Thursday, June 21, 2007

How Rudy went AWOL on Iraq

It’s odd that GOP presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani is constantly described, in mainstream media shorthand, as a tough-on-terrorists/national security candidate – given the fact that he has zero experience in national security policy; that his credentials, such as they are, derive largely from the experience of being the mayor of New York City on 9/11; and that he has never once set foot in Iraq, the place now known as “the central front in the war on terror,” thanks to President Bush’s invasion.

Indeed, for many months, Giuliani has been trying to run for president without even mentioning the I-word. That’s a fairly audacious strategy, considering the fact that most Americans are hungry to know whether he and his ’08 rivals have any bright ideas about how to mop up the Bush administration’s mess. Nevertheless, it has been Rudy’s policy to treat Iraq as if it was the crazy aunt in the closet, as an insoluble embarrassment best kept from public view.

I recall, for instance, his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, back in March 1, when he skated past the I-word, instead issuing a feel-good clarion call to fight the bad guys worldwide: “The reality is, it’s the general thrust of what we’re doing with terrorism that is enormously important, not the fact that every single thing hasn’t worked.” One of those “things,” of course is Iraq, and it would have been instructive if the so-called 9/11 mayor had offered some suggestions on how to better handle Iraq and thus fight the global war on terror more effectively. But he had nothing to say about that.

Then came his “12 commitments” agenda, released June 12. As I noted here last week, the I-word didn’t appear anywhere on his platform. When he was later asked to explain the glaring omission, he replied: “Iraq may get better, Iraq may get worse. We may be successful in Iraq, we may not be. I don’t know the answer to that. That’s in the hands of other people.”

And now it turns out, thanks to a Tuesday story broken by Newsday, that in 2006 Giuliani actually had a golden opportunity to work directly with some of those “other people” who were donating time and effort to chart a new American policy in Iraq. He had the chance to actually rack up some substantive credentials, and demonstrate that he had some real national security bona fides. He was, in fact, an original member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group – but, as we now learn, he never showed up for any of the ISG meetings; and after he was diplomatically urged to either show up or quit the group, he opted to quit the group.

In a May ’06 letter, he told the ISG that he was unable to give the project his “full and active participation.” But now we know why: he was focused on making money. That spring, he delivered series of speeches (on his "six principles of leadership"), for as much as $200,000 a pop, and he pocketed more than $1 million during a month when the rest of the ISG members were busy digging into the crucial details of Iraq policy.

His explanation, offered yesterday, is that he didn’t think it was a good idea for a prospective presidential candidate to be serving on an apolitical panel; in his words, it “didn’t seem that I would really be able to keep the thing focused on a bipartisan, nonpolitical resolution.”

I’ll attempt to translate: Giuliani is saying that he quit the ISG because he didn’t want to risk the temptation to skew the group’s work for his own political ends.

That all sounds very noble, but I don’t buy it.

For starters, Giuliani was merely one of 10 members, and the ISG’s strong-willed chairmen, Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton, were hardly going to let any individual hijack the work and ride it as a political hobbyhorse. It’s presumptuous of Giuliani to now claim that he could have successfully done so. In other words, the rationale he is now offering does not ring true.

No, I suspect that he quit the ISG because – with the Republican primaries on the horizon – he didn’t want to risk being associated with any proposals that might not play well politically. He didn’t want to be in a position of having to put his signature on a document that might tick off the Bush loyalists in the GOP primary electorate, so he took the preventive step of severing his ties. And in the short term, it was probably a smart move, because the ISG has been urging a 2008 troop drawdown – a distasteful option to most GOP primary voters – and Giuliani would not have wanted to be locked into endorsing that.

But, from the perspective of a centrist independent voter – someone who wants a major change in war strategy, someone who is hungry for fresh ideas – Giuliani’s decision to quit the Iraq Study Group simply looks bad. If a Democratic candidate had ever served on the ISG and quit in the same fashion, you can bet that the GOP message mavens, with their traditional gift for the visceral, would be making hay, perhaps this way:

ANOTHER CUT AND RUN DEMOCRAT! Given the chance to serve his country, he surrendered to personal greed. Given the chance to show strength, he chose weakness. Can we trust our nation's security to a man with no credentials?

And maybe Giuliani outsmarted himself. Lately, there have been public hints that the Bush administration might wind up embracing some of the study groups’ ideas. And some Republican lawmakers, notably Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, have endorsed those ideas, including an ’08 drawdown. Giuliani might have been able to boast that he had been part of the vanguard for change. But he blew his chance.