Weird How Interventionists Keep Finding Talented Politicians With Foreign-Policy Blank Slates


There's an interesting sub-theme at evidence in the interventionist battle to discredit Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) as a dangerous kook on foreign policy. Once again, it turns out, those who believe in blank-check executive-branch prosecution of global war and maintenance of American hegemony seem curiously disinterested in their surrogate politicians' actual views. On foreign policy. Here is Slate politics writer David Weigel from Friday:

Two summers ago, after Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels decided not to run for president, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was summoned to meet Henry Kissinger. "When he called me into his office," Christie told Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, "he just said, 'The country needs a change and you connect with people in a way that I haven't seen a politician connect with someone in a long time.'"

Kissinger's pitch is a highlight of Balz's forthcoming campaign book Collision 2012. […] [Christie] told Kissinger that he honestly didn't think he could run yet. 

"I haven't given any deep thought to foreign policy," Christie admitted.

"Don't worry about that," said Kissinger, according to Christie. "We can work with you on that. Foreign policy is instinct, it's character, that's what foreign policy is."

Emphasis mine (above and below).

Hmmm, provocative governor with political talent but no foreign policy experience treated as a promising tabula rasa by establishment hawks….Where have I heard that one before?

In June 2007, a cruise hosted by the political journal The Weekly Standard set anchor in Juneau, Alaska. Standard editors William Kristol and Fred Barnes then lunched with Governor Sarah Palin. It was a moment of discovery to equal Hernando Cortez's landing at Veracruz.

The Daily Telegraph's Tim Shipman saw this encounter as the launch of a Neoconservative project surrounding Palin. He interviewed a former Republican White House official now at the American Enterprise Institute about Palin:

"She's bright and she's a blank page. She's going places and it's worth going there with her." Asked if he sees her as a "project," the former official said: "Your word, not mine, but I wouldn't disagree with the sentiment."

Kristol appeared on Fox News on June 30, 2008, confidently predicting that McCain would select Sarah Palin and as a public display of support, oil prices would miraculously fall.

Kristol can fairly lay claim to having "discovered" Palin for Washington political circles. Palin's name appeared in 41 Weekly Standard articles since the Juneau meeting—starting with a paean entitled "The Most Popular Governor" that ran right after the reception.

Palin's running mate, of course, was one of neoconservatism's great blank-slate success stories, with his maverick interventionism, and Standard-supplied Teddy Roosevelt ideology melting the Fourth Estate's heart in the late 1990s:

It was at this time that Marshall Wittmann, one of Bill Kristol's best friends, handed McCain a stack of David Brooks essays on national-greatness conservatism, supplementing it with a little light reading on McCain's old hero Teddy Roosevelt. From that day forward, until well into 2001, it became difficult to determine where the Weekly Standard's imagination ended and McCain's stump speech began. […]

The foundational document for the Standard-McCain fusion project was an April 1999 cover story by David Brooks entitled "Politics and Patriotism: From Teddy Roosevelt to John McCain." […]

Brooks … lets slip throughout the essay the sense that McCain's agenda was a piece of clay in the Weekly Standard's capable, intellectual hands. "Right now his sentiments are vague," wrote the same man who, when introducing national-greatness conservatism, argued that laying out "some sort of 10-point program" would be "silly" because "particular policies are less important than getting Americans to begin to think differently about politics." You could almost see Brooks rubbing his hands together at the prospect of marrying his opaque national greatness with McCain's lofty greater cause: "In fact," he wrote, "if you look at his policies, you can begin to imagine a national narrative and a public philosophy that might be created around them." They had the man; all they needed was the theory.

While it's true that McCain had a pre-existing interest in foreign policy, and a family tradition soaked in Naval supremacy, it was the neocon crowd who literally wrote the speech unveiling McCain's remarkably open-ended "rogue-state rollback" doctrine in 1999.

So what does it say about a smallish group of foreign-policy ideologues that they spend so much energy finding empty but promising vessels with which to contest elections and hopefully carry out a robustly interventionist defense policy?

Among other things, that they're successful. It has proven a useful strategy to populate think tanks and magazines and capital-P Projects while contantly recruiting ambitious politicians into the fold in case they gain proximity to office. (You probably don't remember this, but one of the great Kristol vessels last election cycle was another inexperienced governor, Tim Pawlenty.) Imagine a powerful group of libertarian ideologues who go hunting around for charismatic politicians to whom they say "Don't worry about the ideology part, just win elections!" That this is impossible to conceive of says something about the nature of libertarianism, and of the ineptitude that libertarians usually bring to Washington power politics.

But I'd suggest two other, less flattering interpretations. Maybe they keep searching for moldable clay—or failing that, straight-to-cable true-believer attack dogs like John Bolton and Peter King—because these ideas aren't particularly saleable 12 years after 9/11. If blank-check interventionism was producing its own camera-ready talent, its proponents wouldn't have to spend so much time head-hunting.

Or maybe that's whole attraction in the first place—playing ventriloquist for hand-picked dummies who seek to wield enormous power. I'm sure it must be exhilarating to think that there is something behind the throne greater than the king himself, but what a weird way to go through life.