We know that we saw something appalling yesterday, in Mitt Romney’s response to the violence in Cairo and Benghazi, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re witnessing something historic too. This isn’t simply the end of the Republican Party’s decades-long political advantage on foreign policy that we’re observing. Rather, we are simultaneously able to see how the party is reacting to and dealing with the disappearance of that advantage. It’s like those villains in the movies who not only are dying, but who register on their face that they can’t comprehend they’re dying, that Hell has finally called their malevolent number, like Julia Roberts’s husband in Sleeping With The Enemy. God, it’s fun to watch. But it’s also a reminder of the danger of handing power to this man and the people he would bring in with him.
Marx would be completely dead if we didn’t have the Republicans around to prove him right every so often. Yet here we are in 2012, able to say definitively that the moment of greatest apparent Republican foreign-policy triumph—spring and summer of 2003—contained, in good Marxian fashion, the seeds of its own destruction. That’s when neoconservatism and its grand theories seemed to be on the cusp of a great vindication. The Iraq effort became disastrous, but even into 2005, with the advent of the great uprising in Lebanon and the blessed end of the Syrian occupation, for which Bush deserved and received some credit, no honest liberal skeptic could be completely sure that Wolfowitz & co. had everything wrong.
But by January 2009, nearly everything was in tatters—Hamas was strengthened, Hezbollah was back in the saddle in Lebanon, Iran was emboldened, and more. The Freedom Agenda hadn’t made many people free. True, Iraqis no longer lived under a tyrant, and that’s no small thing. But we had to kill 100,000 of them and displace 2.2 million more to get the job done. That’s freedom for those who remain, I guess, but at a steep price. Across the rest of the region, the larger agenda, if anything, moved matters in reverse.
Barack Obama hasn’t solved a lot of these problems, which predated him coming into office. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s nudging the needle in the right direction. And he did more than nudge it, of course, when it came to bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Far from creating his own crisis as Bush did, Obama was hit with one, the Arab Spring. We can’t know how all that will turn out, and things certainly look bleak at this moment in Egypt and Libya. But Obama did the only things that could be done at the time. Can you imagine the United States siding with Hosni Mubarak against those people in Tahrir Square, or permitting the pre-advertised massacre of thousands in Benghazi?
The world is the world. Obama can’t wave a wand at it. But he can do what he has done, which is to run a sober and responsible foreign policy, not one based on theories developed in think-tank seminars underwritten by some hawkish Israeli billionaire. Obama’s approach to foreign policy is the one that has guided this country at its best moments (which have not, alas, been as frequent as we’d like), and it’s the foreign policy most Americans want.
The neoconservatives, meanwhile, aghast at their defeat at the Obama’s hands, just contrive to get huffier and huffier. It was astonishing on Wednesday that even as few very elected Republicans dared venture where Romney went rhetorically, key neocon commentators like Bill Kristol defended Romney. They seem to believe, like a flailing orator, that if they just repeat a line more insistently and more loudly, the audience will respond. But the audience now has a body of facts, 12 years’ worth, to consider. In his four years, Obama has done a little more good—and a lot less harm.
That’s the past. As to the future, let’s begin by considering that 70 percent of Romney’s foreign-policy brain trust worked for Bush, as Ari Berman has reported in The Nation. Combining that dour factoid with the rumors and suggestions one sees planted in the press from time to time—that John Bolton would make a fine secretary of state—gives Americans much to fear in a Romney presidency. The only thing they’ve learned from the Bush failures and their years in opposition is the same lesson zealots always learn: that the only reason our ideas didn’t succeed is that they weren’t implemented purely enough. I trust that the prospect of those ideas being implemented more purely next time around startles you.
If Obama is reelected—and Wednesday may prove to have been an important milestone toward that end—and if his next four years go roughly like the last four on the foreign policy front, the Democratic Party will be back to where it was on foreign policy dominance in 1948. I spent a lot of time in 2003 arguing with conservatives and even hawkish liberals—far more vociferously with the latter—that the neocon project did not represent a fulfillment of Truman/Acheson-style foreign policymaking. On Wednesday, Romney and his apologists went a long way toward proving me right.
UPDATE: My colleague Eli Lake reminds me that 100,000 casualties doesn't mean the US is responsible for all of them. In fact quite the contrary. Check out this study cited by Iraq Body Count, for example. By far the largest group of perpetrators of casualties was "unknown." Of course, we did start the war that uncorked the violence, and that's a longer argument, but it's not the same as direct culpability for 100,000 deaths (and of course many people think that estimate is low, so there's that, too).