It may be time for Scooter Libby to make a splash in the race for president.
No, not as a candidate, of course. The role of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff should be as sage.
Some context is in order: For understandable reasons, most of the voter interest in the Republican nomination contest has focused on domestic issues. Indeed, a semi-isolationist spirit has taken hold among a large swath of the right-leaning electorate, expressing the attitude that we have so many problems of our own that the rest of the world should just take care of itself. This, however, is as foolish as if the denizens of a single city block refused to pay attention to deterioration of the neighborhood surrounding them, and of the city surrounding the neighborhood. A crime wave encompassing the block to the North and the block to the South, combined with blight one block westward and more blight one block eastward, cannot help to make life worse in the original block in question.
So too with world affairs. And, because a president has more room to operate freely on matters of defense and foreign policy than he has on any domestic issues, a presidential election should (but almost never will) revolve more around those issue areas than around anything else.
It is in this light that AEI, the Heritage Foundation, and CNN will host a debate on Nov. 15 devoted solely to defense and foreign policy. And as candidates prepare for that debate -- as Herman Cain tries to get a clue on those subjects, as Mitt Romney tries to figure how to be isolationist and interventionist at the same time depending on where the wind is blowing, as Newt Gingrich tries to explain having been for intervention in Libya before he was against it, and as Ron Paul figures out how many ways he can blame America first -- all the candidates would do well to bone up on the realities in the Middle East as described in a recent series of essays by Libby and his Hudson Institute colleague Hillel Fradkin.
On a subject that only Rick Santorum of all the candidates appears to know well, Libby and Fradkin make a compelling case that American interests may well be "fading in the new Middle East." Their argument comes in an essay titled "Last Man Standing" in the September/October issue of World Affairs Journal.
"[T]oday, our adversaries have renewed hopes of expelling the United States from the Middle East," they write. "They hope to show that now it is America that will not support friends, punish enemies, or achieve our aims. For the first time since World War II, they have some reason to expect success." Turkey (about which, more in a moment) is no longer a firm ally. Egypt (also about which, more momentarily) is probably going Islamist. President Obama probably just undermined eight years of solid effort in Iraq. Iran stands virtually unchallenged as a regional power. Once-friendly Lebanon is now in the terrorist hands of Hezbollah -- snatched while Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri exactly as Hariri visited a feckless Obama in the Oval Office. They quote Arab analyst Ghaith al-Omari saying -- quite chillingly, for those of us who fear that American weakness spells massive dangers to American interests -- that "it's become fashionable to 'dis' the Americans. The prevalent mood now is to say that the United States is no longer relevant."
If the United States isn't relevant, also not relevant will be our interest in a steady oil supply, our trade routes through the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal, and perhaps our life-and-death interest in keeping terrorists away from our shores. On that latter, Libby and Fradkin posit that "[n]ear-term counterterror cooperation will likely diminish in Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, where leaders that had cooperated with the US against al-Qaeda have been weakened or replaced. While democracy may one day undermine terrorist in these countries, one or more of them may also end as repressive regimes that spur terror or leave new, ungoverned areas in which radicals thrive."
In that light, the authors argued in the April issue of Commentary (in "Egypt's Islamists: A Cautionary Tale") that "the structures necessary [in Egypt] for true democracy are barely in evidence." And to the extent that democracy does exist, it seems sure to be dominated by a group probably determined to use it only as a way-station toward less salubrious ends: the Muslim Brotherhood. As Libby and Fradkin note, the Brotherhood's motto still remains: "Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Koran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope." When crowds gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square in February to celebrate the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, helping organize the events, invited as a main speaker Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a star commentator on Al Jazeera. Here's what the authors report:
[Qaradawi] offered an impassioned "message to our brothers in Palestine." "I have hope," he declared, "that Almighty Allah, as I have been pleased with the victory in Egypt, that he will also please me with the conquest of the Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem]." As the many millions who have heard Qaradawi know all too well, his words in Tahrir Square reflect his hope to participate in the extermination of the world's Jews -- Jews, not merely Israelis. He has applauded Hitler's work and seen Allah's hand in it. Indeed, he has expressed gratitude that the final work has been left to Muslims, a task, he claims, that goes to the roots of Islam.
In the same essay, the authors touched on Turkey as well: "The Turkish model is characterized by growing authoritarianism through intimidation, questionable detentions of opponents, and diversion of public assets to friendly hands. That may be more congenial than the 'Iranian model,' but that ought to be cold comfort, given the speed with which [Prime Minister Recep] Erdogan is effecting Islamist changes in what was the most secular country in the Muslim world."
At least, report Libby and Fradkin, Erdogan himself has been bumbling somewhat. In a Sept. 30 essay called "Erdogan should mind his own glass house," they detail Turkey's growing opposition to Israel and how it has backed Syria and Iran in their "quarrels with the West." But his attempts to throw his weight around may be backfiring. Iran and Syria have welcomed Turkey's support, only to thumb their noses at Turkey's own attempts to get them to modify other abusive behavior -- so much so that, the authors report, "Turkey looked the fool."
All of which would be condign punishment, and a salve to American concerns, except that it isn't clear how Erdogan's bumbling will affect the overall state of Middle Eastern affairs. Will it bring him back in line with the West -- or will it lead him to "double-down" in his Islamist adventurism, to the detriment of either the United States or to regional stability, or both?
It is an increasingly dangerous world that Fradkin and Libby describe -- and that's just the Middle East. As world chess champion and democracy activist Garry Kasparov told the Heritage Foundation this week, the situation in Russia becomes worse by the day. "The systematic destruction of Russia's nascent democracy by [Vladimir] Putin," he said, "has increased its pace in recent years."
So the Middle East boils, China grows in power, Russia flexes anti-Western muscles in what is again a dictatorship, and Europe's economies stand on the brink. Such are the concerns that make it imperative that the Republican nominee be somebody who has a comprehensive understanding of foreign policy, a commitment to a strong defense, and the ability to explain to the American public the great stakes involved in our interaction with the rest of the world.
If nobody in the race is yet consulting with Libby and Fradkin on these issues, then wise and bracing insight is being seriously wasted.