DES MOINES -- The Iowa State Fair has many things you can't find just anywhere, including a life-size butter sculpture of Harry Potter, a 1,203-pound hog, and an endless supply of deep-fried Twinkies. It also has an unlikely looking straw man, which Rudy Giuliani is pounding to smithereens.
Speaking to voters seated on bales of hay, the former New York City mayor is contrasting his approach to national security with that of Democrats. "I believe that America should be on offense against terrorism," he says, to whoops and cheers. "I do not believe that we should go back into the way we used to be, which is what I call 'on defense.' We have to use our military in a way that protects us."
You can just picture the Democrats cowering in the cellar, praying not to be attacked, while Republicans hunt down our enemies to smite them first. This is a familiar refrain from Giuliani, who habitually preaches the virtues of military strength, while accusing the other party of planning to "slash military budgets." In his view, the issue of national security is a simple choice between being powerful and assertive or weak and helpless.
But where are the Democrats who fit his dire description? Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., recently said if the United States had a chance to catch or capture Osama bin Laden by going into Pakistan, we should seize it, no matter what President Pervez Musharraf says. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., soon embraced the same position. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said Obama was merely echoing him. Does that sound like going on defense?
Democratic leaders who want to reduce military spending are about as common as tuxedoes at the State Fair. In fact, left-wing critics complain that the chief presidential candidates want to spend too much. Obama and Clinton have both called for increasing our total troop strength. Likewise for Biden and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.
The call for going on offense is characteristic of Giuliani's entire foreign policy -- simple, muscular in tone and cheerfully divorced from the world we live in. His chief tactic is sounding pugnacious. But if tough talk were all we needed, the war in Iraq would be over, North Korea would be a model of decorum, and Iran would have given up its quest for nuclear weapons.
On today's five-stop swing through Iowa, he seldom mentions Iraq. But writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Giuliani calls for sticking with the current policy for as long as it takes, because we can't accept "the consequences of failure." Such as? "Our enemies today would conclude that America's will is weak and the civilization we pledged to defend is tired. Failure would be an invitation for more war, in even more difficult and dangerous circumstances."
It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that lamenting the results of failure is not the same thing as averting it. What Giuliani never addresses is: What if we can't find a way to succeed? Stubbornness is not a strategy.
When it comes to other countries, he entertains similar fantasies. Iran, he insists, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, suggesting that with him in the White House, eliminating that problem will be as easy as melting a butter sculpture on a steamy August day.
But military action is not exactly an ideal solution. It's not at all clear that air strikes would get everything we need to get, and it's very clear that a ground invasion of Iran would make the Iraq nightmare look like a -- what's the word? -- cakewalk.
No worries. Giuliani implies that once he's elected, the Iranians will capitulate. He reminds the fairgoers that Iran once held American hostages for 444 days -- only to free them as soon as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. "That tells me you have to deal with Islamic terrorism from strength," he declares, as if expecting someone to disagree.
What he forgets is that Iran's recent push for nuclear weapons didn't come under Jimmy Carter, but under George W. Bush. If the ayatollahs aren't cowed by Bush, they aren't likely to surrender to Giuliani.
In many ways, Giuliani resembles the many vendors who surround him today. At the State Fair, it's easy to imagine you can thrive on a diet of corn dogs, cheese-on-a-stick and Dippin' Dots, and it's easy to believe his manly bromides about national security will deliver us to safety. Reality is another matter, for another day.