Ron Versus the Huckster

by , September 08, 2007
Andy McCarthy’s exclamation of despair:

We know that Ron Paul did great in the Republican presidential debate sponsored by Fox News and held in Durham, New Hampshire, because how else can we explain neocon Andy McCarthy’s exclamation of despair over at the National Review group blog? “Why,” he cried out in anguish, “is there so much cheering for Ron Paul?”

As the last of the neoconservative dead-enders, holed up over at “The Corner,” mutter darkly, Paul, the ten-term libertarian Republican congressman from Texas, is stealing the spotlight from the so-called frontrunners. For the first time in many a moon, we witnessed a genuine knock-down drag-out brawl between presidential contenders: a real mix-up in which Rep. Paul, the only antiwar candidate in the GOP pack, succeeded in framing the debate around his challenge to neocon orthodoxy on the all-important issue of foreign policy.

By the way, thanks to Fox News for their brazen hostility to Paul, which blew right back in their faces. The refusal to even acknowledge him until a good twenty minutes into the debate, and Chris Wallace’s consistently sneering tone when a question finally came Paul’s way, didn’t stop the Texas troublemaker from stealing the show anyway.

Go here for the video, so you can hear the dripping sarcasm in SeƱor Wallace’s voice as he characterizes the Paulian position on Iraq as “pretty simple.” Okay, so you want to get out, but what – asked Wallace – about “trying to minimize the bloodbath that would certainly occur if we pull out in a hurry?”

A great deal of Paul’s growing appeal as a candidate lies in his apparent inability to emulate the bromidic grammar-challenged phrases that pass for stirring political rhetoric these days. Instead, he cuts to the chase with a few razor-sharp sentences, and his answer to Wallace did not disappoint his fans:

“The people who say there will be a bloodbath are the ones who said it would be a cakewalk, it would be slam dunk, and that it would be paid for by oil. Why believe them? They’ve been wrong on everything they’ve said. Why not ask the people – (interrupted by cheers) – why not ask the people who advised not to go into the region and into the war? The war has not gone well one bit.”

This is an extremely effective trope, politically, for Ron, and that is his alacrity in identifying and going after the Bad Guys, in this case, the crew that lied us into war and is now trying to blame everyone but themselves for the debacle.

As the US position in Iraq becomes more untenable by the day, awaiting only a Beirut-style attack on the Green Zone to underline the finality of our failure, the urge to hold someone responsible for what General William E. Odom rightly calls the biggest strategic disaster in our history grips large portions of the electorate.

Who lost Iraq? The question is even now being asked, and one’s answer seems to largely depend on ideological and partisan allegiances.

The neocons blame Bush: he didn’t follow their instructions to the letter, you see, by putting their sock puppet, Ahmed Chalabi, in charge from the beginning.

The Israelis, too, blame Bush: now they’re saying that they always wanted him to go after Iran, not Iraq – perhaps he got the two countries mixed up, somehow.

McCain also blames Bush, claiming that the war has been “mismanaged,” although we hear very little about how he would manage to occupy a nation of some 30 million souls that resent and have come to hate the American presence.

And we haven’t even gotten to the Democrats, who, naturally, blame the Great Decider for practically everything – an inadequate explanation for the disastrous course of the past six years that they nonetheless think is sufficient for their purposes. This is a blunt sword with which to slash away at the Republicans, and yet Paul has found a sharper instrument, one that cuts to the quick and provides the electorate with what they’re looking for – a truly deserving scapegoat. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Wallace also asked if Paul would “leave troops in the region to take out any al Qaeda camps that are developed after we leave,” and Paul’s answer, interwoven with his riff on “they were wrong then, why should we believe them now?”, takes an unequivocal position – “Yes, I would leave, I would leave completely” – that outflanks any of the ostensibly antiwar Democratic candidates, and yet still resonates with the old conservative adage, “win or get out,” which dates back to the Vietnam era. Paul, however, goes beyond a mere critique of the present policy, and offers a coherent and comprehensive alternative, succinctly and with real passion in his voice:

“I am less safe, the American people are less safe for this. It’s the policy that is wrong. Tactical movements and shifting troops around and taking in 30 more and reducing by five, totally irrelevant. We need a new foreign policy that said we ought to mind our own business, bring our troops home, defend this country, defend – (bell sounds) – our borders…”

What’s this – a presidential candidate who thinks in terms of principles? And a Republican, to boot! Good lord, we can’t have that! What is he, some kind of kook?!

Wallace’s fangs extended to their full length before Paul was done, and he leapt at the chance to pull off a Fox News-style on-air smear:

“So, Congressman Paul, and I’d like you to take 30 seconds to answer this, you’re basically saying that we should take our marching orders from al-Qaeda? If they want us off the Arabian Peninsula, we should leave? (Laughter.)

You have thirty seconds to tell us why you’re not a terrorist-loving, pro-jihadist tool of radical militant violent crazed bloodthirsty Islam and Osama bin Laden’s best friend – go!

PAUL: “No! (Cheers, applause.) I’m saying – (laughter) – I’m saying we should take our marching orders from our Constitution. We should not go to war – (cheers, applause) – we should not go to war without a declaration. We should not go to war when it’s an aggressive war. This is an aggressive invasion. We’ve committed the invasion of this war, and it’s illegal under international law. That’s where I take my marching orders, not from any enemy. (Cheers, boos.)”

As the reporter for National Public Radio put it:

“A mixture of boos and applause that followed indicates just how divided even a Republican audience in New Hampshire is over the issue of Iraq.”

The raucous debate over Iraq was the leitmotif and high point of the New Hampshire debate, and the only antiwar candidate in the pack was right in the middle of it, expressing the doubts and anger of the thirty-six percent-plus of Republican primary voters who now think the war was a mistake and want us out.

Brownback, offered the chance to rebut Paul’s apostasy, demurred, and instead babbled about Tom Friedman’s idea of a “political surge,” which is shorthand for acknowledging failure. Mike Huckabee, however, chose to take on Paul when Wallace asked him about the pessimistic prognosis of the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which says the “surge” won’t stem the rising tide of violence nor bring about a viable government for Iraq. So why continue?

With the unerring instinct of a born crowd-pleaser, Huckabee went straight into that old riff about the Pottery Barn Rule, cribbed from Colin Powell:

“We have to continue the surge. And let me explain why, Chris. When I was a little kid, if I went into a store with my mother, she had a simple rule for me. If I picked something off the shelf of the store and I broke it, I bought it.

“I learned don’t pick something off the shelf I can’t afford to buy.

“Well, what we did in Iraq, we essentially broke it. It’s our responsibility to do the best we can to try to fix it before we just turn away because something is at stake. Senator McCain made a great point, and let me make this clear. If there’s anybody on this stage that understands the word honor, I’ve got to say Senator McCain understands that word – (applause, cheers) – because he has given his country a sacrifice the rest of us don’t even comprehend. (Continued applause.)”

Notice that there are few, if any, facts in the above-quoted peroration. Just a cute little anecdote about him and his mom, and, furthermore, one that we have heard before, which simulates the warm fuzziness of folksy wisdom and yet has no real content. A personal anecdote and a rather odd analogy – comparing a country of 30 million living persons, with a history that predates the dawn of civilization, to an item sitting on a shelf in a store, an object to be examined, priced, bought, and sold, says more about the wrongness of this war of conquest, and more eloquently, than any of its critics have so far managed.

Honor – is there any honor in this war? Most Americans think the cost of this conflict isn’t worth it – that it was a mistake to go in, and it’s a mistake to stay in. That’s what Ron Paul believes, too, but not the Huckster, who appeals to the heart, not the head, and who’s selling the “surge” and the war aims of this administration with an emotional demagoguery that belies his mild persona. Turning to Paul, he addressed him directly:

“And on this issue, when he says we can’t leave until we’ve left with honor, I 100 percent agree with him because, Congressman, whether or not we should have gone to Iraq is a discussion that historians can have, but we’re there. We bought it because we broke it. We’ve got a responsibility to the honor of this country and to the honor of every man and woman who has served in Iraq and ever served in our military to not leave them with anything less than the honor that they deserve. (Cheers, applause.)”

I’m sure the Iraqi people would be very interested to learn that they have been bought: does that mean they’ll all get green cards and engraved invitations to emigrate once we leave? I hardly think so. As for the honor of this country, it has suffered quite enough at the hands of warmongers and opportunists, who spared no effort in their campaign to drag us down into this quagmire – including “outing” a CIA agent, falsifying “intelligence,” and engaging in systematic deception to fit the “facts” around a pre-conceived conclusion. Defending the nonexistent “honor” of these people – which is not the same as the honor of this country – isn’t worth a single life, either American or Iraqi. Paul homed right in on the logical error at the core of the Huckster’s honor-mongering:

“The American people didn’t go in. A few people advising this administration, a small number of people called the neoconservative hijacked our foreign policy. They’re responsible, not the American people. They’re not responsible. We shouldn’t punish them. (Cheers, applause.)”

Here’s the blame-the-neocons theme popping up again, and quite opportunely. Paul’s focus is admirable: he goes right for the jugular, and hits it unerringly.

Who lost Iraq? Was it us, the American people, as the neocons imply, because we didn’t have the spine to stick it out?

Neocon military guru Max Boot once bemoaned the lack of American casualties in Afghanistan, because such a supposedly easy victory wouldn’t prepare us for the coming slaughter: today, presumably, the bloodshed has lived up to Boot’s expectations, and he must be satisfied with some 3,500 dead and 40,000-plus with major wounds. Boot’s point, however, was that the American people lacked the toughness it takes to run an empire: they are too squeamish about taking casualties. This theme of our supposed moral deficiency has run through the War Party’s propaganda, especially now that the Iraq war is hugely unpopular, amounting to a taunt: Are we tough enough to tough it out until victory? Do we have what it takes?

This – what might be called the argument from machismo – worked in the beginning, but has long since lost its power to intimidate. And Paul is hardly one to be intimidated by such a facile playground jibe. Instead of reacting defensively, he went on the offensive and challenged the premise behind the Huckster’s emotional appeal to our collective “honor” by pointing an accusing finger at specific individuals, namely, the neocons. This “we are all to blame” collective guilt-tripping isn’t going to go over very well with the electorate, for the very good reason that they know it isn’t true.

The War Party conducted their own “shock and awe” campaign on American shores before Bush ever unleashed a more deadly version in the skies over Baghdad. We all heard the neocons – Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, former CIA director James Woolsey, Bill Kristol, and whole platoons of laptop bombardiers tapping away in the hangars of the American Enterprise Institute – say it was going to be a “cakewalk,” and that the Iraqi people would greet us as “liberators.” We heard them ‘round the clock in the run-up to war, declaring, with utter certainty, that those “weapons of mass destruction” were a threat to the entire region, and a challenge to US national security that had to be answered with force. We heard these same voices echoing and elaborating on the administration’s talking points, including the supposed threat posed by Iraq-inspired terrorism right here on our shores. Now this same crew is braying that we can’t leave, that we have a moral obligation to clean up the mess they made, and that to fail to do so is to risk losing our honor.

What honor we had was lost the moment we went to war under false pretenses. The only way to recapture it is to retrace our steps, to conduct a thorough investigation in order to discover how and why we were deceived into invading and occupying Iraq – and, most important of all, by whom.

After all, we can’t do much about our looming defeat on the battlefield, because the announced war aims of the administration never were achievable, but we can find and punish those responsible for pushing such a reckless strategy. That is the implicit program behind Paul’s jibes at the neocons, and it is very effective, as indicated by the loud applause and cheering that greeted the candidate’s remarks.

The Huckster, in answer, reached into his bag of emotional salves and demagogic snake-oil, and pulled out a Lincolnian trope to fit the occasion:

“Congressman, we are one nation. We can’t be divided. We have to be one nation under God. That means if we make a mistake, we make it as a single country, the United States of America, not the divided states of America. (Cheers.)”

Oh really? If the head lemming goes over a cliff, the rest have a patriotic duty – or is that a compulsion? – to follow him. This is the red-state fascist Leader Principle drawn out to its logical conclusion: we must commit collective suicide – in the name of “unity.” One nation, under the neocon hucksters who sold us a rotten bill of goods, indivisible, with climbing debt for all and war profits for the few. How convenient for the War Party– and how the Republicans are dreaming if they think they can get away with this, even with their alleged “base.” Paul was speaking for a lot of rank-and-file Republican voters when he replied:

“No. When we make a mistake, it is the obligation of the people through their representatives to correct the mistake, not to continue the mistake! (Cheers, applause.)”

Paul wins this argument because he is here showing that the Huckster has already conceded – by acknowledging that we did indeed “break” Iraq, instead of liberating it. If we continue to occupy it, we continue the process that will lead to its final break-up: our presence makes the situation worse, not better, and this is what the Huckster is tacitly admitting. The belief that we’ll somehow get a different result by engaging in the same actions is tantamount to madness. The Huckster protested that Congress is stepping into the breach, but Paul would have none of it:

“No! We’ve dug a hole for ourselves and we dug a hole for our party! We’re losing elections and we’re going down next year if we don’t change it, and it has all to do with foreign policy, and we have to wake up to this fact.

“HUCKABEE: Even if we lose elections, we should not lose our honor, and that is more important to the Republican Party.”

Let’s stop a moment, here, and note this extraordinary admission: the Huckster is saying, well, we’re going to lose anyway, so why not nominate me? If you were a Republican, would you find that very inspiring?

Aside from that, however, there’s the question of how many lives the War Party’s “honor” is worth. 3,500? 10,000? 50,000? These are questions the Huckster’s emotion-laden appeals to American machismo are designed to quell, but they require answers. Here is Paul’s answer, as, a seventy-something man standing straight as an arrow, he raised his voice over the applause and the catcalls:

“We’ve lost over 5,000 Americans over there in Afghanistan and Iraq and plus the civilians killed. How many more do you want to lose? How long are we going to be there? How long – what do we have to pay to save face? That’s all we’re doing is saving face. It’s time we came home!”

Whose face are we saving? Whose honor is at stake? Not America’s, because, as Paul pointed out, it wasn’t the American people who wanted this war, and it wasn’t they who conducted a campaign to convince themselves and the world that Iraq was a deadly threat that had to eliminated. It was the neocons who wanted this war, who planned it, who agitated for it, and who finally got their heart’s desire when the bombs began to fall on Baghdad. It is their honor that is at stake – and, as we all know, the honor of those who never had any to begin with cannot be compromised.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

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