A Kettle of Hawks
Bombing, missiles, sanctions—a debate with too much dramatic language.
The Wall Street Journal: November 26, 2011
The talk this week was of who was most damaged politically by the failure of the super committee. The first, admittedly earnest answer is: the country. We have a projected deficit over the next 10 years of $44 trillion. A group of Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill were charged with coming up with $1.2 trillion in cuts. Just 1.2 out of 44. Not that hard. And they couldn’t do it. Everyone says we will now fight out the basic issues on which the committee failed to achieve agreement, taxes and spending, in the 2012 election. And we will. Maybe the electorate will yield up a clear answer and produce an obvious mandate. But maybe not. Maybe the big muddle will continue. Which won’t be good, because that way we sink deeper in the ditch.
Super committee success would have been important for this reason: It would have shown us, and the world, that we are not Greece. That we aren’t helpless, incapable, deadlocked, that we can take at least baby steps in the right direction.
The second party most damaged by the failure was President Obama, that grand strategic thinker who’s always playing long ball. It is a time of unprecedented and continuing economic crisis, and he went AWOL. He didn’t put his public prestige behind a good outcome, didn’t corral the Democrats on the committee, which could have made a real difference. He thought the super committee would likely fail on its own, and if it did, it only backed up his narrative—that dread word—about a do-nothing Congress dominated by Republicans in thrall to their billionaire slavemasters.
What he doesn’t understand is that Americans are tired of hearing the words “In Washington today,” followed by the words, “another failure to . . .” They think: Another failure under Obama. Can’t this guy get anything done? Doesn’t anything ever work under him?
That is what will damage him. At the end of the day, he didn’t want to spend his political capital. That, ironically, is why his reputation seems increasingly bankrupt. Maybe the most harmful aspect of the president’s leadership style is that all of his political instincts were honed and settled before 2008, when he was rising. What he learned before he reached the presidency is what he knows. But everyone else in America knows the crash and the underlying crisis it revealed—on our current course, we are bankrupt—changed everything. Strangely, inexplicably, the president thinks the old political moves apply to the new era. They do not.
To The Republicans, who met in debate Tuesday night in Washington. A note on the presentation of the debate itself. The videos each cable outfit now makes to introduce each debate have taken on a weird, hyperventilating tone. Tuesday’s theme-setter included bombs dropping, jets roaring, presidents sweating, machine guns, screaming dictators, explosions and street demonstrators. Then, in urgent and dramatic tones: “The Republican National Security Debate begins—now.” Guys, get a grip. Republican National Committee, start asking to OK the videos beforehand. This is a major-party nomination for the presidency, not a trailer for “Homeland.”
It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and we really do want to be pleasant. But the trailer seemed to set the tone for the candidates and the questioners.
Granted the candidates are Republicans, granted there was a bit of macho I’m-tougher-than-you-are, granted the audience of think-tankers seemed rather grimly, professionally hawkish. Granted also that America faces deep challenges, real threats, true dangers. But the tone of much that was said was so dire and besieged. The language was stark.
Here are just a few phrases and sentences that were lobbed about for two hours. “Protect ourselves from those who, if they could, would not just kill us individually but would take out entire cities,” “expanded drone campaign,” “they can’t be trusted,” “strong special forces presence,” “hot pursuit,” “slapped new sanctions,” “no-fly zone over Syria,” “nuclear weapon in one American city,” “break the Iranian regime,” “sabotaging the oil refinery,” “crippling sanctions,” “centrifuges spinning,” “covert actions within Syria to get regime change,” there is an “imminent threat” in Latin America, “we have been attacked,” “doctrine of appeasement.”
It was all pretty revved up and dramatic. Putting aside the substance for a moment, what I was hearing reminded me of something that happened in the Reagan White House in the mid-1980s. The president had referred in a speech to some communist insurgencies in Central America. He had spoken of them forcefully. A few days later the president’s pollster came in. The president’s language, he said, had been so forceful that a number of people listening thought he was declaring multifront wars. Sometimes you have to cool your ardor, or you begin to sound like the War Party.
I also wondered if it actually serves U.S. interests to have possible presidents in a formal venue pressed on whether they will topple this regime or bomb that sovereign nation. At one point Wolf Blitzer asked Newt Gingrich: “Would you, if you were president of the United States, bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power?”
Messrs. Blitzer and Gingrich, longtime Washington insiders, live in a cultural cosmos in which things like this are chattered about with no more sense of import than if they were talking about the Redskins. In fact it’s exactly what they talk about after they talk about the Redskins game. But should we be discussing those things so blithely and explicitly in such a public way? You have to wonder what the world thinks when it hears such talk—and the world is watching.
It would have been nice to hear one of the candidates say, “You know, Wolf, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to talk the way we’re talking at a time like this, with the world so hot and our problems so big. Discretion isn’t cowardice, so let me give you the general and overarching philosophy with which I’d approach these challenges, and you can infer from it what you like. I prefer peaceable solutions when they are possible. I think war is always a tragedy, sometimes necessary, sometimes even inevitable, but always tragic, and so I don’t speak lightly or blithely of taking up arms . . .”
By the end, some of what was said sounded so dramatic that Ron Paul seemed like the normal one. He very much doesn’t want new wars or new military actions. This is not an unreasonable desire! Jon Huntsman was normal too. They both seemed to think our biggest foreign-policy challenge is the American economy, which pays for our arms and diplomacy but has grown weak. It has to be made stronger, because without it we can afford nothing.
The tone of the debate seemed to me another example of the perils of Republo-world, where politicians, consultants and policy professionals egg each other on in hopes of reaching the farthest points of the base.
The Democrats have a Demo-world too, and show every sign of wishing they could be in it, wishing they could have a presidential primary, wishing they could stop chafing under the leadership of a political figure whose instincts they doubt, and whom they don’t much like.
But Republo-world is up and operating, and should try to remember how it sounds to everyone else, who doesn’t live in it.
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