Here’s just how screwed up the current cash-grabbing, celebrity-over-substance presidential campaign has become… the media is now debating whether John McCain’s fashion sense is a problem for his campaign.

Apparently he was wearing a sweater or cardigan at some point, which led some to speculate that this fashion faux pas was even more proof that his campaign was spiraling downward.

Personally, I don’t own that many sweaters so I’m not sure what to make of the fashionistas comments. But I do know that we’ve almost hit rock bottom when somehow, in our own special, twisted, surreal choose-a-president way of doing things, a man who was a decorated combat pilot, who spent five and a half years as a POW under unimaginably brutal conditions, who then became a respected congressman and senator for the past 25 years, suddenly is ranked based on both his sense of style and his ability to raise money.

FYI, I don’t have a dog in the hunt for this upcoming election. And I use the term “upcoming” loosely, given that the election is still 15 months and hundreds of millions of dollars in consultants’ fees away. The point I’m making is that we seem to be losing sight of what constitutes character and experience.

Honestly, I don’t think his wardrobe choices, nor his much discussed poor showing in the fund raising department, are good barometers for judging his character and whether he has the experience to be a sound and trustworthy president.

His inability to raise truckloads of jack (he’s third on the list behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani), along with his tendency to say things based on principle rather than populism, have got the campaign jungle drums beating.

I could make the same argument on the other side of the aisle for a guy like Joe Biden. Here’s a fella who has served for 35 years in the U.S. Senate, spent eight years as the head of the Judiciary Committee and now is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He’s more experienced than most, including Mitt, Rudy, Hillary, Barack and John, all of whom by the way look super in sweaters.

However, he’s only managed to raise about $6.5 million dollars for his campaign, putting him sixth on the list of Democratic contenders. That is an astounding $57 million behind Hillary Clinton and $52 million behind Barack Obama.

Of course, I don’t want to oversimplify our electoral process… obviously it hasn’t degenerated into a cash contest where whomever can corner the big donors and secure the largest war chest has the best chance regardless of actual experience or strength of character. And it’s certainly not the case that voters can be swayed by whoever is the shiniest or best fits into our celebrity crazed culture.

And I’d never suggest that some candidates pander to their audience, taking positions that the voters find comforting regardless of whether it’s ultimately best for the nation. Of course not.

Let’s move on.

Speaking of pandering, I suspect there’s very little room left on the “Hey, I’m also calling for an early withdrawal from Iraq” bandwagon up on Capitol Hill. Surprising how many politicians are finding the courage now to call for a speedy withdrawal. Could it possibly have something to do with re-election concerns? John McCain’s consistent position in support of the war, and his subsequent inability to stuff his coin sack, stands as a lesson for congressmen and senators interested in self preservation.

Don’t get me wrong… I’d like to see a resolution to the Iraq problem that involves a minimal U.S. presence or complete withdrawal. The problem is that we’re not having a truthful dialogue about the consequences. We’re all so eager to make ourselves feel better by withdrawing the troops that it seems we’re spending insufficient time on what that means for the future of Iraq, the Middle East and global security in general.

I’m happy to go on record now with the following prediction… if we bail out of Iraq before we have established a stable Iraqi military, law enforcement and political infrastructure, the current sectarian violence will seem like child’s play compared to the ensuing carnage. Some people have said “hey, it’s already a civil war, so what’s the difference, let’s just get out.” It is amazingly naïve to think that the current level of violence, and the existing regional instability, is as bad as it’s going to get.

Here’s another prediction… we can leave now and feel good about bringing the troops home, but once the country spins further out of control and regional issues come to the front, we’ll be back. And it will be more difficult the third time around.

Obviously there’s no good option here… we’ve known for some time now that the ending wouldn’t follow the original script. It’s a matter of finding the least worst option that takes into account our national interests, our desire to protect the troops and hopefully one that comes to grips with our moral obligations to the Iraqis. If the decision is to pull out before the Iraqi infrastructure can hold together, I hope that everyone now clamoring for a quick withdrawal can stomach the consequences.

And finally, it’s time to announce this month’s winner of the Statement of the Obvious Contest… congratulations to the 16 agencies within the intel community that contributed to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, you’ll all be receiving gift certificates redeemable at the Washington D.C. escort service of your choice.

The NIE, released this past week, was three years or so in the making. And no wonder… just listen to some of the scintillating and illuminating declassified findings:

--The U.S. is facing a persistent and evolving terrorist threat

--Islamic terrorist groups are driven by a desire to attack the U.S.

--The focus of terrorist groups remains on high-impact, high-casualty attacks in the U.S. rather than on smaller actions

--The sun will come up tomorrow

Okay, I made that last one up. But you get my point. Now mind you, much of the NIE, particularly the good stuff that’s not so obvious, isn’t declassified. Which means the public won’t hear about it until some goober with a bone to pick in the intel community or on the Hill decides to leak the information. But the declassified portions, as unsexy as they are, still generated vast amounts of bellicose fumphery by those looking to use the document for their own nefarious purposes.

Here’s a good example, which by the way, almost claimed the top spot in the Statement of the Obvious Contest… Rep. Ike Skelton grabbed the NIE, shook it forcefully and declared that its findings proved we shouldn’t be in Iraq.

According to the Congressman, “In hindsight, we should have concentrated our efforts on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan from the beginning. We missed an important opportunity when Bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora.” Oh. Thanks for the insight.

Others seized on the NIE’s references to a resurgent Al Qaeda and Taliban in the northwest Pakistani border region along Afghanistan. This is clearly a worrisome development, but one we’ve been aware of ever since last year when the Musharraf government signed the now apparently defunct peace deal with the tribal council in the region.

Pretty much anyone with a pulse understood that the peace deal would do bupkus (latin for “squat” or “nada”) to contain the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but we stood by and watched since, last time we checked, Pakistan is a sovereign nation. Any solution in that region is going to have to be realized in cooperation with the Pakistani government.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at the NIE and what our politicians make of it. And speaking of torture, we’ll also see what all the fuss is about concerning the new rules governing CIA interrogations. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your comments and insight. Till then, stay safe.

Respond to the Writer

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.