As Obama claims strength in defence, GOP unsure of next step
Voices, previously come-hell-or-high-water Republican, now seem to be calling candidates out on their criticism of Obama’s policies on defence and American economic recovery. Could this signal fundamental shifts in thinking? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
It is not every day a major Republican media voice tells party leaders they are barking up the wrong tree with their criticism of President Barack Obama over international security issues. But that is exactly what George Will did in a column headlined Republicans need more than rhetoric on defense. For decades Will has been the conscience of straight-up Republican conservatives in his widely syndicated column and in frequent appearances on the most influential weekend political talk shows.
But in his 9 February column in The Washington Post, Will noted the remarkable phenomenon, “Through 11 presidential elections, beginning with the Democrats’ nomination of George McGovern in 1972, Republicans have enjoyed a presumption of superiority regarding national security. This year, however, events and their rhetoric are dissipating their advantage.
“Hours — not months, not weeks, hours — after the last US troops left Iraq, vicious political factionalism and sectarian violence intensified. Many Republicans say Barack Obama’s withdrawal — accompanied by his administration’s foolish praise of Iraq’s ‘stability’ — has jeopardized what has been achieved there. But if it cannot survive a sunrise without fraying, how much of an achievement was it?”
Moreover, Will argued, even as Americans have grown bone-weary of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Republicans’ most likely nominee, Mitt Romney, promised to extend US military presence in Afghanistan into an ever-receding future. Will takes Romney to the policy woodshed for insisting there should be no negotiations with Afghan Taliban insurgents so long as they are fighting US forces.
Will reminded his readers that the US military budget represented more than 40% of the world’s total defence spending and asked incredulously if Republicans are “really going to warn voters that America will be imperiled if the defense budget is cut 8% from projections over the next decade?”.
The remaining four Republican candidates (save for Ron Paul) appear to be saying the US now needs to add to its total of armed conflicts since 2001 by taking on both Iran and Syria, in sequence or at the same time. Will chastised the neo-con The Weekly Standard for clucking its rapier-sharp tongue at Obama over his foot-dragging. By contrast, Will wrote, Obama’s “GOP critics say that Obama’s proposed defense cuts will limit America’s ability to engage in troop-intensive nation-building. Most Americans probably say: Good.”
Will then turned his fire on Romney directly for criticising the recently announced plans by the Obama administration for downsizing the military by nearly 100,000 personnel in the next 10 years when he insisted instead that the American military needed to expand. If Romney’s position was right, Will argued, Romney needed to begin articulating a better defence of what those added troops would do. Will even argued it was too early to argue, as Romney was now doing, that Obama’s policies aiming to preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon were doomed to failure.
As for the supposed weakness of Obama’s leading from the rear in coalition with those duplicitous Europeans, rather, Will wrote: “Osama bin Laden and many other ‘high-value targets’ are dead, the drone war is being waged more vigorously than ever, and Guantanamo is still open, so Republicans can hardly say that Obama has implemented dramatic and dangerous discontinuities regarding counterterrorism… Republicans who think America is being endangered by ‘appeasement’ and military parsimony have worked that pedal on their organ quite enough.”
For someone like me, who grew up reading and listening to George Will as the clear, certain voice of confident, mainstream, conservative Republicanism, this column was quite a wake-up call. Will, after all, has had the ear of Republican leaders for two generations; and his wife works as a message spinner for Newt Gingrich to boot. A public position like the one in this column is enough to make one think carefully about what it means going forward. I suspect Will’s point is really about trying to head off Republicans from getting seriously on the wrong side of history.
The US military itself has barely raised a squawk about the proposed downsizing of the defence establishment, recognising the reality that the main thing in the coming decades is balancing a resurgent China in the Pacific Basin rather than trudging through land wars in the mountains beyond the Khyber Pass. Even the petroleum supply lines to the US and rest of the world are ultimately dependent on force projection from high-tech air power and naval.
Moreover, Will is also making the argument that if Republicans want to mount an effective challenge to Obama, slugging it out over the size and range of the US military and its strategic purposes is the wrong fight in the wrong place at the wrong time. The only arguments that will work with the electorate are those that grapple with rebuilding America’s economic strength and retooling the government into a mean, lean fighting machine to focus on that task.
Over the weekend, Will’s message was reinforced by some presenters at the annual CPAC convention gathering of conservative, right-wing political groups. Scott Rasmussen, a leading conservative pollster, told the crowd, “How many of you have ever mocked or made fun of the president’s call for hope and change? Raise your hands.”
According to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s report on the event, the crowd in the hotel ballroom raised their hands, cheered and whooped it up loudly. Rasmussen’s retort was quick and sharp. “With all due respect, I’d like to say that’s really stupid. Voters are looking for hope and change as much today as they were in 2008 and you ought to be encouraging Republican candidates, people you support, to offer that positive step forward.”
Milbank added, “Rasmussen had put his finger on a major problem for Republicans in 2012, and conservatives in particular: At a time when the national mood has begun to improve, they remain nattering nabobs of negativism. At CPAC, any hint of a ‘positive step’ was buried in vitriol.”
Rasmussen put his finger on a source of trouble for Republicans, and, in his argument, Will has, curiously, come “on sides” with another article. A lengthy exploration of Barack Obama’s character and career in the March issue of The Atlantic magazine by James Fallows. Fallows was once a young speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, who then spent years living close to the ground in Japan, China and Malaysia searching out the secrets of their respective rapid and astonishing economic successes.
Fallows also argues the Obama administration has been particularly successful in international security and foreign affairs. But the real test will be how well it ends up being judged on its stewardship of the national economy. “So where can Obama claim to have shown mastery of the job? In foreign policy, where a president can carry out his own strategy, he has shown that he actually has a strategy to execute. And in management of the domestic economy, he has shown increasing command of the tools of office, in ways surprisingly prefigured by his temperamental opposite, Harry Truman.” But Fallows admits that “With the clarity of hindsight, many of the choices look ill-considered, to say the least. He should have been harder on Wall Street, less patient about drafting of the healthcare bill, more suspicious of Republican efforts to block his legislation and nominees.
“If Barack Obama loses this fall, he will forever seem a disappointment: a symbolically important but accidental figure who raised hopes he could not fulfil and met difficulties he did not know how to surmount.… [but] If he is re-elected, he will have a chance to solidify what he has accomplished and, more important, build on what he has learned. All of this is additional motivation, as if he needed any, for him to drive for re-election; none of it makes him any more palatable to those who oppose him and his goals.”
At this point, then, what must be giving George Will sleepless nights are data from the most recent Pew Research Centre survey on attitudes about the competence of Republican presidential contenders. Results show a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters now rate the field of GOP presidential contenders as just fair or poor, and this is a measurable increase over the number who held that view in early January. More voters now say Obama understands the problems of average Americans than said the same of either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich. This surely animates The New Yorker’s most recent cover – Obama enjoying a TV broadcast of some serious scrumming between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. DM
- GOP Voters Continue to Give Field Subpar Ratings – Obama Seen as More Understanding than Romney, Gingrich at the Pew Research Center website.
- U.S. likely to scale down plans for bases in Japan and Guam at the Washington Post.
- Republicans need more than rhetoric on defense (George Will’s column) in the Washington Post.
- Nattering nabobs of negativism (Dana Milbank column) in the Washington Post.
Photo: According to George Will, Obama is not doing badly when it comes to defence decisions. REUTERS.