The conventional wisdom de jour in Washington,
DC, can be summed up in a catchphrase popularized by Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential
campaign: "It's the economy, stupid!" The former Arkansas governor
was challenging then-President George H.W. Bush, who had led the United States
into a military victory against Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War, criticizing
Bush Senior for focusing too much attention on foreign policy as opposed to
dealing with the economic recession of the early 1990s. Clinton and his aides
were suggesting that American voters were sick and tired of Iraq, the Middle
East, and other global policy issues and wanted the election campaign to concentrate
on the economy.
According to pollsters and pundits, it's déjà vu all over again
at the end of George W. Bush's presidency, with the aftermath of another Gulf
War, the U.S. economy entering a recession, and Democrats seeming to have a
chance of regaining the White House. The promoters of this conventional wisdom
insist that Iraq, the Middle East, and foreign policy issues have been pushed
aside as issues in the 2007 presidential race. Bye, bye Tora Bora, Mesopotamia,
Persia. Hello, subprime mortgages, troubled hedge funds, and a collapsing dollar.
Out: Robert Gates and Condoleezza
Rice. In: Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson. Potential war presidents Sen.
Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Rudy Giuliani are history. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)
and Mike Huckabee, the rookies, are the future.
Peter Beinart, an editor of The New Republic and senior fellow with
the Council on Foreign Relations,
and one of the Washington-Boston corridor's leading "liberal imperialists" – I
can't wait for the "religious atheists" – started the "conversation"
in a column in the Washington Post. He noted that Iraq wasn't a major
focus during recent Democratic and Republican presidential debates. Hence, according
to Beinart, who like many other liberal imperialists could be described as an
early cheerleader of the Iraq War who later apologized but is now pro-surge
and in favor of attacking Iran: "In the biggest surprise of the campaign
so far, the election that almost everyone thought would be about Iraq is turning
out not to be."
American voters, as in the aftermath of the Cold War and Gulf War I, are beginning
to switch off the global-affairs channel and against the backdrop of rising
economic problems are focusing on domestic bread-and-butter issues. So it's
not surprising that "It's the economy, stupid!" is being invoked again.
But this time it might not work for the Clinton running for office. Indeed,
candidates like Clinton and Giuliani, who were running for president by accentuating
their policy experience and their ability to deal with global threats like international
terrorism, seem to be losing ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states
to the inexperienced Obama and Huckabee.
Beinart agues that this change is happening because the surge is supposedly
working and "not as many people are dying" in Iraq. Neoconservative
columnist Charles Krauthammer
concurs with his buddy on the left and argues that the many, many other great
foreign policy successes of the Bush administration – such as the nuclear
accord with North Korea, the Annapolis "peace conference," and the
peaceful political changes in Pakistan – are making us all feel that in
the spirit of the holidays, it's peace on earth and goodwill to all. In fact,
Krauthammer, pontificating on Inside Washington, suggested that the new
National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran – which concluded Tehran had
terminated its nuclear weapons programs in 2003, among other things – was
actually a victory for Bush's strategy and that in any case, the NIE makes it
less likely that the United States and Iran would go to war before 2008.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, another former Iraq War booster
and current surge enthusiast, employing the historical analogy of the electoral
defeat of WWII British Prime Minister Winston Churchill by Clement Attlee in
1945, described the current campaign for the White House as a "postwar
election," contending that the American people are "exhausted"
with the war and changing from "a war mentality to a peace mentality."
Well, this End-of-Iraq perspective doesn't sound either as earth shaking as
the End-of-History thesis or as profound as the Clash-of-Civilization theorem.
But to paraphrase Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, in
a city where Beinart – not unlike Krauthammer and Brooks – is considered
to be a Big Man of Ideas, it's just the paradigms that may be getting smaller.
Now, I'll be first to applaud any news that U.S. troops are withdrawing from
Iraq, that Washington is promoting a diplomatic bargain as part of an opening
to Tehran, that we've finally captured Osama bin Laden and his gang and have
no need to maintain Pakistani Gen. Pervez Musharraf as an ally, that we've adopted
a benign neglect approach to the never-ending ethnic and religious struggles
in Palestine, and finally, that the political elites in Washington are engaging
in a debate on how to start reducing U.S. military intervention in the world.
Under such conditions, the American public's renewed preoccupation with the
economy would make sense, and the notion that the next president should know
more about financial "securitization" and SPVs (special purpose vehicles)
than about asymmetric warfare and WMD (weapons of mass destruction) would prove
to be more than just a figment of pundits' imagination.
Indeed, thanks to the ultimate spin perpetrated by Beinart and company, the
American public seems to be taking seriously the media events seemingly staged
by the Bush administration – Middle East "peace" talks at Annapolis;
Musharraf "taking off" his military uniform – by breathing a huge
sigh of relief and launching a search for another folksy Arkansas governor to
put in the White House.
But this fantasy may be another example of the disdain felt by the elites in
Washington toward the American public. It assumes that the American people actually
buy into the tall tales being told by Bush and Rice. Such whoppers include:
that the short-term and limited tactical achievement of the surge would bring
about long-term political reconciliation between Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds
in Iraq, so that U.S. forces can return home; that one day of scripted televised
events in Annapolis would lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace, which would permit
U.S. presidents to invest less energy in Mideast diplomacy; that Pakistan is
cooperating with Washington in the struggle against al-Qaeda, which suggests
that the Islamist radicals are in retreat there and in Afghanistan; and that
the Bush administration actually knows what it is doing vis-à-vis Iran.
In fact, there is no sign of any move toward political accommodation in Iraq;
there is simply less violence in some parts of Iraq where ethnic cleansing has
already been accomplished. Palestinians and Israelis are not going to make peace
anytime soon; if anything, the Palestinian political groups of Fatah and Hamas
would need to resolve their own differences before they could deal with Israel.
And the situation in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan remains as explosive
The majority of Americans may not be geostrategic thinkers, but they probably
understand that thanks to Bush, the broader Middle East has become more unstable
and threatening to U.S. interests. Most of the polls that I've seen indicate
that while Americans applaud the efforts of the U.S. military to reduce violence
in Iraq, they remain skeptical about the chances for national reconciliation
there. More important, they continue to regard the Iraq War as a major strategic
mistake and want to see U.S. forces out of Iraq as soon as possible. And there
hasn't been any major change in Bush's low approval ratings on foreign policy
and the economy. What did happen was that the current economic woes in the form
of home foreclosures, credit card delinquencies, and rising gas prices, can
be felt by most Americans in a more direct, immediate, and personal way than
the continuing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan – a reality that would have
changed if the military draft would have been reinstated.
In short, Americans have concluded that Bush will be leaving them not only
with the messes in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere that are
being translated into enormous human and financial costs, but that another part
of his legacy will be the troubled U.S. economy – expanding budget, trade,
and current-account deficits, a housing market crisis, and a failing financial
system – not to mention the declining value of the dollar and the rising
costs of energy. In a way, foreign policy and the economy are not separate policy
issues. After all, the growing deficits have been driven by the mushrooming
spending on U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, which has had a major
impact on global energy prices. These deficits that pay for the American Empire
are being financed by China, which is emerging as the top geo-economic and geopolitical
U.S. competitor. At the same time, the weakening dollar diminishes the U.S.
geopolitical leverage vis-à-vis allies and rivals. You don't have to
be an economic expert to figure out how the financial problems facing America
are intertwined with its foreign policy failures.
It seems that Americans are finally beginning to recognize that maintaining
a gigantic welfare-warfare state is a costly proposition. And indeed, the presidential
candidate who frames the debate in such a way will be in a better position to
win the race to the White House.
This article originally appeared on RightWeb.