In this careening campaign season, it’s the biggest reversal of fortune yet. And it might be the most momentous development before Election Day.
In a new ad, Barack Obama threw away his foreign policy advantage by using Osama bin Laden’s death to take a cheap political potshot at Mitt Romney.
But before the subsequent tsunami of criticism had even receded, Obama snatched back supremacy with a stroke of political genius — delivering a nationally televised address about Afghanistan, in Afghanistan, fresh from a secret rendezvous with President Karzai that commits the two countries to a 10-year “strategic partnership” and tells Americans exactly what they want to hear about our long, unpopular war.
This is a catastrophe for the Republican Party.
It might be decent news for Afghanistan, and for America. It might not. It’s too early to discern much more than that it isn’t great news, because the opportunity for great news is far behind us now. Whatever else the war in Afghanistan might be, it is certainly a drag.
The important thing, politically, is that the war in Afghanistan divides Republicans much more than it divides Americans. With his big night in Kabul, Obama has put the cherry on top his protracted and powerful strategy of dividing and conquering the GOP on foreign policy. Just days ago, I warned that Republicans faced a defining debacle:
Under a different Democratic president — one fully committed to Team Hawk or Team Dove — the GOP would find itself in much different straits. The tense balance between the two conservative cultures of honor and prudence would be tipped in one way or the other. With Obama, the GOP has become like Woody Allen’s neurotic diner: the food is horrible, and such small portions! The president is condemned for leading and for leading from behind; for relying too much on talk and too much on drones; for slavishly kowtowing to foreign leaders and for arrogantly refusing to stroke foreign leaders.
Obama’s foreign policy has paralyzed the GOP by laying bare just how much Republicans collectively refuse to fully commit to one grand, unifying possibility in international affairs — including the possibility of stepping away from sweeping principles and playing it by ear for a while. Republicans’ spasmodic flurry of attacks, complaints, and self-pitying diatribes is so intense that they have succeeded in shuddering themselves into a state of frozen paralysis. Call it the political equivalent of encephalitis lethargica.
There’s no better dramatization of what’s gone so wrong so fast for Republicans than the transformation of Marco Rubio — from a tea party hero who would slay the spending beast to a Joe Lieberman protégé delivering a speech at the Brookings Institution more critical of his fellow Republicans on foreign policy than Barack Obama himself.
The search for an explanation will soon begin. Political blame can be spread all around, but the most painful realization is the one Americans will want to make last, if at all. Republicans would never have been in this position had they resisted the urge to occupy Iraq. Even rolling swiftly from Baghdad to Damascus, and thence to the Saudis’ desert bases, would have denied candidate Obama the leverage to win. But the GOP did throw its support behind occupying Iraq because a large enough segment of the American people had thrown its support behind that mission.
Today, Americans are adrift and at odds in their vision of the role they must play in the world. We crave a return to normalcy in the way we always do after a big victory abroad — only, in this case, we have no victory. Yet neither do we have the benefit of an instructive defeat, which focuses the mind and steels the nerve. We have the geopolitical equivalent of a lot of student loan debt — an unshakable obligation to get back, step by step, to square one, stretching out over decades. In 10 years, when our “strategic partnership” with Afghanistan comes up inevitably for renewal, it will be 2022. Does anyone believe the America of 2022 will look a great deal like the America of today? No wonder Americans can’t recognize what America ought to be and do on the world stage. We can hardly envision our own future here at home.
Democrats are salivating at the prospect of throwing a victory party atop president Obama’s Afghan “end zone dance.” Yet no matter how enthusiastic Democrats may be about celebrating Obama’s political victory, that victory has a grotesque character because it comes at the cost of progressive ideology. Although the president has destroyed the GOP with his foreign policy, he has actually failed to dent the core of the conservative case against it — that we owe the rest of the world nothing. Obama’s political windfall for Democrats, meanwhile, comes almost entirely at the expense of the progressive case for a leftist foreign policy. Obama has deftly avoided disaster, but he has teed up America for a stark ideological choice in the not-so-distant future. Then, the advantage will go to conservatives — though the GOP may lie bleeding on the battlefield.
James Poulos is a columnist at The Daily Caller, a contributor at Ricochet, and a commentator in print, online, and on television and radio. Recently he has been the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. His website is jamespoulos.com and his Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.