The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
Tuesday night’s Republican debate, which was almost completely given over to foreign policy and especially terrorism, reminded us of George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, in 2005—specifically this passage:
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. . . .
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
The idea of enhancing security in America by promoting democracy elsewhere was a central element of what was called the Bush doctrine. The debate made us think of it not because the candidates echoed Bush, but that they sounded so different from him. Even Marco Rubio, probably the most idealistic of the nine candidates on the CNN stage, observed:
Look, we will have to work around the world with less than ideal governments. The government in Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, but we will have to work with them. The government in Jordan is not perfect, but we will have to work with them.
That didn’t exactly contradict Bush, who himself worked with many “less than ideal governments” even as he helped engineer the overthrow of a couple of them. In his 2005 inaugural the president described ending tyranny as an ultimate objective—“the concentrated work of generations”—not an immediate one. And the Rubio quote above came in the context of defending his support for the toppling of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and was followed by an assertion that if Syria’s Bashar Assad falls, “I will not shed a tear.”
But other candidates were explicit in disavowing the Bush approach. Rand Paul, asked by Wolf Blitzer if he agreed with Jeb Bush that “taking out Saddam Hussein turned out to be a pretty good deal,” replied that the question was “whether . . . regime change is a good idea or a bad idea.” He said categorically it’s a bad one: “Out of regime change you get chaos. From the chaos you have seen repeatedly the rise of radical Islam. So we get this profession of, oh, my goodness, they want to do something about terrorism and yet they’re the problem because they allow terrorism to arise out of that chaos.”
That’s hardly surprising coming from a libertarian scion, and it’s even less significant given Paul’s poor poll performance (he barely made the cut for last night’s main stage). But the two candidates who are currently running strongest, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, sounded similar themes. Trump:
In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.
We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to the Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory.
It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.
“That is exactly what President Obama said,” Carly Fiorina replied. It reminded us of George McGovern’s 1972 refrain: “Come home, America.”
Ted Cruz differed with Rubio on Syria:
Well, it’s more than not shedding a tear. It’s actively getting involved to topple a government. And we keep hearing from President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Washington Republicans that they’re searching for these mythical moderate rebels. It’s like a purple unicorn. They never exist. These moderate rebels end up being jihadists.
And I’ll tell you whose view on Assad is the same as mine. It’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel doesn’t have a dog in that fight because Assad is a puppet of Iran, a Shia radical Islamic terrorist, but at the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t want to see Syria governed by ISIS. And we need to focus on American interests, not on global aspirations.
That last assertion directly contradicts this one, from the Bush inaugural: “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”
Trump expressly disavowed the 2003 Iraq intervention: “One of the things that I’m frankly most proud of is that in 2003, 2004, I was totally against going into Iraq because you’re going to destabilize the Middle East. I called it. I called it very strongly.”
Cruz did not. In fact, he avoided mentioning Iraq in an answer to a question that mentioned it:
Wolf Blitzer: Sen. Cruz, you have said the world would be safer today if Saddam Hussein were still in power in Iraq, Moammar Gadhafi ruled Libya, and Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt. So would it be your policy to preserve dictatorships, rather than promoting democracy in the Middle East?
Cruz: Wolf, I believe in an America-first foreign policy, that far too often President Obama and Hillary Clinton—and, unfortunately, more than a few Republicans—have gotten distracted from the central focus of keeping this country safe.
So let’s go back to the beginning of the Obama administration, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama led NATO in toppling the government in Libya. They did it because they wanted to promote democracy. A number of Republicans supported them. The result of that—and we were told then that there were these moderate rebels that would take over. Well, the result is, Libya is now a terrorist war zone run by jihadists.
Move over to Egypt. Once again, the Obama administration, encouraged by Republicans, toppled Mubarak who had been a reliable ally of the United States, of Israel, and in its place, [Mohamed] Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came in, a terrorist organization.
And we need to learn from history. These same leaders—Obama, Clinton, and far too many Republicans—want to topple Assad. Assad is a bad man. Gadhafi was a bad man. Mubarak had a terrible human rights record. But they were assisting us—at least Gadhafi and Mubarak—in fighting radical Islamic terrorists.
And if we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests. And the approach, instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter . . . we ought to hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to take control of new countries.
The premise of Blitzer’s question was a tad imprecise. He was paraphrasing not a statement Cruz made but a question (from MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough) that he answered in the affirmative. Cruz’s answer then, as was the case last night, skipped over Iraq and began with Libya.
No doubt Cruz accurately calculates that he’ll win more primary votes by criticizing the current Democratic president (and unspecified “Washington Republicans” who supported its initiatives) than the last Republican one. Still, the overall tone of the debate suggests that much of the party has cooled to, if not rejected outright, President Bush’s democracy-promotion vision. There were a few defenses of the Iraq intervention—from Jeb Bush, Fiorina and John Kasich—but all were fairly halfhearted.
Allow us to offer a tentative case in George W. Bush’s defense. Of the four efforts at “regime change” discussed at last night’s debate—Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria—three were carried out or considered by the Obama administration. That suggests a greater continuity between the two administrations than the current president would probably like to admit. From Obama’s actions, it appears he agrees with Bush on the ends (democracy promotion) but disagrees on the means (accepting air strikes and exhortation but rejecting larger-scale military intervention).
Among the three regime changes that were carried out, all turned out badly. It’s easy to imagine Syria would have as well, had Obama not sought congressional approval or had it been forthcoming.
(A word about Egypt, which is back under military dictatorship after a brief democratic experiment: Some suggest that Obama’s attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood was naive or even ideologically sympathetic. That may be true. It is also true that Bush, in his inaugural address, observed: “When the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling.”)
On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine, as Fiorina argued last night, that the situation in Iraq would be far better but for Obama’s total withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011. If that premise is true, then the three regime-change disasters can all be laid to Obama’s actions. One may complicate the argument further, however, by observing that public disaffection with the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq war made Obama’s election possible.
Here’s another twist: During last night’s debate, nobody, not even Rand Paul, mentioned the other Bush regime-change effort: Afghanistan. Nor did Scarborough or Blitzer include the Taliban in the list of regimes with whose continued presence the U.S. might be better off. It would appear there is still a consensus that regime change in Afghanistan was necessary, perhaps even successful.
Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq war, disavowing that position only years later because of the exigencies of her party’s politics. She agitated for the Libya intervention and has said she supported stronger action against Assad (she had left the administration by the summer of 2013, when Obama briefly considered air strikes aimed at his ouster). If Trump or Cruz is the nominee, Mrs. Clinton may end up running to his “right” on this aspect of foreign policy—or at least to what would have been considered the right a decade ago. In this regard, partisan lines are more clearly drawn than ideological ones.
Then again, a president’s actions in office don’t always match his pronouncements as a candidate. In a 2000 debate with Al Gore, Gov. George W. Bush declared: “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.” We don’t doubt that he meant it. But events intervened.
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