The Election 2012 Weekly Report: The Newt Era

Iowa Debate

The GOP candidates faced off in Sioux City on Thursday in what will likely be the last primary debate before the Iowa Caucuses. Foreign policy was very much on the agenda. Responding to a question about the downed U.S. drone in Iran and president's request that it be returned by Iran, Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of weakness: "Does timidity and weakness invite aggression on the part of other people? Absolutely," Romney said. "A strong America is the best ally peace has ever owned. A spy drone downed over Iran and he says ‘pretty please?'"

Rick Perry repeated his call for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign over the controversial Operation Fast and Furious undercover gun-running scheme on the U.S.-Mexico border. In response to a question about whether Holder should take responsibility for the incident even if, as he claims, he didn't know about, Perry said, "If I'm the president of the United States, and I find out that there is an operation like Fast and Furious and my attorney general didn't know about it, I would have him resign immediately." Perry also disputed the president's assessment that the border is safer that it's ever been.

Jon Huntsman took a counterintuitive approach, using lower immigration numbers as evidence of the president's failures: "In terms of immigration, and illegal immigration, this president has so screwed up this economy, nobody is coming anymore. There is nothing to come for. There's not a problem today! Look at the numbers coming across. The numbers posted the other day -- lowest in four decades."

Rick Santorum continued his attack on Latin America policy and claims that Islamist militant groups are using the region as a safe haven: "This president has ignored that threat, has insulted our allies like Honduras and Colombia deliberately and embraced like other scoundrels in the Middle East, embraced Chávez, Ortega, and others in South America not promoting our value and interests."

Ron Paul, who has seen a recent surge in the polls, dismissed concerns about Iran's nuclear program, saying, "There is no evidence they have a nuclear weapon. This is another Iraq coming. There's war propaganda going on." Michele Bachmann responded incredulously to Paul's attitude, saying she had "never heard a more dangerous statement."

The Gingrich-Huntsman debate

Newt Gingrich finally got his wish for a three-hour Lincoln-Douglas style debate he sat down on Monday at New Hampshire's St. Anselm College with the trailing Huntsman. It was a cordial affair -- after all, a strong showing by Huntsman in New Hampshire can only be to Gingrich's advantage against Romney -- with few major disagreements between the two. (Huntsman even referred to Gingrich as a "great historian.") Gingrich disapproved of the way Obama had handled the Arab Spring, particularly how he "dumped" U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak in a "very unceremonious way." Huntsman anticipated "a hubristic, nationalistic generation" poised to take power in China.

Are Gingrich's 15 minutes up?

Once again, Newt dominated the news this week, particularly for his controversial comments that Palestinians are an "invented people," a remark that generated a sharp backlash from Palestinian leaders. Even Romney, hardly known for his pro-Palestinian views, went after Gingrich's "erratic outspokenness."

This also seemed to be a week when major Republican figures turned on Gingrich. Columnist George Will blasted the front-runner, saying he "seems to believe there is always some higher synthesis, inaccessible to lesser intellects, that makes all his contradictions disappear." The National Review piled on: "His character flaws -- his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas -- made him a poor Speaker of the House."

Whether attacks like these will resonate with primary voters remains to be seen, though Gingrich's numbers do seem to be slipping somewhat in Iowa.

Obama touts Iraq pullout

At a modest ceremony in Baghdad this week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta marked the official pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. In a new web video from the Obama campaign titled, "Promises Kept," the president touts his commitment to ending the Iraq war, saying, "Over the next few days, a small group of American soldiers will begin the final march out of that country... Iraq's future will be in the hands of its people." The pullout, despite being conducted along a timeline previously agreed by Obama's predecessor, is likely to be a centerpiece of Obama's pitch to voters, along with the killing of Osama bin Laden.  

Cain for SecDef?

Guess who's back? Former candidate Herman Cain, who famously struggled with even the fundamentals of foreign policy during his campaign, was interviewed by Barbara Walters this week as part of her annual "most fascinating people" segment and told her that if he had his choice of Cabinet positions, he'd like to be secretary of defense. This response prompted a rare "what?" from the veteran interviewer. Perhaps he'd settle for ambassador to Uzbekistan?

What to watch for

All eyes are on Iowa this holiday season as residents of the Hawkeye state prepare for caucuses on Jan. 3. There's now increasing speculation that Paul might have his turn as the next "anyone-but-Romney," following turns by Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich. Paul has consistently polled in second or third place in Iowa, and with Gingrich's numbers beginning to fall, he may be in a position to capitalize. Expect more scrutiny of Paul's views, particularly his neo-isolationist foreign policy, in the days ahead.

The latest from FP:

Defense writer Sharon Weinberger examines Gingrich's far-out futurist vision of warfare.

Former candidate Tim Pawlenty tells FP's Josh Rogin that Gingrich is a flip-flopper on foreign policy.

Michael A. Cohen laments that more genuine disagreements weren't aired at the Gingrich-Huntsman showdown.

Poll-watcher Scott Clement explains why, despite Iraq and Osama, the president shouldn't feel safe from attacks on his foreign-policy record. 

Scott Olson/Getty Images


Christopher Hitchens: 1949-2011

We were saddened here to learn today that the pugnacious columnist and literary icon Christopher Hitchens has passed away. For the rememberances of the colleagues who knew him best, head over to our sister site Slate where Hitchens wrote the weekly "Fighting Words" column until just a few weeks ago, despite his ongoing fight with cancer. 

Not surprisingly, given his wide-ranging interests in international affairs, Hitchens was a periodic contributor to Foreign Policy. 

In 2004, he penned his withering assessment of Colin Powell's tenure as secretary of State:

From William Jennings Bryan to Cyrus Vance, history used to suggest a remedy for secretaries of state who became demoralized or disillusioned with the policies pursued by their presidents: resignation. More than just quitting, resignation also at least implies an acceptance of responsibility (as it did, for example, when Lord Carrington resigned as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's foreign secretary over the Falklands imbroglio). But with Powell, one has never been entirely sure whether he considers collective responsibility to be a part of his cabinet rank. Instead, he offers a grudging willingness to stay on, for a little bit at least, if invited -- no, make that pressed -- to do so. This attitude is normally associated either with insufferable guests, or with people who appear to believe that they are performing the thankless task of holding up the sky.

In a 2007 contribution on how the next U.S. president could transform U.S. foreign policy, he wrote this broadside against U.S. drug policy

The largest single change for the better in U.S. foreign policy, and one that could be accomplished simply by an act of political will, would be the abandonment of the so-called War on Drugs. This last relic of the Nixon era has long been a laughingstock within the borders of the United States itself (where narcotics are freely available to anybody who wants them and where the only guarantee is that all the money goes straight into criminal hands). But the same diminishing returns are now having a deplorable effect on America's international efforts.[...]

Decriminalization of drugs could also mean fewer lethal impurities (the result of gangsters "cutting" the stuff) and a decline in the glamour associated with prohibition. The opportunities for the corruption of officialdom, both overseas and in the United States, would decline also, as would the deadly turf wars that inflate the crime rate. One does not have to be an apostle of Milton Friedman’s to realize that any attempt to prohibit a commodity with such huge demand and ease of supply is doomed. It has no place in the policy of a great nation.

Finally, in 2008, Hitchens contributed the intro for FP's public intellectuals list, later renamed the global thinkers' list. Hitchens, of course, was a perennial member of the top 100 and his thoughts  on what makes a public intellectual are invaluable in looking back at his own career in the public eye: 

Because I am able to appear on television, give a speech at short notice, and write at high speed, I very often find myself invited, and also tempted, to offer instant responses and to weigh in on diverse matters. Doing so is sometimes enjoyable and sometimes, too, a sort of revenge for the number of times one has had to mouth curses at the screen or throw the newspaper up into the air with sheer exasperation. Nonetheless, I do my very best to say "no" to at least a few of these invitations, lest I become too much of an all-purpose hack. (I am well aware that this last sentence of mine exposes me to e-mail traffic that I can, thank you, already anticipate.)

To the problem of the self-appointed guide and sage, one must also append the thorny question of self-appointed public opinion. Unrepresentative groups of people -- like those who take part in electronic referendums on their AOL screens to determine such questions as whether Eliot Spitzer should be prosecuted -- have become used to thinking "that’s me" when they read "this is what you decided." The fact that there is a distinction between "You" (as in You the People) and "You" (as in You who overvisits YouTube) is very often blurred in the interests of populism or, to phrase it another way, in the interests of flattering the consumer. The idea of an intellectual standard is unlikely to thrive in such an environment, which, furthermore, is already sufficiently poll-driven.

What one might call the "selectorate," even in these august pages, is a self-selectorate that can be activated by the Web site of a person with a fan base. (Posner's criteria for inclusion on his list were a combination of the number of media mentions, Web hits, and scholarly citations.) I was recently made aware of a poll on Charlie Rose's Web site ranking the popularity of his recent interviews. I was delighted, in a way, to find his interview with me at the top (1,059 votes), surpassing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (505 votes) and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush (344 and 494 votes, respectively). I was thunderstruck to find myself ahead of Angelina Jolie (252 votes, in tandem with Mariane Pearl), Jay-Z (331 votes), and Warren Buffett (392 votes). But, as you will readily see from a hasty scrutiny of the figures, a world in which a measurable electorate decides these rankings does not actually exist outside the Charlie Rose Web site. Such a world, if it did exist, would be incapable of putting me on almost the same footing as Vaclav Havel, at numbers five and four, respectively, an absurd event, but one that did actually occur three years ago under the aegis of FP and Prospect's reader poll. The last time that I had such a vertiginous sensation was when the Washington Post Style section did its New Year's roundup of "In" and "Out," declaring that I was "out" in some journalistic category, whereas Tucker Carlson was the one "in." Fair enough, I recall muttering to myself, except that I could never remember having been certified as "in" in the first place.

Indeed, one might do worse than to say that an intellectual is someone who does not, or at least does not knowingly and obviously, attempt to soar on the thermals of public opinion. There ought to be a word for those men and women who do their own thinking; who are willing to stand the accusation of "elitism" (or at least to prefer it to the idea of populism); who care for language above all and guess its subtle relationship to truth; and who will be willing and able to nail a lie. If such a person should also have a sense of irony and a feeling for history, then, as the French say, "tant mieux." An intellectual need not be one who, in a well-known but essentially meaningless phrase, "speaks truth to power." (Chomsky has dryly reminded us that power often knows the truth well enough.) However, the attitude toward authority should probably be skeptical, as should the attitude toward utopia, let alone to heaven or hell. Other aims should include the ability to survey the present through the optic of a historian, the past with the perspective of the living, and the culture and language of others with the equipment of an internationalist. In other words, the higher one comes in any "approval" rating of this calling, the more uneasily one must doubt one's claim to the title in the first place.

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