Why is the race for the Republican presidential nomination shaping up the way it is? On Friday Mitt Romney ended his bid to return to the lists after only three weeks. It’s clear why he got out: the Republican Establishment that supported his candidacy in 2012 has switched to backing Jeb Bush.
But why did he get in? We know something about this, thanks to Dan Balz and Philip Rucker of The Washington Post.
One issue that seemed to weigh on Romney was the Jan. 7 terrorist attack in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo publication. Romney talked about the issue with close advisers the night before he declared he would seriously consider running. “Paris was the biggest of all the factors,” the Romney associate said. “It was a tipping point for him about how dangerous the world had become.”
That sounds more than plausible. Romney spent more than two years as a Mormon missionary in France in the late 1960s.
We don’t know much yet even about the reasons that Jeb Bush has stated privately for deciding to enter the race, despite, for instance, this illuminating examination of his involvement in public-education issues in Florida, where he was governor for eight years. It seems a safe bet that his motives eventually will turn out be similar to those of Romney, stemming from his family’s long involvement in US foreign policy.
If you listen carefully, you can hear tipping going on all around.
For my part, I was deeply surprised to find myself thinking aloud in December that, as a centrist Democrat, I might prefer Bush to Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016. I expect to read several books and chew plenty of fat over the next few months figuring whether that is really the case.
It’s not simply that I expect that the path to the nomination would require Bush to rein in the GOP’s Tea Party wing – all those space-shots meeting late last month in Iowa – an outcome to be devoutly desired, but not enough in in itself to warrant election. More important, it is possible that Bush would promise to bring the Republicans back to the tradition of foreign-policy realism that was characteristic of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush, and bring future Democratic candidates along with him. That would be something really worth having.
To the end of thinking about what is involved, I have been reading Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq (Harvard, 2014), by Michael MacDonald, professor of international relations at Williams College. It is a brilliant reassessment of the opinion-making forces that led to the American invasion of Iraq, an aide-mémoire more powerful than Madame Defarge’s knitted scarf for all its careful comparisons, distinctions and citations.
The conventional wisdom has become that George W. Bush all but willed the invasion of Iraq singlehandedly. There is, of course, no doubt that the president was essential, says MacDonald. For one reason or another, Bush positively hankered to go to war. But he had plenty of help.
For one thing, there were the neoconservatives. By 2000, they more or less controlled the Republican Party. MacDonald put the emphasis less on policy makers such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld than on the extensive commentarial behind them: Journalists Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan at the Weekly Standard and the New American Century think tank, the long-dead political philosopher Leo Strauss (nothing neo about him) his and latter-day acolyte Harvey Mansfield, of Harvard Law School, and Bernard Lewis, an historian of Islamic culture, to name the most prominent.
For another, there were the Democratic hawks. The Democratic Party itself divided into three camps: opponents (Sen. Edward Kennedy, former Vice President Al Gore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi); cautious supporters (Senators John Kerry ,Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton); and passionate supporters (Senators Joseph Lieberman, Diane Feinstein, and Evan Bayh). Former Clinton adviser Kenneth Pollack made the argument for war in The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.
MacDonald discounts the theory that the oil companies argued for war, with a view to obtaining control of Iraqi reserves. But he credits the argument that Israel and the Israeli lobby in the United States strongly supported regime change. And the pundits, ranging from Thomas Friedman of The New York Times to Michael Kelley of The Atlantic to Max Boot of The Wall Street Journal, as well as the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate. Economic Principals, whose column you are reading now, was a follower in this camp.
At first the war went well. The U.S. captured Baghdad, Saddam fled, and Bush staged his “Mission Accomplished” landing on an aircraft carrier. But after the apparent victory began to melt away, MacDonald writes, those who had supported the war for whatever reason united in what he calls the Elite Consensus designed to shift the blame.
The war should have been won but it was poorly planned. There weren’t enough U.S. troops. Defense chief Rumsfeld was preoccupied with high-tech weaponry. Administrator Paul Bremer was arrogant. The Americans never should have disbanded the Iraqi army. The Iraqis were incurably sectarian. The Americans lacked counterinsurgency doctrine. The whole thing was Bush and Cheney’s fault. And, whatever else, the Elite Consensus was not at fault.
In fact, writes MacDonald, the entire intervention was based on the faulty premise that American values were universal. Regime change would be easy because Iraqis wanted what Americans wanted for them: democracy, individualism, constitutional government, toleration and, of course, free markets. Some did, but many did not.
Breaking the state was easy; liberating Iraq turned out to be impossible. Instead, MacDonald notes, the always precarious nation has turned “a bridge connecting Iran to Syria.” Meanwhile, Russia is annexing eastern Ukraine, over its neighbor’s attempts to break away from Russian influence and enter the economic sphere of the European Community. It has become a much more dangerous world.
Hence the dilemma facing Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, if either or both are to become presidential candidates in 2016. Can they back away from the proposition that has been at the center of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War – as Michael MacDonald puts it, that we are the world, and the world is better for it?
David Warsh, a longtime business journalist and economic historian, is proprietor of economicprincipals.c0m