Monday, August 18, 2008

David Cameron and John McCain are best suited to defy Russian aggression

Janet Daley

Suddenly we have a very different picture of the sort of political leader that we need. The world is not the same place that it was when the four main players on the Anglo-American political scene came on to the field.

Barack Obama and John McCain began their contest in an atmosphere of relative security and prosperity. David Cameron emerged at a time of such general contentment that work-life balance seemed like the most urgent question facing the nation. (Remember that?)When Gordon Brown took office he was immediately presented with a series of what seemed at the time to be testing crises that he surmounted with stoical authority: now the floods, the amateurish terror attacks and the brief revival of foot-and-mouth disease seem like flea bites.

Where is he now that we are facing the most genuinely terrifying international confrontation in a generation? This is the man who has reminded us repeatedly (and rather plaintively) of the triumphal opening chapter of his premiership, implying that he would like nothing more than another opportunity to display Courage Under Fire. And he is missing in action. Gone AWOL? Hidden deep in his bunker surrounded by reassuring aides? Paralysed by the collapse of relations with his own Foreign Secretary? Hunched over his plans for a great autumn relaunch? Who knows?

Mr Cameron, meanwhile, cleverly filled the vacuum by taking himself off to Georgia to utter an uncompromising message of defiance to the Russians - and to deliver an unambiguous message to the British media that he wasn't just a politician for the soft times. He may have the luxury that Heaven bestows on opposition politicians of being powerless and therefore not encumbered with the problem of actually having to make anything happen, but his statements were unequivocal enough to commit him to a course of action in office - which is brave enough.

So in Britain we have seen a startling role reversal: the man billed as a brusque but resolute presence who came into his own in times of danger and anxiety has disappeared from the scene. And the one who was supposed to be cuddly and consumed with lightweight lifestyle issues is bestriding the world stage handing out ultimatums to an aggressive superpower.

In the United States, the story is taking a more predictable but no less riveting course. John McCain was always going to be the net gainer in a foreign crisis. Not only does he have precisely the experience - both personal and political - of coping with war and international threat, but his manner and his presence seem designed to be both reassuring and inspiring. This is a man who endured horrific torture as a prisoner of war but refused to be released earlier than the men who served under him, and who has had the political fortitude to put his own moral principles above partisan loyalty.

So if you are looking for a guy to stand up to the Russians - or anybody else, for that matter - without blinking, you are probably going to give McCain the benefit of the doubt over the very young, very untried Obama, whose experience on the world stage consists of a whirlwind series of speaking engagements.

Last Saturday night, the two contenders appeared on a platform together for the first time - not to engage in a formal presidential debate which would have been improper since neither has been formally nominated as yet, but to participate in a novel format staged by the Saddleback Church, one of the largest evangelical congregations in America.

Saddleback is a moderate outfit and its pastor, Reverend Rick Warren, is a famously benign and tolerant figure. He called his event a "civil forum" and stated specifically that his intention in chairing it was to restore civility to political discourse. He was scrupulously fair and courteous to both presumptive candidates, to whom he put the identical questions in separate interviews (out of each other's hearing). It was, as the commentator Charles Krauthammer said afterwards, a brilliant "controlled experiment" in which both men were subjected to identical examinations in identical conditions. I stayed up to watch the whole two hours of it between 1am and 3?am. It was as illuminating as any political event I have ever witnessed.

Mr Obama came first. He was, as we have come to expect, articulate, engaging and very relaxed ("comfortable in his skin", as is often said). He responded with charm if some ambiguousness to the tricky questions that arose on the evangelical heartland issues, most notably abortion, on which he is pro-choice. But the most interesting aspects of his performance (especially in retrospect when we had heard McCain) lay in what he did not say.

Asked whether he thought that evil existed and, if so, what should be done about it, he replied that it did and that we had to confront it "on our streets". The only international reference that he made in this answer was to Darfur. There was no mention of al-Qaeda, Russia or Georgia. In another answer, he described the most significant moral failing of the United States as not getting to grips with domestic poverty, racism and sexism. Asked to define the "rich" whom he has said should pay more tax so that government can improve society, he offered a figure of $250,000 a year. His performance was attractive and fluent in its own terms.

But within moments of McCain appearing to face the same queries, the Obama poise looked positively laconic and the Obama answers insubstantial. Where he had glided through the session with glib personableness, McCain electrified the hall. His answers were direct, detailed and full of the personal anecdote that his life experience has to offer.

Asked the question about evil, he cited al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism. (He would, he said, pursue Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell if necessary.) America had a moral obligation to defeat genocide wherever it occurred, and he was "very saddened by Russia's re-emergence as an empire". Georgia had achieved democracy and deserved our support. On the definition of "rich", he said that he did not want to raise taxes for anyone in tough economic times. He made it clear, too, that he supported education vouchers to allow poor children greater opportunity.

Both men answered the question, "What is worth risking lives for?", with the word "freedom", but it was McCain whose memories gave it force. Ironically, the man whose age is thought to be a liability seemed more energetic and robust than his rival, whose cool sophistication looked somehow inappropriate for the times.

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