One person who is posthumously benefitting from the upcoming debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney is Richard Nixon. Footage of Nixon debating John F. Kennedy in 1960 is popping up everywhere as commentators look back at the debates that have taken place over the decades.
The debates have their own lore. For those who watched the 1960 debates on television, Kennedy seemed to be the clear winner. For those who listened to that era's version of "wireless," Nixon gave Kennedy a licking. Nixon of course had been holed up in a hospital for several weeks, confined to a bed because of a knee injury he suffered that turned into phlebitis. Look at the pictures of him and he appears gaunt, haggard. He had clearly lost weight and muscle, while Kennedy, puffed up on cortisone shots, portrayed himself as youthful, vigorous, ready to get American up and running again to challenge the Soviets after the somnolent Eisenhower years. In 1960, Nixon muffed it at the debates. It wasn't simply his appearance. He was cowed by Kennedy. He largely agreed with much of his program, soft-pedaling the differences between the two men. The debates ended up elevating Kennedy. In response, Nixon never engaged in a presidential debate again, neither in 1968 nor in 1972.
Can Romney administer a similar knockout punch to Obama tonight? Like Nixon, Romney is basically a moderate. But unlike Nixon, he doesn't have the same resentment of the Eastern establishment, the neuralgic sense of its resentments and fears. Romney enjoyed a cossetted childhood. He went to Harvard. He was Governor of Massachusetts. As the son of a grocer, Nixon, by contrast, couldn't afford to go to Harvard. Nixon would probably marvel at Romney's failure to connect with the constituencies that propelled him to the presidency in 1968.
The belief, or hope, among some conservatives is that Romney will take on Obama directly and resuscitate his campaign. One theory is that Romney always does well in debates. But how hard was it really to demolish the likes of former pizza magnate Herman Cain? Or a puffed up Newt Gingrich? The one time he faced a serious opponent was when he debated Ted Kennedy, and he wiped the floor with Romney.
If Romney does not do well tonight, then his campaign will be over in all but name. Already the apprehension among Republicans is that he will drag down the GOP in congressional races, while a surging Obama leads the Democrats to maintain control of the Senate and add seats in the House. But the 2012 race may still have a few surprises left. As Maureen Dowd notes in the New York Times today, the Libya debacle suggests that the White House went into overdrive to try and contain the political damage--thereby exacerbating it. Was there, as Dowd asks, "complicity in duplicity"--did the Obama administration replicate the kind of politicization of foreign affairs that marked the George W. Bush administration?
But the debate tonight will revolve around domestic affairs. It is Romney's last shot. If he can emancipate himself from GOP dogma, he'll have a fighting chance. He won't simply be battling Obama but also his own party, which views him with deep mistrust. But if he fails, he may take it down along with him and set the stage for Obama to win big.
Conservative anger with Mitt Romney has steadily accompanied his campaign from the outset, like the monotonous drum beat in Ravel's Bolero. There was the carping over his bona fides because of his espousal of health-care reform as governor of Massachusetts. In recent weeks, conservatives such as George F. Will and Bill Kristol have been decrying the ineptitude of his campaign. Now, in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer joins the wilding of Romney.
As is his wont, Krauthammer does not engage in understatement. He suggests that Romney could almost singlehandedly turn around his campaign by focusing on—you guessed it—foreign affairs. Krauthammer believes that Obama "casually dismissed the murder of a U.S. ambassador"—in fact, he began his speech at the United Nations with a testament to Libyan ambassador Chris Stevens—and fails to take seriously "the epidemic of virulent demonstrations from Tunisia to Sri Lanka (!) to Indonesia." Should he have told their governments to crush them? Krauthammer further writes that Obama offered a "groveling address to the U.N. General Assembly"—by insisting on the centrality of free speech? No, in Krauthammer's world, the speech consituted a "plaintive plea by the world's alleged"—who's doing the alleging?—"superpower to be treated nicely by a roomful of the most corrupt, repressive, tin-pot regimes on earth." OK, these fulgurations are par for the course when it comes to Krauthammer. No one would read his column looking for a nuanced dissection of where the Obama administration has actually gone wrong and right. Instead, he himself offers tin-eared neocon dogma about the fecklessness of Obama & Co.
More interesting is his supposition that Romney could put a blast of wind into his sails by more vigorously denouncing Obama's lassitude. You might think that Romney had already stuck sufficient feet in his mouth with his precipitous and absurd statement about Obama kow-towing to Islamic terrorists right after the murder of Stevens, but then you wouldn't be living on Mr. Krauthammer's planet. Krauthammer wants Romney to "go large. About a foreign policy in ruins."
The truth is that the ruination of the Romney campaign has in part been the handiwork of neoconservatives such as Krauthammer. Yes, Romney is a middling politician. Yes, his campaign has struggled to find its footing. But part of the reason, as a number of commentators such as Fareed Zakaria have noted, is that the GOP itself is becoming an antediluvian party, stuck with a host of orthodoxies that no longer comport with new realities. Nowhere is this clearer than in foreign policy, where the old mantra that America need simply flex its muscles and the rest of the world will fall into line has become gospel for the GOP.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Romney may be that the ideological straitjacket he keeps trying to don doesn't fit him. The union between Romney and conservatives will never be conusmmated. Romney's progressive foes keep pointing to what they see as his penchant for prevarication. But what if the opposite is the problem—that Romney is a bad liar, trying to sell policies that he knows are bogus. The only thing that would speak for Romney, in other words, is that he can't speak for himself. But perhaps the moment has arrived for Romney to emancipate himself, to, as Hillary Clinton once put it, find his voice. The upcoming presidential debates will offer him his last chance to turn around his battered campaign, or a looming defeat will turn into a landslide for Obama. And if Romney does win the election—and, as the New York Times' Charles Blow wisely notes, it can't be precluded—he will know that he did not accomplish it because of conservative support but despite it.
Image: Gage Skidmore
How much is Sheldon Adelson worth to the Romney campaign? Mitt Romney seems determined to let no chance go by to curry favor with the Las Vegas financier. Romney's remarks in Florida that were captured on a hidden video camera about the improbability of a Middle East peace between Israelis and Palestinians caused only a brief stir. But all along Romney's stance toward Israel—and his bashing of President Obama for allegedly stiffing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—has savored of the worst kind of self-abasement.
Now Romney is attacking Obama for failing to meet privately with Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. On CBS's 60 Minutes, Romney said that it "sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends and I think the exact opposite approach is what's necessary." Distance, shmistance. Are the Saudis quaking that America is going to abandon them because Obama occasionally rebuffs Netanyahu? Are the Iranians going to draw the conclusion that America will desert Israel?
Hardly. They may have more respect for Obama's backbone, which is to say that he's not intimidated by Netanyahu's rodomontade. Anyway, what conceivable incentive does Obama have to meet with Netanyahu, who has, as far as possible, injected himself into the presidential race to try and tilt Jewish voters to support Romney even as Defense Minister Ehud Barak follows a more pragmatic line? Obama knows that if he is reelected, he can adopt an even sterner line toward Netanyahu, who has been counting on his ouster.
Netanyahu is blustering about attacking Iran and suggesting that Obama lacks the cojones to take out the mad mullahs in Tehran. But the truth is that he has not closed the sale with either his own cabinet or with Israeli voters. The idea that he could demand a red line from an American president has not diminished Obama or the Iranian threat. Instead, Netanyahu is only diminishing himself. As David Ignatius has observed in the Washington Post, no American president is going to outsource the decision of whether or not to go to war to another country's leader: "it’s precisely because Obama means what he says about going to war that he wants maximum flexibility in how and when he takes action."
Romney isn't just committing a strategic blunder in blindly backing the most retrograde forces in Israel and in decrying what he sees as a flaccid Syria policy; he's also committing a tactical one. Obama responded, "So if Gov. Romney is suggesting we should start another war, he should say so." What Obama is evoking is the specter of a return to George W. Bush, not just in the economic but also the foreign-policy sphere. Right now, Americans don't want war no more. Obama knows that. Does Romney?
It would be far shrewder for Romney to distance himself from the Bush era instead of hailing the genius of former vice president Dick Cheney (a "person of wisdom and judgment"), as he did at a recent fundraiser in Wyoming. He's catering to the worst instincts in the Republican Party. A cleverer candidate would mouth what has become the politically correct line in the GOP about restoring American prestige, while asking whether Obama's approach to China, Russia and the Middle East is actually a productive one. Is Obama really trying to contain China, or he is he creating the specter of containment—thereby creating the worst of all worlds? What is his plan for dealing with Egypt? Can America continue to allow Israel what amounts to carte blanche in avoiding peace talks and expansion of settlements in the West Bank—or is this approach, in fact, inflaming tensions in the Middle East? How would Romney restructure the American military?
Nevertheless, with only a few weeks left until the election, it's probably a mistake for Romney to talk about foreign affairs at all, an area in which Obama has, by and large, cleaned up the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan that were left behind by the George W. Bush administration. On Israel, it is Netanyahu, not Obama, who is poisoning the relationship. As Ari Shavit, a columnist for Haaretz, has observed
Netanyahu not only argued with Obama, but turned himself into the declared enemy of many of Israel's friends in the United States. He pushed himself into America's extremist right corner - he pushed all of us into it.
In pandering to Israel, Romney is not strengthening his credentials to become commander-in-chief. He's undermining them.
World War II is the good war, the one where evil was defeated. But there was always a rub. The great ally of England and America was not a democracy. It was a totalitarian power. And it did the heavy lifting, which is to say that Stalin's Red Army carved up the German Wehrmacht. It engaged, at a horrific cost, in the big battles that settled the course of the war that Stalin's original gamble—conniving with Hitler and his henchmen to conquer and divide Poland, the western Ukraine and the Baltic States in 1939—had helped bring about. It was the Red Army, in short, not the American or British one, that fought the battle of Berlin in the spring of 1945 to liberate the German capital from the Nazis, a pivotal moment closely covered by Michael Dobbs in his forthcoming book Six Months In 1945.
Winston Churchill had said he he would "sup with the devil" if it would help bring about victory. So he—and Franklin Roosevelt—did. They allied themselves with Stalin, even pretended, at least publicly, that he was a fine man and the Soviet Union an even finer place. Now, with the release of numerous documents from the National Archives about Stalin's murder of over twenty thousand Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn forest in 1940, we know in even more detail just how far they were prepared to go to extol and defend the Soviet Union.
Stalin's aim was to break the spirit of the Polish nation, to destroy its governing class. The Nazis discovered the graves in the spring of 1943 and tried to blame the massacre on the Soviets. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels hoped the announcement would cause dissension among the wartime allies. But Churchill and Roosevelt were having none of it. England had gone to war over Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939. Churchill and Roosevelt didn't want to disrupt relations with Stalin, who was always accusing them of trying to cut a separate peace with Berlin. What Katyn indicates, I think, is that the West had effectively given up on Poland's freedom far before the Yalta conference.
All along Stalin was intent on installing his Polish creatures based in Lublin as a postwar communist government. The Polish government in exile in London, by contrast, wanted to investigate the Katyn massacres. Roosevelt's response? "I am inclined to think that Prime Minister Churchill will find a way of prevailing upon the Polish government in London in the future to act with more common sense," he wrote to Stalin, and the British, as the AP further notes, were not inclined to press the matter, either:
"We have been obliged to . . . restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempts by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom," wrote Owen O'Malley, Britain's ambassador to the Polish government in exile, in a May, 1943 letter. "We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre."
In 1944 Kathleen Harriman, the twenty-five year-old daughter of American ambassador to Moscow W. Averell Harriman, traveled to western Russia to visit the Katyn site, a visit well described by Allen Paul in his meticulous book on the executions. She concluded that the Nazis had committed the atrocity. She had been spun by her Soviet handlers. Her father wasn't going to disagree—he had been sent to Moscow to maintain smooth relations, though he tolerated his assistant George F. Kennan, who took a bleak view of Stalin's intentions. American POWs had sent a coded message in 1943 that Russians were responsible, but it didn't make, or was not allowed to make, an impression. It wasn't until the 1950s that Congress, in the form of the "Madden Committee," began taking a second look at the Katyn massacre.
On the basis of the new documents, it seems abundantly clear that Roosevelt and Churchill entertained few illusions about what had actually occurred in the forest of Katyn. The two Western leaders were engaging in a brutal act of realpolitik. With Stalin's forces overrunning Eastern Europe and the Western allies unwilling, or at least reluctant, to sacrifice the lives of their own troops to attack Berlin, they had a very weak hand to play. Now, decades later, it is even clearer just how many conifers they were prepared to use to disguise the actions of one of the most murderous tyrants in history.
It's the issue that won't go away. Today, on the anniversary of 9/11, it has returned. Was the George W. Bush administration willfully blind to the looming 9/11 attack? Kurt Eichenwald, former New York Times reporter and Vanity Fair contributing editor, offers new revelations about the Bush White House and the neocons in an op-ed called "The Deafness Before the Storm."
Eichenwald's contribution is to suggest that the August 6, 2001, CIA briefing in Texas—the one in which Bush dismissed a CIA analyst with a terse "OK, you've covered your ass"—with the famous headline "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," which he did in the following month. Eichenwald, however, provides a broader context for the briefing. He says that the daily briefings preceding that memo explain much more than the August 6 one. Here is his bottom line:
While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before.
It seems, in other words, that neocons in the administration were arguing that what the CIA was warning about was a bunch of hooey. They had their own pet cause—nailing Saddam Hussein, creating a democracy in Iraq (which appears to be coming apart at the seams). It was Iraq, the neocons believed, or purported to believe, that was the fount of all terror. Why focus on one measly terrorist leader in Afghanistan? He was a distraction. The real prey, the true threat, was none other than Saddam. Here is Eichenwald again:
An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.
Here's my prediction: the more that the record of the Bush administration is surveyed and uncovered, the worse the role of the neoconservatives will appear. And this is saying quite something. I don't doubt that the neocons will respond by saying that Eichenwald is engaging in his own version of conspiracy thinking or that he's trying to trip up the Romney campaign, which is filled with neocons. But the issue is an important one: Why has Romney filled his camp with advisers whose advice led to one of the most calamitous and costly debacles in American history?
In any case, quarrels about the election campaign do not alter the gravamen of Eichenwald's charge. He ends by saying that "we can't ever know" if the attacks would have been stopped. But it's worse than than that. The Bush administration, it seems, never even tried. Its negligence, which is a charitable way of putting it, testifies to the danger of elevating ideology above analytical rigor. Now the CIA, long demonized by the neocons, is striking back to try and set the record straight.
President Obama did not deliver a slam-dunk speech last night. But nor did he lose the ball to the opposing team. Instead, he drove in for a layup and everyone got to watch as the ball wobbled around the rim before dropping through the net.
The most interesting speech was delivered by, of all people, Sen. John Kerry. After being thumped by George W. Bush and swift boated by the swift boaters, it must have felt good for Kerry to be able to do what the GOP has been doing for decades—play the national-security card. Kerry effectively lashed into Romney for surrounding himself with "neocon advisers" and for proclaiming that it would be silly to try and move "heaven and earth" to locate the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Kerry had game. Moxie. All the things that were missing in his 2004 bid.
Obama? Not so much. His task was a tough one. Bill Clinton had already mesmerized the crowd, and much of the press corps, with his folksy lecture about how Republicans had destroyed his legacy—balanced budgets, a thriving economy—and launched two wars, plus tax cuts. He did his mightiest to set the stage for Obama—and for Hillary in 2016, who is jetting around the globe, killing time until she can make another run for the Oval Office. If Obama could tap Bill Clinton as his running mate, he would have a much better shot at reelection.
As it was, Obama delivered a somewhat lackluster speech, long on denouncing Romney, short on what he would actually do in a second term. Obama announced,
Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!
But what about Obama? What would he undertake to restore the economy at a moment when, the USDA reports, more Americans than ever are going hungry? Nothing doing. The president contrasted himself with Romney and left it at that. Small wonder that the Washington Post is bemoaning that Obama was chary about providing any specifics about job creation. At most he seems to be suggesting that he could create one million jobs by tinkering with the tax code to encourage companies to shift production back to America from abroad. Meanwhile, job creation right now is lackluster, with the latest report indicating that only ninety-six thousand were created in August.
Obama, in other words, is playing injured. He will probably be able to hit one last shot at the buzzer that will secure him a second term. His greatest asset isn't anything he has done. It's that his adversary is Mitt Romney, the most hapless Republican candidate since Bob Dole. In any case, the odds were always against Romney. As Andrew Hacker points out in the New York Review of Books, only one Republican challenger has been able to unseat a Democratic president in the past six elections—Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter.
In a second term, Obama, like most of his predecessors, would probably seek succor in foreign policy, the one sphere where the commander-in-chief can really be commanding. Foreign leaders have become comfortable with him. One such leader is Vladimir Putin who is calling Obama "genuine" in contrast to Romney who is "mistaken" about Russia. Obama would surely pursue a more conciliatory path toward Russia than Romney, who has stamped it as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." Even Putin knows that this is rhetorical flapdoodle for the campaign trail, but he must also realize that Romney would pursue a harder line than Obama. But whether Obama wants to embrace Putin's endorsement is another matter. If Putin becomes his last hope, then it will be clear that he's really in trouble.
Image: Steve Jurvetson
The Democratic National Convention is making it clear what the Obama campaign is against. It dislikes Mitt Romney because he had it too easy. It opposes lowering taxes. It's against Republican efforts against abortion. And so on.
There is nothing surprising about these stances. To be sure, they have obtained an added vehemence in an unusually partisan election year, one in which the candidates are serially running phony, if not outright deceptive, campaign ads, prompting each candidate piously to accuse the other of engaging in deception. But what does President Obama want America to look like over the next four years? Forget whether we're better off than we were four years ago. The answer is obvious: a marginal yes. But will we be truly better off in the next four, or will the country simply continue to tread water during an Obama presidency?
This is the question that Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen and Dan Balz ponder today. Obama gets a pretty rough pounding from what, by most standards, would seem to be a fairly sympathetic board of examiners. To judge by Dowd's and Cohen's op-eds, the real problem is that Obama is lazy or, to put it another way, something of an intellectual square. He doesn't like to mix it up with the hoi polloi.
In contrasting Obama with the gladhanding Bill Clinton, Cohen says,
The president who will lay out his reasons for seeking a second term is an odd political duck, a politician who does not appear to like people. Among the people he seems to like the least are his fellow politicians, including members of the Senate with whom he once served. The other day I talked with one of them—a Democrat—who rarely hears from Obama. This senator has zero respect for the president’s political abilities. The commander in chief is not—pardon the cloying term—a people person.
This is the very complaint sounded by Dowd. She says that Obama's habitual pattern of behavior is to
Avoid sound bites and visceral connections because political games are beneath you. Instead of surfing the magic and using it to cow the opposition, Obama would retreat inside himself at crucial moments, climbing back to his contemplative mountaintop.
He rationed his smile, his eloquence and his electricity, playing the dispassionate observer, delegating, dithering and rushing in at the last moment to try to save the day. A cold shower to Bill’s warm bath. While Clinton aides had to act like sheepdogs, herding the boss offstage as he tried to linger and schmooze issues with crowds, Obama needs to be alone and decompress even after meeting with a few people.
Here, however, we have wandered into the arena of psychoanalysis. Can Obama's problems—if they are really that problematic—be diagnosed as a symptom of an aloof personality? Or might broader trends be at work? Could Obama be grappling with an American political system that has itself become dysfunctional and that he does not understand how to repair?
From this latter perspective, Dan Balz's column today seems to be the most trenchant. Balz suggests that Obama could turn things around with a convention speech that actually lays out a program for the second term, something that Obama has notably failed to offer. Perhaps Obama can perform a U-turn during his convention speech. Obama, after all, has the best pipes of any president since Ronald Reagan. But as Balz says, "Talking about the past may not do enough to win over voters who might be prepared to vote for him but aren't confident that he has a plan for the next four years." It's an amazing testament to how far Obama has fallen since he ran as the candidate of change four years ago. So far, he has been the candidate of the status quo.
Political conventions may not be important for the presidential candidates, but they do serve the function of acting as a kind of cotillion ball for other ambitious officials. Both Chris Christie and now Condoleezza Rice have used their speeches, ostensibly touting Mitt Romney's sagacity, to promote their own causes. While Rice dwelled on foreign policy, the real crux of her talk was more personal. It was to suggest, as the Washington Post has noted, that she has not finished her public service, that she is, in fact, presidential timber. Poor Romney. At this point Romney must be wondering, as Ronald Reagan once did, "Where's the rest of me?"
The truth, of course, is that no one can muster up much enthusiasm for Romney. Even his wife's speech had a defensive tone to it. And Condi's? She hauled out what has become GOP orthodoxy on foreign affairs. "We cannot be reluctant to lead, and you cannot lead from behind," she said. She added, "That is why—that is why this is a moment and an election of consequence. Because it just has to be that the freest most compassionate country on the face of the earth will continue to be the most powerful and the beacon for prosperity and the party across the world." All well and good. But what it translates into practice is another matter.
Rice indicated that President Obama had messed up everything that had been handed to him by George W. Bush. But what about the kind of leadership George W. Bush exercised? Rice was notably cryptic on the topic of Iraq, a war that she endorsed. I well recall meeting her at the White House when she was national-security adviser, declaring that because Bush had, more or less, made the decision to take out Saddam Hussein, there was really no need to debate the topic any further. The Decider had decided, and she was not going to buck his decision.
Now Rice, as Peter Beinart notes, treats Iraq as something of a footnote in history. The grand episode has become a marginal one. And Afghanistan is treated with complete silence. Beinart writes,
In her speech, Rice mentioned Iraq once, as a “fragile democracy” beset by “internal strife and hostile neighbors.” That’s a rather passive way to describe a country that the United States invaded and occupied because government officials like Condoleezza Rice swore it had weapons it turned out not to have. The other country that the U.S. invaded and occupied on Rice’s watch is called Afghanistan. Two thousand Americans have now died there. She didn’t mention it at all.
The truth, of course, is that Rice was Bush's enabler, but she didn't really espouse the neocon credo. Her roots are in the realist camp. But she got on board with the program during the early Bush years, trying to avert the worst of the lunacy. In 2006 her moment arrived. Donald Rumsfeld was sacked. Vice President Dick Cheney lost influence with Bush, who started to glimpse the costs of handing over his presidency to a glabrous schemer. But it was too late. Rice had risen in the president's estimation, but she was not able to accomplish anything momentous other than wearing her fancy black leather boots. That could change.
At the core of her convention speech was the notion that her personal success is perfectly aligned with the American dream of self-reliance and success. It's a powerful and conservative message:
And on a personal note: a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham—the most segregated big city in America—her parents can’t take her to a movie theater or a restaurant—but they make her believe that even though she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter—she can be President of the United States and she becomes the Secretary of State.
Steely and disciplined, relentless and ambitious, Rice may well ascend to the presidency, where she could dispense with the palaver she doled out at the convention and seek revenge on the neocons who tormented her during the Bush years. Watch out for Rice.
It's no secret that John McCain, once a prominent realist, has steadily converted to neoconservatism over the past two decades. He is now the movement's most visible champion, which is to say that McCain has been at the forefront of championing almost every bad idea of the past decade, including serving as a cheerleader for the war in Iraq. Now McCain has issued a neocon manifesto for Mitt Romney in Foreign Policy. Whether Romney would agree with it in practice—as opposed to in his truculent rhetoric—is an open question. But McCain's article, which is measured in tone, demonstrates that he would like to see a reversion to the George W. Bush era, with Romney as the new Dubya—and perhaps himself as its Cheney, serving as defense secretary? If McCain's prescriptions were adopted, however, he would accelerate the very American decline he seeks to avert. In fact, the neocon approach to foreign affairs is what first began the erosion of American power and influence.
McCain, of course, does not see it that way. His argument can be boiled down to a simple argument: President Obama is personally culpable for everything that has gone wrong with America in recent years. In mismanaging the economy, he is sapping the ability of America to lead around the world. Add to that the projected cuts to defense spending, his failure to cater to allies, his eagerness to truckle to Vladimir Putin and—well, you get the idea.
It would be difficult to argue with McCain's assertion that American leadership is a good thing (though if you live in one of the countries that America periodically bombards you may have a slightly different view). McCain says,
We are now engaged in a great debate over whether America's core challenge is how to manage our own decline as a great power—or how to renew our capacity to carry on our proud tradition of world leadership. Ultimately, this is what's at stake in this election, and the stakes could not be higher.
This is not entirely persuasive. McCain is positing a false dichotomy. Instead of managing decline, as McCain puts it, the task may be put in a more positive light—how best to husband America's resources, to direct them where they should be directed rather than to squander them frivolously, as occurred in Vietnam and Iraq. America has never had limitless resources, and it is silly to pretend that it has been otherwise. It's also the case that simply throwing more money at the Pentagon, whose budget has soared precipitously, is not necessarily a recipe for winning influence.
There is a also difference between leading and hectoring. McCain's vision of American power and influence around the globe is so open-ended that it constitutes an invitation for hegemony, something that China is bound to reject. One thing that is missing in McCain's essay is that the Iraq War forms the origins of much of the current mess. The Bush administration expended trillions of dollars—with more to come in the form of payments to veterans over the next decades—trying to use Iraq as a demonstration shot for freedom in the rest of the Middle East.
Another flaw in McCain's analysis is that he exaggerates the Obama administration's passivity abroad. McCain suggests that Obama has alienated allies such as Israel. He writes,
This is the feeling in Israel and the Gulf, where the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is existential, but trust in America's willingness to address the problem has never been lower.
Really? Israel itself is experiencing a vigorous debate over whether it makes sense to bomb Iran—something that McCain does not demand that Obama accomplish, saying rather that there needs to be a realistic national-security threat. But it's difficult to discern how Obama could be much more accommodating to Israel, short of giving it carte blanche, which, I guess, is what would amount to a realistic threat for McCain. At the same time, McCain says that Obama is cozying up to America's adversaries:
This is the feeling across Central and Eastern Europe, where Vladimir Putin's Russia still casts a long shadow, but where many of our allies believe their national interests are being sacrificed by the administration's repeated, and largely unrequited, attempts to reset relations with Moscow.
This, too, is less than fully convincing. What "national interests" have been willfully cast aside by Obama? If McCain is referring to a missile-defense system, which is purportedly supposed to be aimed at Iran, then he is defending an expensive boondoggle.
But all of this is, more or less, window dressing for McCain's real cause, which is to urge American intervention in Syria. Once again, McCain paints a black-and-white picture of freedom versus tyranny, a contest in which American firepower can quickly and easily help the good guys win, as though it didn't have enough experience in the past with so-called freedom fighters such as Ahmad Chalabi, who turned out to be dubious figures at best. Here is McCain's cri de coeur:
In past struggles like Syria, when brave peoples fought for their liberation from enemies of the United States, we were fortunate to have presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, who recognized that it was in keeping with both our interests and our values to help the forces of freedom prevail. And they acted on that conviction. A Republican foreign policy would reclaim this proud tradition of U.S. leadership. It would, of course, accept that our interests require us to make tradeoffs at times, but wherever people struggle for human rights, no one should have any doubt whose side America is ultimately on. When people risk everything for their freedom, as they are doing in the Arab world today, our president should take their side—not just when it is safe and convenient for him, when they are on the verge of success, but when it really matters, when the fate of their cause hangs in the balance. And if Russia, China, or any other nation wishes to use the U.N. Security Council as moral cover for tyrants and war criminals, the United States should lead the effort to create multilateral action that is both principled and effective.
McCain, in short, has, to borrow from Talleyrand, learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
The action at the Republican convention in Tampa may not be Mitt Romney's coronation. Even as Hurricane Isaac barrels towards Florida, Ron Paul has been stealing Romney's thunder. The rise of what Ron Paul is calling the "liberty movement" is grabbing headlines, a phenomenon that should not be all that surprising since Paul is the most shrewd member of the colorful cast of characters who originally vied for the Republican nomination. Now he is preparing, or trying to prepare, the stage for a full-fledged Tea Party takeover of the GOP.
Romney has tried to liberate himself from the liberty movement by excluding Paul and his forces, as far as possible, from a prominent role at the convention. He's been largely successful. But Paul clearly isn't hesitant about going rogue, which is what he did on Sunday before his worshipful admirers. He thrives on taunting the GOP establishment. Unlike Romney, who has desperately been trying to appeal to the right, Paul actually believes in what he is promulgating. "The worst thing we could do is to be silent," he told a jubilant crowd at the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida. He isn't. Paul has been avidly spreading his doctrine--retreat from self-imposed obligations abroad and reining in the Federal Reserve. As Paul sees it, he won't have to come to the GOP. It will end up coming to him--"we'll be the tent."
Paul is the anti-neocon. While Utah Governor Jon Huntman expressed his reservations about the direction of the GOP more diplomatically, Paul has been scorching. Pull out of Afghanistan. Slash the defense department. Paul, unlike Romney and Paul Ryan, is utterly consistent about budget cutting. Where else but at a Paul rally, as Fox News observes, would an "Austrian school" economist get a rousing ovation? And where else would Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke be referred to as a "dictator, a traitor"? Paul himself declared that the "revolution" was unstoppable.
In the latest National Interest, Robert Merry and Zbigniew Brzezinski ponder the prospect of more turmoil being the prerequisite to create a consensus about tackling the national debt and job creation. But what Paul is proposing, I think, is much more radical, a revolution from below, not above. To many the excitable crowd at the six-hour rally will have overtones of an older and violent revolution that followed the American one--the French revolution of 1789. Paul is no Burkean. He embraces upheaval. But conservatism's true mission is supposed to be to conserve, which was the aim of William F. Buckley, Jr. and the older generation at the National Review (apart from William Rusher, one of the authors of the GOP's populist southern strategy, whose career is ably recounted in the new biography If Not Us, Who? by David B. Frisk). That is not Paul's aim. He doesn't simply want to upset the old order. He wants to topple it from the bottom up.
He may reserve more ire for heretics on the right than on the left. One thing seems clear: the 77-year-old Paul is not going away quietly. He is a tough old bird. And he has a successor in the form of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a more polished version of his father. Far from resembling a spent force, the Tea Party does not appear to be going away. Romney's mission will be to co-opt the excitement without drifting toward the lunatic fringe. His acceptance speech will go some ways towards demonstrating whether he's up to the job. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is preparing for 2016 even as Romney readies himself for a final, full-fledged assault on President Obama. If Romney fails, the GOP will most likely move further to the right, but before the party does it might well plunge into a civil war, divided between neocons, Tea Party followers, and a few remaining moderates.