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The Administration Is Arrogant, So Where Has He Gone Wrong?

The news story [1] covering Huckabee’s FA essay [2] has taken his opening lines about the administration’s “arrogant bunker mentality” and made them half of the entire story.  The blog right is, predictably, throwing a fit, with more than a few declaring that they cannot support Huckabee.  It probably cannot help Huckabee in the early voting that the only person I have seen praising the essay is…Joe Klein [3].  The remarkable thing is that Huckabee’s essay, while I have problems with a lot of it, does some of what the Republicans need to do politically (balance GOP support for the war with a broader break with at least some of the more egregious flaws of Bush’s foreign policy) and it demonstrates some reasonably good understanding of Iran and Pakistan.  Some of his proposals (launching attacks into Pakistan, remaining in Iraq, etc.) seem terrible to me, but they are exactly the kinds of things that Republican voters should appreciate about this essay. 

On the GOP’s largest general election liability and its worst policy position, the war in Iraq, Huckabee remains a loyal yes-man, so what do they really have to complain about?  His opposition to the Law of the Sea Treaty is red meat for the base, while his general interest in more robust diplomacy otherwise should satisfy more moderate Republicans.  Most of the opposition to the essay, I suspect, has been driven by a visceral reaction against the knock on the administration, as if criticising Mr. Bush were some unpardonable error.  If Republicans are going to make criticism of the current administration’s foreign policy completely off-limits and punish the candidates who make those criticisms, they are going to lose and they will deserve to lose.  My guess is that Huckabee’s foreign policy, whatever its substantive merits and problems, will sound reasonable and it will provide a refreshing departure for Republicans who don’t want to give up on the war but who also don’t want another four years of blustering militarism.  It isn’t the foreign policy I would prefer, but for a lot of disillusioned Republican voters it might be just right. 

Nonetheless, if he wants to shore up his reputation here, he really has to stop analogising international relations to family quarrels.  There is a way to make the argument he wants to make on Iran that doesn’t involve referring to reconciling with your estranged brother or what-have-you.

Update: James [4] thinks the “arrogant bunker mentality” line has everything backwards–it is the administration’s enthusiasm muck about in the rest of the world that is the problem.  That’s true, but it doesn’t entirely rule out something like the mentality to which Huckabee is referring.  If I understood him right, the mentality in question is one that believes that the world is unipolar, we are indispensable and must be involved in everyone else’s business, but which also thinks that we are under dire threat from tinpot dictatorships on the other side of the planet.  The first part is the arrogance, and the second is the bunker mentality, and the administration displays elements of both.  Indeed it justifies its activist foreign policy in terms of its paranoia about overblown foreign threats.  Obviously, there must be a much, much better way to say it than he did (as with so many things Huckabeean), but there is something to this critique.

Philip Klein [5] is also right that there is something in the essay to alienate all factions (conversely, there is something in the speech to reassure most factions).  It is true that it is incoherent, but that is what you will get when you are a candidate trying to shore up a pro-war base with a foreign policy that isn’t simply a reiteration of what we have now.  When every feint in the direction of realism is greeted by hostility, it will not be surprising that the would-be realist has to keep zig-zagging with promises to invade Pakistan and reject the Law of the Sea right after he denounces arrogance and the “bunker mentality.”  Also, the critique that he is proposing “a foreign aid program that would make Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society look like a trivial domestic initiative” must also be aimed at Romney, who proposed something very similar in his FA essay [6]:

 I envision that the summit would lead to the creation of a Partnership for Prosperity and Progress: a coalition of states that would assemble resources from developed nations and use them to support public schools (not Wahhabi madrasahs), microcredit and banking, the rule of law, human rights, basic health care, and free-market policies in modernizing Islamic states. These resources would be drawn from public and private institutions and from volunteers and nongovernmental organizations.  

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8 Comments To "The Administration Is Arrogant, So Where Has He Gone Wrong?"

#1 Comment By Koz On December 15, 2007 @ 6:13 pm

Daniel, is this Groundhog Day for you where the calendar is permanently stuck on some day in February 2006? The idea that Iraq is the Republicans’ biggest electoral liability _now_ strikes me as mostly wishful thinking on your part.

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On December 15, 2007 @ 6:22 pm

If you can think of an issue that puts the GOP more clearly at odds with majority opinion, I’d be interested to know what it is. When well over 50% want American forces home within a year, essentially open-ended support for the war in Iraq is what I call an electoral liability. You can argue that it is the right position to take and is therefore worth the political risk, but I don’t know where everyone is getting this idea that it has ceased to be a major political issue that hurts Republicans. It may be that it doesn’t hurt them as much as it could have, but it will surely hurt them. Party identification for the Republicans hasn’t dropped by five points because of failed Social Security reform. It has very likely dropped because of the war.

#3 Comment By Koz On December 15, 2007 @ 6:30 pm

The American people want the troops home, but more than that, they want to _win_. I just don’t think you can gainsay that, as much as you’d like to disagree. The Demo majority in Congress has run up against that basic reality several times now.

The GOP did take a big hit on the war, but that’s in the past. Going forward, the war will be less important domestically, and to the extent it’s still an issue, it’s less likely to hurt the GOP

A much bigger deal for the GOP is their perceived complacency and corruption.

#4 Comment By Daniel Larison On December 15, 2007 @ 6:41 pm

I don’t gainsay that. I also think that the desire to win has been tempered by a recognition that it isn’t going to happen. Gallup asked this question at the start of the month, and 57% said that we “can win, but won’t” or that we “cannot win.” That’s a lot of people who reject the basic premise of the GOP’s position on Iraq, which is that we *will* win.

Consider some of those CBS/NYT results from last week. Even bearing in mind that this is a survey of adults generally, it is pretty revealing: 54% think we should have stayed out, 59% think things there are going somewhat or very badly, 73% want “large numbers of American troops” out within two years, 52% believe the surge has made things worse or had no impact, and 60% think “neither side” is winning. This is pretty consistent with other polling.

There’s just no way that corruption trumps Iraq as an issue. This is, I’m sorry, a story that Republican politicians tell themselves to feel better about their chances next year. Iraq may not be in the headlines every day, but the damage to the GOP brand has been done and it isn’t going to be fixed so long as the party is tied to the war.


#5 Comment By Koz On December 15, 2007 @ 7:06 pm

There’s no amount of polling data that can outweigh the fact that the American people have had several opportunities to pull the plug on the war and so far have steadfastly refused to do it. I don’t know how you can miss it. It was the source of a fair bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the pacifist D’s.

That’s not the same thing as to say they approve of the war in the abstract, of course. The difference, to me, is fairly obvious. The war is simply a part of reality that’s bigger than either of us and that we have to adapt to in some way. The failure to get that is one of the things that cost John Kerry the Presidency in 2004.

As far as the corruption vs. Iraq goes, corruption is a forward-looking issue that the GOP can do something about. About the war, the voters know damn well that it was the Republicans who got us into the war and there’s no way to sidestep that. To some extent it insults the intelligence of the body politic to try. Whatever you think about this train of thought, I can quite assure you that it is not wishful thinking of GOP pols. As a practical matter, it’s much easier for them to bring the troops home than to clean up their own house. Frankly I think it will end up requiring that grass roots Republicans have to take primaries much more seriously than they do now.

#6 Comment By Daniel Larison On December 15, 2007 @ 7:18 pm

“The people,” or a majority of them anyway, threw out the pro-war party, and they continue to express their discontent with the war. The opportunities to end the war have been those missed by the majority in Congress. As everyone is so keen to remind us, the Congress has some of the lowest approval ratings in modern history. A significant part of that, I would suggest, is that Congress is not accomplishing what many of its constituents wanted it to accomplish.

#7 Comment By Koz On December 15, 2007 @ 7:40 pm

Exactly. If Congress really wanted to end the war, all they have to do is defund it. But they haven’t, and won’t. The embarrassing reality is that the whole antiwar movement, leftist or paleolibertarian, is intellectually bankrupt. The whole thing falls like a house of cards once they get to a point where they have to take some accountability for something. Instead, the war is funded just to avoid that very possibility. To the point where it becomes increasingly likely that the fastest way out of Iraq is to win the war.

Btw, are you interested in picking up again on your thesis of “non-interventionism” in the context of the Cold War? Frankly, I suspect you don’t have much of an argument there but I won’t say for sure until you get the chance to clarify a few things.

#8 Comment By Josh M. On December 15, 2007 @ 8:05 pm

There is a grand assumption being made here, without any specific definition. What does “winning the war” mean? Under what conditions can we claim “victory” over the non-state entity or abstraction that we’ve declared war against?