draft lottery number, Romney avoided military service during the Vietnam War. Perhaps because he lacks military experience, he has already gone on record as deferring to military commanders on decisions such as whether we should bomb Iran. A President Romney, it seems, would be more implementer-in-chief than civilian commander-in-chief.
Romney’s métier at Bain Capital was competence in the limited sense of buying low and selling high, along with a certain calculated ruthlessness in dividing companies and discarding people to manufacture profit. These skills, such as they are, earn him little respect in military circles. Compare him to Harry Truman or Teddy Roosevelt, both take-charge leaders with solid military credentials. Rather than a Trumanesque “the buck stops here,” Romney is more about “make a buck here.” Rather than Teddy Roosevelt’s bloodied but unbowed “man in the arena,” Romney is more bloodless equity capitalist circling high above the fray in a fancy suit.
Consider as well Romney’s five telegenic sons. It’s hard to square Mitt’s professions of love for our military with his sons’ lack of interest in military service. Indeed, when asked about their lack of enthusiasm for joining the armed forces during the surge in Iraq in 2007, Mitt off-handedly replied that his sons were already performing an invaluable national service by helping him get elected.
For election 2012, however, the main point is that the Romney family’s collective lack of service makes him vulnerable on national defense, a weakness that has already led Mitt and his campaign to overcompensate with ever more pro-military policy pronouncements supplemented with the usual bellicose rhetoric of all Republicans (Ron Paul excepted). As a result, President-elect Romney will ultimately find himself confined, cowed, and controlled by the national security complex—and he’ll have only himself (and Barack Obama) to blame.
President Obama, by way of contrast, has already shown a passion for military force that in saner times would make him invulnerable to charges of being “weak” on defense. Fond of dressing up in military flight jackets and praising the troops to the rafters, Obama has substance to go with his style. He’s made some tough calls like sending SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden; using NATO airpower to take down Qaddafi in Libya; expanding special ops and drone warfare in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, including the assassination of U.S. citizens without judicial process. America’s Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2009 has become a devotee of special forces, kill teams, and high-tech drones that challenge the very reality of national sovereignty. Surely such a man can’t be accused of being weak on defense.
The political reality, of course, is different. Despite his record, the Republican Party is forever at pains to portray Obama as suspect (that middle name Hussein!), divided in his loyalties (that Kenyan connection!), and not slavish enough in his devotion to “underdog” Israel (Could he be a crypto-Muslim?).
The president and his campaign staff are no fools. Since any sign of “weakness” vis-à-vis Iran and similar enemies du jour or any expression of less than boundless admiration for our military will be exploited ruthlessly by Romney et al., Obama will continue to tack rightward on military issues and national defense. As a result, once elected he, too, will be a prisoner of the Complex. In this process, the only surefire winner and all-time champ: once again, the national security state.
So what can we expect on the campaign trail this summer and fall? Certainly not prospective civilian commanders-in-chief confident in the vitally important role of restraining or even reversing the worst excesses of an imperial state. Rather, we’ll witness two men vying to be cheerleader-in-chief for continued U.S. imperial dominance achieved at nearly any price.
Election 2012 will be all about preserving the imperial status quo, only more so. Come January 2013, rather than a president who urges us to abhor endless war, we’ll be led by a man intent on keeping us oblivious to the way we’re squandering our nation’s future in fruitless conflicts that ultimately compromise our core constitutional principles.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. He welcomes reader comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Astore speak at length on this topic in Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview.