Frank Rich on the National Circus: No, Americans Aren’t Becoming Hawks Again

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Photo: REUTERS/Yaser Al-Khodor

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Obama prepares to expand strikes against ISIS, what the new enemy means for the GOP’s isolationist wing, and Andrew Cuomo limps to a win in the New York Democratic primary.

President Obama will address the nation tonight on his plan to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, a plan that will likely include air strikes in Syria. A new Wall Street Journal-NBC poll published today shows that a large and increasing majority of the public supports such action, a complete turnaround from a year ago when only 21 percent of Americans supported Obama’s aborted plan to bomb Syria. What’s changed?
What’s changed as far as the broad public is concerned is simple: The horrific ISIS beheading videos we’ve seen this year show Americans being slaughtered, not the Syrians we saw in last year’s equally horrific images. And the instant viral clout of powerful video shows no signs of lessening. So much so that even as the president prepares to address the nation about war on the eve of 9/11, the ISIS horrors have already been knocked from the top of the nation’s television news playlist by a new video — TMZ’s of Ray Rice. Though no poll has been taken on the subject, it’s possible that a majority of the public would endorse an air strike on Rice and possibly NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, as well.

When you look deeper in the latest poll numbers, you find that while the public supports action against ISIS (and I am part of that public), only 34 percent want to send in ground troops. This is not a country that wants to go to war; it remains a country that wants to take out the bad guys from the air, preferably with drones. And if we are to believe the consensus of Beltway punditry, it’s a country that also wants its current president to start adopting the bellicose language of George W. Bush to signify his “leadership.” Or perhaps only up to a point. The WSJ-NBC poll shows Obama’s total positive rating at a low 42 percent. But Bush is at 37 percent, and Hillary Clinton, lately positioning herself as a Democratic hawk, is in a virtual tie with Obama, at 43 percent.

Whatever the president says tonight — and whatever the fighting words he uses to say it — the fact remains that he possesses no magic bullet to take out ISIS overnight. And his hawkish critics don’t have one, either. Typical was a diatribe on the Journal’s OpEd page yesterday by Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009. He fulminates that “this country, and the president personally, must step forward and show the world that we can and will move decisively, collectively and immediately.” Hell yes! But when it comes to the troubling specifics accompanying all those adverbs, the man had nothing to add but gaseous truisms. He wrote that “we should avoid any appearance of cooperation with Iran” in our anti-ISIS campaign — sure thing, but he doesn’t say how we avoid crossing those wires. Crocker also warned that we must “avoid giving the impression that military action in Syria is intended to support the regime of Bashar Assad” — again true, but again accompanied by no explanation as to how it might be achieved since Assad could well be the unintended beneficiary of American military action. Crocker further pointed out that “we will need to continue an intensive, high-level political effort to help the Iraqis form an inclusive government.” Of course, but at least the Obama administration helped enable Maliki’s departure. According to memos that turned up in Wikileaks, Crocker applauded “Maliki’s leadership and restoration of central government authority” as being in America’s best interests when he was ambassador to Iraq.

No wonder that the Journal’s lead editorial today could come up with no more specific advice for Obama in tonight’s speech than that he “concede that Dick Cheney was right all along.” That may seem like a farcical notion to many of us, but in the echo chamber of the neocon right, where the Bush-Cheney foreign policy remains the holy grail, Cheney is still considered a political asset, not a liability. And a call for ground forces from this crowd may not be far behind. In yet another Journal rallying-the-troops jeremiad over the past week, Robert Kagan pointedly likened Fareed Zakaria (by name) and Thomas Friedman (by unattributed citation) — hardly isolationists — to those who failed to appreciate the threat of Germany and Japan in the 1930s. Make no mistake: The 34 percent of America that wants an all-in war is chomping at the bit.

Last year, the GOP’s isolationist wing — Senator Rand Paul, especially — was instrumental in stopping American strikes in Syria and appeared to be the ascendent voice in the party. Now, GOP leaders, including Paul, are sounding more like Cheney, supporting the president’s plan while bashing him for insufficient hawkishness. Foreign policy hasn’t been a deciding electoral issue since 2008. Will it once again be crucial in 2014 and 2016? And what will that mean for Paul and his allies?
If you read Rand Paul’s latest take on ISIS, a Time piece titled “I Am Not an Isolationist,” it’s clear that his position really hasn’t changed, for all his stepped-up anti-Obama rhetoric (still relatively cool next to his peers). Paul is still setting himself apart on foreign policy from the Cheneyites who could be his 2016 opponents — the super hawks Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (among others) — and from Hillary Clinton. He could wreak havoc to all their plans by being the sole occupier of the anti-hawk slot in 2016. It’s intriguing that the mischievous Bill Maher, who gave $1 million to an Obama PAC in 2012, said this week that he was toying with voting for Paul over Clinton. But will foreign policy be decisive as an electoral issue in either of the next two elections? I doubt it, unless flag-draped caskets are once again returning to Dover Air Force Base.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo had tried his best to ignore his opponent, Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, but last night he was forced to acknowledge her: Teachout won over a third of the votes in yesterday’s Democratic primary. Cuomo has been a relatively popular governor and a champion of liberal causes like same-sex marriage and gun control, why did he prove so susceptible to a protest challenge from the left? And does his weak showing in the primary spell the end of any President Andrew Cuomo talk?
Given the tiny turnout in the Democratic primary, Teachout’s moral victory can be taken as that but not much more. Cuomo remains a mostly popular governor and a likely landslide victor over his Republican opponent this fall. But he was susceptible to challenge not just because of his more conservative fiscal positions, anathema to many in the Democratic base, but to the main point Teachout highlighted: his shutting down of his own anti-corruption commission, which led to the subsequent move by Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, to open a federal investigation into possible obstruction of justice. Cuomo is never going to seek the presidency as long as Hillary Clinton is in the mix, in any case. But if Bharara’s investigation finds anything seamy, let alone illegal, it will taint Cuomo as still another corrupt Albany politician and his national aspirations will take a likely insurmountable hit.