Tuesday night's Republican debate was widely derided as a house of horrors more fit for the day after Halloween than the day after Hannukah. To wit:
This debate is like a campfire, nine guys taking turns with the flashlight, trying to scare the hell out of everyone.— Binyamin Appelbaum (@BCAppelbaum) December 16, 2015
But this was quite predictable. A more unexpected reading can be found in the morning after's Wall Street Journal op-ed page. There, James Taranto lamented the end of the "Bush doctrine," or the idea that democracy promotion should be foremost on America's agenda and that regime change is a primary means of achieving it.
Let's consider two statements by the men who are #1 and #2 in the polls right now. First, Donald Trump:
In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.
We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to the Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory.
It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.
Second, Ted Cruz, asked to clarify a comment that he wouldn't shed a tear for the end of the Assad regime:
Well, it’s more than not shedding a tear. It’s actively getting involved to topple a government. And we keep hearing from President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Washington Republicans that they’re searching for these mythical moderate rebels. It’s like a purple unicorn. They never exist. These moderate rebels end up being jihadists.
And I’ll tell you whose view on Assad is the same as mine. It’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel doesn’t have a dog in that fight because Assad is a puppet of Iran, a Shia radical Islamic terrorist, but at the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t want to see Syria governed by ISIS. And we need to focus on American interests, not on global aspirations.
Whoa! Trump sounds like Dennis Kucinich, Cruz like a populist Henry Kissinger. (Purple unicorns!) How did these sentiments make it into a Republican debate?
Here's how: the war in Syria is where ideological rigidity goes to die. Foreign policy on the right generally falls into one of three camps: isolationism, neoconservatism, and realism. All are flummoxed by Syria.
Confusingly, al Nusra is al Qaeda's affiliate, and fights not only the Assad government but other rebels, including Daesh.
See Trump, Donald.
Would that he'd felt this way in 2006: a partitioned Iraq would not have required the political reconciliation upon which the surge's ultimate strategy depended. Without that reconciliation, Iraq unsurprisingly lapsed back into violence the first chance it got.
If you're an isolationist, try explaining why it's okay to do nothing while a quarter of a million people die and a region is destabilized. If you're a neoconservative, try explaining how taking the fight directly to Daesh will do anything other than help the Assad government, and by extension Russia and Iran... or how taking the fight to Assad will do anything other than help extremist rebel factions, including Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, who want control of Syria. And if you're a realist, you want to promote America's national interests... but in Syria, what are they? Stability? Democracy? Counterterrorism? Short-term geopolitical gain? Several of these have diametrically opposed policy prescriptions.
All of this has opened up a real chance for a conversation on the right for the first time since before 9/11. What are America's goals in the world? How best to achieve them? The party is grappling with the legacy of the Iraq War in a real way for the first time, and demonstrating that it's entirely possible to be patriotic, even chauvinistic, and still have a meaningful debate on tactics and outcomes.
So what does this leave? It leaves people skittering to outflank each other. Ted Cruz conflates liberal internationalism and neoconservatism, positioning himself as the "third way" between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. John Bolton, George W. Bush's famously neoconservative former UN Ambassador (and not actually a Presidential candidate, but humor me here: he did form an exploratory committee), is now improbably the champion of partitioning Iraq and Syria. Jeb is his "own man," he says. Only Lindsey Graham, currently polling at 0.0%, offers a full-throated, unqualified defense of the Bush years.
For now, then, the Bush doctrine is repudiated, at least rhetorically, by the two leading candidates on the GOP side. Between fits of terror-mongering, the candidates on Tuesday night seemed to legitimately debate what will take its place. Leopards don't change their spots, but perhaps, in this case, they might change the way they hunt.