Donald Trump might be on his way out but that doesn't mean the neocons and nation builders get to come back in.
Former US Vice President Dick Cheney (C) sits with his daughter US Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R), R-Wyoming, during the opening of the 115th US Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
I’m stealing the title of this column from David Brooks. I’m doing so because I’m slowly turning into one of those “bourgeois bohemians” he warned us about, and among the signs of BoBo decadence is low-grade plagiarism.
All the way back in 2007, Brooks wrote a piece for the New York Times called “No U-Turns” in which he exhorted conservatives not to return to what recently hadn’t worked. And by that he meant…Barry Goldwater. As Iraq burned, as the federal government shoveled money into an incinerator, Brooks was worried the damned libertarians might start getting ideas. “The Republican Party, which still talks as if government were the biggest threat to choice, has lost touch with independent voters,” he pronounced.
Three years later, the Tea Party would sweep the GOP back into power on a message of government being the biggest threat to choice in health care. And given that these days there’s an inverse relationship between how interesting a writer is and how much time he spends leering at the libertarian gremlins in his head, my “no U-turn” sign is not going to point to a vanishingly small speed bump of fiscal responsibility in the rear-view. It’s going to point instead at the ideology once associated with David Brooks: Bushism.
Donald Trump might be on his way out, but that doesn’t mean George W. Bush gets to come back in.
It feels strange we even have to say this. Certainly conservatives have been invoking Ronald Reagan’s presidency since practically before Ronald Reagan became president, but Bush has always been a less settled figure. The MAGA crowd outright hates him, viewing his oeuvre of wars and globalization as everything Trump was elected to stop. The average Republican probably takes a more charitable view, though still haunted by the sense that something went terribly wrong during his presidency. It may even be that Bush himself feels this way. Anyone who spends that much time painting war veterans has to have his own Dorian Gray picture stashed in a closet somewhere.
Yet there’s a third group at work here, a front of diehard Bushies who, like the Japanese soldiers stranded in the Pacific, never got the memo that the world had moved on. Now they’re hoping to fill whatever post-Trump vacuum might open up in the GOP. The most prominent among them is Liz Cheney, the congresswoman and daughter of former acting president Dick Cheney, who has inherited her father’s foreign policy exactly. Cheney first blipped on the radar back in 2014 when she mounted a seemingly random primary challenge to Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi (she dropped out before the election). Given that a handful of relatively dovish lawmakers like Rand Paul were then ascendant, a tempting explanation was that she was trying to provide a hawkish counterbalance.
Cheney was later elected to the House in 2016 where she often found herself at odds with Trump. She called his non-withdrawal withdrawal of troops from Syria a “catastrophic mistake” (a Cheney knows one when she sees one) and challenged him when he tried to end the war in Afghanistan. This led Trump to call her out on Twitter, while Congressman Matt Gaetz tried to remove her as the Republican House conference chair. Yet that was then—the Age of Trump is over now, and Cheney’s admirers seem to think it’s about to be succeeded by the Second Age of Thatcher. “She kind of reminds you of Margaret Thatcher or somebody like that in history,” one Republican congressman said of Cheney to Politico, which then took the comparison and ran. The Politico piece noted that Cheney has aspirations to be speaker of the House and could one day aim even higher.
If your goal is to take the GOP back to its most unpopular and discredited policies, then I suppose Thatcherism is one way to gift-wrap it (“the lady’s not for learning”?). Yet Liz Cheney also isn’t the only one who wants a U-turn to the Bush years. There are perhaps almost four others. Bill Kristol has emerged from his Twitter gopher hole, quoting Winston Churchill’s wisdom on mail-in ballots and demanding that Trump supporters pay a price (presumably they can do so with oil revenues). Tom Cotton, the most hawkish member of the Senate, who’s attempted to fuse support for Bushist wars with Trumpian nationalism, was spotted crunching around New Hampshire last month, where he didn’t even bother to hide that he was plotting a 2024 presidential run.
The Bushies are aiming to influence the incoming Biden administration as well, though it remains to be seen whether he’ll listen to them. Biden’s own foreign policy record is mixed: it hit a nadir back in 2006 when he emerged Caesar-like to demand that all Iraq be divided into three parts, an insane act of “soft” partitioning that would have heightened sectarian violence rather than tamping it down. Yet he also claims to have advised Barack Obama not to invade Libya. Keep an eye now on how he responds to the European Union’s renewed calls for intervention in Libya, which are unlikely to go ahead without American support. Keep an eye, too, on Azerbaijan and Armenia, between which a peace deal has just been signed that’s boosted Russia, a Biden bogey.
So far, about the best that can be said is that Biden hasn’t personally involved Darth Vader himself. It is not true, as CNN allegedly reported, that one of Biden’s first acts as president-elect was to bring in Dick Cheney as an advisor on foreign policy. That rumor flew around Twitter last week, prompting every realist and restrainer to reach for the antacid. Fortunately it’s been shot down…or has it? I just spoke to an intelligence source codenamed Curveball…or Absinthe or Rutabaga—it doesn’t matter, really—who told me Cheney actually is advising Biden. And shouldn’t we pressure the CIA to take another look? What if Cheney’s involvement is really a slam dunk?
And that’s just it right there. Trump’s falsehoods are like stars, a million points of light that taken together can be blinding. But before that, there was the big lie, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the mobile biological weapons labs, the chemical decontamination trucks, the titanium death ray tugboats, the whole ridiculous list. This was not the same as Thatcherism whose cardinal military effort was to kick an Argentine junta out of an island chain full of sheep farms. Thatcher opposed sanctions against apartheid South Africa, for goodness sake, on the grounds that it wasn’t in Britain’s national interest. Bushism was several million swings of the handbag beyond that, so extreme and idealistic that an equally jarring correction was inevitable, and so it came. The real smoking gun wasn’t a mushroom cloud, as it turned out; it was an orange and toupeed cruise missile pointed at the heart of our political system.
It wasn’t that Bushism was overtaken by Trumpism as two ideologies in competition. It was that it was tried and found wanting in Afghanistan and then again in Iraq and then one more time for good measure in Libya. So back to the original metaphor: what lies ahead on the road for conservatives? Lots of post-Trump potholes and uneven pavement, surely, along with a little indulgent rubbernecking at the pileup on the left side of the highway. (Picture AOC behind the wheel of a big rig filled with propane.) Yet one thing is clear: there can be no U-turn to Bushism. There can be no going back to what now might appear statesmanlike yet was really dishonest and grandiose. There can be no gauzy nostalgia for what’s best left in the past.
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