This summer, I had the privilege of working with a Marine lieutenant colonel who led the successful effort to secure the district of Al Qaim, in Al Anbar, Iraq. He was one of the few military officers practicing counterinsurgency strategy before counterinsurgency was cool. His area of responsibility had two forward operating bases and a radio relay tower. The Marines were conducting patrols and raids in the towns, which did little to establish security for the local population. Criminals and insurgent groups controlled the population through intimidation and brutality.

The day after he took command of his sector, he attacked. He did so not with massive firepower but with a determination to work with the people. He built numerous small bases where small groups of Marines lived and worked just outside of the towns. They conducted patrols and got to know the people. Within a few weeks, the violence died down. Soon, the Marines were eating dinner with the locals and working with the Iraqi police to ensure that Al Qaim would be safe under their watch.

I asked him why his strategy was not employed earlier by other officers. “They just couldn’t believe that it was that easy,” he said. “They thought it was all about the enemy.” He went on to explain that they thought it was a numbers game, where if you roll out and hit bad guys, the people will respect you. But he knew that it doesn’t work like that; what’s most important is leveling with the locals, gaining their trust.

It’s odd that such a strategy seems so foreign back home. I remember sitting around several months ago fantasizing about a general election contest between John McCain and Barack Obama. Like many others, I thought they would move past the jingoist sound bytes and gaffe-filled attack ads to discuss the state of the country in which we live. I thought they would speak truth to the American people and try to gain our trust with honest words rather than lofty promises and with humble actions rather than pompous rhetoric and condescending smears.

ost of their supporters believed that would happen. But now, it seems the idealists who rallied in Iowa and New Hampshire have become cynics, saying that you must be willing to get dirty if you want to win an election, that you have to make promises you cannot keep and deals of which you cannot be proud.

I don’t consider myself an idealist. In truth, I tend to use the term condescendingly. I do not believe that we can perfect the world, but I am not so cynical that I believe we must be dishonest to win the hearts and minds of the American people.

What good is the presidency if you have to pretend you are “post-racial” to win it, even if you are the first black candidate to win a major party’s nomination? What good is it if you have to pretend that all is well in Baghdad, when anyone with a television or Internet connection can see that, while it’s not in a state of civil war, it isn’t exactly tranquil, either? What good is it if you have to characterize abortion as either a holocaust or a moral good? What good is it if you have to ignore the fact that we have young men and teenagers dying, literally dying, every day on the streets of our cities over drugs and turf? What good is it if you have to pretend that we don’t have to take a good hard look at how we live, suggesting that our nation can continue to live beyond its means, even as families learn that they can no longer afford to live beyond theirs?

I’m not asking for a presidential candidate who tells me that America is falling to pieces. That wouldn’t be true. I am asking for a presidential candidate who won’t treat me like an idiot who sits around all day waiting for gilded promises and opportunities to laugh at the expense of a brilliant young senator and lawyer or an accomplished legislator and courageous P.O.W. I’m asking for someone who will give me the same kind of respect that lieutenant colonel gave to the people of Al Qaim. I want to be leveled with.

Once upon a time, people knew their aldermen, city council members or ward bosses. They knew the state senators who represented their districts. They knew them because, if nothing else, those people came by every now and then to remind their constituents why they were worth voting for them, not with ad buyouts but with favors and money for their jobs and homes. That was buying votes. It was corrupt, but in stopping that corruption, we threw the baby out with the bath water. When people had relationships with their local leaders, they had a genuine sense of investment in the Democratic or Republican ticket: It was doing something to lessen their burden.

Unless I’m reading his or her name off a campaign poster, I can’t tell you who represents my district. I can’t even tell you what he or she looks like. Come to think of it, I don’t even know the police who patrol my neighborhood. These are the people I depend on for security while I sleep at night, and I know nothing about these men and women beyond my assumption that they are the good guys.

aybe Jan. 20, 2009 will usher in a new era of honesty. Maybe a President Obama or a President McCain will tell it like it is and use his power to make politics local again. But I’m not holding my breath. These candidates don’t want to believe it’s that easy. We’re practicing better politics in Al Qaim than we are in Washington, D.C.

William Quinn is a junior in the School of Foreign Service and a former staff sergeant in the United States Army. He can be reached at AIMLESS FEET appears every other Tuesday.

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