In the Arena

10 Days Till Iowa

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After a week rummaging about through eastern Iowa, chasing the candidates, I’ve noticed a few interesting policy trends this year. Here are two:

1. Ethanol Pandering is Over: There was a gangly guy with a video cam asking each of the candidates about ethanol subsidies, which are due to expire at the end of the year. None of them pandered. Gingrich and Santorum took the same position that I’d seen Romney take earlier in the autumn: subsidies were fine to get the ethanol industry started, but they weren’t necessary any more–and the federal flex fuels requirements would ensure that there was a continuing market for ethanol. I didn’t see Rick Perry address this issue, which would have been interesting–since oil and gas subsidies are no longer necessary either, if they ever were. But, in any case, it seems a less than stellar era of agripandering has come to a close.

2. Not Much Saber-Rattling: And a desire to bring the troops home as quickly as possible from Afghanistan. Ron Paul’s anti-imperialist position has had surprising resonance among Iowa voters and the other candidates have noticed. None of them are particularly bellicose–except on Iran, which is a ploy to get the support of evangelical Christian Rapturians who are banking on Israel’s survival so their doomsday scenario will unfold. This is dangerous stuff, although when I pressed Gingrich on it the other day, he said that while he favored regime change in Iran, he didn’t–at the moment–favor going to war there.

There was another fascinating thing that Gingrich said. He was asked about Afghanistan. He said that he’d consult his generals, but hoped the troops could come home as quickly as possible. But then he said, of both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “We were not prepared to exact the level of ferocity that it would have taken to change these cultures.”

Now there’s an interesting statement. It seems to imply that (a) we wimped out and (b) those cultures could be changed. But I read it somewhat differently: as a testament to our humanity. We’re Americans. This is the 21st century. We don’t do all-out war anymore. But that’s just my interpretation and, someday, I’d love to have a longer conversation with Gingrich about the implications of what he said.

It certainly stands in contrast with the witless puling that John McCain has been doing about Iraq in recent weeks. McCain, clearly, is an anachronism, a colonialist, who believes that since we “conquered” Iraq (sort of), it was ours in perpetuity. I mean, Iraq is a sovereign nation–a democracy (sort of)–and it wanted us to leave. That it is now may be reverting to sectarian chaos was entirely predictable, since you can’t just plop down democracy in a society that has a minimal middle class and no tradition of the rule of law. This was something that both Brent Scowcroft and James Baker warned against before the war started. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq remains one of the worst that any President of the United States ever made. It may haunt us, and the world, for decades to come.