Newt Gingrich called the U.S.-Israeli decision to put off joint military exercises scheduled for the Negev Desert "the greatest act of presidential weakness he has seen in his lifetime." He was implying that it was done to appease Iran. As it happens, according to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, the exercises were put off not by the U.S. but at the request of the Israelis. Facts aside, as they often are, the only true weakness revealed by the statement is Gingrich's own. He's desperate. If current polls are to be believed, the remaining shelf-life of his campaign can be measured in hours. And that's a charitable assessment. More gimlet-eyed observers might conclude the campaign hasn't been viable since it collapsed from front runner status to also-ran in Iowa under the weight of the candidate's blustering intemperance.
Gingrich, despite his declining political relevance, does trigger a couple useful thoughts with this latest crudely inflammatory comment. The first is that he reminds us what old-fashioned war mongering is really like. War mongering, like cheese mongering and fish mongering, has a good old-fashioned sound to it. It makes one think of the tub-thumping pols of old, back in the days when war was glorious and generals watched battles from astride white steeds high atop a hillside far from the action. Of course, like all forms of mongering, it's a dirty business and even when it doesn't produce mayhem and tragedy it leaves behind a dirty, smelly residue.
Ron Paul calls Gingrich and the others seeking to tough-talk our way toward confrontation with Iran "chicken hawks." Not only does this have a satisfyingly sleazy allusion to a sexual subculture within it, it also correctly observes that it's no skin off Gingrich's expansive backside to urge America into war with Iran.
The problem is that while Paul's war-avoiding impulse is nobler than Gingrich's posturing, his approach to Iran suffers from a similar flaw. Both are the classic product of political campaigns: they are not so much policies as they are provocations, conceived as much to produce a reaction in the lizard brains of potential followers as they are to actually suggest a way to advance U.S. national interests. All the candidates are guilty of such statements. Romney and Perry have also made over-the-top statements about what they would do if they got their hands on Iran (not to mention over-the-top statements about their devotion to Israel, their anger with the Chinese, their contempt for Eurosocialism, and so on.)
The reason they overdo it is that nuance doesn't show up well even on large-screen HD TVs. In fact, people viewing the world 55 diagonal inches at a time want bright colors, action, drama, 3D foreign policy where all the bits and pieces seem to fly right off the screen and straight into your living room. It's one of the reasons that foreign policy often plays a secondary role in campaigns.
That said, 3D full-color, high-impact nuance is not impossible. And the irony is that nothing illustrates this as well as the Obama administration's smart, multi-layered, tough and often courageous Iran policy. You can tell it's nuanced because so few people are happy with it. Today, for example, on "Morning Joe," Zbigniew Brzezinski asserted that the covert attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists presumably undertaken by the Israelis perhaps with the tacit endorsement of the U.S. "debased" foreign policy. Now, there are few people in the U.S. foreign policy community for whom I have greater regard than Brzezinski. But this remark bemused and troubled me. On the one hand I find the notion that foreign policy can be debased laughable when it so often deals in death, lying, bribery, and other such practices. More importantly, I can't help but think that Brzezinski wouldn't have minded such actions against Soviet enemies during the Cold War. He just doesn't think the threat posed by Iran is comparable (it's not) nor does he, I believe, much like the U.S. working so closely with Israel (a more complicated issue than we can deal with here effectively.) But the boldness of these attacks -- like the Stuxnet cyberattack and the drone activity in that country -- has sent a message that has clearly been received by the Iranians as well as the critics. This president and his allies are not simply going to rely on "soft power" to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, especially when it seems clear that Tehran has such disregard for diplomacy and prescribed international processes. This makes threats to do more credible and the ability to achieve goals while doing less likely.
At the same time, the administration's "soft power" tourniquet has also been applied effectively. Not only are have they maintained for many months tireless multichannel diplomatic efforts to nudge the Iranians to an agreement to stop its progress toward the development of nuclear weapons, they have engineered one of the most effective economic sanctions programs undertaken by the international community against any nation in the recent history of the world. "Soft" though this power may be, it is causing real pain and discomfort for Iran's leadership. In a region that has seen plenty of governments totter under economic stresses, the ayatollahs increasingly are seen as wanting a way out from the pressure. (The situation in Iran has reportedly gotten so bad that periodically Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bolts from Tehran to go to his home town far from his enemies in the high ranks of the government...and then must be escorted back to the capital at the emphatic insistence of his bosses in the top tiers of that country's religious hierarchy.)
The point is that the president takes the threat seriously and has for now at least, found a way to very forcefully deliver a message that Iran must cease and desist without actually going to war. Should he have to take that next step, he will be able to honestly say that thing every president should be able to assert prior to putting troops in harms way, that he has tried every other available option. He has also approached this problem in conjunction with the international community thus adding both legitimacy and effectiveness to the undertaking.
The GOP candidates will wave their arms and talk tougher than teen-aged boys in a locker room. Or, in the case of Paul, he will talk tough and wave off serious threats as someone else's problems. But they will all overstate because they think they must...even as the President admirably illustrates that there is another course, one that involves such a complete and energetic use of almost every tool short of open warfare in the national security tool box that I suspect someday if things turn out right (and no foreign policy initiative can guarantee an outcome because, of course, other players and many variables are involved) it will be studied as an example of how to do foreign policy right-big, bold, 3D and nuanced.
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The Republican national security debate made me feel young again. First, there was the audience at Constitution Hall, typically diverse -- old white guys, fat old white guys, really old white guys, prematurely aging middle-aged white guys, and a few understandably unhappy looking women. But more importantly, there was the conversation. It reeked of 2004. All of a sudden I was 48 again.
But moving past that harsh personal reality ... the Republican candidates apparently think that playing the "War on Terror" card is the way into voters' hearts. They promoted torture. They embraced racially profiling Muslims. They feared the spread of terrorists across the Americas. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, they were all about terror. The urgency seemed just as palpable and vaguely crazed as it was back in the day. Amazingly ... stunningly ... the message from most of the Republican candidates, led by front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, reflected the first-hints of nostalgia for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Perhaps that was because some of the most prominent old white men in the audience were actually behind the Bush administration's policies of invasion and violation of basic human rights. There was Paul Wolfowitz. There was David Addington. And then there was Ed Meese. Somewhere out there was John Birch.
Interestingly, in this context, the two standout performers in the debate were Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. Both were willing to step away from the retro-masses of the Republican Party and talk about today's economic concerns and challenge the over-reach and failed policies of the past decade. Paul, of course, once again embracing an end to the war on drugs (about which he is also right, as it happens), is too far out there to win. But Huntsman had a bit of a breakthrough. He is being strategic. He is focused on New Hampshire as the joke on Saturday Night Live had it. And performances like tonight's could very well give him a shot there ... at least more of a chance than he has appeared to have thus far.
Of course, Mitt Romney ... and his deep, unwavering love for spending every possible penny on defense ... remains the most likely candidate. That said, as a very shrewd observer of these things emailed me during the debate, Romney is the Al Gore of the Republican Party. Seems good on paper ... and made of cardboard. Hard to love. Newt Gingrich may have done well, but he is a dog whistle only Republicans can hear. The press loves him because he abuses them and he seems like a more intelligent breed of bad candidate than Cain or Perry.
Big losers tonight were viewers who did not get to hear anyone really address the big issues of our time -- from the uprising in Tahrir Square that was strangely all but ignored to the crisis in the Eurozone to the rise of China and the BRICS. And CNN was also a loser for its hokey staging, game show style opening, and the flaccid if competent moderation that let the conversation remain moored in the past.
Strangely, the big winners were not actually in the room. Barack Obama was one. He won both because he looks so good next to these guys and because they showed him great deference in the degree to which they generally tip-toed around his real accomplishments. But even his triumph was transcended by the night's biggest winner: Bibi Netanyahu. Somehow, he managed to get two of the candidates -- Romney and Santorum -- to publicly state their first trip as president would be to Israel. And Gingrich offered to work with Israel on a conventional invasion of Iran. And these were just a couple of the highlights. Bibi and his diplomatic team have masterfully played the perceived ambivalence of the Obama administration into a competition among Republicans to demonstrate who loves Israel the most. Which was yet another thing that made me feel young again ... like back in the good old days when support for Israel was much more reflexive and, frankly, much easier.
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Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, flip a coin. There are differences between the two to be sure. But in the end, the net dissimilarity between these two establishment politicians is going to end up being considerably less than campaign rhetoric will suggest -- or than you might hope for.
Neither is anything like a transformational figure. Both are responsible, cautious men. Both, like most presidential candidates, are flawed by their ambition. There may be differences in emphasis, of course. One is too cool, a bit of a weathervane, beholden to Wall Street, not well loved within his own party establishment, not trusted by his party's base and the other is ... well, I guess that proves my point. From foreign policy to domestic programs, you can be pretty sure the efforts they lead will look surprisingly similar.
Presidential candidates run to the middle (and winners hail from the mainstream) because the deciding votes are cast in the middle. Usually -- and there are periodic exceptions -- that is what accounts for the fact that most presidents have more in common with the men who preceded or followed them in office than they would care to acknowledge.
This is one of the reasons that there is regular refrain for third party presidential candidates. It is also one of the reasons that such undertakings are typically doomed to failure and counterproductive.
If you want to produce real change in the way the government of the United States functions, the way to do it is to focus on the Congress. And boy, does the Congress ever need changing.
The failure of the stuporcommittee (which as of this writing seems all but certain) to even seriously grapple with the issue of the deficit is one of the grossest examples of dereliction of duty in the U.S. government since, well, since the Congress approved the Bush tax cuts. As Senator Tom Coburn said when presented with the idea that the Congress had an approval rating of only 13 percent, "I want to know who those 13 percent are." The Congressional approval rating has now fallen to just 9 percent. This Congress doesn't deserve an approval rating. They don't deserve another day on the job. They could all go home tomorrow and I bet it would be six months before anyone even noticed. (That is after the celebrations had died down.)
Yet, it is in the Congress that an effective, instantly relevant third party initiative could be undertaken. What this country -- divided as it is -- needs, is a legislative third party. It needs a group of swing votes that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans could pass anything without. And given the current state of things, that means it could be a fairly small group -- a handful of senators, 10 or 20 or 30 congresspeople. And it would be possible to identify districts and states where electing a third party or sworn swing vote candidate would be possible. And it would not cost a fraction of what it would cost to win a presidential election. And the group would immediately hold the balance of power on the Hill.
Presidential campaigns capture the glamour. It's easier to connect change with a single face, a single name, a single personality. But, look at where Washington is dysfunctional today and you have to acknowledge, the problem lies at the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Capitol Hill has become the Boot Hill of ideas, the place initiatives go to die.
Having a third party on a hill that both sides had to work with to get anything done would change the dynamics dramatically. It would force compromise because there literally would be no way to proceed without it. You would think that was true today but the problem with the two political parties is both see compromise as capitulation to the other, it's a zero sum game. With a third party, that was open to reasonable ideas from both sides ... and couldn't succeed without one or the other...that would change things. It would also create a movement that could grow giving people an alternative to the binary choices they face today.
Clearly, something must be done. If the failure of the supercommittee does not convince you of that then you are already resigned to the irreversible decline of the United States. Because that is precisely where this kind of leadership failure will take us. That is why as important as the presidential sweepstakes are, the really important election news story of 2012 will be whether the American people vote for change in a Congress that has sold them out in every way possible. Certainly every member of the supercommittee and the leadership of both parties should be challenged on their record of failure. They should not be allowed to simply blame it on the other side. Just as the president should not be allowed to merely blame this on the Congress. This was important ... and he chose not to engage, not to take the political risk of rolling up his sleeves and working toward a solution, not to threaten and cajole and do what past presidents have done. It -- like his decision to agree to the extension of the Bush tax cuts -- are among the low points of his otherwise quite accomplished presidency. But neither he nor his potential successor will be able to fix Washington from the Oval Office (which is why whomever wins should get out of it and invite more people into it than the president has done this term). The real responsibility for change we can believe in actually resides with the American people ... and the surest sign whether or not they have accepted that challenge will come when the votes are tallied after next year's congressional balloting.
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Watching this weekend's Republican presidential debate on U.S. foreign policy, you might be forgiven if you thought it shed absolutely no light on U.S. foreign policy. After all, by definition ... and by God's good graces ... the views expressed represented those of people who will have precious little influence over America's international course. Only one of these people can be the Republican nominee. And, in part thanks to performances like what we saw on Saturday, even that individual is very likely not going to ever be president of the United States.
As a consequence the vapidity of Herman Cain is irrelevant. The pro-torture stance of the wing-nuts in the group is irrelevant. The ridiculous zero-based foreign aid formula suggested by Rick Perry is irrelevant. Even the pontificating of Republican non-Romney of the Month, Newt Gingrich is irrelevant. Because these weren't foreign policy ideas or positions. They were desperate cries for attention.
Sadly, also irrelevant will be thoughtful views offered by Jon Huntsman, who clearly distinguished himself as the most capable, thoughtful, experienced, and credible of the crew.
This means that the 30 minutes of the debate that CBS chose not to air will have a virtually identical impact to the 60 minutes of Obama-bashing, fear-mongering, and peacocking that actually were broadcast.
It is possible that some of the views that were offered by likely nominee Mitt Romney could be consequential. This would not seem to be good for U.S.-China relations except that there is virtually zero possibility that President Mitt Romney -- who would essentially be the hand-picked candidate of the business community and the major party presidential candidate with the closest ties to America's economic establishment in modern memory -- would actually follow through on his anti-Beijing saber-rattling once in office. Further, some of his statements were essentially meaningless to begin with -- like his assertion that a vote for him was the only way to avert Iran getting the bomb, not being backed by facts or even being remotely credible given how key what happens between now and when the next president takes office will be.
But more important still is that Romney isn't going to be the next President either. In all likelihood that will be Barack Obama. Here are 10 reasons why:
Obama is the incumbent. That matters. And he has become increasingly confident in using the bully pulpit to his advantage, at appearing presidential. The crucial issue is going to be economics.
Despite Europe's economic mess, a number of other factors suggest that the U.S. economy may begin to tick upward more during the next year. Other parts of the world are likely to be growing from the emerging markets to, in a modest way, Japan. More importantly, the likelihood that the U.S. unemployment rate declines the better part of a point to something closer to 8 percent is pretty good. That ought to be enough to make the case he avoided the abyss and turned things around in much the same way that Ronald Reagan did in 1984.
Like Reagan, Obama is liked and seen as trying hard to do the right thing. That, plus some signs of progress goes a long way with the American people.
Furthermore, none of these candidates are a Ronald Reagan. Moreover, none of them are even a George W. Bush, which is saying something. Mitt Romney is the whitest white man in America. He will look more like the establishment than Obama in an anti-establishment year. He will not get any journalistic good bounces because frankly it is hard to spin a narrative about the guy that will grab anyone's heartstrings. Want evidence, look at how desperately half the Republican party is at looking for alternatives.
That search for alternatives could lead to a third party candidate. If it's Ron Paul it will eat into Romney's base. It is highly unlikely the left will pose a similar challenge to Obama. As for the possibility of a centrist third party candidate, appealing as it may be, it will be less so to many if it appears that candidate can't win and will only increase the likelihood that Mitt Romney will be elected on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ticket.
While external events in the world -- like the Iranian detonation of a nuclear device or a terror attack -- could hurt Obama, in all likelihood, given his growing comfort with foreign-policy and the tendency of the American people to rally around the president in times of crisis, it would be a mistake to count on such a development being more likely to help the Republican candidate.
The reality is that while foreign policy won't be central to the election, Obama has already succeeded in doing something remarkable: Taking it off the table. He is hard to criticize given his record with bin Laden, Al Awlaki, Qaddafi, meeting his promise in Iraq, starting to get out of Afghanistan, and restoring America's international reputation.
We haven't gotten to the one-on-one segment of the campaign yet. Whoever is the Republican candidate has to run against the very disciplined, intelligent, well-prepared, charismatic president. Which of those folks you saw Saturday night can hold their own versus Obama?
The Republican Party on the Hill, via the Tea Party and via its more extreme elements has adopted a bunch of policies that are astonishingly out of touch with the moment. They should be doing great given the economic problems. But they are not only seen as obstructionist on the Hill but they are seen as advocates of millionaires they don't want taxed and opposed to fairness in sharing the burden for the sacrifices fixing the economy will require.
By extension the leading voices for the Republican Party are folks like those on the stage ... and John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell. Really? That's going to grab America in the current environment?
The electoral map says it will be close. But already Republican overreaching has pushed Ohio back toward Obama. The Republican hope re: Florida, Marco Rubio has suffered some self-inflicted wounds. Virginia gets bluer by the day. It's close ... but it's trending toward the President.
And so, while making predictions a year out is a sucker's game, for those of you who watched the Saturday debate and were disheartened there is at least all the above to suggest that none of it mattered that much anyway. As of right now the favorite to be the next president of the U.S. has to be the current president of the U.S.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.