Tim Pawlenty winced audibly when The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg made the obvious explicit. In the race for the GOP presidential nomination, the columnist posited, “I guess you represent the John McCain-Lindsey Graham foreign-policy wing.”
The former Minnesota governor was troubled enough to go out of his way to deflect the characterization he couldn’t deny. “I prefer that it not be that,” was the initial parry. Later, he tried to lay his self-made burden on the media: “I wish you could think of another way to describe this wing of the party, other than McCain and Lindsey Graham.”
How about the “Incoherent Wing”? At any rate, with visions of Reagan conservatives fleeing for the exits, Governor Pawlenty seemed to grasp that Republicans are not in the market for a McCain-Graham nominee. We’ve had enough of a foreign policy that has us one moment cavorting in Moammar Qaddafi’s tent with promises of aid for his armed forces, then, in the next, insisting that both the dictator and his U.S.-taxpayer-supported military be incinerated by U.S.-taxpayer-supported bombs — the better to usher in a new regime of . . . um, well, we don’t really know what.
Rival Michele Bachmann is suddenly surging in the GOP polls by marketing herself as a “constitutional conservative.” Pawlenty grasps this indicator that his campaign cannot bear the weight of Senator Graham — who, when not lecturing that “Congress should just sort of shut up” about President Obama’s unauthorized instigation of war on Libya, complains that this whole free-speech idea is something we need to rethink. And as Pawlenty himself was chagrined to admit, embracing Senator McCain is “like saying we’re embracing Nelson Rockefeller on economics.”
He is right, of course. Regrettably, though, Pawlenty’s problem is not with his embracing incoherence but with your noticing that he’s embracing incoherence. Mr. Goldberg’s question, after all, was asked only after listening to Pawlenty’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations — a McCain redoubt where dreams of a progressive world order frequently substitute for the world that is.
Fitting then that, while explaining how we’ve purportedly got Tehran nearly “isolated,” Pawlenty pronounced that “Syria is Iran’s only Arab ally.” This was said with a straight face only two days after the president of Iraq — an Arab country that Americans have sacrificed thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to try to turn into the Incoherent Wing’s fantasy of a pro-American Islamic democracy — proudly reaffirmed his nation’s alliance with Iran.
Iraqi president Jalal Talabani sounded his paean to the Islamic Republic during the “World Without Terrorism Conference.” His hosts were the muckety-mullah, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iran’s Holocaust-denying, 9/11 Truther of a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, each of whom has made a career out of railing, “Death to America.”
Nor was Iraq the only Iranian ally on hand. Some 60 nations sent representatives. Prominent among them was Pres. Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, in whose country the United States has about 100,000 troops fighting to prop up his regime against jihadists backed by Iran. Also in attendance was Pres. Ali Zadari of Pakistan, whose country takes billions in U.S. aid while harboring anti-American terror kingpins (like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar) and covertly aiding the Taliban (an organization Pakistan created in the 1990s).
And what antiterror confab would be complete without Pres. Omar al-Bashir of Sudan? He is under International Criminal Court indictment for genocide, though this has not dissuaded the obliging mullahs from their commitment to share with him the fruits of their ripening nuclear program. Bashir’s status as a mass-murdering fugitive certainly did not dampen the mood: United Nations general secretary Ban Ki-moon sent emissaries and issued a statement gushing with praise for Iran and its efforts in “the global fight against terrorism.”
Speaking of terrorism, the conferees ended up concluding that its real causes are — you’ll never guess! — the United States and Israel. Still, Talabani agreed with his Iranian hosts that U.S. power was thankfully in decline, boasting that Iraqis stood united in demanding that Americans get the hell out of their country. What his people really want, the Iraqi president made clear, is deeper ties with Iran, including Iranian aid.
In this, Talabani echoed made-in-America Karzai, whose regime has just inked a joint defense and security agreement with Iran. In the interim, that other U.S. counterterrorism “ally,” Pakistan, is urging the Afghans to dump the United States and look not just to Pakistan and Iran but also to China for help striking a deal with the Taliban and shifting to a very different kind of nation-building.
Pawlenty’s apparent answer to all this is to make believe it’s not happening. Like McCain and Graham, he’d have you believe Iran is cornered because the dynamic force in the region is the forward march of freedom, not Islamism. Indeed, the governor’s speech, entitled “Now Is Not the Time to Retreat from Freedom’s Rise,” mentioned the word “Islam” a grand total of one time — modified, naturally, by the adjective “radical,” in service of the delusion that the region is teeming with secular democrats who would seize the “Arab Spring” if we could just excise this tiny fundamentalist fringe.
Anyone who begs to differ is a knuckle-dragging “isolationist” — if Pawlenty may quote McCain (without, of course, mentioning that he’s quoting McCain). As Pawlenty put it, pandering to his receptive CFR audience, “parts of the Republican party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments. This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party.” Or, as Graham eloquently reasons, “Shut up, already.”
This is about as cockamamie as it gets. Yes, there is a Ron Paul wing of the GOP that would have America retreat from the world. But it is a small wing. The rest of us are not opposed to interventions. We’re opposed to stupid interventions — the kind that make Representative Paul’s critique sound persuasive until you start thinking about how prosperous the United States stands to be once we radically slash the armed forces that guarantee global trade and stability.
The “uncertain leadership” that Governor Pawlenty decries can be avoided only when leaders have certainty and the gumption to act on it. We do not have much certainty at the moment, except when it comes to that which our leaders have no stomach to face: mainstream Islam is anti-freedom, it is not a “radical” fringe, and it is on the rise in today’s Islamic Middle East. It is also rabidly anti-American, which is why America-bashing has become the daily political rhetoric of nascent Islamic “democracies,” where popular elections are a poor substitute for real democratic culture.
To be sure, there are pockets of resistance: Muslim reformers, secular democrats, non-Muslim libertarians, and so on. But when our admiration for them deludes us into misjudging their relative strength, that is not certain leadership — it is leadership certain to serve Islamist interests over American interests.
Real leadership would concede that what we have been doing ever since the Bush Doctrine devolved into the Forward March of Freedom has failed. It is empowering our enemies, and expecting that to turn around on its own is as futile as continuing to rely on the international institutions that our adversaries now dominate.
Real leadership would also entail diagnosing the Middle East as it truly is. It would acknowledge Islam as a fact of life in the region but understand that this does not mean we have to pretend it is an asset. It is a volatile antagonist with diverse elements — some to be courted, some to be competed with, and some that must be defeated because they are implacably hostile.
Real leadership would do its best to figure out which is which, approaching each of them as an unapologetic champion of Western principles — not as a supplicant who will supple those principles into whatever sharia needs them to be.
Real leadership is always prepared to engage, but doesn’t do so simply for the sake of engaging, or out of wishful thinking. It is guided by American interests. It does not put itself on the line until it is convinced that the beneficiaries will serve American interests — which means those beneficiaries are never going to be Islamists.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.