Last week we convened some of the most significant thinkers in the country from across the political spectrum at George Washington University to address a way forward for American foreign policy, and to build on the emerging mainstream consensus that favors prudence, diplomacy, and the rule of law. If you attended or viewed the conference, we’d love your feedback.
Robert Golan-Vilella was there:
If there was an overriding theme to Tuesday’s event, it was about exploring the costs of the existing consensus strategy. Barry Posen, speaking about his new book Restraint, highlighted the problems posed by the incentives that this strategy gives to U.S. allies, who both free-ride on America’s defense spending and act more provocatively than they might otherwise, thinking that Washington will always have their back. A panel consisting of Adam Serwer, Marcy Wheeler and Conor Friedersdorf made the case that America’s pursuit of absolute safety from foreign threats had resulted in a security state that unacceptably impinged on its citizens’ civil liberties at home. And, of course, running throughout the conference was a recognition of the enormous costs in both blood and treasure of the past dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
What is needed instead, said Daniel McCarthy, editor of the American Conservative, is a “kind of counter-consensus.” It would be made up of a loose alliance of antiwar liberals and conservatives, realists and civil libertarians. It would seek to roll back many of the policies mentioned above, and replace them with an alternative model in which America spends less on its armed forces and uses military force only when its vital national interests—narrowly defined—are truly at stake.
Golan-Vilella wonders if even a foreign policy counter-consensus is desirable in the first place. Michael Dougherty, who participated in the conference, highlights the politics of Iraq, noting that Republicans simply need to admit they were wrong:
As panelists pointed out at the recent “New Internationalism” conference held by The American Conservative and (liberal-leaning) The American Prospect, popular opinion in England and the United States held Congress and the president from committing military resources to another regime change in Syria last year. The American people want a foreign policy that protects jobs, that promotes peace and prosperity. Four out of five Americans who Pew polled say that America should spend more resources concentrating on problems at home rather than abroad.
So let’s practice a little democracy at home and give the people what they want: a Republican Party that is chastened by Iraq.
Threats and Responses: How the U.S. can maintain stability in the long term without war, with William S. Lind, Daniel Drezner, Matthew Duss, and Daniel Larison.
The Case for Restraint: Barry Posen, author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy.
National Security State Overreach and Reform: Reclaiming civil liberties in the aftermath of the War on Terror, with Conor Friedersdorf, Marcy Wheeler, Adam Serwer, and Samuel Goldman.
Political Realities: Prospects for realism and reform in the Republican and Democratic parties, with Michael Cohen, Christopher Preble, John Judis, and Robert Merry.
Stay tuned–the conversation will continue in the coming weeks on Bloggingheads.
Tara McKelvey is a features writer at BBC News in Washington. She is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. We asked her a few questions about the Senate torture report, Donald Rumsfeld, and her book 10 years after the Abu Ghraib scandal.
1) Have you been following the leaks from the Senate inquiry into CIA
torture of detainees’ post-9/11? What do you make of reports that the CIA lied to the government and the public about the scope and effectiveness of the torture program?
Yes. I’m not sure if I would say “lied.” I don’t think we know enough to say they’ve done that. They have kept a lot of things hidden, and people on the Hill are trying to convince them to say more.
If enough of it is declassified, what will the Senate report tell us?
Who knows. But one thing I’ve wondered about is the interrogation methods that didn’t get approved. The former top lawyer of the CIA said in his memoir, Company Man, that they vetoed one method. Given all that they did, I am wondering what they decided was beyond the pale.
2) We recently marked the ten-year anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Your goal was to get beyond the frame of the Abu Ghraib photographs, and Monstering provides an account of extreme disarray there: interpreters who weren’t tested on language proficiency, private contractors with sectarian allegiances, a prisoner to guard ratio of 75 to one, soldiers who were told that they could “do whatever they wanted” to the detainees. What was the most surprising thing you learned while reporting the book?
How hard it was to give everyone their due. There is a German writer, Friedrich Hebbel, who once said: “In a good play…. everyone is right.” But when I interviewed Lynndie England, I had to keep reminding myself to give her the benefit of the doubt. A lot of people saw her as a monster, and I didn’t want to do that. Otherwise, I kept telling myself, I would be just like the people at the prison–the ones who didn’t see the detainees as fully human. But she was difficult to talk to–and she was at the prison when terrible things happened, and, anyway, I was surprised how hard that interview was.
3) What is the legacy of the scandal today as the U.S. winds down the War on Terror?
Obama outlawed torture. But years after he promised to close Guantanamo, it is still open. There is a place on the island called Camp 7 that is off-limits to virtually everyone, including journalists. That is where the people are who were once kept in the CIA’s black sites. That is one legacy of the scandal.
4) Monstering also addresses the elite policymakers (John Yoo, et al) who contributed to a climate of systemic abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. You conclude that instead of asking “how could this happen?” the question is really “how could this not have happened?” Several soldiers involved in the scandal, including Lynndie England, were sentenced to time in prison, but so many haven’t been held accountable. What do you make of this?
That it’s not completely surprising, but it still seems wrong. Putting soldiers on trial when they have committed crimes is not a slight against the military, but unfortunately some people think of it that way.
What policy measures have been put in place (by the army if not the CIA) to prevent future abuse?
Most people in the army were horrified by the abuses. They had rules in place before the Iraq war, and they are now making sure that the rules are followed more carefully. The worst abuse was carried out not by people in the military, though, but by people who worked for the CIA. They may have done tons of things to prevent future abuse, but they haven’t really talked about it.
5) Any thoughts on Errol Morris’s new Donald Rumsfeld documentary? Read More…
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) September 4, 2013
As the Obama administration moves toward a dramatic political solution in Syria, Robert Merry detects an inflection point in American politics, the public forcing a “major new direction in American foreign policy”:
In a survey reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, the paper asked broader questions about American foreign policy, and the results were revealing. Fully 62 percent of respondents said the United States shouldn’t take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. On a question whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no. Only 15 percent said yes. The Times said that represents the highest level of opposition recorded by the paper in various polls over the past decade.
To understand the significance of these numbers, along with the political pressures building on lawmakers on the issue, it’s important to note that American political sentiment doesn’t change willy-nilly, for no reason. What we’re seeing is the emergence within the American political consciousness of a sense that the country’s national leaders have led it astray on foreign policy. And, given the country’s foreign-policy history of the past two decades, it isn’t surprising that the people would begin to nudge their leaders with a certain amount of agitation.
It’s unclear what it will take for the “foreign-policy reawakening” to fully penetrate Washington, where many congressmen are openly relieved that a vote on the use of force in Syria has been postponed due to diplomatic breakthroughs (“For scores of Republicans and Democrats troubled by the optics of voting yea or nay, the delay was a godsend”). Moreover, Joshua Keating notes that the public has been in a “multilateralist mood” for quite some time.
In some ways this administration has transitioned away from unpopular full-scale interventionism by simply downplaying any prospect of American involvement as “unbelievably small.” In Libya, the scope of intervention was repeatedly minimized–the administration dodged a mostly apathetic Congress, claiming it was not involved in “hostilities”–while the president largely avoided even talking about America’s role and obligations in that country. But while some dinged the Syria address last week as unnecessary, it’s notable that the political moment now requires some overt grappling with the decision to commit force and a straightforward argument from national interests.
The Syria debate has revealed a certain prudence and realism among the American public. Perhaps the last-minute shift to real, creative diplomacy in this case will activate some fresh strategic thinking among the foreign policy elite. A major new direction indeed.
— Rick Klein (@rickklein) September 5, 2013
President Obama will not order strikes on Syria if Congress rejects the use of force, according to an adviser—and he will address the country on Tuesday evening to make the case. Politico notes that while if the vote happened today the administration would “lose big,” many Democrats in Congress will likely move to “yes” next week:
High-level congressional sources believe there is some time — but not much — for Obama, Boehner and Pelosi to turn things around. But any vote to authorize an attack on Syria will be extraordinarily close, according to people in both parties with direct knowledge of the political dynamics in the House Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus.
The Fix and ThinkProgress have the latest whip counts. And Mother Jones has a great running guide to the debate here. Meanwhile, Wired is tracking votes vis-à-vis political contributions from the defense industry.
Members on both sides of the aisle are telling me the same thing: their constituents are overwhelmingly against a Syrian strike.
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) September 5, 2013
As constituents (and even some unlikely neoconservatives), continue to express opposition and AIPAC goes “all out,” next week’s debate will be revealing. Congress is now more popular than intervention in the Syrian civil war—House Republicans might boost those numbers if they skip the incoherent rants about Benghazi and opportunism-flaunting to ask earnest questions about America’s long-term interests and role in brutal protracted civil wars in the Middle East.
Peggy Noonan, who seems to be somewhat confused about what is actually happening in Syria (“A strong, broad strike opens the possibility of civil war”), reflects on a watershed moment for democratic accountability in foreign-policy making:
There is something going on here, a new distance between Washington and America that the Syria debate has forced into focus. The Syria debate isn’t, really, a struggle between libertarians and neoconservatives, or left and right, or Democrats and Republicans. That’s not its shape. It looks more like a fight between the country and Washington, between the broad American public and Washington’s central governing assumptions.
I’ve been thinking of the “wise men,” the foreign policy mandarins of the 1950s and ’60s, who so often and frustratingly counseled moderation, while a more passionate public, on right and left, was looking for action. “Ban the Bomb!” “Get Castro Out of Cuba.” In the Syria argument, the moderating influence is the public, which doesn’t seem to have even basic confidence in Washington’s higher wisdom.
— Justin Amash (@repjustinamash) September 6, 2013
In related updates, Robert Costa checks in on Rand Paul:
Before President Obama announced that he would in fact be requesting Congressional authorization for military action in Syria, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren made a succinct case for deliberation on KPCC, joining many of her colleagues actively seeking to do their jobs (LISTEN here). Lofgren, a Democrat, even posted the text of the War Powers Resolution on her website.
David Cole, who also clears up arguments about the WPR’s putative loopholes, has more:
It is possible that the military action now being contemplated by the White House might qualify as “humanitarian intervention,” on the ground that it is designed to forestall further atrocities in Syria. Whether such a response in the absence of UN Security Council approval is permissible under international law is a matter of debate, although most legal scholars would argue that Security Council approval is required. But again, under our Constitution, there is no exception to the requirement of Congressional approval for humanitarian interventions. Any hostile use of military force in another sovereign’s territory without its consent is an act of war, and requires Congress’s assent.
If President Obama ignores this requirement, he won’t be the first. President Clinton ignored it when he gave NATO authorization to use US forces to bomb Kosovo. President Reagan did so when he supported the contras in Nicaragua’s civil war, and when he sent troops to Grenada. President Truman did so in Korea, which he called a “police action,” fooling no one. In fact, the reason Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution was that presidents had too often seized the advantage by unilaterally introducing troops, and only then, if at all, coming to Congress for authorization after the fact, when Congress had no real choice but to support the president.
The decision to intervene in Syria is, by all accounts, a difficult one. It is far from clear that it will do any good, and there is substantial risk that it will do harm. Polls show many Americans are against intervention. Iran has threatened to respond by attacking Israel. Assad may well have concluded that drawing in US forces will make him more popular, not less so, given attitudes toward the US in his country and the region. And it’s not clear that the forces currently fighting Assad would offer a less violent future for Syria if he is removed. President Obama, recognizing the risk of going it alone, has dispatched his emissaries to drum up support around the globe. But in view of the many risks involved, he would do well to seek support from Congress as well. That’s the red line the Framers drew, and the president should respect it.
Mother Jones helpfully breaks down where segments of Congress, including Republican non-interventionists and Democratic “doves” like Lofgren, stand on the use of force in Syria. The Washington Post is keeping track of vote counts here.
In 2008, a few prominent conservatives hoped that Barack Obama might upend entrenched baby boomer attitudes and partisan dogmas. Aghast at the Bush administration’s financial and military recklessness, 20 percent of self-described conservatives voted for the “most liberal member of the Senate.”
After four years, President Obama’s case for re-election seems more a defense of the status quo than the call for change that propelled him into office: massive (though slightly smaller) deficits, a frail economy, Congressional dysfunction, and drift to war with Iran. The Bush-Obama status quo has amounted to the propping up of unsustainable entitlement programs and permanent, almost casual interventionism, accompanied by the decay of civil liberties and the growth of executive power. To this Obama has contributed a few unwelcome innovations, such as enhanced drone strikes and the HHS mandate, and some innocuous proposals: half-measures such as tax breaks for manufacturing and hiring more teachers.
There is a strong conservative case against Obama, but Mitt Romney has not made it. If Obama now represents the status quo, Romney offers nothing better than a promise to restore the radical policies that created the current conditions. As Daniel Larison notes, Romney is more likely to start a war with Iran by his own admission. It is revealing that his most prominent national security adviser is not a foreign policy wonk but a former Bush PR operative. At a time when the rich have seen unprecedented financial gains, the GOP nominee’s policies remain highly skewed to the wealthy, with special attention to the financial and defense industries. Amazingly, he seems to embrace the worst aspects of the Bush administration at a time when most Americans (rightly) blame Bush’s policies for our deep economic woes.
To the extent that Obama still offers a brake on the reckless forces of plutocracy and war (the Sheldon Adelson approach), which Romney plainly intends to restore, the conservative is left with no true alternative. In fact, the president’s re-election depends on a consensus around hard truths, the acknowledgment that immediately after the economic crisis, maybe we didn’t “deserve” to have the best years ever. Obama’s re-election, in a landscape hostile to any incumbent, would signify a certain reckoning, some actual grappling with the complexity of the crisis at hand, and a realization that neither Republican flag-waving nor sloganeering for “hope and change” are substitutes for hard choices. In this sense, the re-election of Obama might represent a surprising and mature moment in American politics.
Today on theamericanconservative.com, Jim Antle reflected on Ron Paul’s legacy (Kelley Vlahos’s take here, Daniel Larison’s here), William Lind challenged the conventional wisdom on Syria, and Scott Galupo called out the GOP’s cynical strategy on Medicare.
Today on theamericanconservative.com, Michael Dougherty imagined the GOP ticket that might have been, Scott Galupo downplayed the Romney-Ryan bump, and Samuel Goldman reflected on the politics of accents. Scott McConnell and Wick Allison complicated the Times‘s take on Republican factions.
Jordan Bloom and Michael Tracey reacted to Ron Paul’s farewell, Daniel Larison took issue with the GOP’s epistemic closure on foreign policy, and Rod Dreher braced for Isaac. James Pinkerton traced the school choice revolution, Mike Lofgren marveled at American plutocracy, and Philip Giraldi wondered if a ban on cell phone use while driving would have an impact.
This week on theamericanconservative.com, Daniel McCarthy delineated where intellectual conservatism went wrong, Scott Galupo wondered how a President Romney would frame his 2013 stimulus, and Scott McConnell homed in on the widening fissure between social conservatives and the GOP establishment. Jim Antle considered a maturing Tea Party, McCarthy excoriated Todd Akin’s redefinition of rape, and Michael Brendan Dougherty endorsed the conservative case for breaking up the banks. Robert P. Murphy argued that Paul Ryan’s ‘draconian’ budget is vastly overrated, Noah Millman chided Mediscaring on both sides, and elaborated on Obama’s small-”c” conservatism.
Michael Ostrolenk and Rep. Mick Mulvaney cut to the chase on defense spending, Samuel Goldman took issue with the NYPD’s utterly ineffective, Muslim-targeting ‘Demographic Unit,’ and Kelley Vlahos offered an overview of the (bleak) state of affairs in Iraq. Daniel Larison poured cold water on fears of future Chinese hegemony, and noted that Niall Ferguson seems to know even less about foreign policy than he does about the OMB’s report on Obamacare. Larison also discussed the illegality of a preemptive attack on Iran.
Today on theamericanconservative.com, Michael Ostrolenk and Rep. Mick Mulvaney cut to the chase on defense spending, Ron Unz remembered Alexander Cockburn, and Kelley Vlahos offered an overview of the (bleak) state of affairs in Iraq.
Rod Dreher studied Appalachia, Daniel Larison eviscerated Paul Ryan on China and Russia, Scott Galupo took on Rick Warren’s “covenant of civility,” and Philip Giraldi worried about the consequences of cyberwarfare. Help Rod pick the cover of his forthcoming book “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” here.