THE NORMAL rule in American politics is that if you run for president and your experience comes at the state level, most people will assume that foreign policy is your weak point. You can overcome that political vulnerability -- as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and other governors did while getting elected. One would presume that this applies even more to presidential candidates whose highest office reached is mayor. And yet we have the strange case of Rudolph Giuliani.
Giuliani's presidential campaign is starting to win a cult following among conservatives. It's not his position on domestic policy that's doing it -- he has nothing to say about that. Lord knows it's not his social issue positions, which even his strongest backers acknowledge are his political weak point. No, he has somehow built a record as a foreign policy guru despite having no experience beyond the municipal level.
What are Giuliani's credentials? Everybody knows the basics. On Sept. 11, 2001, he rolled up his shirt sleeves and gave reassuring speeches. He has a tough guy persona. He expresses extremely strong disapproval for enemies of the United States. (For instance, Giuliani has bragged about asking President Bush to let him personally execute Osama bin Laden.)
All this makes Republicans swoon. Sometimes literally. Conservative pundit Danielle Crittenden recently penned a Valentine's Day poem to Giuliani. One section summarized his foreign policy skills thusly:
"A man who's locked out Arafat/And thrown vagrants into prison
Won't cringe before a Democrat/ Or allow Iran nuclear fission."
I'm no poetry critic, but I do know that a tough policy against the homeless is not a good proxy for the conduct of foreign policy.
If having a macho swagger and talking tough about bad guys were enough to make a good commander in chief, we wouldn't have the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history on our hands right now in Iraq. And, need I remind anybody, one of the reasons Giuliani hasn't been able to fulfill his Bin Laden execution fantasy is that Bush allowed the Al Qaeda leader to escape at Tora Bora by using Afghan proxies instead of U.S. ground troops.
As I noted in this space last week, conservative foreign policy consists increasingly of abstract notions divorced from reality. In preparing for last week's House debate over the Iraq troop surge, the Republican leadership instructed its members in a memo: "The debate should not be about the surge or its details. This debate should not even be about the Iraq war to date, mistakes that have been made or whether we can, or cannot, win militarily. If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose."
So they're strong on foreign policy, except insofar as it involves actual policy. They tend to be much better, however, at comparing themselves to figures such as Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln. They make such comparisons incessantly. Last week, Giuliani said that Lincoln had "that ability that a leader has -- a leader like George Bush, a leader like Ronald Reagan -- to look into the future."
A few days later, the New York Times revealed that the 2002 postwar plan for Iraq envisioned a broadly representative Iraqi government, an intact Iraqi army and just a handful of U.S. troops remaining. I would say this is not a good job of looking into the future.
I'm sure Giuliani and his fans would dismiss such slip-ups, and there have been many, as mere detail. The important thing to them is leadership -- Bush has it; Giuliani has it.
Giuliani raked in millions after 9/11, appearing at motivational seminars, where anybody with $49 could listen to him recount his 9/11 heroics and also take in speeches by such foreign policy titans as Zig Ziglar and Goldie Hawn. Giuliani also wrote a book promising to show "how the leadership skills he practices can be employed successfully by anyone who has to run anything."
But if anybody who buys his book can acquire the same leadership skills, why do we need Giuliani?