As conservatives survey the damage they have done to the Republican
Party, they have fixed upon one comforting notion. John McCain lost the
election, according to many of them, because he supported the surge in
Iraq. McCain's dedicated pursuit of this policy created stability in Iraq
that allowed the American electorate to focus on other matters, chiefly the
economy. "No good deed goes unpunished," intoned William Kristol in the
But is this really true? Let us imagine that the surge had not worked.
Imagine that over the past year and a half, American deaths in Iraq had
soared, the gruesome civil war between Shiites and Sunnis had deepened, the
flow of refugees out of Iraq had increased and the government in Baghdad
had lost control of the country to gangs and militias. Would Americans then
have turned to the most passionate advocate of the surge and given him the
presidency? Having watched the economy crumble as a consequence of policies
that McCain generally supported, they would have also watched a war spiral
downward as a consequence of policies that McCain specifically supported.
The fact is that had the surge failed, McCain would have lost. It
succeeded, and he lost. The logical conclusion is that the surge was
irrelevant to McCain's fate -- that there were broader reasons for the
resounding Republican loss. The electorate has voted no on the current
Republican ideology on foreign policy. Note that President Bush's approval
ratings had plummeted to historic lows by 2005 even when the economy seemed
to be on a steady course.
Ideas matter, Richard Weaver once wrote, and the Republican Party has
become a party bereft of ideas or trapped by the wrong ones. The
Reagan-Thatcher revolution of low taxes, deregulation and tight money seems
irrelevant to the problems of underregulated financial products, huge
deficits and a deepening recession. The Republican Party's social program
is out of tune with an increasingly young, diverse and tolerant electorate.
As the conservative writer David Frum points out, "College-educated
Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with the Democrats
-- but that their values are under threat from Republicans."
Something similar has happened in foreign policy. The electorate has
seemed to sense that there is a new world out there and that the nostrums
presented by McCain in his campaign are irrelevant to it. As with
economics, these feelings developed after watching the ideas in action.
Bush embraced a series of radical policy stances -- many of them long
espoused by neoconservatives -- especially during his first term.
But the vigorous unilateralism openly advocated by the administration is
recognized by most Americans to have weakened the country's influence
abroad. Its excessive reliance on military force has yielded few results
worth the costs.
At the heart of Bush's ideology was regime change -- armed Wilsonianism.
Whether in Iraq, North Korea or Iran, the basic goal was to refuse any kind
of negotiation or diplomacy and instead try to overthrow the government and
replace it with a democratic and friendly one. Most Americans now recognize
that, however pleasant this sounds in theory, the real world is a
complicated place and cannot be transformed by magic or military power.
The most powerful repudiation of Bush's ideas has come from Bush himself.
Over the past three years, he has negotiated with North Korea and Libya and
even taken a tentative step with Iran; launched a high-profile peace
process between the Palestinians and Israelis; and made encouraging
proposals about global warming. These are all steps Bush actively opposed
during his first term. He has moved in this direction out of necessity.
Failure concentrates the mind.
The world we are living in now is very different from even a decade ago.
Next year, for the first time in history, the world's emerging economies
will provide 100 percent of global economic growth. And for several more
years, the world's richest countries will be mired in recession and
burdened by debt. Many large emerging-market countries, on the other hand,
will grow at 4, 5, and 6 percent a year. Some will have hundreds of
billions of dollars of surpluses. China just announced a stimulus package
equivalent to about $586 billion, which is almost 15 percent of its gross
domestic product and roughly 10 times as large (in proportionate terms) as
the proposed U.S. package.
In such a world, Americans seem to understand that bloviating about "USA
as Number One" is cheap rhetoric, divorced from the real world. They sense
that the real challenge for Washington is not to boast about America's
might but to use its capacities -- military, political, intellectual -- to
work with others to create a more stable, peaceful and prosperous world in
which American interests and ideals will be secure.
Barack Obama keeps being advised (warned) by conservatives to govern from
the center. But he should look at this new world, not failed Republican
ideology, to find that center.
The writer is editor of Newsweek International and co-host of PostGlobal,
an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is