As Peter Beinart writes in the new issue of the Atlantic, Republicans have embraced “the legend of the surge,” which starts off as a specific belief about what happened in Iraq and why, and then expands outward to justify a return to George W. Bush’s simplistic hawkish approach to any foreign policy challenge. To put it briefly, the change in strategy around the surge, and the “Sunni awakening” that occurred at the same time, were supposed to create the conditions in which a political reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites could take place. But that never happened, and the corruption and sectarianism of Nouri al-Maliki’s government laid the groundwork for the country’s continued civil war and eventually the rise of the Islamic State.
But Republicans tell a different story, one that not only wipes away all the calamitous and naive decisions of the Bush administration but also can be used to justify a renewal of the Bush Doctrine anywhere. Here’s how Jeb will put it today:
So why was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the joint chiefs knew was necessary?That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill – and that Iran has exploited to the full as well.ISIS grew while the United States disengaged from the Middle East and ignored the threat.And where was Secretary of State Clinton in all of this? Like the president himself, she had opposed the surge . . . then joined in claiming credit for its success . . . then stood by as that hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away.
So: Everything was going great in Iraq and victory had been achieved, until Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton threw it all away. Nothing is the fault of Republicans, or of the people who supported and launched the Iraq war, the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. George W. Bush made no mistakes that might have any lessons for us, and the answer to every foreign policy challenge is to be more bellicose and more eager to use military force.
And what should we do now? If you said that the key is “strength” and “leadership,” then give yourself a gold star:
The threat of global jihad, and of the Islamic State in particular, requires all the strength, unity, and confidence that only American leadership can provide.Radical Islam is a threat we are entirely capable of overcoming, and I will be unyielding in that cause should I be elected President of the United States.We should pursue the clear and unequivocal objective of throwing back the barbarians of ISIS, and helping the millions in the region who want to live in peace.Instead of simply reacting to each new move the terrorists choose to make, we will use every advantage we have – to take the offensive, to keep it, and to prevail.In all of this, the United States must engage with friends and allies, and lead again in that vital region.
I challenge you to read that passage and tell me a single specific thing Bush plans to do.
And then there’s Bush’s embrace of what has to be the single most inane objection Republicans have to Obama’s conduct in foreign affairs: “Despite elaborate efforts by the administration to avoid even calling it by name,” he’ll say, “one of the very gravest threats we face today comes from radical Islamic terrorists.” I’m not sure what “elaborate efforts” Bush is talking about, but it’s true that President Obama prefers not to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” because he thinks that could serve to alienate Muslims around the world by reinforcing the radicals’ argument that Islam itself is at war with the West. Obama might be right or wrong about that, but it’s a relatively minor point. Yet to hear Republicans tell it, it is literally impossible to contain terrorism if the president doesn’t repeat this phrase on a regular basis. They say this so often and with such fervor that one has to assume they actually believe that the words “radical Islamic terrorism” constitute some sort of magical incantation, one that would turn our enemies’ guns to dust and cause the terrorists themselves to disappear in a puff of smoke if only it were spoken by the commander in chief.
You may remember a few weeks ago when Donald Trump said he had a spectacular, super-classy, guaranteed-to-work plan to destroy the Islamic State, but he wasn’t going to reveal it, lest the terrorists get wind of their impending demise. Then when he finally did, the plan was this: “I would bomb the hell out of those oil fields. I wouldn’t send many troops because you won’t need them by the time I’m finished.” Everyone laughed and shook their heads at the fact that a guy whose policy thinking operates at a fifth-grade level was leading the Republican field.
But how much more sophisticated than that is what Bush and the other candidates are offering on foreign policy? For instance, if you read this recent manifesto from Marco Rubio, you’ll learn that he plans to lead with strength, so America can be strong and full of leadership. And also strength, because that’s what America needs to lead.
Make no mistake: What Jeb Bush and the other GOP candidates (with the exception of Rand Paul) are offering on foreign policy is nothing more or less than a return to the Bush Doctrine. They won’t call it that, because they know that would be politically foolish; Americans may have short memories, but not that short. Maybe in their next debate, someone can ask them how their foreign policy would differ in any way from George W. Bush’s. I doubt they’d have an answer.