The headline, “U.S. Embassy Prepares for Possible Evacuation as Militants Take Control in Iraq,” brought back the depressing memories of the fall of Saigon almost 40 years ago, and the humiliating images of the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel from the U.S. Embassy there on April 30, 1975. But even if the al-Qaeda renegades affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) don’t take over Baghdad, and U.S. helicopters don’t have to evacuate the American civilian and military personnel in the city, what is taking place in Iraq now has all the makings of the crushing grand finale of the American military intervention in Southeast Asia.
Now, like then, there are those who contend that things would have turned quite differently if only the United States had not withdrawn its troops so hastily from Southeast Asia/the Middle East; if only Washington had provided more military assistance to the regime in Saigon/Baghdad; if only the leader of South Vietnam/Iraq would not have been so corrupt and so incompetent; if only the government in Saigon/Baghdad was more democratic and inclusive; if only the American president had been able to mobilize more public support for “staying the course.” Or as the saying goes, “If my grandma had wheels, she was a motorcycle.”
Even more infuriating is (as it probably was to the war critics in 1975) to have to listen to the politicians and pundits who led this country into a mortifying military fiasco insisting that they were right, that their script made for a hit movie; it’s the producers in Washington who messed everything up.
Before we forget what really happened, as the likes of John McCain will insist that the decision to go to war in Iraq is now “ancient history” and that, in any case, all the world’s intelligence services were sure that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s), let’s recall that before American troops landed on the shores of the Euphrates:
- Iraq was a stable and secular country where women and Christians enjoyed civil rights, the Kurds (following the first Gulf War) had a modicum of political autonomy. It would have been nice to have a user-friendlier Saddam Hussein. But all things considered, Washington could co-exist with him.
- Iraq served as the main strategic counter-balancing power in the Persian Gulf (following the Iran-Iraq War when Washington made sure that neither side would win). Iraq and Iran were two players that we didn’t like very much. But the strategic stalemate in the Persian Gulf served American interests.
- Iraq wasn’t the headquarters of al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. In fact, both in terms of interests and ideology, al-Qaeda posed a threat to the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad. In short, Washington and Baghdad faced a common enemy.
We know what then happened: The ousting of Saddam and the invasion of Iraq resulted in the collapse of the fragile strategic balance of power in the Persian Gulf, and strengthened the power of Iran. It led to the coming to power of a theocratic regime in Baghdad that is allied with Tehran, and ignited a bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that is spilling now to the rest of the Middle East. And lest we forget, there were the high costs in life, treasure, military strength, and diplomatic credibility for the United States.
Now an al-Qaeda that had never set a foot in Iraq and Syria before the American invasion may be getting close to gaining strength in those two countries, and could soon even take power in Baghdad.
The “Iraq Conflict now poses ‘Existential Threat’ to the United States,” according to John McCain, who had made the same argument before he called for invading Iraq. Sisyphus of Greek mythology was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again; Sisyphus was depicted by Albert Camus as a symbol of the absurd. He didn’t know McCain.
McCain also believes that America could have won the Vietnam War. And who knows? If that would have happened, the United States and Vietnam could now be close trade partners and its government would have been establishing close military ties with Washington. But wait a minute. Isn’t that what is happening these days as the United States and Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia are looking towards Washington as a counter-balance to Chinese military and economic power in the region?
In fact, contrary to the nightmare scenarios that followed the American evacuation of Saigon, the world-as-we-knew-it didn’t come to an end, the barbarians didn’t storm the gates, and the Reds didn’t take over Asia and the rest of the world. Through cautious and thoughtful diplomacy, the United States took steps to cut its losses and rebuild its military and economic power, including in Asia. At the center of these efforts, was the opening to China that helped to create the basis for diplomatic and economic cooperation in the region and to restructure its balance of power in terms that were favorable to the United States.
If anything, American military withdrawal created incentives for the pro-Western nations in the region to strengthen their military and economic cooperation through the newly established Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnam ended-up ousting the murderous Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, then went to war with China in 1979, which like the Iraq-Iran War ensured that neither of them emerged as victors. Then the Cold War ended and America won!
Which brings us back to Iraq and the Middle East. Not unlike what happened after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, what is seen now as an American defeat could actually help Washington to rebuild its position in the world, including in the Middle East, if it pursues the same kind of intelligent and realist policies that were embraced by American administrations at that time.
Instead of fantasizing about new U.S. interventions in the Middle East, the United States needs to realign its position in the region by engaging Iran and providing incentives for Tehran, Ankara, and Riyadh to take the lead in bringing stability to Iraq and Syria. These three regional powers—and the United States—have a common interest in averting the disintegration of these two countries, and in ensuring that the conflicts there don’t degenerate into a wider Sunni-Shiite War. The possibility that ISIS forces come to power in Baghdad poses a threat to all of them and should encourage them to use their military and diplomatic power to prevent that from happening. They should take a lead in that effort with the United States providing some indirect assistance.
Creating the conditions for the evolution of such a strategy could eventually lead to the maintenance of the territorial status-quo while at the same time help shape decentralized federal systems in Iraq and Syria that would provide political autonomy to the various ethnic and religious groups. Washington can only help; it cannot make that happen on its own.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
I watched President Barack Obama’s address to the graduating cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Wednesday, then read and re-read the transcript of the speech that outlined his foreign policy doctrine. I was reminded of why I voted for him twice and not for his Republican presidential rivals.
Just imagine what the current situation would be if John McCain or Mitt Romney, not Obama, occupied the White House. My guess is that U.S. troops would still be engaged in combat in Iraq on the side of the theocratic and pro-Iran regime in Baghdad, and that the Republican president would have refrained from declaring, as Obama did on Wednesday, that U.S. forces Afghanistan would fall to zero at the end of 2016 even if the situation in that country remained unstable. And you don’t have to be a psychic to imagine President McCain reliving the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as he sends an ultimatum to Iran to dispose of its nuclear program and U.S. aircraft carriers move towards the Strait of Hormuz. And then consider the image of President Romney, consulting with his neoconservative foreign policy aides (Robert Kagan? John Bolton?) and with former Vice President Dick Cheney on devising a strategy of “regime change” in Damascus, and working together with our Polish and Japanese allies in preparation for cold or hot wars with Russia and China.
Some critics of Obama’s foreign policy agenda assert that all the president has done by ending the U.S. military presences in Iraq and Afghanistan is prove that he is not George W. Bush. In a political system where two major political parties fight over control of policy, however, Obama is contrasting his vision of foreign policy and national security with that of a Republican opposition that still remains committed to the interventionist approach set by its neoconservative ideologues and many of its activists and donors. I don’t detect any major difference between the policies they are advocating and those pursued by W in his first term (recall that many of them criticized President Bush for being too “soft” on foreign policy during his second term). Just browse through the critique of Obama’s address in the editorial and op-ed pages of the neoconic Washington Post and Wall Street Journal and you can get an idea of what the majority of the Republican lawmakers and presidential contenders are thinking. They charge that “President Obama has retrenched U.S. global engagement in a way that has shaken the confidence of many U.S. allies and encouraged some adversaries” (WP), and that he “has somehow managed to combine the worst features of isolationism and multilateralism” (John Bolton in the WSJ).
One of the main criticisms of the president’s speech and policies has been that he was setting a “false choice” between direct military interventions and doing nothing in response to international crises. Hey, we are not calling for sending U.S. troops to Syria or Ukraine, contend the McCains of the world. We just think that Washington needs to “do something” to demonstrate its resolve and stand up to Assad, Putin, and the Ayatollahs.
But for McCain and his buddies in Congress and the media, “doing something” means taking steps that would almost inevitably lead to diplomatic and military escalation. Declaring a “no fly” zone by the United States and the “international community” in Syria would have triggered Syrian responses, like firing at American warplanes, that would have led eventually to direct military intervention in the civil war in Syria (which is exactly what happened in Libya). Similarly, challenging Russian annexation of Crimea by strengthening military ties with Ukraine would have made it impossible to de-escalate the crisis with Russia (which happened under Obama’s policies), while refusing to negotiate with Iran would have left Washington no choice but to consider the military option in dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
And then, of course, there are the suggestions—never made explicitly but implied in code words (“we need to pledge robust security commitment”)—that the United States should have maintained its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to prevent al-Qaeda and the Taliban from coming to power. This from the same guys who promoted the American invasion of Iraq, which in turn helped al-Qaeda expand its presence in Iraq and slowed down the military operations to fight it and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The neoconservatives and the Republican critics read opinion polls and recognize that a clear majority of the American people rejects their hyper-interventionist foreign policy approach. But they cannot criticize the voters, so they instead press the president to “do something” and project “leadership” in a way that would create the conditions for more regimes changes and more wars. And when he doesn’t buy their advice they bash him as a weak president who engages in, well, “appeasement.”
I have described President Obama in TAC in the past as a “Republican realist” and compared him to President George H.W. Bush. His West Point speech hasn’t changed my views. In fact, in his address and its anti-militarist tone and skepticism about global intervention, he sounded to me more like President Dwight Eisenhower, who also helped end another costly U.S-led war and resisted pressures to use military force in places like Hungary and Vietnam.
As I have pointed out in the past, Obama didn’t run for president as an antiwar candidate in the mode of Ralph Nader or Ron Paul. This explains why anti-interventionists on the political left and right have been critical of his policies like the intervention in Libya and the use of drones, not to mention the expansion of the national security state during his term in office. I certainly wasn’t impressed in particular with his call to engage in democracy promotion worldwide (assuming that he is serious about doing that).
But Rand Paul, who is supposedly trying to market himself as a sensible foreign policy realist, rejecting accusations that he is an “isolationist,” needs to explain if and in what ways he would respond to the crises in Syria, Iran, and Russia, differently than Obama. Ironically, he may have to prepare himself to run as an antiwar campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016, just as Obama did in 2008.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
Apparently recognizing that the American Unipolar Moment may be over, and that the international system is gradually taking a multipolar form, some pundits have been warning us that the day will soon come in which we will all be experiencing American Empire nostalgia. “If and when American power declines, the institutions and norms American power has supported will decline, too,” or “they may collapse altogether as we transition into another kind of world order, or into disorder,” wrote leading neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan. “Or we may discover then that the United States was essential to keeping the present world order together and that the alternative to American power was not peace and harmony but chaos and catastrophe—which was what the world looked like right before the American order came into being,” Kagan warned.
More recently, Kagan and others have blasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy at home and abroad for its alleged failure to stand up to U.S. adversaries in Damascus, Moscow, and Beijing. They sound even more agitated as they raise the specter of global disorder that would supposedly follow the deterioration of American power. “Some will celebrate the decline of America’s ability to deter. But wherever they live, they may find that whatever replaces the old order is much worse,” concluded The Economist magazine in a long essay which warned that “America is no longer as alarming to its foes or reassuring to its friends,” maintaining that “American power is not half as scary as its absence would be.”
These and similar arguments forecasting the End-of-the-World-as-We-Know-It unless the United States takes steps to depose Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and to force Russia’s Vladimir Putin to end Russian intervention in Ukraine, to defend American allies in East Asia in their territorial disputes with China and to end Iran’s nuclear program, to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace and to… (the list is long), are based on intellectually contradictory, if not dishonest assumptions.
When they refer to the good old days of a global stability guaranteed by American hegemony, the critics are presumably not referring to the Cold War era, but the period following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and what was celebrated as the defeat of the Soviet Union. That golden age of American military supremacy securing global peace is supposedly coming to an end because President Barack Obama was “pondering the limits of American power, out loud,” and projecting “the perception of growing American timidity” to use American military power in the Middle East and elsewhere,” as The Economist put it. This “timidity,” in turn, sends the wrong message to bad guys around the world and encourages them to challenge the power of America and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East; Poland and the Baltic states in Eastern Europe; Japan and Korea in East Asia), eventually leading to new military conflicts. It might leave the Americas no other choice but to distance themselves from the United States and take unilateral steps to protect themselves, or in the worst case scenario, make deals with the Assads and the Putins of the world. The Economist even warns that in a post-American world, Israel could end up gravitating to India and China.
Yet consider the following application of such thinking back to the supposed period of the Pax Americana: The United States emerged as the victorious and undisputed global power in the aftermath of the Cold War, and yet a tin-pot dictator by the name of Saddam Hussein was willing to invade Kuwait and defy the only remaining superpower and its freshly established new world order. So the United States had no choice but to come to the aid of its allies in the Persian Gulf and use its military power to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It followed the first Gulf War with the enunciation of a “dual containment” strategy vis-à-vis both Iraq and Iran that included the deployment of U.S. troops in the region. Read More…
The front page story in the Wall Street Journal yesterday (“Americans Want to Pull Back from World Stage, Poll Finds”) points to an intriguing contrast between the sentiments of the American people and their elites when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. While Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been urging in unison that Washington “do something” about Ukraine—the debate only being about the level of American intervention—nearly half of those surveyed in the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll “want the U.S. to be less active in the global stage, with fewer than one-fifth calling for active engagement—an anti-interventionist current that sweeps across party lines,” reports the Journal.
Indeed, reading the editorial and op-ed pages in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and other leading newspapers, one gets the impression that our pundits treat the notion that the United States should increase its role in world affairs—whether it’s regarding the tensions in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, or the island disputes in the South and East China Seas—as an axiom of sorts, while the attitudes of the American people run exactly in the opposite direction. The new poll findings “portray a public weary of foreign entanglements,” according to the Journal. The 47 percent of respondents who called for a less active role in world affairs “marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997, and 1995.” This anti-interventionist mood of the American people (to the Journal’s credit, it refrained from tagging it as “isolationist”) has been identified in several other opinion polls conducted in recent months.
Last year the Pew Research Center detected a record 53 percent of Americans stating that the United States “should mind its own business internationally” and allow other countries to get along as best as they can (that compared with 41 percent in 1995, and 20 percent in 1964). These views were endorsed by majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Other polls point to a consensus among Americans regarding U.S. policy in Ukraine and Syria, with clear majorities rejecting Washington’s conventional wisdom that these crises are central to U.S. national interests, and opposing American military intervention in them.
As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center points out in Politico, “there is little appetite across the American political spectrum to get deeply involved with difficult problems that are not easily seen as critically important to U.S. interests.” So while Republican lawmakers attack President Obama for not getting tough enough with Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, Republican voters are as reluctant as Democrats to get the United States involved in Syria and Ukraine. “There are interesting distinctions when you break down these views by country,” reports Kohut. “With respect to Ukraine, just 45 percent of Republicans said the United States should take a firm stand against Russian actions there compared with 35 percent of Democrats. On Syria, on other hand, more Democrats (43 percent) than Republicans (34 percent) favored airstrikes to force Assad to give up his chemical weapons,” which explains why Republicans lawmakers were ready to vote against authorizing President Obama to use military force against Assad.
The Journal suggests that growing anti-interventionist sentiment around the country may explain the ascent of Sen. Rand Paul as a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. But here is an interesting paradox: Much of the noise on foreign policy coming out of the GOP, including from other potential presidential candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio and Governor Christie, has been taking the form of attacks on Obama for resisting the Washington pressure to intervene, and in particular for the suggestion (raised by an unnamed source in the New Yorker) that the United States should “lead from behind.” In a way, John (“bomb, bomb Iran”) McCain—and not Rand Paul—is seen by the media (and supposedly the public) as the Republican voice on foreign policy.
If anything, Senator Paul, whose foreign policy views are more in line with Republican voters’ sentiments, seems to be playing defense on issues like Ukraine, trying to demonstrate to the neoconservative pundits and hawkish GOP operators that he is not an “isolationist.” He pledged in a recent op-ed in Time magazine that, “If I were President, I wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin get away with it,” even as he insisted that, “Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less” and voted against recent legislation that would send financial assistance to Ukraine.
Senator Paul probably thinks that this kind of “balanced” approach on Ukraine and other foreign policy issues will not antagonize the members of the powerful interventionist of his party while at the same time, helping to market himself to the anti-interventionist Republican voters as a “sensible” guy when it comes to U.S. role in the world. But more likely, if he follows this strategy, Senator Paul will not gain the approval of either side. He will never be able to win the support of those Republican pro-interventionist strategists and pundits who continue to dominate the foreign policy discourse in the party. But he will also fail in outlining a coherent message that stresses the need to reduce the military role that the United States is playing today in world affairs, and fail to clearly establish himself as an alternative to the likes of John McCain, or for that matter, Hillary Clinton.
Instead of continuing to play catch-up on foreign policy with McCain and other Republican adversaries, Paul should take a lesson from President Obama, who during a press conference in the Philippines this week blasted McCain and his other foreign policy critics who he described as operating “in an office in Washington or New York” and who seemed to be “eager to use military force.”
Here is an idea: Paul could convene a series of public forums around the country to discuss the United States’s role in the world, in which he could have a dialogue with “regular” Americans in places like Iowa and New Hampshire on how the U.S. should respond to the crises in Ukraine or Syria. Such forums could bring together Republican and Democratic speakers as well as political scientists and historians from local colleges, and could conclude with the attendees voting for or against proposed resolutions.
My guess is that the anti-interventionist sentiments the polls have been finding nationally would be echoed by participants in these public forums, and could provide Paul with political momentum as he prepares for the 2016 presidential race. It’s worth a try.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
In his study of “how Europe went to war in 1914,” The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark challenges the conventional wisdom that Austria-Hungary was an empire in decline heading toward an inevitable downfall. He argues instead that during the last pre-World War I decade, the Habsburg Empire had gone “through a phase of economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity” as well as experimenting with “a slow and unmistakable progress towards a more accommodating policy on national rights.” He argues that could have created the conditions for a process of political reform and devolution of power, perhaps even to the evolution of a federalized system.
Clark recalls that many of the activists and the intellectuals who, carried by the euphoria of national independence, had celebrated the dismemberment of the Austria-Hungary after the Great War admitted in later years that they were wrong. He quotes Hungarian writer Mihály Babits who, as he reflected in 1939 on the collapse of the monarchy, wrote: “we now regret the loss and weep for the return for the what we once hated: We are now independent, but instead of feeling joy we can only tremble.”
While director Wes Anderson’s latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is not pre-occupied with such issues as the sources of imperial decay, the rise of nationalism and other political elements that brought about the collapse of Austro-Hungary, the movie does convey a certain nostalgic longing for that empire’s bygone era, meshed with a certain melancholic sentimentalism shared by those who missed it.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is actually not set in pre-WWI Habsburg at all, but in a resort town in the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka. It centers around the mythical concierge, M. Gustave H. (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) who works at the elegant Grand Budapest Hotel during the pre-WWII years. None of the characters in the movie mention the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked WWI, or the collapse of the Habsburg Empire; for that matter, there are no references to Adolph Hitler and the rise of Nazism.
But in its soft color shades, decorative architectural style, and charming pastry stores, the fictional Zubrowka looks as though it was carved out of Austria-Hungary’s finest days, while the sense of decadence and darkness and foreboding evil conveys the horrors of the approaching World War II. And Anderson himself made it clear in interviews with journalists that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is, indeed, a bittersweet tribute to the bygone era of pre-WWI Vienna.
The movie opens and closes with scenes of a hotel that has been transformed from a monument to the majestic into what looks like charmless and crumbling guesthouse, where the current owner, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), recalls through long flashbacks the days in which he worked as a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) under the legendary Gustave. An educated and well-mannered concierge, Gustave exudes Old World temperament and seems to be unable to adjust to the realities of a crumbling civilizational order, as dandy aristocrats and classy ladies leave the stage and the well-mannered gentleman who headed the local police force (Edward Norton) is replaced by a ruthless Nazi-like militia leader.
Gustave was “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” is the way Zero remembers his mentor. The two are embroiled in the theft of an artwork that becomes the central plot of the film involving a set of characters that you would meet in an Ernst Lubitsch film. Read More…
The counterintuitive argument that Putin should be considered a hero of American conservatives probably originated with the founder of this magazine who asked last year whether in “the culture war for mankind’s future,” Russian President Vladimir Putin was “one of us,” speculating that the former member of the Soviet Communist Party and ex-KGB agent was, well, a paleoconservative.
Other conservative-leaning pundits perpetuated the meme. Matt Drudge called Putin the “leader of the free world,” while Victor Davis Hanson, who in what sounded like a bizarre S&M fantasy, ruminated that “Putin is almost Milton’s Satan–as if, in his seductive evil, he yearns for clarity, perhaps even a smackdown, if not just for himself, for us as well.”
More recently, the British Spectator magazine published a big “think” piece suggesting that Putin actually hopes to become the “the leader of global social conservatism.” The Daily Show even ran a spoof titled, “Better Off Red,” which portrayed Russia as the new “conservative paradise.”
While Putin’s anti-gay tirades on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi may help explain why some American conservatives are fond of a foreign politician who is supposedly rallying against Western secularism and decadence, the crisis in Ukraine, like the one in Syria, has highlighted the policy differences between non-interventionist conservatives and their neoconservative opponents, with the former urging Washington not to intervene in “somebody’s else civil war” and the latter warning of the challenge to U.S. security interests by a resurgent Russia.
There is no denying that Russia under Putin has been flexing its diplomatic and military muscle in service of its strategic interests, which is basically what great powers, including China, India, and lest we forget, the United States, are supposed to do. In that context, the idea that Putin is a new Stalin bent on aggressive expansion of Russian power sounds a bit phony when it’s articulated by Americans who applauded the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
As I explained in the National Interest, Russian opposition to Western and Arab efforts to depose Syria’s Assad should not have been interpreted as a reflection of anti-American attitudes but as the continuation of the traditional Russian policy of maintaining influence in the Middle East, as well as being derived from concerns that “the Christians in the former Byzantine province, including a large Orthodox community, would be persecuted if Muslim fundamentalists came to power.”
In fact, as part of this policy, the Russians have also strengthened ties with Israel and have floated the idea of a trilateral strategic and economic nexus of Israel, Greece, and Turkey aimed at containing Turkish pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean, a policy that should have precipitated at least a mild form of cognitive dissonance among pro-Israeli neoconservatives.
Similarly, by exerting influence on developments in Ukraine, the Russians are protecting their interests in a country that has always been a part of their strategic sphere of influence and is a home to a population with which they share common linguistic and religious ties. One can, of course, criticize Russian conduct in both Syria and Ukraine, but when neoconservative and liberal analysts advance the idea that Russia’s moves are a part of a Cold War strategy, they may be actually projecting their own ambition to amplify the current disagreement with Moscow into a global strategic confrontation.
At the same time, the thesis promoted by Owen Matthews in the Spectator that “Russia is decisively back as an ideological force in the world—this time as a champion of conservative values,” is no less absurd than the assumption that we are about to resume the Cold War with Moscow. If the latter is a neoconservative dream, the former is a paleoconservative fantasy.
That Putin has formed a political alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church and has been exploiting nationalist and religious sentiments to mobilize support from the Russian electorate makes a lot of political sense, and is not so different from the GOP using its alliance with Christian Evangelicals and former southern segregationists. It is not a sign, however, that the Russian President is transforming Russia into a some sort of universal model for conservatives.
If anything, there is something very Russian and even provincial about Putin, which explains why he is very popular among those who belong to the equivalent of the red states in Russia, and why most of us find his mannerisms very odd, in the same way, I suppose, that many Europeans (or for that matter, many coastal Americans) couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to have a beer with the unsophisticated but very American George W. Bush.
So Putin is opposed to same-sex marriage. So what? Why should that make Putin’s Russia more of a natural ally of traditional conservatives in the United States and Europe than those Islamic fundamentalists, who are also staunch opponents of gay marriage, abortion, feminism, and secular elements?
Indeed, the Catholic magazine Crisis recently published an article proposing just that, that Muslims should be regarded as the “natural allies” of Catholics and other traditional conservatives. The irony is that Putin is now allied with the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria that is battling Islamic fundamentalists backed by Saudi Arabia, which has remained a great ally of the United States in the Middle East, under both liberal and conservative presidents.
From that perspective, the idea that Putin should become the Patron Saint of American conservatives makes as much sense as having Turkish Islamist President Tayyip Erdogan, a proponent of teaching creationism, play that role. If anything, unlike Putin, Erdogan has remained happily married to his first wife, and presides over a country that with all its problems is much less corrupt, and certainly more committed to free market principles than Russia, with its statist and static economy controlled by Putin’s political cronies and crime syndicates.
The bottom line is that Putin is first and foremost an autocratic right-wing nationalist who not unlike the fascist-communist clique ruling Beijing could care less if other countries embrace his political model or not, as long as Russian interests—and his—are being served.
You could have probably said the same thing about the communists who ruled Russia in the last century. They enunciated their commitment to the idea of the international solidarity of the socialist parties, but at the end of the day, the national interests of Russia took precedence over any universal principles, just as they do now.
Putin, contrary to the fantasies of some paleoconservatives in the West, doesn’t even pretend to speak for the world’s conservatives, traditionalist or otherwise. Hence it was weird to hear Western critics of the European Union (EU) applaud Russia’s attempts to sabotage an agreement between Kiev and Brussels, suggesting that Putin was trying to defend the national sovereignty of Ukraine against the expanding power of the Eurocrats.
But it is ridiculous to portray Putin as an ally of the Euroskeptics battling the creation of European super-state, when what he really wants is to tie Ukraine to his own Eurasian economic community that will be ruled from Moscow by his own political apparatchiks instead of Brussels’. Putin’s super-state for poor people, if you will.
All things considered, it’s not surprising that many Ukrainians prefer closer ties with the EU than with the Russia’s Eurasian bloc. And no one can blame the Germans, French, Poles, and Brits, who learned the hard way not to trust the Russians, for trying to counter Moscow’s policy moves in Ukraine. That has nothing to do with the secular direction of the EU. Even if the EU were transformed into a Europe of Nations, and Jean-Marie Le Pen was leading France, the French would still be trying to work together with other Europeans countries and seeking support for the United States in forming a common front vis-à-vis Russia.
So while the developments in Ukraine don’t have a direct effect on U.S. interests, they deserve more attention from Washington than the latest bloodshed in the Levant. Preventing a great power from emerging as a dominant power in Europe and a threat to its neighbors is a vital American interest and should be recognized as such by any astute foreign policy thinker. Whether that great power opposes or favors gay rights is beside the point.
That doesn’t mean that Putin’s Russia should be considered a threat to the United States or a potential rival, or that we need to demonize what is an old and proud civilization. But conservatives certainly shouldn’t get too sentimental over Uncle Vlad or act as apologists for a leader who doesn’t share their dreams and aspirations. Ronald Reagan’s “Trust and Verify” still remains the best advice when dealing with Russian leaders whose souls we will never be able to read, no matter how long we look into their eyes.
As an exposition of the principles that guide his policy on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—as well as one day perhaps as president—Rand Paul’s recent presentation at the Center for the National Interest made a lot of sense to those who have criticized Washington’s global strategy of recent years.
His commitment to protect the national interest and the distinction he made à la George F. Kennan between “vital” and “peripheral” interests certainly appeal to a realist like myself, as do his cautionary notes about the need to embrace diplomacy before deploying force and the importance of respecting the interests of nations with whom we do not share the same values.
It was nice to get to know Senator Paul’s worldview. But here is the main problem I had with his address: Where is the policy beef, Senator? Provide us with the links between your worldview and the policies you would support and pursue.
Let’s put it in concrete terms: What exactly are the “vital” national interests of the United States as opposed to the “peripheral” ones, here in early 2014? What is the U.S. role in the world today? Do developments taking place in the Middle East and/or East Asia and/or South Asia affect core U.S. national interests, and why? If they do, what should we do about it? Should we maintain our current troop deployment, or cut it, and why would that action strengthen American national security? Should Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Israel be regarded as allies of the United States? If so, should we use our military protect to defend them from threats to their security?
Despite the promises of liberal internationalist elites, religious fundamentalism, ethnic identity, and the old notion of nationalism have proved more resilient than unrelenting global democratic progress, not only in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya, but even in the advanced industrialized nations of the European Union.
Meanwhile, as the latest Pew Research opinion polls suggested, a majority of Americans have no interest in making the world safe for democracy and would prefer the United States to “mind its own business.” The American people are largely indifferent to the Freedom Agenda, and what they want, to paraphrase what Stalin once said about socialism, is liberal democracy in one country, the United States.
But after the death of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and in the throes of continuing political unrest in Ukraine, liberal internationalism seems to be coming back to life. It’s as though we’re back where it all started, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, followed by the downfall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, with the sense that in spite of many setbacks, universal liberal democracy is once again on the march.
“The true surprise—and one that should inspire democrats around the world—is the spontaneous and spirited resistance of Ukrainian civil society” to what Chrystia Freeland described in the New York Times recently as the “thuggish leadership” of Ukraine and “Moscow’s ferocious intervention” in that country’s affairs. A “new, well-educated, well travelled, comprehensively wired generation has matured” in Ukraine, and these “young Ukrainians know the difference between democratic capitalism and state capitalism and they know which one they want,” Freeland concluded.
But didn’t we hear the same sort of arguments during the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004? Those who are depicted today as proponents of state capitalism were bashed then as “remnants of the communist elite” or “former communist party bosses” and today’s friendly yuppies, as Freeland portrays them, were hailed as democratic activists. But then the current “thuggish” president Viktor Yanukovych came to power through open and democratic elections.
The American media tend to downplay the ethnic and regional strains underlying the political tensions at the core of the color revolutions, not to mention the Arab spring. Recall that President George W. Bush was not even aware of the historical conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq when he set out to establish democracy there, and that it took some time for the press and official Washington to understand that what was happening in Iraq has less to do with the struggle for democracy and more with sectarian fighting.
Hence while there is no doubt that the current political tensions in Ukraine give expression to cultural frictions between young urbane professionals and aging conservative politicians, bureaucrats, and their business cronies, it’s also a reflection of historical antagonism and the conflicting sense of national identity among Ukrainian speakers in the Western and Central parts of the country and Russian speakers in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
So it was not surprising that during recent elections voters in the Western and Central Ukrainian provinces voted mostly for political parties (Our Ukraine, Batkivshchyna) and presidential candidates (Viktor Yuschenko, Yulia Tymoshenko) with pro-Western platforms, while voters in the Southern and Eastern areas voted for parties (CPU, Party of Regions) and presidential candidates (Viktor Yanukovych) more oriented toward Russia. And both sides look toward outside powers (the U.S. and EU on one side; Russia on the other side) to support for policies that are rooted to some extent in historical-cultural experiences. Read More…
While vacationing on the shores of the Mediterranean this summer, I was able to keep an eye on the shores of the Potomac by reading the “hottest” book in Washington, Mark Leibovich’s This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral. It provides a very depressing, yet hilarious account of how my neighbors in Bethesda, Maryland, and other residents of the Greater Washington area spend their long days and nights getting rich at the nexus of big politics, big media, and big money.
Government officials, lawmakers, journalists, and the many, many lobbyists, lawyers, political strategists, and PR professionals who comprise this book’s cast of characters seem to be drowning in the millions of dollars that interest groups and big corporations spend on purchasing their services to win media exposure, peddle influence, buy votes, and shape legislation and policy in the most powerful city in the world.
There is nothing new about the notion of political corruption in Washington. What is new—and actually quite astounding—is how big, how ugly, and, yes, how outright corrupt it has all become, especially when it comes to the amount of money passed between politicians and lobbyists every day. What was once done behind closed doors, thanks to a sense of shame, is now regarded as legitimate, if not respectable.
Written against the backdrop of the financial meltdown, the ensuing Great Recession, and the election of President Barack Obama, much of Leibovich’s book focuses on how these guys and gals drive policy making and the legislative process on economic issues: Wall Street regulation, budget battles, and the like. Unfortunately, there is almost no discussion of the role that the power players and the media in “this town” have in determining U.S. national-security and foreign policy.
As someone who has worked and spent time in Washington from the First Gulf War through W.’s military misadventures in Mesopotamia and the Hindu-Kush, I read the book trying to figure out how Leibovich could have integrated a discussion of foreign policy into his narrative. He could have told how the small elite in “this town” that made a mess of the American economy has also been dragging the American people into costly and never-ending military interventions around the world.
So I enjoyed reading Conor Friedersdorf do just that in the Atlantic recently, when he described how an “insular Beltway elite” has been driving the push for military intervention in Syria at a time when public opinion polls make it clear that a large majority of Americans are opposed.
Friedersdorf does a good job detailing how hawkish journalists and “experts” have succeeded in setting the policy and legislative agenda so that any challenge to the idea of attacking Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is marginalized within Washington, and how that creates powerful pressure on the White House and Congress to “do something.”
Yet my own experience in Washington suggests that the interventionist syndrome in Washington reflects more than just an insider urge to use U.S. military power in the service of an ideological agenda. It goes beyond the foreign-policy agendas and political-ideological biases of the neoconservatives and liberal-interventionist crowd, trying to advance American interests and/or values as they see fit.
Politics and ideology do play a role, certainly. The progressive-era ideas that take for granted the need for the American government to fight evil at home and abroad have become a policy axiom among our political and intellectual elites, who have been programmed to respond with an activist approach whenever this or that Bad Guy rears his ugly head in the world. They all seem to agree that we have an obligation to fight monsters here, there, and everywhere.
Following in Leibovich’s footsteps, though, perhaps we should apply his main thesis to the debate over foreign policy and national security. What drives political players in Washington today has less to do with the partisan fights between Republicans and Democrats, or the ideological struggles between conservatives and liberals, and more to do with the personal and institutional interests of the powerful men and women who rule this city. These are the people who use their position to advance their own interests, to gain fame and make money.
Ask yourself why there is this continual effort by the Beltway insiders and journalists to elevate foreign policy and national security to the top of the agenda. Could it be because they believe a “player” in Washington has a better chance of drawing public and media attention, of gaining recognition, and of accumulating power when he or she is dealing with matters of war and peace as opposed to, say, the makeup of the next budget?
After all, we remember the names of the American presidents—and the men and women who advised them and the journalists who covered them—who led the nation into war or otherwise operated during those “interesting times” when “the fate of humanity was hanging in the balance.”
Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the kind of foreign-policy template that officials, lawmakers, and journalists hope will define their experience in Washington. They fantasize about being “present at the creation,” of taking part in a great historical event as all the world waits and watches. These kinds of foreign-policy crises, especially if they are followed by wars, have become a political and financial goldmine for the players participating in this global drama, covering it as journalists, or explaining it as experts.
Think about the ways our involvement in the Middle East and the so-called war on terror has helped advance the careers of government officials through bigger budgets, new departments, and more exposure and influence. Not to mention how these crises have enriched outside contractors and businesses, sent war correspondents to new assignments, and opened new avenues for TV face time and think-tank fellowships for the experts.
Let’s not forget the huge advances policymakers and their aides receive to write their memoirs describing how they saved America, Western civilization, and the world, and how such high-stress experience qualifies them for corporate boards and speaking engagements at all the best investment banks.
The good news is that even if you actually messed things up by leading us into a disastrous war in Iraq, or wrote columns predicting that said war would be a great success, your friends in this town have a tendency to forgive and forget. Don’t worry. You’ll still receive those big consulting contracts, be invited to appear as an analyst on cable news shows, or get to write columns for our leading newspapers. Someone else will pay for the mistakes you made in Iraq, and those you’re trying to make in Syria.
As President Obama replaced members of his foreign policy and national security team at the start of his second term, I made the case here that the selection of liberal-internationalist heavyweights Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and John Kerry as chief diplomats signaled a “willingness on the part of the White House to reassess its strategy in Syria and to allow Power more influence in drawing up an activist approach that would resemble the U.S. military interventions in the former Yugoslavia under President Bill Clinton and more recently in Libya under Obama”:
[W]e might see such a change in policy if and when Srebrenica-like atrocities are committed in Syria and broadcast around the world, which is very likely scenario. Under these conditions, I find it difficult to believe that President Obama would be able to resist the pressure to “do something” with Power providing him with the intellectual ammunition to support an assertive military intervention in Syria.
Indeed, against the backdrop of planned U.S. military strikes against Syria in retaliation for that regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, it seems that America will almost inevitably be dragged into civil war. As retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni told the Washington Post, “The one thing we should learn is that you can’t get a little bit pregnant.”
Even a “surgical” American strike in Syria would induce regional and international momentum, with targets of the U.S. pledging retaliation and rebel forces lobbying for greater American involvement: “If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things,” Zinni added. “It will suck you in.”
Interestingly enough, liberal-internationalists and neoconservatives are comparing the Syrian conflict to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, with both groups proposing that the same model of American-led “humanitarian intervention” against Serbia strongman Slobodan Milošević be applied against Syrian dictator Bashir Assad as sectarian warfare devours the Levant.
U.S. military intervention in the former Yugoslavia is often remembered as the first “good war” in the post-Cold War era, having been fought in the name of universal values and not hardcore American national interests. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives make the argument that intervention worked in Yugoslavia. It deprived Milošević of military victories against the Croats and Muslim Bosnians and later against the Albanians in Kosovo, and helped produce a diplomatic agreement, the Dayton Accords, which brought about independent Bosnia and Kosovo.
But as I recently noted in the National Interest, “the problem is that while the civil war in Yugoslavia could be seen as the last stage in a post–Cold War historical epoch that culminated with the Balkans joining a stable and prosperous Europe, the situation in the Levant today is very different.” Instead, the region resembles the Balkans after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and on the eve of the Great War, “a mishmash of intermingling nationalities and ethnic and religious groups, which serve as proxies of powerful regional and global players that they also manipulate and draw into their bloody conflicts.”
The accords that brought an end to the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were achieved only after the Serbs lost the war and they, the Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars agreed to form separate territorial enclaves, as part of the process promised to bring them into the European Union (EU).
Even under the best-case-scenario, however, Washington and its allies are not in a position to engineer such a peace in the Levant. America is no longer savoring a post-Cold War “Unipolar Moment” in terms of military and economic power.
What hasn’t changed is that liberal-internationalists and their neoconservative foreign policy soul-mates are once again intent on pressing a reluctant U.S. president to intervene in a war where American interests will only be marginally affected by the outcome.
This reality, and the recognition that the major players in the Syrian civil war don’t share American democratic-liberal values and would challenge American interests if they were to win out, has led renowned realist strategic thinker Edward Luttwak to suggest that Washington adopt a strategy of “indefinite draw” in Syria. As Luttwak argues:
By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.
What sounds like a neat, if not cynical proposition, which recalls Henry Kissinger’s quip on the Iran-Iraq war, “It’s too bad they both can’t lose,” assumes that either side is capable of either decisively winning or being forced into a draw, which is eventually what happened in the Iran-Iraq War.
But in Syria it will be impossible for any outside player to impose its preferred outcome, even if it is prolonged stalemate. Where the boundaries among local, national, regional, and international conflicts are blurred, any move by the United States is bound to result in counter-efforts by unsatisfied players, which would quickly form alliances with the same players previously aligned with the United States. “Unintended consequences” are the norm here, not the exception to the rule.
As Middle East historian L. Carl Brown described the region, “Just as with the tilt of the kaleidoscope, the many tiny pieces of colored glass all move to form a new configuration, so any diplomatic initiative in the Middle East sets a realignment of the players.” Even experienced imperial powers like Britain and France lost when they tried to play that game. There is no reason to believe that the American experience will be different.
Nothing gets our journalists and intellectuals into an orgasmic state of mind quicker than the shared sentiment that they are living history and in some way drawing the narrative outline of a new historical epoch. We inhabit a 24/7 media environment that requires bloggers to produce instant narratives every hour of the day and night. So every meaningless statement by a low-level politician or official, every neighborhood fight in a faraway province or diplomatic contretemps between two mini-states, tends to be given profound meaning, signifying that we are on the verge of major historical changes.
And when something really important does happen—the resignation of a leader, mass demonstrations, a military conflict—we are told the world will never be the same: America will become an empire, or perhaps find itself in the dustbin of history; we are entering an age of global anarchy, or may witness the birth of a New World Order; the Arab World will explode and Egypt will become “like Iran,” or the Middle East is actually entering the liberal-democratic age and Egypt will become “like Turkey”; it’s the Arab Spring, or maybe it’s the Arab Winter.
Never mind that the middle class in Turkey is split between traditionalists and secularists, not unlike the divisions between conservatives and liberals in Russia; or that most members of the middle class in China are going out to shop and not to demonstrate; or that the protesters in Rio were just protesting the rise in bus fares and were not calling a revolution against the ruling Workers Revolutionary Party.
Our experts, long insistent that “democracy” would and should sweep the planet quite soon, have found themselves trapped in cognitive dissonance as unexpected events unfold in those two famous squares—Taskim in Istanbul and Tahrir in Cairo.
Recall that these pundits led us to believe that holding free and open elections in Egypt and other Arab countries would mark the start of a new epoch in which the region’s people would join the West. But something not-so-funny happened on the way to the ballot box, first in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon (following George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”), then in Egypt and Tunisia (in the aftermath of the Arab Spring): the people voted in Islamist parties with more than 50 shades of illiberalism.
So the autocrats fell, and the winners were Islamists—ranging from the relatively good ones (Turkey) to the really bad ones (anti-Assad Islamists in Syria with a taste for human flesh). For a while, proponents of the democracy-is-winning narrative tried to resolve the cognitive dissonance through intellectual acrobatics, for example by comparing Islamist parties to the Christian-Democratic parties in the West.
Yet two years after the overthrow of Mubarak, here were demonstrators in Tahrir Square again, demanding the ouster of an elected leader and urging the military to do the ousting. And so the notion that Egypt had gone through a democratic revolution aimed at removing the military from power—the same military that is now being applauded as the savior of the nation by many of the same people who had denounced it two years ago—was revealed as nonsense.
Call it Tahrir Square Syndrome. Indeed, in the fantastical universe of our experts, the people oust the autocrats (with direct or indirect American support) in order to allow free elections, which supposedly equal democracy—unless the people elect the bad guys, which then leaves the people no choice but to oust the elected bad guys and return the autocrats to power (with direct or indirect American support) and have another open election in which the people will elect the good guys. Or not.
What Westerners have yet to realize is that what has been happening in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world is not part of a new historical epoch driven by the quest for liberal democracy but is first and foremost a struggle for power, as I pointed out here in the aftermath of the first Tahrir Square demonstrations two years ago.
What happened in Egypt last week was not a military coup for one simple reason: the military has not been out of power since the 1952 revolution—when it abolished the old political system—and that includes the period after the generals removed President Hosni Mubarak from office. Contrary to the conventional Western narrative, the protesters failed to ignite a full-blown revolution two years ago.
Mass protests may indeed reflect political anxiety and anti-government sentiments among some members of the population. But to translate a media event in which “the whole world is watching” into significant political change, you need more than thousands, or even millions, of protestors. To achieve a real overhaul of the political and economic system you need a unified and well-organized movement that is willing to work with other political forces to achieve a set of coherent and realistic goals.
The protests that swept European capitals in 1848 and the student demonstrations of the 1960s couldn’t transform the status quo because the leaders of these movements failed to reach out to other segments of their nations, including members of the middle class, workers, and peasants. In fact, not only did the students marching in Paris and Chicago in 1968 fail to achieve their goals, but they also triggered powerful counter-revolutionary forces that made it possible for Charles de Gaulle to get re-elected by a huge margin in France and for Richard Nixon to win the race for the White House. Similarly, the so-called revolutions of 1848 ended up strengthening Europe’s autocracies and created conditions for the rise of illiberal nationalist forces.
In New York and London, viewers of al Jazeera and CNN watched the demonstrators in Tahrir Square two years ago and were impressed by young, liberal, secular types with Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, articulating in perfect English their hopes for a democratic and liberal future. But when Mubarak was deposed, the only substantive change was the military allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to take part in an open election.
Like the military and the security apparatus (the Mukhabarat), the Muslim Brotherhood was and is a viable political force. Established 80 years ago, the Brotherhood has strong roots in Egyptian society—name recognition, if you will—in addition to effective organizational skills, neither of which has been possessed by proponents of Western ideologies: liberals, socialists, or communists. President Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated elected government probably should have tried to strike a deal with the military under which Egypt could have been ruled through a political condominium consisting of the Islamists and the Generals.
But with the taste of power comes the hunger for more power. Morsi and his partners in the Muslim Brotherhood fantasized that they were really in charge—and discovered to their chagrin that such was not the case. The military is now re-asserting the authority it never lost, and any elected or unelected government now will be under the direct and indirect control of the generals.
That could certainly produce a powerful and perhaps violent backlash from Egypt’s Islamists. But the military and security forces would be able to suppress a counter-counter revolution. The only question is whether that would drive the country into a long, low-intensity civil war or whether political stability could be re-established with a minimum of bloodshed.
Unlike Turkey, where an assertive middle class has emerged in recent years, liberal and secular forces remain an urban minority in Egypt and are unlikely to win and maintain power without the military’s support. Western observers who are already coming up with instant mega-narratives—that liberal secularists have won in Egypt or that political Islam is dead in the region—shouldn’t be surprised if reality bites them once again.
By asking “If libertarianism is such a good idea, why aren’t there any libertarian countries?” Michael Lind has set up the all-too familiar trap of the intellectual straw man, and it seems that many libertarians have fallen for it.
His question makes as little sense when you replace “libertarianism” with, say, “atheism” or “environmentalism” or “feminism.” Operating in a liberal-democratic system that is driven by what Isaiah Berlin described as “value pluralism,” libertarian intellectuals and activists aim at affecting the world of ideas and the political process through the policy concepts they propose, not at establishing a Utopia based on their principles.
From that perspective, it’s difficult to argue that libertarian or classical-liberal ideas as they apply to economic policies—a.k.a. “free-market ideology”—haven’t had a dramatic impact in the last four decades or so.
Anyone reading this post will be familiar with the growing power of the free-market ideas of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, and the like, and their role in launching the shift towards the restructuring the welfare state under leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a shift that in some cases (New Zealand, for example) was transformative in nature.
Lind is correct in reminding us that the welfare state remains alive and well in the United States, Britain, and other Western countries. Reaganism and Thatcherism didn’t take the form of revolutions that led to the creation of “libertarian countries.” And it’s possible that many of the reforms in the welfare state would have taken place in the form of pragmatic responses to economic stagnation and the process of globalization even without the direct infusion of libertarian ideology.
But the fact remains that for most of the 1980s and 1990s free-market ideas were in ascendancy and the political spectrum worldwide—including Democrats under Bill Clinton in the U.S. and Labour under Tony Blair in the UK, not to mention the leadership classes of post-Communist China, Russia, and India—moved in that direction.
That didn’t transform anyplace on earth into a libertarian Utopia, to be sure. In fact, Singapore, which Lind points to as an example of a libertarian state, is if anything the ultimate Nanny State, while the economic liberalization of Chile took place under a military dictatorship.
One of the main and obvious reasons why the libertarian movement in this country has failed to develop into an effective political force has been the existing two-party system. It’s not inconceivable that if the United States had a parliamentary system, a viable Libertarian Party could have played a role in shaping legislation and policy, not unlike that of the laissez-faire Free Democrats in Germany or the left-libertarian Liberal Democrats in Britain.
The good news for libertarians marginalized by the two-party system is that their thinkers and activists are not forced to implement their ideas by way of specific policies, a process that requires making formal coalitions, concessions to other political groups, and embracing a nuanced approach to issues ranging from free trade to drug legalization. Libertarians can remain ideologically pure—which is also the bad news since it allows Lind to ridicule them as dogmatic ideologues and Utopians.
Unlike Susan Rice—President Barack Obama’s newly appointed national security advisor, who hasn’t published any major book or article on issues relating to global affairs—Samantha Power, designated to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has a very long and impressive paper trail, including a Pulitzer-winning book on American policy response to genocide.
And while this Rice (not unlike the other Rice) is first and foremost a political operator and bureaucratic infighter and not a foreign-policy intellectual in the tradition of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power is clearly a serious thinker who has very strong views on America’s role in the world and could probably be described as one of the founders of a foreign-policy school of thought known as “humanitarian interventionism.”
Moreover, if you read what Power has written and said about the need to use American military power to protect citizens of other nations from atrocities committed against them by their own leaders, you have no choice but to conclude that she has been a forceful advocate of that position and has devoted much of her professional career to advancing it at home and abroad as an activist and woman of ideas. If fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to call her an idealist, committed to fighting for her principles.
Which raises the question of why President Obama nominated Power for a top foreign-policy position in his administration. Another important question is why Power agreed to take the job now.
After all, if you examine President Obama’s hands-off response to the evolving civil war in Syria, you could argue that it has been a challenge to much of what Power believes—which explains why the administration’s Syria policy has been decried by so many liberal internationalists (as well as neoconservatives) who continue to believe that Washington should intervene in the conflict, if not by deploying troops then by increasing military assistance to the Syrian anti-government militias and establishing a “no-fly zone” in some areas of the country.
Indeed, at times it seems that President Obama—who has probably read A Problem From Hell—has decided to pursue in Syria the very opposite of what Power advocated in her book. “My prescription,” she said, “would be that the level of American and international engagement would ratchet up commensurate with the abuse on the ground.” Obama has not followed her advice in Syria, and his critics in the interventionist camps on the political right and left could justifiably argue that his policies have enabled Syria’s Bashar el-Assad to remain in power.
It is true that the U.S. ambassador to the UN doesn’t make policy and is tasked with reading long speeches and doing public relations for the president—the way Susan Rice tried to do after the attacks in Benghazi. Sometimes the ambassador to the UN even lies in the process, like when in 1961, after the U.S.-orchestrated attack against Fidel Castro’s communist forces at the Bay of Pigs, then-U.S. ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson delivered an address disputing allegations that the attacks were financed and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (they were).
Perhaps Power isn’t really interested in having the power to advance her ideals and is just looking forward to enjoying the prestige and perks of being a UN ambassador and mingling with the high and mighty on the island of Manhattan. There is nothing wrong with that. But it would require her to do what this Rice (and that Rice) did very well, which is to defend policies that run contrary to her cherished principles.
The problem is that against backdrop of 24/7 media coverage of the bloodshed in the Levant, it is difficult to imagine Power zipping it up. And with New York City being the world’s media center, where every move you make and every thing you say is going to be blogged and tweeted, it is almost inevitable that she will end up being the anonymous “top-level official” complaining to a New York Times reporter about President Obama’s Syria policy.
But it’s quite possible that Power’s nomination signals a willingness on the part of the White House to reassess its strategy in Syria and to allow Power more influence in drawing up an activist approach that would resemble the U.S. military interventions in the former Yugoslavia under President Bill Clinton and more recently in Libya under Obama.
My hunch is that we might see such a change in policy if and when Srebrenica-like atrocities are committed in Syria and broadcast around the world, which is very likely scenario. Under these conditions, I find it difficult to believe that President Obama would be able to resist the pressure to “do something” with Power providing him with the intellectual ammunition to support an assertive military intervention in Syria. But maybe I am wrong.
In any case, Power and Rice are only making us more confused about the direction of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in his second term, which looks and sounds more direction-less than ever.
John Kerry, it seems, has become the Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, shuttling between capitals in the region and engaging in what seems to be a make-believe form of diplomacy aiming at reviving the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”—or what’s left of it—and hoping and wishing and praying that the Russians will agree to invite Assad and other members of his family to spend the rest of their lives in exile in a dacha.
And while nominating Chuck Hagel as Pentagon chief, confirmed despite neoconservative opposition, may have cheered up American noninterventionists, there are no signs that Hagel is having any great effect on President Obama’s policies, with the exception of being more open to cuts in defense spending. Whenever I watch Hagel on television he looks as though he has just awoken from a deep sleep, as he reads some meaningless statement from a piece of paper.
If, as some suggest, Thomas Donilon was the real architect of what has until now been a more pragmatic and realistic foreign policy from the Obama Administration, his departure as national security advisor is bad news.
It is President Obama who makes the crucial decisions on war and peace, but it was important that someone like Donilon was sitting next to him when he was making those choices and could counter pressure from advisors like Power. That he won’t be there now means by definition that Power is going to have more power.
During an international trade conference in Seattle that I attended a few years ago I met a Chinese journalist who, after learning that I was Jewish, remarked that “Jews are very smart. Kissinger. Rockefellers. Good with numbers. Make a lot of money.”
I wanted to respond that he had just met a Jewish guy who was not good with numbers. But then I figured that he was trying to give me a compliment. So I didn’t even correct him about confusing the Rockefellers with the Rothschilds. (Or since the Rockefellers were Kissinger’s patrons, he probably assumed that they were also Jewish).
I would have said something if the Chinese journalist had employed an ugly stereotype of Jews. Indeed, as Andy Rooney used to day,“did you ever notice” that we celebrate the nice things said about a national, ethnic, racial, or gender group, like that women are more cooperative than men, that black men can dance, that Italians have a ear for music. But then we condemn as bigotry anyone who uses any broad-brush negative generalizations about these groups.
That is the way civilized people should behave. When our friends introduce us to their newborn with an “Isn’t he cute?” we won’t respond with a “That is some ugly baby.” And my guess is that no one would accuse us of succumbing to the pressure of political correctness.
Indeed, it is not polite and may be considered brutally abusive to single out for ridicule an individual who fails to measure up to our standards of beauty and intelligence, while it’s considered quite appropriate to congratulate those who score high on these individual characteristics—for example, “You really lost weight,” as opposed to “You really look fat.”
So I believe it’s quite fitting to play by the same rules when referring to the many collective identities in our midst not because it’s politically correct but because it’s the civilized thing to do, especially if you live in a society comprised of many racial, ethnic and religious groups.
This brings me to the recent debate over Jason Richwine’s doctoral dissertation in which he explained that Hispanics are documented to have lower IQs than whites. Forget not being polite: Richwine was accused of being a racist. And even if we assume that Richwine was operating on solid scientific grounds (which he probably was since he received his doctorate from Harvard University and not from the University of Phoenix), should we not accuse Richwine of needlessly stigmatizing an ethnic community, which is not the right thing to do in a civilized society like ours?
But then I don’t hear a lot of accusations of racism after scientists issue a study that demonstrates that members certain ethnic and racial groups are susceptible to certain diseases, like Ashkenazi Jewish women who are at high risk of getting breast cancer. Those kinds of scientific advances that do single out certain groups and that suggest that they are not like the rest of us, health-wise, are regarded in fact as a good thing. After all, we would thank our physician for warning us that we are overweight (fat) and would not compare him to the boorish punk who yelled “fatso” at us.
While there has always been a debate about whether social science, including economics, should be considered akin to a “hard” science like physics, the fact is that studies in sociology and anthropology, preferably conducted by academics in Ivy League institutions, have provided the scientific basis for public policies that singled out specific racial groups for special treatments like affirmative action.
Hence, policy makers have operated under the assumption that social scientists not only have the right to conduct research (in accordance with accepted scientific rules of conduct) that measures the social and economic performance of certain ethnic and racial groups, but that we should encourage this kind of research and take it seriously when proposing policies to deal with social-economic problems. So I found it somewhat hypocritical that Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve and similar scientific research that aimed to prove that human intelligence, including racial differences in intelligence, may be a better predictor of one’s social and economic status than one’s environment were castigated as “racist.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that if some Harvard Ph.D. student proves that short men earn less and get fewer dates than tall men, we should attach any significance from a scientific or policy perspective to these findings—which is why when anyone comes up with results from that kind of “research,” it gets the attention it deserves from the monologues of late-night television comedians. And we would certainly be surprised to learn that this was a subject approved for a doctoral dissertation at Harvard. But then, no one has proposed public programs to assist vertically challenged men.
Hispanics, however, constitute the majority of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants, whose absorption into American society would be a huge plus according to advocates of a liberalized approach to immigration. They are therefore central to the debate over a major policy issue. This suggests that we should welcome any scientific study that examines the economic and social-cultural background of members of this group, including their IQ. (Although it should be noted that IQ in itself should not be the most critical thing determining our position on immigration reform and that these findings certainly don’t help to decide what we should do about the current population of illegal immigrants.)
I do, however, have a problem with the use of the term “Hispanics,” as it could include immigrants from, say, Spain and Argentina (which is a home to immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and Germany) or for that matter Sepharadic Jews like Judah Benjamin, the secretary of state of the Confederacy, and Benjamin Cardozo, who probably should be considered to be the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.
In fact, since on my mother’s side I belong to a Jewish family that had been expelled from Spain in 1492, I discovered when applying for a job in academia awhile ago that for the purposes of affirmative action programs, I was considered to be, well, Hispanic. So based on Richwine’s findings I could have a very high IQ (as a Jew) or a low one (as an Hispanic), not to mention the fact that being born in West Asia (Israel) may qualify me as an Asian-American.
Or consider the complex ethnic/racial/religious profile of former Republican Senator from Virginia George Allen whose mom, like Barack Obama’s dad, was born in Africa. And, hey, she is also a Sepharadic Jew, which means that if he ever ran for president, Allen could end up being the second African-American and the first Jew and Hispanic to occupy the White House.
This of course sounds and is silly. But you could make the same argument about the entire multicultural agenda and the race/ethnic/gender-based affirmative-action programs that have been promoted by America’s political left and that insist on pursing public policies based on our alleged membership in this or that collective community (which would require academic institutions to give preference in their employment policies to an “Hispanic” like myself). The same people then stigmatize as bigots and racists those on the political right who apply such categories in doing research and discussing public policy.
The preferred (classical) liberal approach to public policy, including to immigration, would be to dismiss such divisions into ethnic and racial groups like Latinos and African-Americans and be blind to the ethnic, racial, and religious origins of individuals who want to become Americans.
What we should do is encourage talented, successful, hard-working and, yes, intelligent people to come to this country irrespective of color, creed or national origin and take part and compete in what is a marketplace of ideas—including the freedom to conduct scientific research on race and IQ.
And since such research demonstrates that immigrants from China and India have a higher IQ than whites, we might find that a merit-based immigration policy would actually end up changing the racial makeup of America by reducing the percentage of whites in the country and hasten the coming of the day when a white family moves next door and their Asian-American neighbors complain, “There goes the neighborhood.”
I live in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which is both a “town” and an “unincorporated census-designated place (CDP)״ in Montgomery County. And, no, it’s not named after the famous comedian. It’s a small suburban community of about 3,000 people—mostly middle class and well-educated types—that borders the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Chevy Chase has very little history and no tourist attractions. But I like the place and am friendly with some of my neighbors in the area, and I will probably feel a certain sense of nostalgia for it if I relocate to another part of the country.
Yet I would never say that “I am proud to be a Chevy Chaser” as far as my personal and collective identity is concerned. Come to think about it, I probably wouldn’t even identify myself as a Marylander, although I may feel a certain sense of collective pride when I learn that an Oscar winner was born and raised here.
The problem is that many of today’s pro-immigration advocates expect us to feel about the United States in the same way that I feel about Chevy Chase or Maryland.
The argument promoted by the guys who meet in Davos, Switzerland, each year—or for that matter, by proponents of multicultural and universal values on the left—is that globalization has created One World and a Global Community in which individuals should be able to change their national citizenship in the same way American citizens can change their state residency.
At the end of the day, moving from Mexico or Egypt (or Dagestan) to the United States is supposed to be not very different than relocating from Chevy Chase, Maryland, to Peoria, Illinois and should be made equally easy. It’s all about searching for better economic opportunities, a new job perhaps, more space to develop oneself. No big deal!
Eventually you’ll adjust to your new surroundings, which are, after all, just another geographical-administrative locale that welcomes the global you with the multiple identities that you have with other kinds of communities worldwide. From that perspective, having an American passport is not so different from having a Maryland driver’s license. It’s certainly good to have around, but the American citizenship is only one component, and perhaps not even the central one, to defining your identity. For example, being a Muslim of Chechen extraction may trump the significance of being an American.
So I find amazing that in all the recent debate over immigration in the United States there is an almost complete absence of any serious discussion of what it means to be an American citizen today in terms of what it really means to be an American, period.
While the issue of national identity is central to similar immigration debates that are taking place in, say, France, Sweden, or Australia, in the United States much of the focus has been on legal issues (should citizenship be granted to “illegals”), the impact on the economy (to what extent immigration accelerates or slows growth), and the implications for security.
These are all certainly important issues that need to be debated. I tend to be on the side of those who believe that encouraging skilled immigrants to come to America (Asian immigrants come to mind) will help grow the economy in the long run, and that unskilled and poorly educated immigrants could become a drag on the economy in the short run.
And as an immigrant and a naturalized citizen who had to follow the long and excruciating legal route to receiving an American citizenship, I find something wrong in the idea of giving a pass to those who didn’t and violated the law in the process.
But then, is there is someone out there who is volunteering to kick hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children out of their homes, force them into buses, and deport them to Mexico? Well? I didn’t think so. So some sort kind of a system that would allow some foreign citizens who have lived and worked in this country for years to apply for American citizenship makes sense to me.
Yet it sounds to me like a lot of wishful thinking on the part of some pro-immigration advocates to dismiss the concerns raised by critics about the difficulties in integrating Mexican and other Hispanic illegal and legal immigrants into the national-cultural fabric of American life. You have to be deaf (“For English press 1”) or a bit deluded to dismiss the growing signs of an evolving bilingual America—represented by a split between “Anglos” and “Latinos”—by arguing that, well, it wasn’t so different with the early waves of Italian immigrants.
But there were not millions of Italians living across our border, and the immigrants from Italy were not exposed to 24/7 Italian-language cable television channels and other means of communication that would have helped create or strengthen a sense of cultural separatism. And unlike in the multicultural America of the early 21st century, America during the early 20th century still maintained a strong sense of a national identity that helped assimilate foreign immigrants into the American cultural milieu to which they ended up making their own contributions.
It’s therefore too bad that much of the criticism of immigration on the political right has been dominated by the never-ending preoccupation with building a fence, as well as derogatory remarks about immigrants and foreigners. The discourse has taken a somewhat xenophobic flavor that has antagonized even members of the Asian-American community who, as I argued in another post, are natural political allies of the Republican Party. It has helped create the impression that conservatives are racists and Republicans are nativists who don’t like immigrants who don’t look like them.
Instead, Republicans and conservatives should have stressed the need to have a system that opens America’s doors to immigrants who can make America more productive and want to help preserve and strengthen its historical and cultural identity. And that has nothing to do with one’s ethnic, religious, or racial origins. Think about it—if one of the Founding Fathers had landed in contemporary America, with whom would he be able to conduct an intelligent conversation: your average Valley Girl or a daughter of immigrants from India? And let’s not forget that the Supreme Court consists today of Catholics and Jews.
My personal feeling, based on anecdotal evidence collected during a trip around the country, is that much of the criticism among Americans over immigration reflects fears over the loss of national-cultural identity, as manifested in forms of bilingualism, and is driven by the perception that many Hispanics cannot or don’t want to assimilate into the American community. I rarely hear complaints about immigrants “stealing״ American jobs.
So it seems to me that Republican politicians would win a lot of public support if they tried to shift the focus of the immigration debate to the cultural issue, specifically by insisting on preserving the English language as the lowest common denominator unifying this nation and by forcefully opposing the current trends towards bilingualism.
Interestingly enough, it was a conservative Republican Senator from California, S.I. Hayakawa, a Canadian-born American academic of Japanese ancestry, who was the founder of U.S. English, an organization dedicated to making English the official language of the United States. It included on its board many liberal public figures, including Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
Indeed, while liberals and conservatives may disagree about it really means to be an American today, there shouldn’t be any debate over the need to preserve the role of the English language as a central component of the American identity. Or is there?
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and foreign-policy analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
Instead of recalling President Lincoln as a Republican leader during his recent address at Howard University, Senator Rand Paul could have used the occasion of the release of the new movie “42” to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, the first African-American professional baseball player in the modern MLB, as well as to Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers manager who signed him.
I won’t review the film or try to discuss its very conservative message since I am quite confident columnist and baseball historian George Will will do that sooner or later. Suffice to say it would have made the late Jack Kemp, the Republican leader who launched the most serious outreach program to black voters, shed more than a few tears.
But that Robinson, a long-time Republican, a patriot with a strong “faith in hard work, free enterprise and economic independence,” and Rickey, “a ferocious Christian gentleman,” might find it difficult to choose the GOP as their political home today explains a lot about the Republicans’ “problem” with black voters.
I have no doubt that the majority of the young audience at Howard recognize that the free-market has been a driving force behind the huge achievements African-Americans have made in many fields, including sports and entertainment, and want to make it in the private sector themselves. They are probably also interested in learning about innovative ideas in dealing with poverty in inner cities. They are aware of the failed drug war, which results in a large population of African-Americans spending their productive lives in jail, and of the fact that blacks are the main target of the current policy of government-sanctioned killing known as “capital punishment.”
It’s also not a secret that many black voters share elements of the Republican conservative cultural agenda, including on the same-sex-marriage issue.
The main reason for the antipathy of so many black voters toward the GOP is not a result of their supposed dependency on Democratic-backed social welfare programs—which actually benefit many white residents in ultra-red states like West Virginia and Mississippi and white retirees who vote Republican. Instead, it’s an outcome of the GOP’s own post-1964 electoral strategy.
The fact is that the GOP embraced its Southern Strategy in the 1960s to win over white voters in the South who felt betrayed by the civil-rights and desegregation policies that were advanced Democratic presidents (and supported by many Republican lawmakers). It’s not really difficult to figure out why so many black voters lost that loving feeling toward Lincoln’s party after the GOP allied itself with the anti-civil-rights wing of the Democratic Party in the South, a bloc that switched sides and become a dominant force in the GOP, if not its public face.
And yes, I know: the Tea Party is not racist and even includes a few African-Americans. And being opposed to the policies of the first black president doesn’t turn one into a racist.
But unless you were in a coma over the last five years, you probably noticed the racism-tinged innuendos and vibes about Obama—born in Kenya? Muslim? un-American?—emanating with much hostility from conservative pundits and Republican activists. That’s why it would not be a surprise if Robinson or Rickey, were they still alive, weren’t attracted to a political movement that has become the closest thing to a regional white Southern party. (Robinson was alarmed enough at the prospect of Barry Goldwater as the party’s nominee: “If we have a bigot running for the presidency of the United States,” he warned, “it will set back the course of the country.”)
Some conservatives and Republicans might point out that Robinson and Rickey broke the color barrier in one segment of American society without relying on the power of the federal government, through the pressure of public opinion and the free market. Couldn’t we have gotten rid of segregation in the South in the 1960s in same way, and without congressional legislation and presidential leadership?
I personally doubt that. But I’ll leave you with this thought: if Republicans and conservative continue answering with a “Yes!” to the last question, they will continue to have the same problem with most black voters.
I am not sure whether Margaret Thatcher would have subscribed to today’s neoconservative dogma on Israel or not—an issue that commentators have been debating here, here, and here—although the heads of the Henry Jackson Society, the leading neocon outlet in Britain, are certain that she would.
But in any case, British policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict has traditionally been overseen by the so-called “Arabists” in the Foreign Office—perceived to be the bastion of an elite detached from Jewish concerns—who operate on the axiom that what is good for Saudi Arabia and the other Middle Eastern oil states is good for Great Britain and vice versa. Occasionally pressure from the pro-Israeli Americans modifies that position.
Thatcher, like former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, may have been considered a Friend of Israel (FOI), but unlike American presidents who were FOI, her ability to shape British policy towards the Jewish State was quite limited. (This episode of “Yes, Prime Minister” illustrates that point.)
More importantly, British foreign policy under Thatcher and her predecessors had been based, since the late 1940s, on the expectation that the United States should and would replace Great Britain as the hegemonic Western power in the eastern Mediterranean (overseeing Greece and Turkey) and later, after the Suez crisis, in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, following Britain’s imperial retrenchment. Postwar Britain lacked the economic and military resources to continue securing access to oil in the region, and for dealing with the never-ending conflict between Israelis and Arabs.
Hence when Thatcher warned the first George Bush that “this is no time to go wobbly” and that he had to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, she expressed the traditional post-Suez British view of the need to present a common Anglo-American face in the Middle East. My guess is that she would have pursued the same kind of policy that Tony Blair, her Labour successor, embraced during the second Bush’s Iraq War—perhaps with less enthusiasm about promoting democracy and nation-building.
The problem is that the United States is beginning to exhibit the same need for imperial entrenchment in the Middle East that Britain experienced after World War II, when it started reducing its military footprint in the region and got fed up with trying to resolve the conflict between Jews and Arabs.
The Brits ended up passing the Middle East torch to the Americans. But now, despite mounting federal debt and military fiascoes in Iraq and Libya, Americans seem to be stuck in the region as a declining hegemonic power, while the British (and French) continue free-riding on U.S. power. The “special relationship” has proved to be one-sided.
It’s true that the British have been more inclined to deploy troops to Iraq and Afghanistan than other U.S. allies have been, and the British joined the French in playing an active role in Libya. But in reality much of the military, and by extension financial, burden of “doing the Middle East” still falls on the United States, with Britain and other NATO members resisting pressure to increase their military budgets. In fact, both London and Paris have been pressing Washington to get more directly involved in the Syrian civil war and to take a more assertive position vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear aspirations, knowing full well that the U.S. will wind up paying most of the costs for new military interventions in the Middle East.
So I am not sure where Thatcher, who came to power during the height of American economic and military dominance, would stand on these issues. Would she be urging Barack Obama not to go wobbly on Syria and Iran? Or would she be calling for a major increase in British defense expenditures and for the strengthening Anglo-French military ties (as well as cooperation with Poland and Turkey), as part of or separate from NATO? Thatcher would probably continue to accentuate her Euro-skepticism. But what would her response be to the rise of German economic and political power, and would she try to form counter-balancing alliances? That no one can answer these questions with any confidence goes to show how much the world political and economic environment has changed since Thatcher’s time.
Thatcher had always operated under the assumption that America the Superpower would be there to protect Britain and its allies against global security threats like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. But without such a threat on the horizon, and under an international system that is taking a more multi-polar shape as American power erodes and the U.S. “pivots” to East Asia, it is doubtful that the relationship between the United States and Britain (which will cease to be “Great” if Scotland chooses independence) will remain central to either country’s foreign policy, or that the notion of a united Anglo-American front in the Middle East continues to be relevant.
American and British neocons may have been mistaken about the so-called Islamofascist threat highlighting common interests between Washington and London, particularly in the Middle East. But their complaints about President Obama’s decision to return the Churchill bust that the Brits had loaned to his predecessor may have had some validity—in the sense that America’s first “Pacific president” perhaps doesn’t feel that the relationship with the British is so special after all.
Such an attitude may reflect more than just Obama’s personal unsentimental view of our “cousins” across the Atlantic. Instead, it could turn out to be the start of a long-term trend that emerges from changing global priorities (away from the Atlantic and Middle East to the Pacific) and national demographics (less Anglo, more Latino), all of which make it less likely that what a British prime minister does in the future will matter as much to America’s policymakers as in the days of Bush I and Thatcher or Bush II and Blair.
Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American—adapted into films in 1958 and 2002—was inspired by the author’s experiences as a war correspondent in French Indochina in the early 1950s, in particular by his conversations with American aid worker Lee Hochstetter while the two were driving back to Saigon from a tour to Ben Tre province in the countryside in October 1951.
As the Swedish-born historian and Cornell University professor Fredrik Logevall recounts in Embers of War, during their ride to the city Hochstetter, who had served as the public-affairs director for the U.S. Economic Aid Mission in Saigon, lectured Greene about the need for a “Third Force” in French-ruled Vietnam, one not beholden either to the French colonialists or to their main adversaries, the guerilla forces led by Ho Chi Minh.
Ho’s fighters—the Viet Minh, a nationalist and communist movement—operated from Hanoi in the north of the country and were resisting French attempts to re-establish control over Indochina after the end of Japanese occupation in 1945, part of a wider strategy of restoring the French empire in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
But as Hochstetter explained to Greene, French efforts to defeat the Viet Minh militarily while denying the non-communist Vietnamese real independence were doomed to fail. The Vietnamese fighting on the side of the French against Ho had to be convinced that they were advancing the cause of democracy for their own country, the young American aid worker insisted. “The only way to make them so convinced was to build up a genuine nationalist force that was neither pro-Communist nor obligated to France and that could rally the public to its side,” writes Logevall.
In The Quiet American—set in 1952, and which Greene started writing that year in his hotel room in Saigon—the character of Alden Pyle was modeled after Hochstetter (and not, as some have speculated, after the legendary Cold War-era counterinsurgency strategist Edward Lansdale). Pyle’s views are described to the novel’s protagonist, a British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler (based on Greene himself), as follows: “There was always a Third Force to be found free from Communism and the taint of colonialism—national democracy, he called it; you only had to find a leader and keep him safe from the old colonial powers.”
That Logevall devotes an entire chapter to Greene’s experiences in Vietnam—beginning with the French occupation and ending with a similarly disastrous effort by the United States to pacify that Southeast Asian country—demonstrates his skills and creativity as a writer and historian.
The chapter about the writing of The Quiet American makes for a powerful narrative-inside-a-narrative. Greene’s novel not only foreshadowed the collapse of the remnants of the French empire in Indochina and the making and the unmaking of America’s Vietnam in the years to come; more importantly, and not unlike Logevall’s Embers of War, it highlighted the tragedies of trying to use military power to overcome the most potent political force in the modern era: nationalism. Both books tell of costly and futile efforts on the part of the French and the Americans—one could as well substitute the British or the Soviets—to advance fanciful universal ideologies (such as liberal democracy or international socialism) in the face of intractable local realities.
In a way, Alden Pyle is the tragic hero of an historical epoch that has not yet ended. In Logevall’s final chapter, against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, neoconservatives and liberal internationalists continue to fantasize about a Third Force, one that rejects pro-Western military dictators and the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood alike and is expected to promote liberal-democratic values in Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and right now in Syria.
Substitute “Iraq” or “Syria” for “Vietnam,” and “American” for “French,” and the arguments that Logevall quotes from journalist Sol Sanders, writing in The New Republic in 1951, would sound familiar to readers of The New Republic today: “Beneath the layers of opportunists, French spies, and hangers-on, there is a hard nucleus of patriots who are fighting for an independent, libertarian Vietnam.” Before Ahmad Chalabi in Iraq, there was Bao Dai (the westernized Emperor of Vietnam) or Trình Minh Thế (a flamboyant colonel with ties to an exotic religious sect) in Indochina—favorites of the democracy-promoters in Paris and Washington.
Another effective way in which Logevall lays out his historical investigation is by introducing a series of “What if?” suppositions. History is “full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered, in Paris and Saigon, in Washington and Beijing, and in the Viet Minh’s headquarters in the jungles of Tonkin,” explains Logevall, who insists that his narrative is “a reminder to us that to decision makers of the past, the future was merely a set of possibilities.”
Logevall’s starts his account in 1940, with the fall of France to Nazi Germany and implications that would have for France’s empire in Southeast Asia. He concludes that the decline and fall of European hegemony in Indochina was inevitable, and the pressing question for all major players in the region’s drama—for the French and the British, for the Chinese and the Soviets, for Ho Chi Minh and the noncommunist Vietnamese—was from the start: what were the Americans going to do?
Indeed, according Logevall, the United States had been a key part of the story going back to the Paris peace conference of 1919, when Ho—an admirer of America’s political ideals and of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—tried in vain to approach President Woodrow Wilson, present him with “The Demands of the Vietnamese People,” and convince the Americans that he represented a group of rebels fighting for liberty against colonialism.
Wilson’s notion of making the world safe for democracy did not extend to the Vietnamese and other colored peoples. But Ho stuck to his conviction that the Americans would eventually support him in his quest for independence—and some, in spirit at least, did, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This is where Logevall’s alternate history comes in. FDR and some of his leading foreign-policy advisors were staunch anti-colonialists who believed that the goal of World War II was to liberate everyone—Europeans and non-Europeans—from foreign occupation: Britain should be forced out of India, and France should not reclaim Indochina. So imagine if FDR had not died in 1945, and he and his anti-imperialist allies provided support for Ho, who had actually based Vietnam’s declaration of independence on the American one.
Logevall believes that history would have turned in a different direction if Roosevelt had been responsible for drawing the outlines of Washington’s post-1945 global strategy instead of President Harry Truman and the architects of the Cold War. In the case of Indochina, the Americans would have prevented the return of French rule, and Ho and other leaders of independence movements in the region would have allied with the United States.
Instead, thanks to Truman, U.S. policy in Southeast Asia became an integral part of Washington’s Cold War strategy for the next 20 years, with American policymakers propping up French efforts to maintain control of Indochina while fighting Ho—who was, after all, a self-proclaimed Communist. The Americans needed the French to help contain the Soviet menace in Europe, and so the restoration of the French empire in Southeast Asia was seen as advancing struggle against Communism.
The United States played a critical role in assisting the French in what became known as the First Indochina War, which ended with France losing and Vietnam being divided into a pro-Western state in south and a northern one led by Ho and backed by the Soviet Union and China. That was the turning point: thereafter, America’s policy blueprint vis-à-vis Vietnam did not really change until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Yet there may have been a few opportunities to reverse U.S. policy and change history, according to Logevall. Rejecting French requests for support in the First Indochina War would have been one alternate scenario. (As it happened, however, President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were eager to help the French and draw the U.S. directly into the war. “Eisenhower actively contemplated taking the United States directly into the war and sought a blank check from Congress to free his hands,” Logevall notes.)
Or Washington could have pulled its support from Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s staunchly anti-communist Catholic president, whose authoritarian methods—along with the corrupt practices of his family and political supporters—alienated Vietnam’s Buddhist majority.
Yet even if one agrees with Logevall’s assumption that Ho was first and foremost a nationalist for whom Communism was only an ideology that helped promote economic development and social cohesion, the context of the Cold War made it difficult for the U.S. to pursue policies that amounted to betraying real or imagined allies.
If historical outcomes are not predetermined, what accounts for the recurrence of certain glaring foreign-policy mistakes? “Somehow, American leaders for a long time convinced themselves that the remarkable similarities between the French experience and their own were not really there,” Logevall argues. “It was, for the most part, self delusion.”
At the center of this delusion lies the notion that in going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” America is different from everyone else: the U.S. supposedly is not practicing cynical forms of Realpolitik, like the French and others, but making the world safe for liberal democracy and free markets. This explains the never-ending search for that elusive Third Force in Vietnam or Syria, a foreign faction that will of its own accord take up America’s most cherished values.
But genuine nationalists in Vietnam or Syria see in America a foreign power motivated mostly by its own interests. They may want the United States to assist their political struggles, but they don’t imagine America’s objectives are synonymous with their own freedom and independence.
And when Americans try to pretend otherwise—that ideals and not interests are what drive the U.S. to send troops to foreign lands for “regime change”—those on the receiving end of this generosity are not moved. As a young congressman who had visited Saigon in 1951 wrote in his journal: “We are more and more becoming colonialists in the minds of the people.” Unfortunately, John F. Kennedy as president would become one of the architects of U.S. intervention in Vietnam.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and foreign-policy analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
Driven by the wishful thinking that the political Zeitgeist is moving in their direction, pundits on the right sometimes project their own ideological leanings onto new movies or television shows, celebrating their supposedly libertarian or conservative orientation. They seem to believe, notwithstanding a director’s stated liberal views, deep inside he or she is actually a believer in the power of free markets or traditional cultural values.
Hence, while I enjoyed seeing “Avatar” in 3D, I found it difficult to buy into the notion promoted by some libertarians that the film provided a powerful defense of property rights. What I saw was what the director intended the movie to be, I think: a fierce attack on corporate power and a salute to third world indigenous politics with a strong anti-Western bias.
So I will refrain from labeling the new Chilean movie “No” a libertarian masterpiece or implying that its director, Pablo Larrain, is a secret fan of Friedrich Hayek. But then, the main protagonist in this film is an advertising executive who unlike his counterparts in “Mad Men” is portrayed as an agent of progress, one who not only wins a battle against a bunch of aging Marxists but who also leads a marketing campaign—celebrating individual freedom and the joys of consumer society—that helps topple a military dictator and give birth to a thriving liberal-democracy. So if Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have loved “Avatar,” my guess is that Milton Friedman would have probably enjoyed “No.”
“No” is one of those docudramas that, not unlike “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Argo,” and “Lincoln,” was “inspired” by real events, which means it combines truth with fiction. In this case, the truth is the national plebiscite that took place in Chile in 1988, in which voters were asked to decide whether military dictator Augusto Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years (a “Yes” vote) or whether there should be an open presidential election a year later (the result of a “No” vote).
It is also true that a marketing team employed by the anti-Pinochet coalition produced commercials to encourage the Chileans to vote “No” and that the ads ran during the 27 days of the campaign in which each side had 15 minutes to present their position nightly on state-run television.
But “Rene Saavedra,” the character of the advertising executive in the film, played by Gael Garcia Bernal (who starred as a young Che Guevara in “The Motorcyle Diaries“) is a composite of members of the pro-“No” advertising group. Which means that his personal story is fiction, although the director’s decision to shoot the film on low-definition tape used by television news crews in Chile in the 1980s creates a sense that we are watching a documentary from that era.
The apolitical Saavedra works for an ad agency making commercials for Chilean soap operas and Coca-Cola, raising a son on his own. When his left-leaning activist wife gets beaten up by police during anti-government demonstrations, Saavedra is approached by a member of the opposition who asks him to help run their campaign.
He reluctantly agrees but finds himself confronting strong opposition from the hard-line leftists who dominate the opposition forces, including his wife, when he proposes that the “No” campaign should be run in the same way he sells, well, soap operas and Coca-Cola.
What the Communist activists have in mind is old-style political propaganda, while Rene insists on launching a campaign that embraces the symbols and images of American pop culture and consumerism, or what Rene refers to again and again as “happiness,” the notion that freedom is synonymous with choosing your political representative as well as your consumer products, an idea contrary to the values of both the military dictatorship and the Marxist politicians.
The irony is that after launching an advertising campaign that promotes nationalist and militaristic themes a la fascist Italy, the marketing team of the pro-“Yes” faction—headed up by Rene’s former boss at the advertising agency—decides to incorporate “happiness” too, injecting humor and jazzy music into their campaign. But it’s very difficult to sell an old and brutal general as a pop-culture symbol; if anything, that kind of strategy only helps to demonstrate that the values of political and economic freedom, youth and optimism, are not compatible with those of a military dictatorship. There is nothing cool about death squads.
While the film doesn’t dwell too much on the political background of the Pinochet era, it did remind me of the debate taking place in Washington at the time, and in particular the thesis promoted by former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. who in her “Dictatorships and Double Standards” essay lashed liberals who idolized Communist figures in Latin America (like Cuba’s Fidel Castro) even as they urged the U.S. to isolate and punish authoritarian right-wing figures like Pinochet. She argued that a form of constructive engagement with the Pinochets of Latin America could prove more effective in driving them from power.
And indeed, the free-market reforms Pinochet and his American-trained economic advisors (some of them taught by Friedman) had initiated helped create the foundations of an America-style consumer society where advertising agencies and the “happiness” values they promoted could flourish, a political-economic environment in which the pressure for liberalization was relentless and eventually forced Pinochet into retirement.
That, unlike Pinochet, the Castro family has not allowed Cubans to vote “No” may be a reflection of the totalitarian nature of Communism. But one wonders whether U.S. diplomatic engagement with Cuba and its bombardment by American businesses would not help propel economic and political change there, too.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and foreign policy analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.
My first reaction to Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation last week was that it was about time a U.S. Senator of one of the two major political parties would articulate traditional American principles of non-interventionism in a clear and concise way.
That Paul is also a Republican and a self-proclaimed conservative/libertarian political figure who is willing to challenge the neo-conservative interventionist orientation that has dominated the GOP foreign-policy agenda in recent years gave me a sense of hope that the Junior Senator from Kentucky would succeed in igniting a serious debate on America’s place in the world today.
It was also original and somewhat cool that he relied on both the renowned diplomatic historian George Kennan and President Ronald Reagan in preparing a foreign policy manifesto.
I didn’t know Kennan; Kennan wasn’t a good friend of mine; but I’m sure that Kennan (who died at the age of 101) would probably be turning in his grave if anyone would have suggested that he and Reagan had anything in common politically speaking, and especially when it came to foreign policy.
As Kennan saw it, “Reagan viewed the world through dangerous simplicities, not realist subtleties,” according to his biographer John Lewis Gaddis (George F. Kennan: An American Life) who added that Kennan, an intellectual elitist, a snobbish, and to extent, a bigoted WASP, suspicious of the masses, and with no great admiration to modernity–he even decried the invention of the car–“distrusted both happiness and California” and “probably would have distrusted Reagan, even if the president had tried to win his trust” (although before his death Kennan admitted that Reagan had helped end the Cold War). Read More…