The Meta Problem

Uh oh. Here's a frightening post from Kevin Drum in which he suggests that both Barack Obama and HIllary Clinton spent the national security session of the debate unduly fixated on the "meta" issue of who could best make arguments about national security without either of them actually making an argument. There does seem to be some truth to that. Here's Barack Obama, for example:

The question is: Can we make an argument that this was a conceptually flawed mission, from the start?

And we need better judgment when we decide to send our young men and women into war, that we are making absolutely certain that it is because there is an imminent threat, that American interests are going to be protected, that we have a plan to succeed and to exit, that we are going to train our troops properly and equip them properly and put them on proper rotations and treat them properly when they come home.

And that is an argument that I think we are going to have an easer time making if they can't turn around and say: But hold on a second; you supported this.

And that's part of the reason why I think that I would be the strongest nominee on this argument of national security.

Now I agree with what Obama is saying here. I think it's important to make the argument that this was conceptually flawed from the start, and I do think Obama's better-positioned to make that argument. But he's not actually making the argument here. He's talking about the possibility of making the argument. He's got an advantage in pressing this argument against Clinton because Clinton, in this context, doesn't want to really portray herself as a war supporter so given the inherently awkward position she's in, any extended discussion of this issue winds up cutting in Obama's favor. But McCain is really going to stand there and say that he said at the time we needed to send more troops to Iraq, that the problems were caused by George W. Bush's unwillingness to listen to him, and that once more troops were sent the situation got better. Obama's going to need to defend the proposition that McCain's wrong about all this.

I took a stab at making the argument a while back with Sam Rosenfeld. For now, I think what Obama's saying is serving is present purposes fairly well. But in the future, something deeper and more first-order is going to have to come into play from either candidate.