Jeb Bush has distanced himself from his brother’s decision to invade Iraq, and the Republican presidential candidates have joined him in this. Nevertheless, the Republican field still excoriates Obama for “not finishing the job” and pulling the troops out. Now there is talk of sending troops back in, of getting tougher on Assad, on re-instituting sanctions on Iran, and sending weapons to Ukraine. As much as this is “not the party of GWB” the bluster about existential threats emanating from different corners of the world and charges of human rights abuses are strikingly similar to the tone preceding our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. After a decade of grave misadventures abroad, you would think that the Republican Party would take a step back to reevaluate but not much seems to have changed. The party can’t seem to buck their George W cowboy.
(Note: I’m leaving Mr. Rand Paul out of this conversation. He has not proven to be a legitimate candidate or able to steer the conversation away from the hawkish Republican mainline. We are going to get a hawk as nominee and that’s what is worth discussing.)
With the end of the Cold War we have entered into a new, ambiguous realm of foreign affairs. There is no longer a major counterweight to American power to focus our attention. Power is diffused across the globe and the only forces that call for America’s destruction are third world terrorists and a third rate Persian power–nothing quite as compelling or terrifying as the nuclear-armed Khrushchev pounding the lectern at the UN with his shoe and declaring that he would bury the United States.
This lack of a real foe has left America casting about for a worthy opponent. Ever genuflecting to the Gipper, Republicans have been especially intent on finding a new dragon to slay:
Bobby Jindal, in an interview:“I want a world where our friends trust us and our enemies fear and respect us. That was the bipartisan consensus post-World War II through the Cold War.” Rubio, at the Council on Foreign Relations in May: “Only American leadership will bring safety and enduring peace. America led valiantly in the last century—from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan.” And Walker, in an interview: “Think back to Harry Truman. This is a bipartisan view that we’ve historically had that when we win, we don’t want to give up the victory.”
Unfortunately as much as the Republicans want the dragons and knights of yesteryear, all America can find in the present are rats, albeit resilient rats. And yet despite the fact that our foes pale in comparison to the Hitlers and Stalins of the past century, there has been a Republican tendency to pine for the good ole’ days when the clash between good and evil was clearer. And so they issue rhetorical incantations in a sad attempt to turn rats into dragons. Not only does this over-blow the threats we face, it also means from a strategic level the Republicans are preparing to fight the last war, not the current one.
So they beat their war drums.
According to Mike Huckabee the recent deal with Iran “threatens Israel immediately, this threatens the entire Middle East, but it threatens the United States of America.”
Rick Santorum had this to say about Iran: “Yes, they’re radical Islamists, that’s true. But they’re a particular version of it, which is an apocalyptic version, which is a death cult,” he said.
Marco Rubio is continuing to back the failed Cold War embargo of Cuba on account of the evil Castro brothers.
Lindsey Graham the other night in the second Republican debate warned: “The worst nightmare in the world is a radical Islamic regime with a weapon of mass destruction,” said Graham. “The only reason 3,000 of us died on 9/11 is not 3 million, not 3 million is because they couldn’t get the weapons to kill us.”
John Kasich frames the conflict in the Middle East in terms of a clash of civilizations with the West needing to fight for its life.
At least Trump mixes it up a bit, picking on North Korea–a “maniac sitting there” already in possession of nuclear weapons.
Much of this posturing is inspired by the listless foreign policy of the Obama administration. The Republicans want a proud nationalism that forcefully advances America’s interests and principles around the world. The sad thing is that you can oppose Obama’s listless foreign policy without returning to belligerent, cowboy-style foreign policy that set the Middle East on fire.
The Return to Bush
All of this suggests that the Republicans haven’t quite rid themselves of their Cold War approach to foreign affairs or GWB’s more immediate legacy. While Republican tendencies towards Bushism has been suggestive, at the debate the other night it became explicit in a startling way.
TRUMP: Your brother and your brother’s administration gave us Barack Obama, because it was such a disaster, those last three months, that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been elected.
BUSH: You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure: He kept us safe.
At that point, Scott Walker jumped into defend Bush’s comment as did Chris Christie. While Ben Carson hedged by saying that he had advised Bush not to invade Iraq, he still hedged on that claim by noting his friendship with GWB. Couple this with Republicans categorical repudiation of Obama’s spineless foreign policy, we at the very least have the return of crypto-Bushism but I suspect the GWB style is more deeply rooted. The fact that Jeb could not only survive, but win support on the debate floor from other candidates for saying, “He kept us safe,” is nothing to sneeze at. Indeed, despite the fact that the majority of Americans say that the Iraq war was a mistake, the nation is currently split over whether to send troops to fight but the Republican base favors another invasion 60-30.
ISIS is worse than Saddam, but the result will be the same.
The Indispensable Nation
Undergirding all of this is the idea of the indispensable nation: if we aren’t out there knocking heads the world will go to hell. As Max Boot, the military historian and foreign policy analysis put it: “If you want to see what a post-American world looks like, Syria is it. This is what lack of American leadership produces: a catastrophe of unimaginable and growing scale.”
There is a self-importance to these proclamations as well as a heavy dose of fear-mongering reminiscent of the Cold War but problematically lacking a foe of Soviet stature.
Republicans are quick to pick up on this type of thinking and declare that regional conflagrations around the world are the cause of America’s absence. This is why you hear candidates talking about leadership and strength, talking tough to bad guys (if at all), and upping our military commitments around the world. Of course this ignores the fact that conflicts have a will of their own with or without America (a point lefties also ought to consider before blaming all the evils in the world on nefarious American power plays.) It also assumes that American leadership combined with a frightful war machine is capable of solving problems.
Therefore the plan for the future is clear: build up the army, use it again in the Middle East, send weapons to Ukraine, back “moderates” in Syria, and bomb Iran. There’s a strange concoction at work here. On the one hand we have the old gun-totting bullets-as-solutions mythos at work (took care of Hitler, right?), on the other hand you have lingering neoconservatism and the belief in Creative Destruction. One way or another, a hammer will get the job done, clear away the bad guys, and create an environment ripe for freedom.
It’s GWB through and through.
The Myth of Creative Destruction: Kennan’s Rebuttal
I’ve cited Kennan here before. As one of the more thoughtful commentators on American foreign policy of the last century, he’s a gift that keeps on giving.
“[T]here lay a deeper failure of understanding, a failure to appreciate the limitations of war in general–any war–as a vehicle for achievement of the objectives of the democratic state…I would submit that we will continue to harm our own interests almost as much as we benefit them if we continue to employ the instruments of coercion in the international field without a better national understanding of their significance and possibilities… basically, the democratic purpose does not prosper when a man dies or a building collapses or an enemy force retreats. It may be hard for it to prosper unless these things happen, and in that lies the entire justification for the use of force at all…But the actual prospering occurs only when something happens in a man’s mind that increases his enlightenment and the consciousness of his real relation to other people…In a sense, there is not total victory short of genocide, unless it be a victory over the minds of men. But the total military victories are rarely victories over the minds of men.”
–George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 94-95, 108.
A Parting Paradox
And yet oddly enough there is a pusillanimous nature to this discussion. If Republicans really wanted a dragon to slay they would need look no further than China (human rights abuse, non-democratic, growing military, incursions into the South China sea, etc. etc.). And yet confronted with the question of comparisons between the respective threats of China and Cuba, Marco Rubio had this to say: “[China’s] the second largest economy in the world, it has nuclear weapons, it’s the second largest military or the third largest on the planet…There’s a reality there that doesn’t exist with Cuba that we have to address. It just is what it is – we have to balance geopolitical reality.” Bush has said similar things. Suddenly, once China comes up, there is a need for balancing. The righteous crusade evaporates. Comically and cowardly the Republican Party carries a big stick, but only when rats are in the room.
For a party in the shadow of Reagan, this crew is slouching even as they bluster. Reagan took on the little Sandinista’s but also had the guts to call the USSR the Empire of Evil. This Republican Party wants to pretend Iran, Cuba, and Russia are existential threats and forces of evil, but go skittering into the corner once the real 400 lbs gorilla is mentioned. In the final analysis there is a dissonance with the Republican Party. Considering the complexity of geopolitics these days, America needs brave, bold leaders who know how to prioritize challenges and approach the world with a nuanced understanding of the limits of American power. Unfortunately we’ve got a little boys club… “He kept us safe.” That’s debatable…chickens come home to roost.