For nearly two years, there have been nearly unanimous verdicts among Republicans on virtually every aspect of Barack Obama’s policymaking. His spending packages and environmental agenda: bad. Health-care insurance reforms: very bad. Escalating the war in Afghanistan and keeping Guantanamo open: surprisingly good.
But ever since Tunisia’s presidential palace began to totter under protesters’ challenges, leading to a series of cautious White House policies towards the region’s besieged régimes, Republicans have been unable to agree on anything. The country’s most powerful Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, has refused to criticise Obama’s handling of crises in Tunis, Cairo, or Tripoli.
Others have criticised Obama’s policy for being unreasonably tough on allies or indefensibly soft on tyrants. George W Bush’s former UN ambassador John Bolton, considering a presidential campaign, was quick to say the United States should defend Hosni Mubarak as a guardian of regional interests. All-but-announced candidate Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, argued the White House had been weak-willed in calling upon Mubarak to resign, alleging the administration’s “Tower of Babel” policy was “nearly incoherent.” The American right is wrestling with its own incoherence in trying to formulate a foreign policy in the years since the latest Bush has left the scene. In three years, Republicans have gone from the party of democracy-at-all-costs-in-the-Middle East to one that can’t agree whether other countries’ free elections ought to be much of a priority for Washington at all. Most Republican office-holders have happily remained mum in the two months that the Maghreb has convulsed.
During eight years of Bush, idealistic banter about democracy and human rights meshed awkwardly with the realpolitik of courting tyrants who were willing to get tough with terrorists, had their own foes in Islamist movements, and provided a valued counterweight to Iranian influence in the region. Israel, too, seemed to do better with secular strongmen as neighbours than it might with unpredictable democracies.
Bush wasn’t so much the inheritor of a rich ideological tradition within the party as a flat-footed improviser trying to make sense of how to engage in a post-September 11 world. The party is home to idealistic hawks such as John McCain, who pushed Bill Clinton to send troops to Bosnia and Kosovo when few other conservatives wanted to and now looks eager to see a reprise upon a Mediterranean beach. But the Republican ranks in Congress are filled with those like Boehner who exhibit little interest in the world away form American shores.
If there has been any strategy behind Muammar Gaddafi’s televised ramblings, it might be that he is trying to rekindle the tentative affection he won from the Bush administration but has lost in the turning of Republican generations. Gaddafi’s allegations that protesters are “loyal to bin Laden” and fuelled by “hallucinogenic pills in their coffee with milk, like Nescafe” doesn’t sound too foreign to American conservatives. It’s a version of the blame-Islamists-and-hippies-first rhetoric that Dick Cheney would love.
Sasha Issenberg is Monocle’s North America editor