A few weeks ago I polled my uncles, Vietnam veterans, on their perceptions of Barack Obama and John McCain as prospective commanders in chief. Their opinions varied on how war shaped their views on today’s politics, but each of the them zeroed in on the difference between veterans who believe that America should exert its military power preemptively, and those whose experiences lead them to the conclude that war should be a last resort. In the broadest terms, Powell’s support for Obama reflects that dichotomy.
We may hear cynical insinuations from the conservative commentariat that Powell’s endorsement was predictable based on race. But Powell preempted this thinking, noting that with regard to the prospect of a first African American president, “all Americans should be proud, not just African Americans.” The signature link between Powell and Obama is not race. It is their shared belief that even a superpower with the most capable and best equipped military in the world is wise to use its military power only after diplomacy has been applied and exhausted. It’s an outlook that rejects the “attack first, discuss later” preemption doctrine (take note, Gov. Palin) espoused by the Bush administration and embraced by McCain.
If Americans elect Obama in November, Powell’s endorsement won’t be the primary reason. But because of who he is, and the strength of the case that he made for an Obama presidency, Powell’s support for Obama will not only shape the final days of the campaign, but perhaps provide momentum for an Obama doctrine of governance, helping to define a key mission for whoever is the next president—strengthening the United States by reaching out to the world.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.