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McCain Will Win South Carolina

Notwithstanding the compelling on-air duo of Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee (am I the only one who thinks GOP debates now sound like NPR's "Car Talk"?), John McCain will still likely win the South Carolina primary next week. It's Iran, … Read More

By / January 11, 2008

Notwithstanding the compelling on-air duo of Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee (am I the only one who thinks GOP debates now sound like NPR's "Car Talk"?), John McCain will still likely win the South Carolina primary next week. It's Iran, stupid.

As the usually reliable Fred Kaplan at Slate has described the scary-weird events in the Strait of Hormuz last week, in which Iranian speedboats came perilously close to a U.S. warship patrolling international waters:

It's hard to say what the Iranians were trying to accomplish or, for that matter, whether their actions were approved by the Tehran regime. (The boats are said to be under the control of the Revolutionary Guard, which is more militant than the regular navy and which has been known to act on its own authority, even in defiance of the foreign ministry.) Were they sending a signal to President George W. Bush, on the eve of his trip to the Middle East, that the U.S. fleet shouldn't assume it can act with impunity in the Gulf? Were they testing the fleet's rules of engagement? Were they playing to the crowd at home, trying to provoke the United States in order to stoke the fear of a larger U.S. attack on Iran, a fear that sustains their own political power? 

Had the captain of that warship done what was well within standard navy protocol for him to have done — fired a warning shot at the speedboats — there is every chance that a lethal confrontation might have occurred. (Firing across the "bow" of a speedboat is not so easy that one doesn't risk actually hitting the easily maneuverable dirigible instead.)  In other words, we might have found ourselves at war with Iran this week.

That this dire contingency exists in the minds of most Americans — particularly conservatives who would still endorse a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, NIE be damned — is enough to eclipse a little Bible-thumping below the Mason-Dixon line.

Mike Huckabee seems to think he can run for president and win a la George W. Bush in 2000: as a Jesus-loving Southern good ole boy advocating a more "humble" U.S. foreign policy, with a score of anti-partisan, or "compassionate," economic policies in his domestic arsenal. The trouble with this program is that it is not even a necessary, let alone sufficient, electoral condition in the post-9/11 age. John McCain still sounds able and imperious describing his military and overseas bona fides before a GOP gallery within which, it should not go unremarked, he is the only one to have seen actual combat. (The increasingly farcical Ron Paul was an Air Force surgeon during Vietnam.)

Another way in which the conventional wisdom has been forgotten for a seductive new counterintuitive analysis of American politics is that military service still matters for White House contenders. Would John Kerry have come so close in 2004 without his former presence in the Mekong Delta? And can there be any "Swift Boating" of the Republican front-runner this time around?

Among likely Republican voters in S.C. concerned with healthcare, the war in Iraq and homeland security, McCain still outpaces his rivals by an impressive margin. Even the moribund Thompson and Giuliani were downright kittenish toward him last night, confining their attacks against Huckabee. This is suggestive of their desire for a vice presidential post in the probable event that McCain enters the general race and wins.

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