It was fascinating yesterday to watch various Republican presidential candidates trying to distance themselves from the Bush administration’s neoconservative fantasies.
Much of the instant analysis of yesterday’s ABC News debate was about how the candidates focused their fire on Democrats and supposedly reaffirmed their loyalty to Bush by supporting his Surge strategy in Iraq. But I saw something else as well:
At the midway mark of the 90-minute Iowa event, the ’08 contenders said that Bush’s signature ambition – to nurture democracy in the Middle East at the point of a gun - has been a failure, that the Iraqi voters' purple fingers do not necessarily signify a democracy, and that the neocon credo should not be repeated in a new Republican administration.
By making this argument, the candidates demonstrated that a fundamental split within the GOP over foreign policy – generally papered over during the Bush era – has now resurfaced, and vividly so. During the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, there were ongoing tensions between neoconservatives who believed we should export democracy worldwide, even by military means; and less idealistic Republicans, believers in “realpolitik,” who basically sought to respect (and perhaps manipulate) the balance of power abroad, and felt that America should act militarily only to protect its own national interest.
Bush had basically announced his neoconservative dream during his second Inaugural address in January 2005. Yesterday, this dream was essentially repudiated. For instance, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was asked whether the spread of democracy would be the core of his foreign policy, he replied: “I don’t think it’s the job of the United States to export our form of government. It’s the job of the United States to protect our citizens, to secure our own borders, which we have failed to do for over 20 years. It’s the job of our government to make us free and us safe…I don’t think we can force people to accept our way of life, our way of government. What we can to is to create the strongest America: change our tax system, make it so that people are healthier, create the enviable education system on this planet, make sure that jobs come back to this country rather than disappear from this country…That makes a whole lot more sense to me than spending billions and billions and billions of dollars to try to prop up some government we don’t even like when we get it.”
And this is a guy whose basic strategy, in Iowa and elsewhere, is to appeal to religious conservative voters. Clearly he has determined that not even those voters will buy Bush’s neoconservative credo any longer - and that tells us plenty about the mood of the general electorate.
A minute or two later, Rudy Giuliani weighed in. Whereas Huckabee and Texas congressman Ron Paul were saying that Bush’s credo was a crock, Rudy essentially signaled that, at the very least, Bush’s credo has been undone by sheer incompetence.
He said: “Democracy is not necessarily immediately going to elections…The way I look at it, democracy also requires the rule of law. It requires stability. It requires people not being afraid they’re going to be killed every day when they go out on the street. Democracy’s only a theory if you’re living in an unstable situation. So sometimes, democracy is the long-term goal, but in order to get there, you have to first build a rule of law, you have to first build respect for human rights…”
That was an interesting riff, because it sure sounded like Rudy was condemning the long litany of Bush administration screwups in Iraq. For years, the Bush war team has been congratulating itself for holding a series of elections in Iraq, yet here was Rudy, and some of his rivals saying that elections don’t mean squat without “the rule of law” and “stability” – factors that received tragically short shrift in the prewar Pentagon planning. (What a difference two years can make. Back in February 2005, Republican lawmakers were so besotted by the Iraqi elections that they showed up for Bush's State of the Union address wearing purple suits and purple ties, in solidarity with the Iraqi voters whose fingers had been dipped in purple ink.)
Even John McCain, whose slavish loyalty to Bush has helped precipitate his political plunge, felt compelled yesterday to echo Rudy and suggest that perhaps those purple fingers had been overrated: “We fail to appreciate that elections do not mean democracy, that it is rule of law.” (Then he segued to his standard rose-colored claim that, thanks to the Surge, rule of law “is beginning to take hold in Iraq…which will then allow true democracy to take place.”)
Then it was Mitt Romney’s turn to echo the others: “Just as these other two gentlemen have said, democracy is not defined by a vote. There have to be the underpinnings of democracy: education, health care, people recognizing they live in a place that has the rule of law…We need to reach out, not just with our military might - although that we have, and should keep it strong - but also reach out with our other great capabilities…I can tell you, I’m not a carbon copy of President Bush. And there are things I would do that would be done differently.”
If these guys are talking this way about Bush now, even while attempting to woo Republican primary voters, imagine what the putative nominee will sound like next spring, when it’s time to woo the independent swing voters who have already judged Bush to be an irreparable disaster.
With reference to the '08 Republican argument that security and rule of law are precursers to true democratic elections:
Now we learn, thanks to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, that the Bush war team botched its own security program in Iraq during 2004 and 2005. The Pentagon lost track of roughly 30 percent of the weapons that were supposed to be distributed to Iraqi security forces. And because the record-keeping and accountability procedures were so shoddy (what the GAO calls "numerous mistakes due to incorrect manual entries"), it's impossible to know how many of the 190,000 missing assault rifles and pistols have fallen into the hands of the insurgents.
Reportedly, the Pentagon is not disputing the GAO report, and says it will try to find out what happened. Perhaps the Bush war team will begin its inquiry by quizzing the military leader who was in charge of that program back in 2004 and 2005.
That would be Gen. David Petraeus.
You may have heard of him. He's the guy, according to Bush, who will soon provide us with an objective assessment of how the war is going.
In Mitt Romney's words yesterday, "we’re going to get a report from General Petraeus on the success." (emphasis added)
And speaking of neocons, it's worth noting that irrepressible war hawk Bill Kristol is now applying his trademark optimism to the domestic scene. Opining on Fox News yesterday about the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the perpetually sunny assessor of the Iraq war said this:
"I don't think this symbolizes any great failure of our infrastructure. Once every twenty five years some bridge falls down unexpectedly due to engineering problems and it is unfortunate obviously but the idea that the whole country is crumbling is not, I think, credible."
As Donald Rumsfeld used to say about the violence in Iraq, "stuff happens."
In a Sunday print column yesterday, I suggested that some voter concerns about Romney’s Mormon faith might well be appropriate. Romney, however, is clearly sensitive about this issue. Last Thursday, he visited an Iowa radio talk show, and during a commercial break (when the mike was still on, and the camera was still on), he vented a bit, saying, “I’m not running as a Mormon…I’m not running to talk about Mormonism.”
He said, “My religion is for me and how I live my life…We also inherently believe other people should be allowed to make their own choices…I don’t impose all of my faith beliefs on you.” He said, for instance, that it’s a tenet of his faith that he doesn’t drink, but that, when he was governor of Massachusetts, he never imagined trying to tell the citizenry to abstain. Nor, apparently, would he seek as president to persuade the citizenry to agree with his belief (stated in the radio studio) that, 1000 years after the Second Coming, Jesus will reign simultaneously in two places: Jerusalem and Missouri (the latter being the site of the Garden of Eden).
Naturally, given the fact that nothing goes unobserved in our contemporary political culture, you can watch the entire off-the-air (and presumably off-the-record)conversation here. It was also posted Saturday on YouTube.