The conventional wisdom de jour in Washington, DC, can be summed up in a catchphrase popularized by Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: "It’s the economy, stupid!" The former Arkansas governor was challenging then-President George H.W. Bush, who had led the United States into a military victory against Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War, criticizing Bush Senior for focusing too much attention on foreign policy as opposed to dealing with the economic recession of the early 1990s. Clinton and his aides were suggesting that American voters were sick and tired of Iraq, the Middle East, and other global policy issues and wanted the election campaign to concentrate on the economy.
According to pollsters and pundits, it’s déjà vu all over again at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the aftermath of another Gulf War, the U.S. economy entering a recession, and Democrats seeming to have a chance of regaining the White House. The promoters of this conventional wisdom insist that Iraq, the Middle East, and foreign policy issues have been pushed aside as issues in the 2007 presidential race. Bye, bye Tora Bora, Mesopotamia, Persia. Hello, subprime mortgages, troubled hedge funds, and a collapsing dollar. Out: Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice. In: Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson. Potential war presidents Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Rudy Giuliani are history. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Mike Huckabee, the rookies, are the future.
Peter Beinart, an editor of The New Republic and senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, and one of the Washington-Boston corridor’s leading "liberal imperialists"—I can’t wait for the "religious atheists"—started the "conversation" in a column in the Washington Post. He noted that Iraq wasn’t a major focus during recent Democratic and Republican presidential debates. Hence, according to Beinart, who like many other liberal imperialists could be described as an early cheerleader of the Iraq War who later apologized but is now pro-surge and in favor of attacking Iran: "In the biggest surprise of the campaign so far, the election that almost everyone thought would be about Iraq is turning out not to be."
American voters, as in the aftermath of the Cold War and Gulf War I, are beginning to switch off the global-affairs channel and against the backdrop of rising economic problems are focusing on domestic bread-and-butter issues. So it’s not surprising that "It’s the economy, stupid!" is being invoked again. But this time it might not work for the Clinton running for office. Indeed, candidates like Clinton and Giuliani, who were running for president by accentuating their policy experience and their ability to deal with global threats like international terrorism, seem to be losing ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states to the inexperienced Obama and Huckabee.
Beinart agues that this change is happening because the surge is supposedly working and "not as many people are dying" in Iraq. Neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer concurs with his buddy on the left and argues that the many, many other great foreign policy successes of the Bush administration—such as the nuclear accord with North Korea, the Annapolis "peace conference," and the peaceful political changes in Pakistan—are making us all feel that in the spirit of the holidays, it’s peace on earth and goodwill to all. In fact, Krauthammer, pontificating on Inside Washington, suggested that the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran—which concluded Tehran had terminated its nuclear weapons programs in 2003, among other things—was actually a victory for Bush’s strategy and that in any case, the NIE makes it less likely that the United States and Iran would go to war before 2008.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, another former Iraq War booster and current surge enthusiast, employing the historical analogy of the electoral defeat of WWII British Prime Minister Winston Churchill by Clement Attlee in 1945, described the current campaign for the White House as a "postwar election," contending that the American people are "exhausted" with the war and changing from "a war mentality to a peace mentality."
Well, this End-of-Iraq perspective doesn’t sound either as earth shaking as the End-of-History thesis or as profound as the Clash-of-Civilization theorem. But to paraphrase Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, in a city where Beinart—not unlike Krauthammer and Brooks—is considered to be a Big Man of Ideas, it’s just the paradigms that may be getting smaller.
Now, I’ll be first to applaud any news that U.S. troops are withdrawing from Iraq, that Washington is promoting a diplomatic bargain as part of an opening to Tehran, that we’ve finally captured Osama bin Laden and his gang and have no need to maintain Pakistani Gen. Pervez Musharraf as an ally, that we’ve adopted a benign neglect approach to the never-ending ethnic and religious struggles in Palestine, and finally, that the political elites in Washington are engaging in a debate on how to start reducing U.S. military intervention in the world. Under such conditions, the American public’s renewed preoccupation with the economy would make sense, and the notion that the next president should know more about financial "securitization" and SPVs (special purpose vehicles) than about asymmetric warfare and WMD (weapons of mass destruction) would prove to be more than just a figment of pundits’ imagination.
Indeed, thanks to the ultimate spin perpetrated by Beinart and company, the American public seems to be taking seriously the media events seemingly staged by the Bush administration—Middle East "peace" talks at Annapolis; Musharraf "taking off" his military uniform—by breathing a huge sigh of relief and launching a search for another folksy Arkansas governor to put in the White House.
But this fantasy may be another example of the disdain felt by the elites in Washington toward the American public. It assumes that the American people actually buy into the tall tales being told by Bush and Rice. Such whoppers include: that the short-term and limited tactical achievement of the surge would bring about long-term political reconciliation between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds in Iraq, so that U.S. forces can return home; that one day of scripted televised events in Annapolis would lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace, which would permit U.S. presidents to invest less energy in Mideast diplomacy; that Pakistan is cooperating with Washington in the struggle against al-Qaida, which suggests that the Islamist radicals are in retreat there and in Afghanistan; and that the Bush administration actually knows what it is doing vis-à-vis Iran. In fact, there is no sign of any move toward political accommodation in Iraq; there is simply less violence in some parts of Iraq where ethnic cleansing has already been accomplished. Palestinians and Israelis are not going to make peace anytime soon; if anything, the Palestinian political groups of Fatah and Hamas would need to resolve their own differences before they could deal with Israel. And the situation in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan remains as explosive as ever.
The majority of Americans may not be geostrategic thinkers, but they probably understand that thanks to Bush, the broader Middle East has become more unstable and threatening to U.S. interests. Most of the polls that I’ve seen indicate that while Americans applaud the efforts of the U.S. military to reduce violence in Iraq, they remain skeptical about the chances for national reconciliation there. More important, they continue to regard the Iraq War as a major strategic mistake and want to see U.S. forces out of Iraq as soon as possible. And there hasn’t been any major change in Bush’s low approval ratings on foreign policy and the economy. What did happen was that the current economic woes in the form of home foreclosures, credit card delinquencies, and rising gas prices, can be felt by most Americans in a more direct, immediate, and personal way than the continuing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan—a reality that would have changed if the military draft would have been reinstated.
In short, Americans have concluded that Bush will be leaving them not only with the messes in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere that are being translated into enormous human and financial costs, but that another part of his legacy will be the troubled U.S. economy—expanding budget, trade, and current-account deficits, a housing market crisis, and a failing financial system—not to mention the declining value of the dollar and the rising costs of energy. In a way, foreign policy and the economy are not separate policy issues. After all, the growing deficits have been driven by the mushrooming spending on U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, which has had a major impact on global energy prices. These deficits that pay for the American Empire are being financed by China, which is emerging as the top geo-economic and geopolitical U.S. competitor. At the same time, the weakening dollar diminishes the U.S. geopolitical leverage vis-à-vis allies and rivals. You don’t have to be an economic expert to figure out how the financial problems facing America are intertwined with its foreign policy failures.
It seems that Americans are finally beginning to recognize that maintaining a gigantic welfare-warfare state is a costly proposition. And indeed, the presidential candidate who frames the debate in such a way will be in a better position to win the race to the White House.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to the IRC’s Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.