The GOP Should Always Do the Opposite of What Bill Kristol Says

The man who helped bring us the Iraq War and Sarah Palin says Republicans are in danger of being too self-critical. How would he know?

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KirstyHall/Flickr

As President Obama begins his second term, having soundly defeated Republicans twice, The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol is advising his fellow partisans to avoid being too hard on themselves. "Republican self-criticism is necessary and healthy, but all things in moderation," he says. "Republicans can and should say, with considerable justification and only a bit of bravado: It is past time we ceased to apologize for an imperfect political party. Find its equal. Probably more than any other party in the world, the Republicans have in recent decades stood unflinchingly for the cause of liberty abroad, and, at home, with a bit more uncertainty, for limited, constitutional government and for the principle that government exists to serve free men and free markets."

Actually, Republicans flinched from supporting the cause of liberty during the Cold War when it conflicted with anti-communism, and regularly flinch from doing so in the War on Terror, too. (Ahem.) And if the actions of John Ashcroft, John Yoo, David Addington, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush constitute support for "limited, constitutional government," the words have no meaning.

But set all that aside.

What's truly astonishing is Kristol's total obliviousness to why self-criticism might be warranted in foreign affairs: For the last decade, even the places where Republicans earnestly did want to spread liberty have turned into costly debacles. They had dubious notions of what the military could accomplish. They failed to execute. They stubbornly denied anything was amiss for far too long. And as a result, Republicans, especially neoconservatives, lost the trust of American voters.

Democrats are now more trusted in the realm of foreign affairs.

Why might that be?

One reason is that people like Bill Kristol remain influential foreign-policy voices in the Republican Party, despite a stunning dearth of self-criticism for the catastrophic advise they've given.

Cast your memory back to the winter of 2002. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee calls Bill Kristol himself to testify. Here are some of the things he says:

The larger question with respect to Iraq, as with Afghanistan, is what happens after the combat is concluded. The Iraqi opposition lacks the military strength of the Afghan Northern Alliance; however, it claims a political legitimacy that might even be greater. And, as in Kabul but also as in the Kurdish and Shi'ite regions of Iraq in 1991, American and alliance forces will be welcomed in Baghdad as liberators. Indeed, reconstructing Iraq may prove to be a less difficult task than the challenge of building a viable state in Afghanistan. The political, strategic and moral rewards would also be even greater. A friendly, free, and oil-producing Iraq would leave Iran isolated and Syria cowed; the Palestinians more willing to negotiate seriously with Israel; and Saudi Arabia with less leverage over policymakers here and in Europe. Removing Saddam Hussein and his henchmen from power presents a genuine opportunity -- one President Bush sees clearly -- to transform the political landscape of the Middle East.

Into Iraq we went, just as he advised. The invasion and occupation cost more in lives and treasure than anyone in the Republican Party ever predicted and lasted years longer than most Americans expected. Was Iran isolated? Was Syria cowed? Did the Palestinians start negotiating? Does Saudi Arabia now lack leverage over the United States? No, no, no, and no.*

Little wonder that Kristol is wary of too much Republican self-criticism. Serious scrutiny of past failures couldn't help but illuminate how much damage the GOP has suffered due to its embrace of neoconservative ideology, and how much it stands to gain by distancing itself from people so tenuously connection to reality that they still insist that the Iraq War was a good idea. (And that Sarah Palin was the right VP pick in 2008.)

Says Daniel Larison at The American Conservative:

The Republican Party has many afflictions and problems today, but a lack of triumphalism about its own virtues isn't one of them .... Reviewing the GOP's record over the past decade of massive foreign policy failure, executive overreach, expansion of government, growth of the national security state, support for torture and indefinite detention, and government bailouts, there are not many willing to celebrate the party for its "unflinching" defense of the causes of liberty and limited, constitutional government. The simple reason for that is that it does not deserve to be celebrated .... Republican leaders can't cease to apologize for their party's flaws now that they have only just begun to acknowledge them. Self-criticism is supposed to be an uncomfortable and humbling experience, not a brief prelude to more self-congratulation. 

Exactly.

One way to verify that Republicans failed to adequately grapple with the past is whether they ever again invite Bill Kristol to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, barring a George Costanza-like epiphany persuading him that the opposite of his instinct would usually be better advice.

__
*Marvel at Kristol's uncanny knack for making terrible predictions

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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