Kate and I mostly spent our time at the RNC seeking out energy/environment-related events, but I wanted to go to at least a few on other subjects, just to see if our issues popped up anywhere outside their normal silo. In that spirit, on Wed. afternoon I attended a panel discussion called "Building a Better, Safer World: What Would a McCain Presidency Do?" The panelists: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), McCain adviser (and lobbyist) Randy Scheunemann, Ambassador Richard Williamson, Ambassador (and trade lobbyist) Robert Portman, and Bud McFarlane, former National Security Advisor to President Reagan.

That’s a pretty heavy-hitting line-up, one with a unique view inside the thinking of a conservative administration, which made the way it played out quite odd.

To hear Lieberman et al tell it, McCain is at heart a multilateralist and an alliance-builder. He’s devoted to building schools and nurturing civil society groups. He’s loath to use military force and keen to enhance public diplomacy. Why, he’s a teddy bear! To boot, according to Lieberman, Iraq is a "model for the future of the Middle East," what with its incipient civil war emergence as a “self-governing, self-defending," independent country.

Aside from that surreality, three things most struck me:

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1. There was no mention of climate change. Not one — nothing about the refugees, the sea-level rise, the famines, nothing. That’s apparently not part of making the world safe.

2. Despite the lack of overtly military talk, every policy or diplomatic maneuver discussed was ultimately about forcing other countries to do what the U.S. wants. I don’t think it was conscious, it’s just a mindset that is part and parcel of empire. At no point did any of the panelists even glancingly refer to the notion that the U.S. might compromise or give something up or simply refrain from meddling in exchange for better relationships or outcomes. Diplomacy, aid, sanctions … ultimately they are all conceived as tools to get what we want — weaker tools than the military, but ultimately the same sort of tool. Hegemony is not overtly defended, it’s just the background assumption.

3. By far the most popular non-military tool was trade. Indeed, all involved seemed to conceive of "free trade" as having an almost magical ability to enrich everyone, bring about political freedom (China much?), and eliminate conflict. Now, I’m a fairly big believer in trade, but what these folks — especially Portman — are talking about is not open, fair trade with appropriate safeguards. Indeed, any talk of restrictions, modifications, or anything short of full-speed-ahead support for any trade agreement whatsoever was lamented as "anti-trade" (which apparently both Obama and Clinton are). Portman ceaselessly stumped for CAFTA and other recent trade agreements which basically consist in securing favorable deals for our biggest export corporations — "free" trade only under a strained interpretation. This is boilerplate conservative stuff, but the lack of even a hint of reservations, especially after the evidence of NAFTA’s effects, was striking.

That was about it. There was some brief talk about energy, focused on "foreign oil" and "next-generation ethanol," but the spin was mostly about, well, the trade advantages we could get by developing new fuels.

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All in all it was pretty shallow stuff, a recitation of long-standing cliches. Afterward, Lieberman exclaimed about what a fantastically substantive discussion it was (given that he talked more than anyone else, it was a typically Liebermanian self-compliment). It made me think, not for the first time: Where are the real conservative policy wonks and intellectuals? I’m haunted by the thought that they’re all meeting in a room somewhere in St. Paul and I don’t know about it. I refuse to believe that it’s sloganeering all the way down.