If I could pose one question to the Republican presidential candidates showing up for tonight's debate, it would be this:
Do you believe there is such a thing as an "acceptable level" of violence?
I would ask this question because just the other day in an interview with Charlie Rose, the leader of the Republican Party -- President George W. Bush -- made the case that there is such a thing as an "acceptable level of violence." Well, is there?
It is my belief -- a conviction held widely by a majority of Americans -- that the acceptable level of violence in American life is zero. Either we have zero violence or the situation is unacceptable and we are working hard as a society to get to zero. We may never reach a level of zero violence, but we certainly will not accept anything short of zero.
So, given this belief -- this principle of zero violence -- I would want to know who among the Republican presidential candidates also holds that the only acceptable level of violence. And if they do agree that the only acceptable level of violence is zero, how do they explain the position of the leader of their party -- the position that there exists -- in American life and in American policy -- an acceptable level of violence?
That is my question to the entire GOP field. And frankly, if no other question but that one were to be asked and answered, tonight, the evening would be worthwhile.
To Bush Violence can be "Acceptable"
The somewhat lengthy exchange between Charlie Rose and President Bush on the question of "violence" went like this:
Charlie Rose: The sectarian violence that is of a certain level.
President George W. Bush: But it's -- it's significantly lower than it was a couple of months ago.
CR: And is there an acceptable level of violence?
GWB: Well, that's the -- that's the question to the Iraqi people. That's a fascinating question.
GWB: I mean, there is an acceptable level of violence in certain societies around the world, and the question is, you know, what is that level? And that's where the experts come in. I -- you know, you and I can't determine that sitting here in New York, but we can -- we can ask people's advice upon that; David Petraeus would have an option on that. Ryan Crocker, our ambassador in Iraq. But it's a very interesting way of putting the question, and -- because all -- there is an acceptable level of violence in all societies, even our own.
CR: And where do you --
GWB: Even though all violence is to be abhorred, nevertheless, there is -- you know, there's certain violence -- levels of violence that people say, "Well gosh, I can go about my life, I've got [unintelligible]"
CR: We can't create zero violence, is that you are saying.
GWB: Well -- and by the way, if the standard of success is no car bombings or suicide bombings, we have just handed those who commit suicide bombings a huge victory. In other words, if you say, you know, "I'm going to judge the administration's plan based upon whether they were able to have no car bombings in Baghdad," we will have just given -- because car bombings are hard to stop -- or suicide bombings -- very hard to stop. We have just given al-Qaeda or any other extremist a significant victory. And that's one of the problems I face in trying to convince the American people, one, this is doable -- in other words, I wouldn't have our troops there if I didn't think this is, one, important, and secondly, achievable. But I also understand on their TV screens, people are seeing horrific bombings, and they're saying to themselves, "Is this possible? Can we possibly succeed in the face of this kind of violence?" And that's where this enemy -- the enemy of moderation has got a -- you know, they've got a -- they've got a powerful tool in [unintelligible]
What we see here is an attempt by President Bush to carve out a definition of "success" in Iraq that will allow him to change his policy despite the fact that the violence in Iraq has grown steadily worse.
Conventional logic -- moral logic -- would dictate that success in a military operation would be the condition when violence had been brought to a halt. Armies clash, violence ensues for a given period of time, one or several sides are defeated, violence ends. That, more or less, would be conventional wisdom on what it means for a military policy to be a "success."
But not for President Bush. What he wants is a new entry in the dictionary--a new conception that involves an idea of an "acceptable level of violence" in a given society.
This means that a military policy may unfold in a society already marked by a certain level of violence -- that violence was there before you got there.
For example, if an invading army would have attacked New York City in the mid-1970s, a war would have unfolded in a town already marked by a high level of street violence -- muggings, purse snatching, subway brawls, gang fights and so forth. According to President Bush's logic, one could not hold the U.S. military responsible if -- after the clash with the foreign army had ended -- people were still knifed on the subway at the same rate as prior to the war. The war would have ended, but the "acceptable level of violence" would be there.
That's Bush's logic, anyway.
But there is, unfortunately, a hole in President Bush's argument big enough to drive an armored Humvee through: the violence that he finds "acceptable" was not there prior to the U.S. occupation.
There were no roadside bombs in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion -- no daily kidnapings and massacres. The violence that President Bush has created is a byproduct of the corpse in a cesspool that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has become.
A Question For Every Candidate: Violent Vision?
And so the larger question I want answered by every candidate in the GOP presidential field is very simple: Do you agree? Is there acceptable violence or not?
The big issue -- the broad frame -- is not just about the Iraq policy and a president who acts as if he is a princely ruler instead of an elected executive. The issue is the Republican Party's understanding of the concept of violence and the role it plays in their policies.
What do Republicans think about violence?
If we listen to George W. Bush and look at his policies over the past 7 years, we would conclude that he is almost entirely committed to a violent agenda -- a violent vision through which he sees the world and defines what is right or wrong.
George W. Bush's legacy is that of a man who crafted American foreign policy entirely out of the idea that the unilateral application of violence to the world is the only way to grow American influence and security.
Seven years of Bush's violent vision has given rise to a disturbing and dangerous kind of authoritarian Republican voice in American life. Ask ardent supporters of President Bush how to solve any problem that America faces in the world -- any problem at all -- and 9 times out of 10 they will give you a violent solution.
The widespread growth of this violent view of the American power has been a deeply troubling transformation in American life over the past two presidential terms. It is the legacy that every member of the Republican Party helped to build. It is a problem that every presidential candidate in tonight's debate must be made to answer for.
Less than 6 years ago, America was attacked by people who use violence to bring about change in the world. And after 6 years of Republican responses to those events, there are now millions of people in America -- including our president -- who believe that we should use violence to bring about change in the world.
What, Mr. Giuliani, is your view on this violent worldview in our midst?
What, Mr. Huckabee, is an acceptable level of violence?
When, Mr. McCain, are Republicans going to stand against the use of violence instead of advocating for more of it?
If the Republican debate avoids posing and answering this most basic of all questions facing our country, the GOP field of presidential candidates will start out their campaigns with a deafening silence on the very issue that threatens our nation.
So I will be listening for my question, tonight. And if the Republican candidates are smart, they will answer it even if it is no explicitly posed to them.
UPDATE -- I've submitted my question to Politico.com (You may need to sort the questions to find it). If enough people vote for my question, it may make it on the air, tonight. Registration is free at the site...
(cross posted from Frameshop)
Follow Jeffrey Feldman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JeffreyFeldman