Just to stick with the frustrations of the upcoming election cycle (hey, at least I got something), one reason I remain interested in watching the Repubican crack-up is because Republicans - still - don't seem to know that they're in the midst of one.
Never mind, for a moment, that the GOP is bereft of ideas on so many big issues - healthcare, economic problems, a general sense of how to govern; to me, if you want a good indication, just now, of how Republicans are struggling, it's the curious debate on foreign policy that's already begun to derail their primary contests.
So far, the Republicans have had more or less two full-on "debates" with Presidential contenders. "Debate" in this context meaning some cable news network sends out a signature star (Bret Baier on Fox managing the one in South Carolina, John King doing similar duties in New Hampshire for CNN), vague questions are asked, and bumper sticker generalities offered in return. So far, mostly, we've learned that Tim Pawlenty is bad at bu,per sticker generalities... but then, we knew that.
The debates haven't provided much in the way of interesting output, especially with Washington's political pundit class, who are vaguely part of the Democratic Establishment. But then, we Democrats are not, really, the intended audience. The debates are, after all,m meant to provide insights into the GOP primary process, and that means the real audience that matters is Republican. And on the right, the debates have a somewhat different meaning.
That doesn't mean Republican pundits are much more enthused than their lefty counterparts - the ennui is breathtaking - but they do hear things the rest of us don't. And that, I think, is why foreign policy suddenly became the news out of the debates that's really throwing people off course.
This all started, more or less, because Mitt Romney pointed out, in offering general opposition to the war in Afghanistan, that Americans can't really fight another nation's war of independence. If the Afghan people want the Taliban gone, he said, that's their fight, not ours.
To many of us, that may seem obvious, if a little remarkable from a Republican. But on the right, it's revealing a deep rift that may highlight why Republicans can't get it together for 2012.
One thing to note is, among Republican Presidential hopefuls, Romney is not alone. Over the two debates, when they're not reminding their right wing audiences about how awful Barack Obama is, there's been a remarkable willingness to question the army-first, warlike propensities of the conservative wing. Getting out of Afghanistan, even out of Iraq, reducing American presence in overseas conflicts are points made by a number of contendes, from Ron Paul to Herman Cain to Romney and Pawlenty as well.
The blowback after the recent debate was surprisingly strong as well - over the weekend, the lions of the GOP SEnate roared back and insisted that America needed to continue to support military presence on a variety of fronts. John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Liz Cheney and others all cited Roney specifically and called his characterization of Afghanistan incorrect. That's pretty revealing of some pretty deep internal tensions.
The media has labeled a lot of this "war weariness" with plenty of voices to point out that Afghanistan has lasted longer than Vietnam with less to show for it, which then likens are presence there to the Russian foray into Afghanistan in the seventies and eighties. I don't think either metaphor exactly holds, and I think "war weariness" is a mirage. America's been "war weary" since pretty much its founding. That hasn't stopped us from a lot of pointless killing and bombing of stuff.
What the Republican candidates are noting, really, is that it's fashionable, right now, to appeal to the national desire to see these wars end. That's a position that appeals to both the rural communities of Republicans where many soldiers come from, and the urban liberals who've opposed military intervention on principle all along. It's a rejection of foreign policy notions on the right that date back, at least, to Henry Kissinger. And, as much as anything happening in politics, it's a signal that long-established divisions between "left" and right" are breaking down.
This desire to cater to a national preference against war would be fine, except that as a foreign policy, it's incoherent. Agreeing to the ideas about drawing down troops in Afghanistan is approving of the Obama Administration, though the candidates insist that Obama's foreign policy is lousy, too. The opposition to NATO-led intervention in Libya - which is also a hallmark of the Presidential group - leaves few, if any, options for how American can be a force in the world.
Republicans are in this place, of course, because the George W. Bush presidency was such a failure on so many levels. Bush's "freedom agenda" - an attempt to codify our policy of "good intentions" as doctrine - suggested a policy having little to do with our actual national interests. Claiming that we encourage "freedom" and "Democracy" everywhere is at odds with what we actually do and what we actually want in our foreign allies. It's why, for more than 30 years, Presidents of both parties quietly looked the other way as Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron fist. It's why, for God's sake, George W. Bush tried to sell the notion that Vladimir Putin was somehow a good guy. Democracy, even as we practice it, is messy. Oligarchs and Despots may be problematic, but it does make negotiations a lot easier.
The failure of the Bush Administration to create and promote a sensible idea of a Republican approach to foreign policy - one that involved something other than the armed forces - has left Republicans with few real ideas on how to approach a changing world no longer interested in the idea of the US as the world's cop. Virtually all that's left - a Cold War hangover that makes China the last enemy - may have some visceral appeal to xenophobic conservatives, but offers no real answer to the challenges we face as a nation doing business and relating to other wealthy powerful players.
As with so much else about this election cycle, the real shame her is that the President and the Democratic Establishment may well succeed in reelecting President Obama with little real challenge to the status quo, when a robust debate is needed with some real competition among ideas. That Republicans will find themselves voicing discontent with the Afghanistan War, agitating more vocally than the left to end international interventions is both heartening and bewildering. Welcome to the quest to ask "War... what is it good for?" The real shame, though, will be watching them lose because of it.