Everyone except Kasich is in Iowa, so I’m returning home to shovel snow for a few days. Last night, I went to a Trump rally in Strafford county, town of Farmington, population less than 7,000. Trump manages to fill a high school gymnasium (maybe 800 people) in a town 35 miles from the nearest highway. (The only comparable in size event I’ve seen was a Hillary rally in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city. As with previous Trump rallies, I am struck by the middle American, blue-collar normalness of the crowd. There is a short video here. A full range of ages, equally divided between women and men (a contrast to Hillary rallies where the ratio seems closer to 2-1). This demographic—“uncredentialed white people” in Mickey Kauss’s good phrase, have been singled out for the short end of the stick. Declining wages, declining life expectancies. If it was happening to any other group, it would be deemed a national crisis.
But people are cheerful here this evening. You have to park about 600 yards away, and make your way through the snow, but no one seems to mind. A few days prior, Byron York published an interesting story about interviewing state Republican luminaries at a political event last Saturday. Not only were none of them for Trump, but in most cases they claimed to not even know anyone who was for Trump. Considering these are people who make their living in politics, and that Trump holds a substantial lead in all the their state’s polls, this is a breathtaking admission.
With this in mind, I went around asking people before the event if they planned to vote for Trump (more than half said yes, no one said no) and what was their estimate of how many people in this crowd would get out and actually cast a vote for Trump. Or do people just come for the entertainment? I asked about a dozen people. All were from the area, so I assume to some extent they know their neighbors. The estimates ranged from half to about 80 percent, the median probably about 60 percent.
My guess is that a political scientist would consider that soft support, and it’s a pretty safe bet that the turnout will be lower here than amongst those attending a Jeb Bush town hall (where everyone is very nice, and “credentialed”). On that basis, I predict Trump would perform less well than his polls on election day, but not overwhelmingly so.
I’ve seen Trump speak three times now, and have grown tired of the basic speech. That doesn’t mean that those at the event were similarly restless, though the whole show seems very much toned down. The only real zest in it is when he’s going after Ted Cruz (“The Canadian,” someone yelled out). I wonder when he will begin to fill out what he can actually do to make America better, besides not hiring “idiots,” or making sure we have the “best people” negotiating for us. It would be nice if some of the best people were actually advising him now. I’ve made it clear before that I think Trump’s basic instincts in foreign and domestic policy are very good; his independence from the neoconservative or business oriented Beltway think tanks is as felicitous as his independence from their campaign contributions. I’m not sure when evoking General Patton and General MacArthur ceases to suffice, for any voter, as an meaningful indication of foreign policy direction.
Then again, what audiences hear from other candidates is hardly better, even if it is more detailed. Jeb Bush manages to say, in one five minute span, that we need show respect for Muslims in order to fight ISIS and that we will move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby signaling our acquiescence to Israel’s unilateral claim to the Holy City. (There is a reason, Jeb, why no previous president has done this.)
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
National Review’s barrage against Donald Trump won’t make much difference in the race, but clarifies nonetheless. In an editorial and 22 signed contributions, the magazine urges conservatives to reject Trump. Ninety percent of those likely to be influenced by National Review (a small, but not negligible number in a GOP primary) would have come to that conclusion without any help: Trump is not and never has been an establishment conservative, and other perfectly capable candidates are filling that niche. Nonetheless, NR‘s “Against Trump” campaign reveals much about the magazine and the current state of the conservative movement.
National Review has a a history, and not entirely a dismal one, of efforts to exclude people from the ranks of respectable conservatism. In the 1950s, it hardly helped conservatism of any stripe to have the John Birch Society proclaiming that Eisenhower and his brother were witting communist agents: it simply made the Right seem kooky and stupid. Buckley’s dismissal of the group was prudent. But subsequent purges targeted not kooks, but ideological opponents, especially after the end of the Cold War. Twenty years ago National Review sought to damage Pat Buchanan’s presidential bid by publishing various polemics and jointly signed statements against him. Buchanan was vulnerable because part of his appeal was as a loyal Republican who had spent many years at Nixon’s and Reagan’s side, before he began to challenge the GOP consensus.
In Buchanan’s case, the actual reasons for opposing him were seldom the stated ones. His greatest sin against the establishment right was that he opposed the first Iraq war, and made an enemy of the neoconservatives who had become an increasingly dominant part of the conservative coalition. Seven years later, NR struck again, with a 2003 cover story denouncing as “unpatriotic” those conservatives who were trying to warn against the folly of the second Iraq war. The attack, published under magazine’s current editor Rich Lowry, was hardly damaging to the individuals targeted, but did reveal that support for wars in the Mideast had become the only true litmus test for the establishment Right.
NR‘s Trump attacks cover the spectrum: Trump is both too much to the left, and too much to the right. Trump is a two bit Caesar, he is racist, he is liberal, he once supported abortion, he supported the TARP bailouts, he is not a real conservative. In so many words, he is not one of us.
But of course anyone giving Trump a look knew that already. His differences from establishment conservatism are part of his appeal. To understand that, it helps to consider what “really existing conservatism” has has meant to Americans over the past generation. The blunt truth is that the most important “conservative” project in recent memory was the Iraq war, which cost trillions, wrecked the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and set the Middle East aflame for what will probably be a generation. Programmatically, the war was the project of a Republican president and his administration. It was backed enthusiastically by National Review (see “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” linked above), but had its intellectual origins in the world of neoconservatism. Not coincidentally, Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz, editors of magazines which were agitating for war against Iraq long before 9/11, are probably the best known among NR‘s slate of Trump denouncers. In other words, as the United States still grapples with the chaotic aftermath of that Iraq invasion, NR and the rest of Conservatism Inc. unleash a verbal torrent claiming that Donald Trump is a threat to those concepts—“small government,” “the permanent things”—which true conservatives supposedly hold dear. It’s almost comical.
But in ways realms different from those considered by National Review and the Beltway right-wingers, Donald Trump is a kind of conservative. In his speeches, he has tried to fill out his “Make America Great Again” slogan with some notion of what kind of society he is trying to conserve, or restore. He has talked—not very politely, but probably in the only way possible to get people to listen—about ending illegal immigration and limiting legal immigration. This is of course critical if the United States is to remain the country which it has always been, one with relatively open spaces and relatively high wages. He speaks about stopping the hemorrhage of American manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere. Would he succeed? It’s not clear—it would certainly be difficult. But nations before have tried, and succeeded, to protect their manufacturers, and the jobs and relative social stability that go along with them. For National Review however, such policies simply are not “conservative”—and the editors mock Trump for his “threats to retaliate against companies that do too much manufacturing overseas for his taste.”
The society that Trump has in mind when he speaks of restoring America’s greatness is probably something like the America of the Eisenhower administration. Ike was reelected by a landslide when Donald J. Trump was ten years old. He carried New York state by 22 percent. Of course Eisenhower isn’t any sort of model for most in the conservative movement. The National Review of William F. Buckley’s era thought Ike’s administration stultifying. Conservative intellectuals railed against Ike’s readiness to accommodate itself to New Deal social legislation and his refusal to risk war by trying to liberate Eastern Europe. Eisenhower’s rule convinced Buckley’s friend Whittaker Chambers, for one, that capitalism was the losing side.
But a certain style of main street conservatism did thrive during the Eisenhower era. It was not revolutionary, did not look towards unleashing “democratic revolutions” in distant regions, or unraveling the regulatory chains on finance capitalism. It was devoted to bettering the lives of average Americans and practicing a strategy of containment in the Cold War. Public infrastructure was built. Industry expanded, wages grew. Married couples raised big families. Illegal aliens were deported. It was not the conservatism of the Kristols or Podhoretzes—Ike didn’t start any big wars in the Mideast or elsewhere and indeed backed the UN consensus by forcing Israel to cough up its 1956 conquests in the Sinai. Nor of the Cato Institute—taxes on the rich were high, and the government spent a lot of money on public works useful to all.
For most Americans, this was a good thing—society was basically stable, supposedly a conservative virtue. Trump certainly holds no briefs for the residual segregation of that era: if press accounts are to be believed, his taste for glamor and celebrity have led him to a more racially diverse personal life than any other candidate running. But there are plenty of signs he aspires to be a sort of Eisenhower for his time, more solicitous of middle America than of Wall Street, more concerned about American living standards than an ambitious ideological remake of the world. Asked at a New Hampshire town hall about how he would “restore stability” to the Mideast after defeating ISIS, he demurred. “Our bridges, our infrastructure are falling apart,” he answered.
It is likely that this take-care-of-Americans-first attitude is the true source of National Review’s hostility to Trump. Chris Matthews raised this point in a provocative interview on Hardball: what they really hate about Trump is not his bombast, but his opposition to the Iraq war, and the idea that he would take the Republican Party off the militaristic intervention track. That he would, in other words, take the GOP back to Eisenhower’s time. Matthews recalled from experience (not his own) that coordinated multi-signature attack is a tell-tale neocon tactic, used to try to push George W. Bush into making war against Iraq, before that used to depict Pat Buchanan as beyond the pale.
This is not to say that there are not legitimate questions about Trump’s temperament, his ability to function as America’s chief executive, or his suitability as any kind of personal role model to the nation. There are. Valid points are raised by some of the National Review contributors. Many others—including people fairly well disposed towards Trump’s candidacy—are asking them as well. But perhaps members of the “mainstream establishment conservatism” as represented by National Review are not the best people to raise them.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
While New Hampshire polls differ at the margins, they align in one area. All of them put the totals favoring one candidate or another at about 90 percent, with 10 percent undecided. My impression is that this is mistaken. I haven’t phoned random samples of 600 voters, but I make an effort to speak to six or eight people at every event I go to, those waiting in line, those sitting or standing near me. And from that (a sample of maybe 50 people so far) I would figure an undecided rate of closer to 50 percent. Now it may all be that people who go out in freezing cold to political events are more likely to be undecided: they are window shopping, politically engaged late deciders who take very seriously the responsibility that New Hampshire’s (and Iowa’s) first in the nation status bestows on them. That would make sense. You go out not to hear a message which confirms your views or to enjoy the crowd energy of the like-minded, but in order to make up your mind. Nevertheless, I would take the polls right now with a grain of salt. They could shift a lot between now and February 9th.
Donald Trump, the current leader in the polls, seems well aware of this. In the Concord High gymnasium on Monday, he made a golf reference, which may have been obscure to many in his audience, but not to me. Trump said something like “I’m like ‘he’s looking for the clubhouse, Johnny’.” That is, he described his own situation by quoting the on course reporter following the guy leading the tournament by four shots on the 12th hole. “Johnny”, of course, is Johnny Miller, in the booth at 18, America’s premier golf-commentator. I doubt this analogy has been used at a campaign rally before. Trump would like the New Hampshire vote to be held, like, yesterday.
He has toned it down. That’s what New Hampshirites tell me—many are astonished his speeches aren’t more volatile. Perhaps because the media has so emphasized the allegedly extreme things he says, people are generally pleasantly surprised that he seems calmer or more normal. Some have suggested to me that they suspect the media has gone out of its way to misrepresent him. My own sense is that Trump really has softened his rhetoric, both because that plays better in stoic Yankee New Hampshire, and because the rhythm of the campaign calls for it.
At a Cruz event Wednesday morning I sat next to a woman who said she would never vote for Trump. She cited an incident in which Trump is alleged to have used an odd spastic arm gesture to mock the disability of a reporter, and Jeb Bush is on the air with a TV ad about it. Trump has said that he did not know the reporter was disabled, and another reporter has noted that Trump sometimes makes peculiar gestures while making fun of people who aren’t disabled. Whatever is the truth (and I doubt that Trump would be so stupid as to mock someone for a disability) it’s a damaging charge, which has denied him at least one vote. The woman told me that her family is all over the place on the election, some are Trump supporters, some for Sanders. She is for Carly.
I’ve seen two Cruz events in two days. It is not surprising that he is doing fairly well nationally. He has clearly absorbed something from his evangelical pastor father about the cadences of public speaking. He has been practicing this craft since he was 13, when he was in a group called Constitutional Corroborators, which traveled around doing performances before Rotary clubs and veteran’s groups, acting out constitutional debates. McKay Coppins, in his book The Wilderness writes, “At home, Cruz would practice these performances late into the night, studying himself in the mirror as he perfected each tic and quirk of his delivery.” At age 13.
Cruz events are slick. Unlike other candidates, who keep their waiting audiences warmed up with rock and roll tracks, Cruz has two large screens streaming very professionally produced videos. Videos of Cruz testimonials from various right wing and “liberty” activists, videos of Cruz wallowing in crowds of adoring voters. One video segment states that the federal government is taking meals away from senior citizens who want to pray.
Cruz’s actual talk is as carefully studied as those he gave when he was 13, delivered with rehearsed precision, every gesture and change in intonation precisely timed. There are scripted violent jokes and puns about the Federal government—“difference between an EPA regulator and a locust is ya can’t use pesticide on a regulator” —there is the list of five things he will do on Day One, and the five things he will get started on right away. For Cruz, and honestly, for all the Republicans up here, the Obama administration is spoken of like some sort of foreign occupation. Audiences like it. They applaud the shredding of the “catastrophic” Iran deal, applaud moving the U.S. Embassy to the “eternal capital of the Jewish people” in Jerusalem, applaud the deletion of Obamacare. Louder than applause for “rebuilding” the military is applause for reforming the Veterans Administration. Perhaps there is more concern for warriors with wounds of various sorts than there are for new wars.
Like Trump, Cruz is at war with the Republican establishment, but the targets are different. Cruz explicitly attacks Dole, McCain, and Romney as not real conservatives, as moderates who lost because they softened the right-wing message. Because they are alive and still protective of their reputations, they hit back. Contrasting himself to them, Cruz projects himself as Reagan, sweeping aside the failures of Jimmy Carter. But the analogy may feel a bit forced: the American economy is somewhat stronger than 1970s, and Iran and Russia, however difficult to deal with, are not nearly as hostile as they were in 1980.
Cruz gets some applause from his vow to destroy the IRS. Apart from an individual in a “VATMAN” costume outside the event, there is little discussion of the value added tax or the flat tax that Cruz campaigns on. My sense is these regressive taxes would be a ripe target in general election, especially in the current political climate.
But to the extent New Hampshire remains a domain of retail politics, Cruz and the others could rise at Trump’s expense. You can’t really see The Donald hanging around for 45 minutes after his speech, shaking hands, taking selfies, and making small talk with voters. Cruz is good at it, and so are all the others. It could make a difference. Cruz seems to be drawing about 250 people to events, at least in the more populous south of the state. If he did a dozen of them the past week, that’s 3,000 people, or between 1 and 2 percent of the vote.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
There’s now a minor media buzz about John Kasich, the Ohio governor who is now in clear second in New Hampshire—and rising. If he manages to vault even more clearly over Bush, Christie, and Rubio there, he’ll garner lots of national attention. Having attended two of his events, I could see him thriving under a greater spotlight. He’s smart, optimistic, has a compelling personal story, was a very successful governor of a swing state, has an attractive family (wife and two teenage daughters, traveling with him this week in the campaign). A good sense of Kasich’s appeal as a retail politician can be gleaned from the first few minutes of the video here.
Most of his town halls are devoted to domestic issues: taxes, health care, job creation, tuition, the rise in opioid addiction. Kasich is pretty skilled at conveying a calm “we can do this” attitude towards such issues, and displays a nuanced understanding of them. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne remarked that the people at Kasich events aren’t angry (in contrast to you-know-who, though the people there aren’t all angry either, they are also hopeful and enthusiastic).
On foreign policy, Kasich seems understated but fairly hawkish: in two events I’ve heard him say Assad is a butcher who must be overthrown, and that he would arm the Ukrainians to resist Putin. I don’t know how fervently he believes this—he certainly isn’t making it a campaign feature. He’s domestically focused.
But in Lebanon last night, Kasich said something very interesting. Asked near the end of the event (and at the end of a very long day) whom from history he considers a good secretary of state, he answered Jim Baker. He added that he met Baker when he was first in Congress and told the secretary that when he made a threat, it looked like he would follow through.
Naturally I wondered whether Kasich was really up to date on the symbolic meaning of Jim Baker’s name in Republican foreign policy circles. Baker, who held up loans to Israel that were being used for West Bank settlement expansion, who doubted whether the Israelis were interested in a compromise peace. Baker, the demon figure of the neoconservative imagination, the figure who represented what was most wrong with the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Baker, who for the GOP’s remaining realists, was the symbol—along with Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft—of how a Republican president could be practical and tough-minded in defense of American interests without inflaming the world with futile military interventions. Baker, who was invited to speak at J Street, the Jewish activist group most interested in forging a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace. Baker, whose mere appearance on Jeb Bush’s foreign-policy advisory panel reportedly incited a Sheldon Adelson temper tantrum.
Or was he just a candidate at the end of a long day giving a shout out to a secretary of state he knew personally?
I tweeted about the incident, and a few of my tiny number of Twitter followers responded. Then came a retweet from John Weaver, a senior Kasich strategist. That doesn’t necessarily mean much—as the refrain goes, “retweets are not endorsements”—but it might somehow mean that the Baker remark was not entirely inadvertent. There is a lane to run in, there has to be, for a non-Sheldon Adelson-approved GOP candidate.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, an avowed democratic socialist is leading in the New Hampshire polls, suddenly posing a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton’s coronation. For the GOP, candidates range from pro-immigration free-traders to build-a-wall and close-the-borders advocates. The Republicans may all be avowed free marketeers—though international trade remains a division point—but between leading candidates of both parties a wide range of views on immigration, the degree of desirable federal intervention in health care and the economy in general, and taxation are being discussed forcefully if not always brilliantly.
On the other hand, no one from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders seems eager to debate fundamental questions about American foreign policy. On that they all basically agree: the United States saved the world in the 1940s and must continue to lead it, seemingly in perpetuity. The consensus is deeply bipartisan. Occasionally a matter like the Iraq War seems to threaten the bipartisan consensus, but the breaches close quickly. Everyone insists on “American leadership”—and sees the world as kind of planetary system revolving around a Washington based sun.
The planet-sun analogy was one of many thrown out in a very smart forum held last week in Manchester, New Hampshire, sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute. Charles Koch is best known in politics for aggressive financial support of various conservative and libertarian causes. His institute’s foreign-policy forum left me thinking the most durable part of his legacy might be in expanding the realm of permissible debate about America’s role in the world as the 21st century advances.
Right now, as William Ruger, a vice president of the Koch Institute, described it, foreign policy in Washington is a battle within the 48-yard lines. Everyone takes the necessity of American primacy as a given, and those outside the consensus receive nicknames like the one John McCain sometimes bestows: “wacko bird.” You don’t necessarily lose your job if you’re a wacko bird, but you become someone whose opinions don’t really count.
In addition to Ruger, a former political scientist, the panel consisted of Andrew Bacevich and Stephen Kinzer, both widely published foreign-affairs authors, and Christopher Preble, a scholar who heads foreign-policy shop at the Cato Institute. Television host John Stossel moderated, deploying a devil’s advocate persona.
I go to many forums in Washington, and while most are informative very few really crackle. This one did. That can be explained by the truly enormous gap between what the panelists said—reasonable if provocative arguments made by learned, highly successful, and temperamentally conservative people—and what passes for “serious” foreign policy discussion inside the Beltway.
*The common perception underlying the “indispensable nation” consensus is that we saved the world by defeating Nazi Germany. But of course the Soviet Union did far more to defeat Germany.
*Benghazi is alluded to repeatedly by Republicans seeking to attack Hillary Clinton’s record. But none of them ever note that the Libyan intervention against Gaddafi which preceded it did serious damage to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation and dramatically destabilized the region; the Republicans never go beyond the fact that American diplomats were killed.
*Saddam was the most brutal dictator in the world. If you were an Iraqi who seemed to threaten him politically, you would likely disappear. But in his Iraq, if you kept your mouth shut you could lead a normal life, provide for your family, send your kids to school, go to mosque or church of your choice. No one there now can do any of that. (Kinzer)
*For someone born in 1991, when our Soviet rival dissolved itself, has seen America engaged in a major war every year but three.
*We are formally committed to the defense of 68 countries in the world.
*The United States has reorganized Afghan’s government to collapse the traditional somewhat viable decentralized system and elect a parliament manned by the rich, the corrupt, the violent.
*At the Naval War College, top officers are in an “orgasmic state” over the prospect of a new generation of weapons to threaten China, which is working on one aircraft carrier, while we have a dozen.
*We have no solution to the problems of the Middle East, its crises are beyond our capacity to fix. ISIS poses a very minor threat to the U.S. The best thing we can do to counter radical Islam is to be the best society we can be—and demonstrate by our example there is no conflict between faith and modernity. (Bacevich)
*Iran is now very secular, a country with more atheists there than anywhere else in Islamic world.
*America (seemingly without reflecting about it, and certainly not debating it) opened the barn door to cyberwarfare, when, in conjunction with Israel, it used offensive cyber weapons (Stuxnet) against Iran. (Bacevich)
About 120 people attended. People who attend a Koch event on national security are probably a fairly conservative bunch, and it takes a lot to move someone from their basic premises. One man, a former military intelligence officer, asked a detailed question about China’s new “military assertiveness”—a threat now taken as axiomatic inside the Beltway. I believe it was Ruger who replied that 1) he believed in the “stopping power of water” (the Pacific is pretty large); 2) China would have great difficulty invading Taiwan; 3) China probably has more at stake in freedom of the seas than any other country; and finally (jokingly) he wouldn’t worry too much about China’s man-made military islands, because of global warming and rising seas. In other words, really a minimal military threat to America. (Whether China is an economic threat to American manufacturing is another issue, not relevant to this forum.)
None of this makes it on to the Washington discussion table. Ever. Instead it is assumed, without much discussion, that it is—that it must be—America’s role to obsess about the military power of a country which spends roughly 20 percent of what we do on the military.
It is beginning to percolate, around in the country, if not in Washington, that the United States has not actually won a war in a very long time, despite fighting many of them. And some social force or combination of them is causing the American dream to feel remote for a growing share of the population. There is a now a real market for fundamental questioning of America’s strategic doctrines, far moreso than in the 1990s—and a growing potential audience for putting less militarism, more soft power (none of the panelists were “isolationists”) on the table. The Koch Institute is planning to bring more of these panels around the country, and they will probably make some waves. There are other possible steps to take—academic programs, think tanks, media initiatives. Arraigned against any rethinking is the massive Beltway blob: interlocking media; financial and industrial interests; the “military-industrial complex,” so named by Dwight Eisenhower; defense contractors spread across every state; powerful congressional lobbies for foreign countries eager for the United States to spend treasure and sometimes blood defending them. But it is a debate that America dearly needs, and the Koch Institute’s seeming readiness to engage it in a serious way is more than welcome: it may be critically important, and not only for American conservatives.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire.
On Friday, electronic highway signs in New Hampshire began flashing that a WINTER STORM was arriving early the next morning. Would they cancel the Trump rally scheduled for 11:30 in Portsmouth? Watching politicians, as I’ve been doing the past few days, makes you think they must yearn for a snow day. Just as I have a fanboy “These guys are good” reaction when I see professional athletes close up, I admire the sheer stamina and skill of good politicians. At this level, they all impress. Marco Rubio, eight hours after finishing a debate in South Carolina, on the stump in a bingo parlor in southern New Hampshire, bright-eyed, well-honed boyish eloquence in full display. How could his advance team possibly know they could gather 200 people at 8:30 in the morning? Kasich, in a library basement in the mountains up near the Maine border, addressing a room half-filled with retirees with the energy as if he were on national TV. Jeb, before preppier crowd just west of Nashua, in a lodge hall whose wooden panels reminded me of the lodge scenes in “The Good Shepherd”—staying two hours to take question after question, trying to give detailed answers, always thoughtful, grammatical.
In the days ahead, I will delve into the content of what the latter three, and the others, are saying. But the electronic sign left me wondering how I was going to manage the drive from Manchester to Portsmouth in a possible blizzard, and I began to wish Trump would cancel. At age 69 he might welcome a half-day off, you would think.
The Saturday morning Trump rally was in Portsmouth, the New Hampshire seacoast’s largest town—in the huge Toyota dealership. Scott Brown, a former and perhaps future New England Republican star, introduced him. Trump had had an excellent week: pretty much everyone says he debated well in South Carolina. He was thrown a fat pitch when Ted Cruz began attacking his “New York values.” Trump responded with defiant defense of the city’s people; unlike, for instance Giuliani (or even Pataki), he could talk about 9/11 without trying to make it about his own stalwart leadership. He painted a heartfelt picture of New Yorkers responding well under the most intense duress, and no one could possibly disagree. It’s a lesson which could be filed for future use: Donald Trump not talking about himself does very well. His polls remained good, comfortably ahead in New Hampshire and catching up to Cruz in Iowa, though his “get the people to the caucus” organization remains extremely weak. There were hints in the prestige press that some Republican “money men” had resigned themselves to his possible victory and were sending out peace feelers.
But this kind of lead two weeks before any voting starts and more than three before the first primary puts Trump in the position of team leading by two touchdowns with several minutes remaining in the third quarter: things look pretty good, but there is a lot of time left. If he does poorly in Iowa—which seems plausible given the state of his field organization—he has to win New Hampshire; without that, all the six-month talk about his strength in the national polls would be revealed as interesting but not all that politically important. And so, no snow day in Portsmouth. Trump, who had spent the previous day in Iowa, where he not only spoke at a rally but uncharacteristically stayed to schmooze with Iowans at a pizza chain, arrived on time.
So did about 1,500 other people, some of whom, presumably more accustomed to New England driving than I, didn’t leave three hours for a 50-mile trip. The snow, which alternated with freezing rain, probably could have been worse. Those who got there early didn’t have spend too much time waiting outside, got themselves through metal detectors set up by the Secret Service (other candidates I’ve seen don’t have those), and found themselves listening to rock and roll in a toasty warm meeting hall attached to an auto showroom.
The people in Trump’s crowds are not like those of other Republican politicians. A fair number of them have come not to scrutinize a candidate but for an entertaining show, people from Maine and Massachusetts who won’t be voting for a while, high-school kids who are not registered, a fair number in unusual hats, flamboyant beards or mustaches, many men who look like they worked with their hands. Do these translate into primary voters? Surely in some cases they will, and it is obvious that no other candidate in the field could draw 1,500 people in the middle of a Saturday morning snow storm. But no actual voting has started yet.
If you’ve been following Trump, much of his standard speech is likely familiar. In segments, it’s become a call-and-response script for the Silent Majority. (Trump: “Who’s gonna pay for the wall? The crowd: Mexico!) I’ll comment principally on some digressions and new points.
So long as Ted Cruz remains his main short-term rival, Trump is not going to let people forget that Cruz took very large personal loans from Citibank and Goldman Sachs and failed to report them through the standard mechanisms. You sense that Trump, with his digression on how Cruz will be “controlled” by his Wall Street creditors, will be happy to pick away at this subject for a long time. (See video here.)
Secondly, Trump talks a very hawkish game on the Iran deal. But there is a sense among some (which I share) that his opposition is more rhetorical or political than genuine. He loves to talk about the stupidity of the deal, how dumb were our negotiators, how terrible it is that Iran is getting money up front. (He fails to mention that it is, actually, Iran’s own money.) But he knows of course that any Obama-inspired diplomacy is very unpopular with Republican primary voters. And (unlike some other candidates, like Rubio) he doesn’t vow to tear up the deal on Day One, or the equivalent.
On other foreign-policy questions Trump vacillates between tough talk—“seize the oil,” he would be the “most militaristic” president—and various pullbacks. He has begun regularly to emphasize his opposition to the Iraq War, and he stresses his own reluctance to go to war. I thought it was interesting on Saturday that he answered a question about how we should “bring stability” to the Middle East by stating that we’d been trying very hard to do that for 15 years without much success and that America’s roads and bridges were falling apart and in dire need or repair. Be assured that no other candidate in the GOP field answers a foreign-policy question like that. (See video here.)
Finally Trump clearly owns the immigration issue. When someone started off his question by quoting Ronald Reagan and saying “without borders, you don’t really have a country” Trump could reply, simply “I’m your guy.” (I think it was at that point that someone yelled out “Bigot” and the crowd wanted to shout him down. Scott Brown, on stage besides Trump as the moderator, said “Who cares?” and urged everyone to ignore the heckler, which seemed wise counsel. It does seem remarkable that a quote like Reagan’s can seem controversial, or “bigoted.”)
Trump will surely be up here many more times in the next three weeks, as will everyone else.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
I arrived in Manchester, New Hampshire late Tuesday night, my home for the next four weeks (see the above “view from my window” photo). An election which seemed impossibly dreary six or eight months ago has been astonishingly upended into one of the more interesting contests in my lifetime. I plan to follow the news closely, attend as many events and talk to as many people as I can, and relate what I see and hear.
I suspect Sanders will win handily in New Hampshire, and neither he nor Hillary will spend huge amounts of time here. If she wins here against the Vermonter, his unlikely challenge will be more or less over. But what a surprising contest it has turned out to be. Like virtually everyone else in America, I had assumed Sanders would poll respectably against Hillary in a few states, and force her at least to pretend to take seriously the progressive base of the Democratic Party, for a while. The first debate, after which Hillary re-emerged with a comfortable lead in the polls, confirmed that. She seemed sharp and on her game, and Sanders was nice enough to let her off the hook on her “damn emails” and that would be that. Over Christmas, I heard odd glimmers of Sanders enthusiasm—the favorite of every MFA student at the University of Alabama according to a daughter, not perhaps the most representative demographic. A surprisingly bullish estimate of his chances comes from Jack Ross, author of a new and monumental history of the Socialist Party of America.
But that Hillary was a weak candidate is not a surprise. She is clearly intelligent, and evidently inspires fierce loyalty from those who know her well. But she doesn’t appear really to have principles, or certainly not the kind that might inspire most Democrats. Against inequality accelerated in America, she spoke for the victors. After her uninspired tenure at Foggy Bottom, she enriched herself with $3 million from a dozen Wall Street speeches, a kind of way the big bucks folks reward politicians who promise to do their bidding. No one opposes people getting financially rewarded for superior accomplishment, but what really was being paid for here? That Haim Saban, the zillionaire who cares only for Israel and favors war against Iran, is her campaign’s biggest financial backer is not irrelevant either.
And yet her nomination seemed such a foregone conclusion, until, suddenly, a Sanders surge in Iowa, the reminder no one loses both Iowa and New Hampshire and goes on to win the nomination, and Joe Biden’s subtle shiv that Hillary’s interest in income inequality has not really defined her career, and there’s a real race. Chelsea Clinton is sent up to New Hampshire as an attack dog—“Bernie Sanders wants to take away your Medicare” in so many words. The question is whether enthusiasm for Hillary among her core supporters, professional women of a certain age, is sufficient to sustain her. Could she be beaten by a 74 year-old Socialist? It seems really unlikely. Could she be so wounded as to make clear to Democratic powers-that-be that she is not an appropriate party leader, opening the field to Biden or someone else? Today that hardly seems impossible.
I expect much movement on the Republican side in the coming weeks. There is a sorting going on. In my hotel bar, a Cruz staffer was schmoozing with the former leader of one of the Carson super PACs, now sporting a Cruz button, a defection bringing to the Cruz New Hampshire campaign a handful of minor elected officials and organizers, numbers which might be meaningful to a small state campaign. A truism in politics is that no one wants to spend their time on meaningless campaigns, however unfair it might be that the campaigns are so designated. Carson’s organization may well be on the cusp of implosion. After him, who else? In any case, it seems likely that the divisions which have thus far aided Donald Trump’s poll numbers—the “right wing” vote split between Cruz, Carson, Paul, Huckabee, and Santorum; the “establishment” vote divided between Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich, may be smoothed over even before the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire do their first shuffle.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Over the past week, Americans experienced a breathtaking barrage from top politicians and news commentators about “who we are” or “what we as a country stand for.” Using the phrase identifies the speaker as one of the virtuous “we” who shuns Donald Trump and rejects his recommendation, post San Bernardino terror attacks, that Muslim immigration to the United States be halted until the government can “figure out what is going on.”
The breadth and scope of reaction against Trump’s comment was stunning. Politicians from House speaker Paul Ryan to Hillary Clinton, the major neoconservative columnists at the country’s largest papers, along with every liberal or left wing opinion outlet one could imagine, rushed to express contempt for Trump and his suggestion. What passes for the foreign policy establishment chimed in too. General Wesley Clark labeled Trump’s remarks “un-American”. David Cameron to Benjamin Netanyahu added their own denunciations. An ACLU official recommended that Trump supporters be shot. For several days, America experienced the kind of bipartisan power elite unanimity which one thought could happen only in the wake of national tragedy.
Much of the reaction was somewhat Islamophilic: America needed larger numbers of Muslim immigrants to help win hearts and minds versus ISIS. An immigration pause would alienate them. As evidence, the Times highlighted a story of Trump luxury brand items being removed from the shelves in rich Arab Gulf states.
But no one has yet measured how the prospect of an immigrant visa, or lack of it, weighs compared to other policies through which the United States makes an impression on the Muslim world. For instance, one way in which the U.S states “who we are” to Arab and Muslim audiences is by killing a lot of Muslims. Several years ago Harvard Professor Stephen Walt came up with an estimate of how many Muslims have been killed by the United States in the past 30 years, estimating conservatively that it was slightly less than 300,000. His count did not include the early 1980s shelling of Lebanon by the battleship New Jersey but included the skirmishes in Somalia, as well as the campaigns against Iraq. There are few reliable Iraqi casualty totals from the first Iraq war, which closed with American warplanes attacking defenseless columns of retreating Iraqi troops in the desert. Even the Irving Kristol-published National Interest, a supporter of that war like virtually everyone in America, was troubled by Washington’s seeming abandonment of standards of just war and proportionality.
The 1991 ceasefire was followed by a regime of U.S. organized sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s government and the Iraqi economy, which picked up speed under Bill Clinton’s presidency and continued until the U.S. invaded Iraq for a second time in 2003. There may be no undisputed estimate of how many Iraqis—Muslims and of course Christians too—were killed by the American organized sanctions, which inevitably harmed most the weakest, children and the sick. A UNICEF report calculated that the sanctions were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. President Clinton’s UN ambassador and later secretary of state Madeleine Albright told CBS that the “price was worth it” though she later disputed the number of deaths. Walt’s estimate divides this figure by five, coming up with a conservative 100,000. Whichever number is closer, the economic and social devastation caused by the sanctions was universally acknowledged, and accepted as a legitimate outcome by the entire American foreign policy community. The recently deceased Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, proudly called the blockade “unprecedented for its severity in all of world history.”
The point is not to revisit the debate over sanctions, which Democratic and Republican policy makers considered better than alternative policies. It is more to note that few Americans cared if Iraqi children were dying en masse as a direct consequence of American policies. During the 1990s there was no national debate about it; it was almost a complete nonissue. If someone thought to ask do “Muslim Lives Matter,” Washington’s answer was not very much.
The second Iraq war did become politically contentious when American casualty levels began to reach significant numbers. But no American politician concerned him or herself with the Iraqi deaths, (estimated by Walt at 116,000: other estimates are three or four times greater) whether they be from combat, or from the destruction of what was once a viable national state, admired throughout the developing world for its infrastructure and public health system.
This is not the place to dwell on Afghanistan, though Afghan civilian casualties have also been substantial. But part of “who we are” as it regards Muslims and Arabs inevitably touches on Israel, a country routinely treated by American politicians as an object of reverence. At its founding Israel ethnically displaced about 400,000 Palestinians, half the population, Christian and Muslim, from their native towns and cities. No one in America apart from the odd intellectual—Virginia Gildersleeve, Dorothy Thompson, (arguably) Hannah Arendt, Alfred Lilenthal—much cared. The man routinely celebrated as the moral tutor of the American establishment during that period, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, both anticipated the ethnic cleansing and justified it. Israel today carries out unabashedly the kind of ethnically discriminatory policies that not even Trump is accused of favoring, while leading American politicians of both parties can’t say enough how much they admire the country. When Israel assaults Gaza and kills 500 children, Congress almost unanimously applauds the action.
Again, the point is not to debate American support for Israel. It is to note that there is something odd about a political culture which goes into a kind of panic when a candidate suggests a moratorium on Muslim immigration visas, but considers the killing or uprooting of Muslims by the hundreds of thousands a matter of no concern. TAC‘s Noah Millman may have been the only commentator in the country to contrast the hysteria which followed Trump’s immigration comment with the indifference which greeted Sen. Ted Cruz’s (number two in the GOP polls) suggestion that nuclear weapons—in this context weapons of mass murder—be used against cities controlled by ISIS.
What explains the juxtaposition? Are we in the realm of some Freudian theory by which the American establishment seeks to to compensate for its guilt about the destruction of Iraq and Palestine? It might make sense. Guilt as a factor in national policy is not to be underestimated, as any observer of Angela Merkel’s attitudes towards refugees would attest. But few prominent Americans express remorse at all over their country’s policies in the Mideast, which are at least partially ongoing.
Alternatively, is calling Donald Trump a hateful bigot a kind of psychological projection? It should probably not be ignored that on the right, at least, neoconservative hawks are among Trumps most strident opponents. Perhaps they sense that Trump is not reliably bellicose, and that he, alone among leading candidates to have opposed the Iraq war, would be the president least likely to start new wars against Muslim countries.
In any case, Trump has mounted a full-bore challenge to the seldom expressed but rapidly congealing elite consensus that borders and nationhood are obsolete—a view long held by the international business establishment and gradually working its way down the power chain. Past generations of American politicians, Democrats and Republicans, would have found it common-sensical if not obvious to put a pause on immigration from a certain country or group of countries. (Trump might well have named countries or regions, instead of a broad religious category, but that wouldn’t bar Muslim terrorists who possess European passports.) Now that’s a response neoliberals and neoconservatives reflexively abhor.
We have a responsibility to protect, we are the indispensable nation, we are the world’s benevolent hegemon, we are exceptional, we lead, others follow: this is the power language of today’s Washington. It is a discourse both extremely nationalist and post-nationalist: seeking to dissolve America’s borders and lead a global empire are different expressions of the same impulse. The idea that immigration to America is some kind of global constitutional “right” is part of the package.
Few of these issues are really straightforward. I have written several times of my belief that Muslim immigration is good for America: that Muslim students at top universities have played an admirable role in opening up debate on the Palestinian issue; that Iranian-American lobbying in favor of negotiating with (rather than bombing) Iran may have tipped the balance in favor of diplomacy. I still believe that. But immigration is plainly not an unalloyed good, and there are other sides of the ledger to consider. Donald Trump does not talk about “blowback”—a theory which posits the great likelihood that interventionist polices will yield negative and violent and unforeseeable consequences, sometimes decades after the fact. Radical Islam is a product of many factors, not simply, or primarily, American policies. But one should probably best interpret Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration pause as a relatively measured attempt to shield Americans from the blowback to policies implemented by a bipartisan Washington consensus over two generations, for which he (as a private sector figure) bears little responsibility.
It’s been a stunning week. We’ve seen a panicked establishment outburst against a proposal that the United States (temporarily) restrict immigration, a kind of riot of the elites—asserting that such a suggestion is completely beyond the pale, fascist, unthinkable. And in response, in the polls at least, a swelling popular tide asserting, in the face of everything they are told by their politicians and dominant media, that such a suggestion is quite reasonable. And in this case, carrying out the popular will wouldn’t result in the death or imprisonment of a single person.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
In 1982, after the Soviet government took measures to suppress Poland’s Solidarity movement, a large group of New York progressive intellectuals gathered at the famous Town Hall theater to register their protest. They and their predecessors had not been actually pro-Soviet since the 1930s or 1940s, and the boat people from Vietnam had weaned most of them of their remaining Third World revolutionary sympathies. But they didn’t like to admit that the Right—the hated figures of Nixon and Goldwater—had been pretty much correct about communism. So it was a shock, and the most quoted remark of the event came when Susan Sontag (the celebrated essayist who had been the exotic beauty of the New York intelligentsia) said that someone who had read only the middlebrow and right-wing Reader’s Digest for the past 30 years would have a truer sense of communism than a faithful reader of The Nation.
The equivalent today of the Reader’s Digest is probably Fox News, which has a wider and more populist reach. Watching TV on Thursday night, after the San Bernardino shooting, brought Sontag’s words to mind. I was watching centrist CNN and liberal MSNBC—aware of course that Fox News viewers had been radically disinformed in the wake of 9/11 compared with viewers of other news outlets, far more likely to believe falsehoods about Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the attack.
For the commentators and hosts of CNN and MSNBC, San Bernardino was yet another gun control story. Though the information had already circulated that the shooter couple was comprised of an American Muslim and his internet bride from Saudi Arabia, it was obviously considered bigoted to wonder very much about that. Though not three weeks had passed since ISIS’s mass murder cells attacked Paris, gun control and workplace violence were the dominant talking threads for the liberal news channels.
Hungry for some analysis that wasn’t politically correct or deceptive, I turned to Fox.
I have no sense of the internal politics at Fox anymore, so I can only estimate. Obviously there are some producers, or hosts, who still take their cues from neoconservatism. Someone had James Woolsey and Charles Krauthammer on, and they were saying some not-ridiculous things about getting tougher with ISIS. But there was no one to ask, say, weren’t you guys calling for war against Iran three months ago? Neoconservatives in general don’t like to get too excited about Sunni terrorism (ISIS and al-Qaeda) because, I suppose, the Israeli right is more worried about Iran, which is Shi’ite and one of the principal forces fighting ISIS in the Middle East right now.
But there is a populist side to Fox: it is, perhaps first and foremost, a TV station which seeks large numbers of viewers. Producers there obviously know that a lot of their viewers like Donald Trump. So they treat Trump fairly, interview him at length. Sean Hannity did the job Thursday night. Not for Fox, apparently, was the treatment Trump is getting everywhere else in the mainstream media: depicted as a dangerous aspiring fascist if not already the real thing. They also had on the air terrorism analysts, some of whom are probably Islamophobic. But they were at least willing to entertain the idea that there might be something amiss with bringing brides from Saudi Arabia into America without much screening.
Trump, some may have noticed, does not seem eager to go to war in the Middle East. He boasts that he is the only prominent Republican candidate who opposed the Iraq war, though no one can really point to where he was particularly forceful about it. He sets himself apart from other GOPers by refusing to go into paroxysms about the Iran nuclear deal: he doesn’t like it, he would seek to renegotiate it, but he doesn’t rush to proclaim he would rip it up on day one. Chris Matthews (occasionally a bright spot on liberal MSNBC) says Trump is antiwar and appeals to Reagan Democrats, and I think there is something to that.
The fanatical hatred of Trump, the ubiquitous “can it happen here?” refrains attached to his name, are due, mostly, to his refusal to buy the liberal line on immigration. Trump says he wants to build a wall on the Mexican border (I think he probably would); wants to deport the illegals and make them reapply for entry (I doubt it), and wants a government database of Muslims (after the Bataclan shootings, I hope such a thing exists already). Anyone with firsthand knowledge of Trump’s businesses knows he’s not anti-immigrant. But he surely is tapping into the worries of Americans who think they’ve lost control over their national destiny. In France, the security services believe there are thousands of potentially dangerous Muslim immigrants (or second-generation Muslims) and admit they don’t have the manpower to do adequate surveillance. The United States isn’t France. Should we continue with mass immigration until our situation devolves that far? The fact is that under Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, the United States had very little immigration. There were no internet brides from Saudi Arabia, brought in without screening. Frankly, there was no one in America who wanted a bride in a burqa. Did that make the United States fascist during their presidencies?
I suspect a great many Fox viewers don’t think so, and Fox, like any good business, knows it. One question for the coming year is whether the network will be turned back towards the “invade the world, invite the world” attitudes the neoconservatives favor, or whether it will remain, at least partially, a tribune and reflection of middle American sensibilities.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Oddsmakers consider Hillary as the most likely next president, with a 50 percent or greater chance of getting in. (Rubio or Trump come in second, at about 10 percent.) So her foreign policy signals are closely watched: would her policies basically resemble Obama’s? Or a sort of updated “neocon lite”? Or something else? She’s not going to tip her hand, and probably doesn’t need to, as the Republicans seem bent on self-destruction. Every Republican save Trump and Rand Paul have made it clear they would try to create more belligerency with virtually every country in the world not a formal American treaty ally, particularly Russia and Iran. Their threats seem so reckless that they should automatically be disqualifying. Meanwhile Rand Paul is largely ignored, and Trump, running as a kind of bombastic realist, is hammered relentlessly by the tandem GOP and liberal establishments for wanting to restrict immigration.
Last week Hillary spoke at the Council of Foreign Relations. She gave a denser and more detailed speech than what Republicans typically give, and clearly is knowledgeable. But some of those listening closely were troubled, with good reason. Building to her theme that the United States should take stronger measures against the Syria’s anti-Islamist Assad government, Clinton said:
In September I laid out a comprehensive plan to counter Iranian influence across the region and its support for terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. We cannot view Iran and ISIS as separate challenges. Regional politics are too interwoven. Raising the confidence of our Arab partners and raising the costs to Iran for bad behavior will contribute to a more effective fight against ISIS.
And as we work out a broader regional approach, we should of course be closely consulting with Israel, our strongest ally in the Middle East.
In other words, not six days after ISIS slaughtered 130 people in Paris; a few more after it brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt and blew up a Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut, Hillary Clinton is calling for tougher measures against… wait for it… ISIS’s enemies in the Mideast. Is it time to ask, with Hillary Clinton leading the Democratic field, who needs Doug Feith and Paul Wolfowitz?
Does it need to be spelled out? For Hillary, the ISIS terror may be a sort of pretext to take the war to those whom Bibi Netanyahu considers his primary enemy, Iran, and Iran’s Lebanese Shi’ite ally, Hezbollah.
In the Democratic foreign policy debate several weeks ago, Hillary foreshadowed this. Asked by the moderator which enemies she was happy to have, she included “Iranians” in a list of otherwise standard Democratic domestic bogeymen. Did she mean all 78 million Iranians? The Tehran government which had just concluded an historic arms control agreement with the United States, Russia, China, and Europe? What was the point of the remark? It would have been easier to overlook had she not doubled down on it at the Council of Foreign Relations last week.
After the George W. Bush presidency, we ought to have had enough of this. The Middle East situation with ISIS is genuinely difficult: those who study it most closely are uncertain which measures would play into ISIS’s hands by alienating more young Muslims, which are needed to contain and eliminate a bloodthirsty terror state on Europe’s doorstep. Europe already has millions of young Muslims inside its borders, and many are marginalized and receptive to ISIS propaganda. But no one really think that Hamas—a religious Palestinian group which would not have existed without Israel’s encouragement (Israel wanted to create an alternative to the secular PLO during the first intifada) is anywhere in the same league. Hezbollah carried out terror operations 30 years ago: today it is the armed militia of Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, and has been fighting effectively against ISIS. Iran is trying to rejoin the family of nations; its president was scheduled to visit Paris last week, a visit postponed by the terror strike. Is Iran a day at the beach? No. Its government is brutally repressive, probably on the scale of say, China. But by Mideast standards it is better than average. So what point is Hillary trying to make by putting lumping all of those groups together with ISIS?
My own guess is that Hillary is trying to signal right wing Zionist donors, particularly Sheldon Adelson sidekick Haim Saban—the biggest contributor to Clinton campaigns over the years—that she is really on board with them, despite nominally running as a “progressive” Democrat. But who knows her real motives. The point is, Hillary should be called on it—by her fellow Democrats, and especially by Republicans.
The United States has already once this century seen neoconservatives leverage anger at a terrorist attack to start a war against a country that had nothing to do with the original attack. That was the Iraq war, and we and the peoples of the Europe and the Mideast are still paying the price.
Don’t let Hillary (an Iraq war supporter) lead us down that path again.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Not surprisingly, virtually every politician in France now sounds a bit like the National Front. The French are not reacting as they did following the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings last January, that is holding grand self-congratulatory marches bathed in “let’s all get along ” rhetoric combined with quasi-official efforts to place Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration party beyond the pale of the Republican consensus. This time it’s different: there is little multi-culti liberal response anywhere, and no one believes even slightly that the murdered concert and restaurant goers of the Republique neighborhood were going out of their way to insult Muslims.
One indicator of the difference is that Marine Le Pen was invited to meet with Hollande at the Elysee on Sunday along with leaders of France’s other major parties. More or less all of the political leaders in France are taking a hard line–on ISIS–which the socialist president Hollande had called to be combated with a “war without pity,” and share the general recognition that Muslim radicalism is a problem in France. It’s difficult to gauge what this means for electoral politics—I would think the more France’s other parties approach the rhetoric and attitudes of the National Front, the FN’s electoral prospects worsen—but who knows. Nevertheless no one in France now seems to think that Marine Le Pen’s party is terribly wrong about the need for France to control its borders, or the danger of Muslim extremism, or the need to slow down immigration. Quelle surprise!
Though what President Hollande will actually do is obviously not clear, I would wager it would go well beyond the inevitable air strikes, which have already begun. But beyond the operational questions—do you send troops to Syria? do you expel radical Muslims? do you begin to treat some of them them as potential combatants and not fellow citizens?—there is the question of who your allies are.
Here one concrete suggestion comes from Nicolas Sarkozy, former president of France and the most likely standard bearer of the center-right in France’s 2017 presidential contest. Sarkozy said that it was time to treat Russia as a full-fledged ally in the fight against ISIS and Islamic extremism. Sarkozy has never been an enthusiast for banishing Moscow from Europe, a position he held even when some European leaders were working themselves into an anti-Putin frenzy over Crimea. This has been Le Pen’s position as well, and it has a logic, given that the Russians are the most potent military force fighting ISIS at this time. Of course it implies putting on the shelf for a moment the probably fanciful notion that there can be created a viable Syrian “Third Force” that is neither pro-Assad nor jihadist. There may be one at some future point, but the moment to defeat ISIS is now.
Another shift in the underlying global diplomatic plates concerns Saudi Arabia. The twittersphere this weekend was full of references to Esquire’s Charles Pierce article on the “one way to defeat ISIS” which noted that practically all the funding for Islamic terrorism came from the Sunni gulf petrostates, especially Saudi Arabia. Hillary Clinton was quoted (from a 2009 Wikileaks document) as saying that Saudi Arabia was the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” In claiming this, she was repeating the consensus of Western intelligence estimates. Islam is as diverse as every global religion, and can be both the foundation of a culture of science and learning or ignorance and death. But the Wahabbi strain, developed in the 18th century in Saudi Arabia, tilts towards the latter. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, most of the money funding ISIS is Saudi. Probably the West ought to draw some conclusions from those facts as it considers who are its potential allies, and who are its enemies.
The other side of that coin is that the Shi’ite groups, including Iran, are at least provisionally on our side. It’s not clear at this point whether treating Iran as a friend is akin to aligning with Stalin against Hitler in World War II, or whether Iran will fulfill its destiny of becoming something much better than a Shi’ite dictatorship. I’d bet on the latter, but even if I’m wrong, I’d have thought aligning with Stalin in 1942 was the correct thing.
Israel—have you noticed how seldom Israel’s name comes up when one thinks of who are useful Mideast allies in the battle against ISIS?—no doubt feels differently. The very day an ISIS suicide bomber hit a Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut, killing 40, The Israel Project sent out one of its cheerful emails boasting that Israeli planes had just struck Hezbollah targets in Syria. Hezbollah, one might remember, is basically the only Arab force which has fought consistently against ISIS. (The Kurds are not Arab.) Forgive me for not being entirely clear which side Israel is on.
When I first wrote Saturday, finding myself thinking that the attacks on Paris had put the West in a position where there was little choice but war, I wondered of course, as did some readers, whether, overly caught up in anger and emotion, I had taken leave of my senses. But a war against ISIS is not a war of choice—not like overthrowing Saddam, or Qaddafi. For Europe, I think, it’s a war of survival, and as long as the United States is linked to Europe by treaty, I think we should be, are obliged to be, good allies. I was pleased today to see that Graham Fuller, a veteran scholar and intelligence analyst and 100 times more knowledgeable about the Mideast than I am, is more or less on the same wavelength. In what I believe is the most cogent analysis of the ISIS I’ve seen thus far, Fuller writes
ISIS, with its horrific attack on purely civilian targets in Paris, has established new realities about its nature, capabilities and intentions. The need for its elimination can now no longer be in doubt. It is not that Parisian lives are more important than others, but Paris changes the game. . .[ISIS] has now overturned the analyses of most observers, including myself, who tended to view it as primarily regionally and territorially-focused, intent on (non-viable) state-building, Caliphate formation, targeting regional enemies rather than operating on a broader world stage. Now recent bombings in Beirut, the destruction of a Russian airliner midair, and the vicious attacks in Paris have now raised level of threat to new heights.
What is yet unclear is how much the Paris action was the brainchild of a centralized command structure operating out of the ISIS capital in Syria, or an action by local “franchise” organizations or “wild-cat” operations inspired by ISIS to act locally.
Whatever the case, these series of events now call out for broader and deeper international action. ISIS must be eliminated.
Fuller writes as someone who realized fully the folly of invading Iraq, and that previous American interventions laid the groundwork for ISIS. Nevertheless, now the folly would be not intervening. The action against it must be genuinely international—Fuller recommends not an American action, or a NATO one, but one sanctioned by the United Nations, a genuine international coalition. No doubt Saudi Arabia would be skeptical, and probably Israel too. Let them stand up and be counted for ISIS, then! My guess is that rather than objecting, they would prefer to go along.
In any case, a few months ago, I agreed with Steve Walt that ISIS was a regional problem that could probably be contained. I don’t any longer. Fuller’s view has changed, and I’m curious to see whether Steve’s has as well.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
It is obvious, or at least I think it is obvious, that France and Europe and the West have little choice but war against the Islamic State. The group has wrecked Syria, rendering millions of Syrians homeless and setting off a refugee flood which threatens to change Europe permanently. It holds territory, a pseudo caliphate, and its propaganda now reaches millions of Europe’s Muslims, offering to those receptive to it a jihadist worldview and military training and access to terrorist networks. It is probably not an overstatement to say that Europe cannot survive with a terrorist entity a short distance from its southern shores, sending its way hundreds of thousands of refugees, scores of armed and trained killers, and a constant flood of jihadist propaganda.
But it is critical that this time the war be fought against the real enemy—not against a fake enemy put forth by internal political factions with quite different agendas. That is what precisely happened in the aftermath of 9/11—when neoconservatives persuaded Dick Cheney, and through him President Bush, to adopt their long-pursued agenda of war against Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. The very existence of ISIS is in large part due to this misguided detour: the United States destroyed the Iraqi state, laying the grounds for the radicalization and Islamization of hundreds of thousands Iraqi Sunnis. Remnants of the destroyed Iraqi military became the military leaders of ISIS.
The dual temptation now is fight a war against all Muslims, a campaign that would be bound to fail. During the lengthy negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, the neoconservatives and Israel spared no effort to depict Iran, run by Shi’ite Muslims, as the primary enemy of the West. Even after the ratification of the deal, Israeli analysts have stressed this point: this recent analysis, promoted in the important neoconservative webzine Mosaic, makes clear that Israel sees the Iran allied Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Assad government as a far greater worry than ISIS. “Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony is a threat to Israel”, say the authors, whereas the Islamic state “currently far from Israel’s borders and with limited military capabilities, does not represent a direct military strategy threat at this time.” Instead they advocate “active measures to topple Assad based on the understanding that … Assad’s ouster will lead to a strategic loss for Iran and Hizbollah.” Israel’s lurid exaggeration of the Iranian threat is well understood in the United States, and Hezbollah would actually not exist absent Israel’s repeated invasions of Lebanon. Basically, Netanyahu would prefer that the United States and its allies fight Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad rather than the terrorists trying to lay waste to the capitals of the West.
It would seem unlikely, this time around, that they will get their way: Obama understands the Mideast far better than George W. Bush, and at least some Republicans might, or ought to have learned the necessary lessons. But America’s experience with the neocons after 9/11 should leave us never to underestimate them.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
I’ve been a reader of newspaper columns since childhood (i.e., a very long time) and for much of the 1990s was a writer of one. They had far more clout before the internet rendered the supply of readable opinions almost infinite. But a regular column written in a substantial daily paper retains a cachet matched by very little in the blogosphere.
Seldom does one find in a column something especially novel; more frequently one can admire an artistry put into 800 words even while anticipating the points which will be made. But I don’t I recall, ever, being as (pleasantly) surprised by a newspaper column as I was reading Ross Douthat’s comparison of Donald Trump to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
To begin with, there is a considerable groupthink among columnists. They can be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. But if one strays far from either pole of Beltway orthodoxy, one is likely to become the topic of uneasy queries from the publisher to the editorial page editor, wanting to know why the paper is giving space to someone who so arouses the ire of key advertisers and loud advocacy groups. There are, for example, no pro-Palestinian columnists for major American newspapers, though there are dozens and dozens of pro-Israel ones. Unanimity on that issue has been broken by the blogosphere, and overall national opinion has changed considerably. But not enough that there should be single regular pro-Palestinian columnist.
That is hardly the only issue where “serious” and “respectable” opinion is more or less unanimous. A more recent one is Donald Trump’s candidacy, considered equally loathsome by professional Democrats and responsible Republicans. No respectable and career-conscious journalist seems able to analyze Trump’s astonishing march to the top of the polls without palpable distaste, or at least some ponderous references to Richard Hofstadter’s theses on America’s eternal “paranoia” and “anti-intellectualism.”
Then suddenly here comes Douthat, a youngish but not new columnist for the country’s most important newspaper. He likens Trump not to Father Coughlin or Huey Long or Pierre Poujade, but—stunningly—to the most important and widely beloved American president of the 20th century.
Douthat’s central point is that Trump—with his torrents of disdain for Republicans who say whatever their rich donors tell them to say—is working on breaking the seals of Conservatism, Inc. and trying to push the Republican Party back from its newly acquired role of representing only the rich. Much as Pat Buchanan did in the 1990s, Trump is running a third-party campaign within the GOP, targeting middle-class but alienated voters. Because he is, like Franklin Roosevelt, rich, he is “a traitor to his class.”
The smart money in Washington still assumes that Trump can’t succeed and that once the field is winnowed he won’t have the organization on the ground to prevail. This may well be true. But Douthat’s point is that Trump—by elevating the issues of trade and immigration inside the GOP—is bringing to the Republican Party something it needs to survive as a significant force.
I’ve been familiar with Donald Trump for a while: I belong to a golf club he purchased after the 2008 crash. I’ve looked on with amusement at the introduction of gaudy fountains and gold-plated fixtures and observed while every bit of wall space not taken up by cool photos of classic golf swings was covered by framed copies of magazine covers featuring Donald Trump—even in the women’s locker room, my wife tells me. And yet, one can’t help but acknowledge that he kept all his promises to the members: improving the golf courses, bettering the food and the clubhouse, while keeping dues more or less manageable for an upper-middle-class membership. He’s been a stellar example of a can-do owner/operator.
During that period, Trump became one of America’s most public proponents of birtherism, pushing hard an idea which any remotely rational person knew to be absurd: that in 1961, an 18-year-old American woman in her third trimester would fly from Hawaii to Nairobi in order to give birth to Barack Obama. Birtherism was viscerally racist in its appeal, designed to undermine the legitimacy of someone I considered a quite good president. Trump’s embrace of this noxious cause (great for “base-building,” claimed his erstwhile consultant Roger Stone) was not enough to make me resign from his golf club, which would have been a costly and self-damaging gesture, but enough to prompt me to say something negative about Trump every time an occasion arose.
In short, little prepared me to like anything about Donald Trump’s campaign. But it has caught me by surprise and grown on me. Rapidly expanding legal and illegal immigration—a pressing concern for tens of millions of Americans—would not have been an issue at all were it not for Donald Trump. Conservative, Inc. had more or less agreed to suppress discussion of the issue ever since Peter Brimelow and John O’Sullivan were purged from National Review in the mid-1990s. Might I have preferred personally that Trump made points about mass immigration and declining American wages in the wonkish and studiously undemagogic style of the Center for Immigration Studies? Perhaps, but if he had, he and they would almost certainly have been ignored.
Then there is the matter of trade. Is there any good reason why everything Americans now buy is made in China? What about the tradeoffs, cheaper goods but fewer good jobs for Americans? Who benefits, who loses? But like immigration, free trade had become non-issue for Conservatism, Inc. and the Republican Party, ignoring its own history of protecting American business. Today’s mainstream Republicans represent only economic winners and are unlikely to know anyone who might have lost a factory job or who would take one if one was available. Donald Trump announces he would slap large tariffs on foreign-produced Fords and negotiate better trade deals for American workers—what kind of Republican talks like this?
Every inside the Beltway operator for both parties, along with every “mainstream” journalist, knows that free trade is the only way. If the Americans who once manufactured things don’t like it, let them learn to write computer code and develop smartphone apps, or, more likely, work as cashiers and shelf-minders at Walmart. Yet somehow when someone breaks the seal on the discourse and speaks as if the benefits of free trade are not a self-evident part of the Constitution, he shoots to the top of the polls.
Next week, Trump is scheduled to appear at an anti-Iran-agreement rally with Ted Cruz, an event sponsored by the ultra right-wing Zionist Organization of America. This is the problem with Trump—if his pro-American and pro-middle class economic nationalism is packaged along with deference to Netanyahu’s foreign-policy agenda, it will become more or less worthless to thoughtful people. But it is not entirely clear what Donald Trump’s foreign-policy inclinations are, beyond the tactical. In regards to one neoconservative action item—escalating the fight with Russia over Ukraine—he said that he could get along quite well with Vladimir Putin.
The greater neoconservative goal, of course, is the prevention any American rapprochement with Iran, keeping the sanctions going till they have a president willing to start a war on the country. How does Trump fit into that?
His comment on the Iran accord was that Kerry and the people who negotiated with the Iranians were incompetent—which is ridiculous, of course—but that he wouldn’t disavow the deal if he became president. This put him actually to the left of all the rest of the GOP field (except Jeb Bush), who are desperately trying to tailor their answers to please Sheldon Adelson. In another interview, Trump said U.S. diplomats got bested because “the Persians are great negotiators.” Is it plausible to note that Trump’s phraseology here, his use of the term “Persians,” connotes something other than an enemy that must be destroyed, a regime that must be “changed”? Perhaps the most frequently used neoconservative talking point about Iran is that it is a country controlled by crazy Islamic zealots, so full of hatred for the West they will start a nuclear war at first opportunity and care nothing for their own survival. In a casual off-the-cuff remark, Trump instead connects the Iranian government to a venerable 3,000-year-old civilization.
Perhaps Trump will go full neocon at next week’s rally and prove himself to be no more responsible about American foreign policy than Ted Cruz. I’m seldom an optimist, but I am betting otherwise.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
The Iran deal debate is huge and historic: a committed and eloquent president in his prime, able to mobilize scientists and diplomats and most of Washington’s foreign-affairs establishment on one hand; opposing him, groups funded by a few billionaires, able to saturate selected congressional districts with television advertising and frighten many office holders. It’s a subject that will draw historians for decades to come. If the government of Israel and its friends are able to block the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Israeli security professionals are not enthusiastic about the deal but, unlike Netanyahu, generally favor it as the best thing possible), it will be perceived to be just as pivotal as Woodrow Wilson’s failure to secure the United States’s adherence to the League of Nations, effectively dooming that organization.
On the face of it, the international coalition in favor of the deal should seem overwhelming. That diplomats from France, Germany, and Britain spent last week in Congress warning that all hell would break loose if the deal were scuttled was barely reported in the American press, but it did happen. The UN Security Council voted 15-o in favor of the deal. If, against such odds, Netanyahu, AIPAC, and the perennially well-funded let’s-start-a-war-against-Iraq crowd—The Weekly Standard, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Commentary, New York Sun, etc.—can overcome the combined foreign-policy establishments of the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany, it will be truly an event for the ages. If the result of scuttling the deal is war, which Obama believes, and which the more honest of the deal’s opponents publicly hope, they will fully own the war. If the result is an Iranian rush to the bomb and no war, they will own that result as well.
If one is to look clearly at American politics, and indeed much of the world’s, it is apparent that the old concept of dual loyalty (often used as a smear) is no longer relevant in a day that celebrates competing identities. Dual loyalty was a charge leveled at European Jews in the heyday of European nationalism, which insinuated that Jews remained more loyal to their own group than to their country of citizenship, and of course this charge was often inextricably tied up with the most extreme anti-Semitism. During the same historical period, leading American politicians railed at hyphenated Americans—Germans and Swedes and other opponents of intervention in the First World War, for example—and afterwards, often repressive pro-assimilation legislation was turned against immigrants of almost every stripe.
It is now obvious that many in the West have complicated and potentially competing loyalties. European nationalism of the nation-state variety is a subdued and increasingly less pronounced sentiment, and a high proportion of college-educated European baby boomers consider the European Union a noble and idealistic endeavor that competes with or even overrides their sense of Frenchness or Italianness. In America, too, not only are we “all multiculturalists now” but our patriotism comes in different layers. Many young Americans feel themselves part of a new transnational, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, which imagines itself as borderless; many more are married to persons of another nationality or faith. Personal experiences, even a stint in the Peace Corps, can produce some ties of allegiance. Who at some moment has not contemplated where they might try to emigrate—France? Ireland? Canada? Australia?—if politics here took a truly bad turn? Or even if they didn’t.
So let’s stipulate that the loyalty questions now spilling out over the Iran debate are muddy. Is it over the top when the Huffington Post headlines an (excellent) article by David Bromwich “Netanyahu and his Marionettes“? Some think so. But truth also has its claims—and much of Capitol Hill’s embrace of the Netanyahu position would simply not exist were it not for campaign funds from Israel-linked organizations. If something of this importance is true, should it not be written?
Last week the Times ran an AIPAC-inspired story in which various unnamed AIPAC officials accused the White House of using “dog whistles” in its efforts to combat the campaign against the deal. This was a subtle sign, shortly followed by much tougher accusations of anti-Semitism in the Tablet, The Weekly Standard (by Eliott Abrams no less), the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post. Obama is notoriously cautious and lawyerly in his language, and not a phrase in his American University speech could be fairly construed as a “dog whistle”—unless you are AIPAC and so thoroughly accustomed to politicians’ obsequiousness that any opposition can cause a temper tantrum. But to be sure, in left-wing websites and other venues dual-loyalty accusations have been made. Chuck Schumer likes to tell Jewish audiences that his name means “guardian” in Hebrew, while promising them that he will conduct himself as Israel’s guardian. Is it an anti-Semitic dog whistle to point out that fact? Does it mean his assessment of the deal is based on what he deems best for Israel, rather than his own constituents? Is it politically effective to point that fact out? I would probably answer no, yes, no—but clearly we’re in uncertain waters here.
New factors are coming into play as well. The National Iranian American Council filled an important role in briefing journalists and lobbying legislators throughout the negotiation process; in the Times there recently appeared an ad signed by hundreds of prominent Iranian-Americans in support of the deal. The Iranian-American community has been apolitical for years—probably most of its most prominent professional members are refugees or the children of refugees from Iran’s Islamic revolution. Still, given the choice between a deal that may open up Iran to the world and the bombing of their country that America’s neoconservatives yearn for, they overwhelmingly prefer the former. Are they too under the spell of a kind of dual loyalty? Yes, of course: what kind of person would want to see their parents’ country bombed and destroyed?
The Iranian-American community now ranks, I believe, as the single best-educated ethnic group in the United States, and is, generally speaking, professionally quite successful. It is relatively small, but knowing quite a few of its members, I hope its political influence will only grow. Even 10 years ago, few prominent Iranian-Americans would have signed such a letter. But the American polity concerned with foreign policy is evolving every day. Obama is in many ways a result of that. And deference to Israel is slowly but steadily becoming less mandatory.
Some predictions: the effort to stomp out criticism of the JCPOA’s opponents by charging anti-Semitism, unwarranted in virtually every case, will not succeed. Basically, this is not a matter of defending a groundbreaking book by two prominent scholars, or the record of a intelligently reactionary presidential candidate. The Iran deal is a broad establishment project, a world establishment project—and charging anti-Semitism isn’t going to cut it. But that said, individual members of Congress do live in dread getting on AIPAC’s bad side. And a massive fear-mongering media campaign has moved and will continue to move the polls against the deal. Crude TV ads are really effective, as any student of American politics knows.
How will it end? I would predict the Democrats will sustain Obama’s veto of the Netanyahu-inspired legislation. The political landscape will be transformed. But it will be transformed whatever happens. Whoever said that the Israel lobby is a night flower, which flourishes in the dark and withers in the sunlight, is likely to be vindicated.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
If there was ever a moment to regret the passing of a world political figure from the scene, it is now. Oh, that the late Margaret Thatcher could have been granted 20 more years of active political life. The “Iron Lady”: renowned for her brains and fortitude, scourge of British labor unions, resolute ally of Ronald Reagan, sensible Cold Warrior, successful (if widely despised) modernizer of Britain’s socialist welfare state, philo-Semite. I include the last because it is true—ask any American neoconservative who was around during the 1980s, or the old-line British Tory who sardonically noted that Thatcher had placed “more old Estonians in her cabinet than old Etonians.”
It is also relevant to America’s great battle over who will have greater say over Washington’s policy in a critical region, America’s own president or Bibi Netanyahu. For there is ample evidence that Mrs. Thatcher would take the side, resolutely and forcefully, of President Obama. This is not despite her philo-Semitism, and not because of it either, but because she was a lady of firm principles and broad judgment.
To begin, Thatcher was a staunch proponent of the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. She thought Menachem Begin’s plans to build settlements on the West Bank a dangerous barrier to any long-term peace. She supported conditional recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization at a time when most American politicians (and Israel) bitterly opposed any negotiations with Palestinian representatives. She publicly opposed Israel’s strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, and implicitly criticized Israel for not joining the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Her government strongly opposed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and cut off arms shipments to Israel in response to it. Thatcher expressed the hope that Israel “might at last live in peace within secure borders, giving the Palestinian people their legitimate aspirations, because you cannot demand for yourself what you deny to other people.”
Since Thatcher spoke those words, Israel has moved some 400,000 people into West Bank settlements, in violation of international law and in all probability ending any prospect of a two-state solution. In Israel’s last election, the Labor or center-left camp hardly mentioned the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. Israel is going through some self-criticism at the moment after some settlers burned down a Palestinian home with children inside, but the fact is that Israel has long winked at settler violence and seldom prosecuted it, implicitly considering it a kind of asset in the ongoing project to drive the Palestinian people out of Palestine.
Are Thatcher’s words also applicable to Israel’s nuclear policy, which can be summarized concisely as “we can have nuclear weapons and you cannot”? This double standard has become the lodestar for American policy as well: the United States went to war against Iraq under the pretext of preserving Israel’s nuclear monopoly, and every American president has threatened war against Iran as well. What would Thatcher think about this, in view of her past statements? Might it not fall into the category of demanding for yourself what you deny to other people?
How long can Israel’s nuclear arsenal can be kept out of the broader debate about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East? It is bubbling nearer to the surface. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called attention to the matter in an op-ed in The Guardian, in which he labeled the Vienna agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1, stripping Iran of its nuclear weapon-building potential, as a foundation upon which a Middle East free of nuclear weapons could be built. Of course Iran would say that, one would counter. But on what moral or practical grounds does the argument that Israel can have nuclear weapons, and other Middle Eastern states cannot, stand? Is such a double standard sustainable over the long term?
We probably will not find out soon, but the question is beginning to be broached. Egypt (under its military government, considered Israel’s best friend in the Arab world) is sponsoring an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution to monitor Israel’s nuclear program and turn the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone. Israeli officials are worried: In the past Israel has succeeded in rallying Western countries to oppose such initiatives, but the Iran deal changes the calculation. And if the subject becomes openly debated, what arguments are available to rebuff it and sustain the status quo? The ones I can imagine are blatantly racist, and unlikely to be accepted over the long run. But one wonders whether any of the signatories of the Vienna agreement will go to the mat to protect Israel’s nuclear program from IAEA scrutiny while Netanyahu is simultaneously working to undermine their own diplomacy.
Britain’s Conservative prime minister David Cameron has lobbied for the Iran deal in the United States, phoning senators to amplify his view that the deal is a good one. But he is not the cult figure among conservatives that Thatcher was. If she were alive and active, would the congressional Republican Party behave as it now does, taking its marching orders from the most right-wing government in Israel’s history? Indeed, Republican subservience to Netanyahu is unanimous, at least in the House and Senate, and may be the defining feature of what it is to be a Republican today. (Surely it is a relief to no longer hope that Rand Paul will lead the party out of this abyss, as he was clearly not up to the task.)
Could Margaret Thatcher have made a dent in that consensus? It was never wise to bet against her.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
It is not only Mike Huckabee who uses Holocaust imagery to rail against the Iran deal, though with his vulgar reference to “ovens” he managed inadvertently to sound more like an anti-Semite than a robust defender of Israel. (The last major American figure I recall speaking about ovens in this context was Louis Farrakhan). Huckabee’s remarks were duly flagged as “unacceptable” by the director of the Anti-Defamation League (who is no longer Abe Foxman), who noted that regardless of disagreement over Iran, the Obama administration was Israel’s greatest ally.
But no one who attended last week’s anti-Iran deal rally in Times Square would conclude that Huckabee was some kind of rhetorical outlier. There a sizable crowd (largely Jewish, to the extent I could tell) whose mood alternated between hate-mongering and anxious, displayed replicas of mushroom clouds and placards denouncing a new Holocaust, and listened to speakers denounce the deal using the same tropes as Huckabee. Steve Emerson, the well-funded professional Islamophobe, warned that the deal would “reenact the Holocaust.” James Woolsey, who has found a second career as the neocons’ go-to Democrat with national security credentials, described Iran as “totalitarian” and “genocidal” in terms which evoke Nazi Germany and hardly fit contemporary Iran.
Because perhaps the most singular fact about the Holocaust was that the Nazis killed an unarmed and defenseless population, one was tempted to ask what then was the point of Israel’s deceiving the United States about its own nuclear program, refusing to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and then building up an arsenal of an estimated 200 nuclear warheads. Clearly neither Huckabee nor anyone at last week’s rally had much faith in Israel’s defense forces or nuclear deterrents.
The rhetorical focus on an Iranian-generated nuclear holocaust may prove a tactical error for the anti-Iran forces, because the one thing the Iran deal will almost certainly do is prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon in the near or medium future. This error recalls the political choice neocons made in the run-up to the Iraq war, when they stressed to the American public and the world that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were the reason Washington had to attack, when in fact their motives for going to war were more diverse. As Saddam’s much-ballyhooed “weapons of mass destruction” turned out not to exist, Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair that “The truth is that for reasons which have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction was the core reason.” In the wake of 9/11, a war to prevent mushroom clouds could be sold to the American people, but one simply to destroy an advanced Arab state hostile to Israel was less politically attractive.
Israel’s concerns about Iran are multilayered, and most Israelis would probably admit that fear of an Iranian nuclear strike ranks very low on the list. Even if Iranian nukes existed, there is little Iran could do with them; most of the Iran hawks know this, even if they don’t let on to the people attending their demonstrations. What they desire, as Robert Farley pointed out in a smart article at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog, is a kind of “indefinite militarized confrontation” between the United States and Iran, and Iran’s so-called nuclear weapons program (which U.S. intelligence agencies believe currently does not exist) was an emotional talking point. “Mushroom clouds” and “holocaust” is an emotional way to grab an American public’s attention which might otherwise be diverted by declining wages or Donald Trump’s insurgency. But an Iran freed from the penalty box definitely would be a regional rival to Saudi Arabia and Israel, so from their perspective working to ensure American hostility to Iran makes perfect sense.
We can already see the Iran hawks try to shift focus: Leon Wieseltier’s recent sally against the deal railed against Iran’s “homophobia” and “misogyny” as much as its nuclear program, and argued for continued hostility against the Tehran regime for its brutal supression of the Green Movement in 2009. He neglected to point out that by every possible indication, the political heirs and survivors of Iran’s Green Movement overwhelmingly support the deal.
The United States is on the verge of a huge political science research experiment. By recent estimates, opponents of the deal have unleashed a $40 million ad campaign to oppose it, and the major groups opposing the deal can boast of annual budgets of about $150 million. Will that be enough to sway a Congress skeptical about the deal, but disinclined to fight the war which is it only real alternative?
John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt were widely chastised for noting in their book The Israel Lobby that the lobby played an important role in taking us to war in Iraq. Their conclusions were nuanced: Israel lobby support for the invasion was necessary but not sufficient—it was impossible to imagine that the United States would have attacked Iraq if Israel had not favored it; and well documented—the book contains pages of statements in the American media from Israeli officials, touting the importance of “taking out” Saddam.
In the Iran case, such qualifiers are unnecessary. There really are no countries in the world that want a U.S.-Iranian conflict besides Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel is isolated internationally as never before; it has, as others have noted, isolated itself by its repeated refusal to negotiate a Palestinian state, its building of settlements, and its continuous wars on the Palestinian refugees in Gaza.
At this moment, while the majority of polls show plurality or majority support for the p5+1 Iran deal, there are several outliers, with large differences emerging depending on the wording of the question and how informed the subjects were about the deal’s provisions. They reveal interesting sub-themes as well: polls show that American Jews favor the Iran deal by greater margins than gentiles, this in spite of Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, and the Israel’s frantic lobbying against it. I would interpret this finding as a reflection of the broader fact that groups with higher education and greater knowledge of the deal are more likely to favor it, but other interpretations are surely possible. Will the massive media buy by the deal’s opponents shift public opinion sufficiently enough to persuade a number of Democratic lawmakers to abandon their own president?
The prediction here is no: the combined weight of the support for Iran diplomacy from America’s other allies, its professional foreign affairs establishment, and the not inconsiderable persuasive power of the White House itself will prevail over Netanyahu and the neocons, despite the latter’s vast financial advantages. Add to this the fact that there really is no good alternative to the deal with Iran. (John Bolton, a key hawk, acknowledged recently that there is no better deal to be had and the sanctions regime is over. His preferred solution is war.) But no one at this stage knows for sure, except that the next few months will be historic.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
If Iran’s nuclear program were the primary concern of those lamenting the deal that John Kerry and representatives of five major countries concluded with Iran last Tuesday, they would be relatively pleased. Under the agreement, Iran will be stripped of 98 percent of its enriched uranium, all of its plutonium producing capacity, and 2/3 of its centrifuges, and will be placed under the most rigorous inspection regime in the history of nuclear proliferation negotiations. The cartoon image of Iran racing toward the bomb—presented last year by Prime Minister Netanyahu at the United Nations—may not have been reality-based, but if that’s what Israel is worried about, it can relax. Iran will not be racing toward the bomb.
But of course Israel is not pleased at all, and many of its volunteer spokesmen and politicians in the United States are railing against the deal as virtually the worst thing to happen in history. Netanyahu has let no one outdo him in hysteria. Iran is seeking to “take over the world,” he told an Israeli audience last week. (As the leaders of Russia, China, France, Germany, and Britain signed onto the agreement, one wonders how they all managed to miss the world takeover threat Netanyahu sees so clearly.)
Netanyahu’s followers in the United States, AIPAC, the Republicans in Congress, and the Iraq War neocons will dutifully suit up and mount a serious effort to scuttle the deal. (AIPAC has ordered staffers to cancel their summer vacations.) But something far different from Iranian centrifuges is at stake. It has never been clear to the U.S. intelligence community (or for that matter to the Israeli one) that Iran wanted a nuclear weapon to begin with, and it is far from obvious what advantages, if any, Iran would accrue if it managed to cobble together one or two nuclear weapons. There really isn’t any evidence that Iran’s leaders want the destruction of their 5,000 year-old Persian civilization, which would be the inevitable consequence of using the supposed bombs that Iran’s leaders have always denied any interest in seeking.
But the deal means something far more than outside supervision of Iran’s reactors. President Obama and his foreign-policy establishment want, I believe, at least to explore the possibility that Iran can fit into the roster of American diplomatic options in the region, where reliance on our traditional allies has run into a dead end. The obvious comparison is to Nixon’s trip to China, which turned out to be an effective way of mitigating the disaster of the Vietnam War and actually ensured that the aftermath of that war was far from unfortunate for the United States. The chaos which has been ignited in the Sunni world in great part by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the aftereffects of a losing war in Afghanistan might be partially offset in Iran.
The turn to Iran was foreshadowed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11—when Tehran was the only city in the Muslim world in which there were public and spontaneous displays of sympathy for the United States, and shortly thereafter there was some considerable on-the-ground cooperation in Afghanistan with Iranian intelligence on the overthrow of the Taliban. Of course this cooperation was short-circuited by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, who persuaded the President to include Iran in the “axis of evil.”
One doesn’t want to overestimate the possibilities for such cooperation, which may turn up empty. But it is obvious that Iran is much more than the “world’s number one sponsor of terrorism,” the agitprop phrase which Israel has sought to wrap it in. Iran is—in distinct contrast to every other Muslim country in the region—a large state with a partially democratic political system (no one at this point would deny that Iranian popular elections really matter), a very young and well-educated population, a middle class, a film industry, a fashion industry, a real cuisine, and a large number of young people who want to at least partially identify with the West. To compare and contrast the cultural compatibility of Iran and Saudi Arabia with the United States is a kind of joke.
Saudi Arabia has never been more an ally than an oil spigot: most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and the U.S. government is still coy about the extent of Saudi government financing of the 9/11 attacks. Most recently, Saudi Arabia has been cooperating with al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, which would seem to make it a “state sponsor of terror” if one is counting. It is sufficient, one would think, to take with a grain of salt the argument that the Iran negotiation is a betrayal of our “traditional allies” in the region.
Of course, the other main opponent of the Iran deal is Israel, and Israel’s American spokespeople make frequent references to Saudi Arabia’s hurt feelings only as a way to portray their opposition as being grounded in something broader than Israel’s wishes alone. And it may turn out that a United States with more normal relations with Iran would be slightly less deferential to our “only democratic ally” in the Mideast. Sophisticated observers figured this out early on, long before before there were any details about centrifuges and inspections to speak about. Daniel Levy, the Israeli analyst and former peace negotiator, wrote this back in September 2013, when John Kerry and Javad Zarif had done little more than pass notes in the UN corridor:
If Iran is willing to cut a deal that effectively provides a guarantee against a weaponization of its nuclear program, and that deal is acceptable to the president of the United States of America, why would Netanyahu not take yes for an answer?
The reason lies in Netanyahu’s broader view of Israel’s place in the region: the Israeli premier simply does not want an Islamic Republic of Iran that is a relatively independent and powerful actor. Israel has gotten used to a degree of regional hegemony and freedom of action—notably military action—that is almost unparalleled globally, especially for what is, after all, a rather small power. Israelis are understandably reluctant to give up any of that.
Israel’s leadership seeks to maintain the convenient reality of a neighboring region populated by only two types of regimes. The first type is regimes with a degree of dependence on the United States, which necessitates severe limitations on challenging Israel (including diplomatically). The second type is regimes that are considered beyond the pale by the United States and as many other global actors as possible, and therefore unable to do serious damage to Israeli interests.
Israel’s leadership would consider the emergence of a third type of regional actor—one that is not overly deferential to Washington but also is not boycotted, and that even boasts a degree of economic, political, and military weight—a deeply undesirable development.
The fact is that Israel has used this regional military hegemony, and the political inability of any American president to oppose it, in ways that cannot help but generate hostility to the United States on the part of virtually all Muslims in the region, no matter where they fall on the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. When Israel assaults a more-or-less defenseless Gazan population and kills 500 Palestinian children, using a high-tech military provided entirely by the United States, Americans pay a price, though those ignorant of the region do not recognize this.
The United States of course will always be allied with Israel, and this alliance would go more easily if Israel made peace with the Palestinians. But it’s hard to imagine that any American president would not welcome more diplomatic options in the region than those provided by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps this explains why Jeb Bush seemed over the weekend to cast a glance towards the exit door of the Republican crazy train, proclaiming that he would not necessarily abrogate an Iran agreement on “Day One” of his presidency.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Most now assume that the defining foreign policy legacy of President Obama will be his Iran deal, which will seek to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon and open the doors to Iran’s reintegration into the world economy and regional politics. I believe Obama and good sense will prevail over the Israel caucus in Congress, and as a result of the deal Americans will fairly soon come to see Iran both as a market for American goods and ideas and as a valuable ally against ISIS, the Sunni jihadist group that controls much of Iraq and Syria. There will of course be much debate and possibly a major political donnybrook in the months to come, and unexpected twists are always possible.
But what a surprise it would be if the principal legacy for Obama were not the opening to Iran, even if it were to fulfill all positive expectations, but a deepening cold war, potentially even hot war, with Russia. Everyone in Washington knows that Obama and his top aides have devoted 10 times more attention to Iran than to Russia, assuming perhaps that the logic of geopolitics would keep American-Russian relations on relatively even keel. But events have a way of surprising. Oh bitter irony were we to have peace with Iran, war with Russia. It could happen.
The Times ran a story on Monday about Ukrainian extreme rightists fighting with the Kiev government, a worrisome development for the latter because Right Sector units play such a key role in its military overall. The Ukrainian far right is tarred by association with neo-Nazism, mostly because its heroes fought with Nazi units against the Russians in World War II, and its banners and symbols clearly evoke Nazism. Several days ago, the Times ran a story about Chechen Islamists joining the Ukrainian forces because they wanted to fight Russians. (Chechen Islamism is the milieu that spawned the Boston Marathon bombers). There probably are perfectly understandable reasons for Chechen hatred of Russia, as there are for the widespread Ukrainian embrace of the Nazi side during World War II, (though few expressed this when retired Ohio auto worker John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian emigre and Nazi collaborator, was in the news). But it doesn’t mean we should be allied with such people.
Yet now, somehow, we are. For official Washington, the Ukrainian ally it has embraced is buttressed by a coalition of Islamic militants and neo-Nazis, along with the various elite ethnic Ukrainians who have learned that milking the increasingly lush Washington-Kiev connection can be lucrative. While Obama and John Kerry have turned their attentions elsewhere, the permanent national security state is steering America inexorably towards confrontation with Russia over an area of much moral ambiguity and no strategic significance to America.
Last week Marine General Joseph Dunsford, Obama’s nominee as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a Senate panel the hawkish answers on Russia he imagined the senators wanted. He described Russian actions on its borders as “nothing short of alarming” and asserted that Russia presents the “greatest threat to our national security” and “could pose an existential threat to the United States.” Obviously any country with a lot of nuclear weapons poses a potential existential threat to the United States, and much else. For some reason Dunsford was not asked whether America’s arming of neo-Nazi factions in the Ukraine has increased or decreased the potential threat Russia’s nuclear arms pose to America’s existence.
The press reminds us often of the saber-rattling actions carried out by Vladimir Putin’s government to the states and semi-countries on Russia’s border. But military exercises cut both ways. NATO has ramped up its war gaming in the Baltic Sea, conducting a large military exercise called BALTOPS involving 5,600 troops and 50 warships. Doesn’t sound like that much, but perhaps Americans should contemplate how they would feel about a comparable Chinese or Russia exercise in the Caribbean. Add to that the annual Black Sea war games, and “Exercise Noble Jump” in Poland, and other maneuvers all amounting to about 20,000 NATO troops a year romping about in what used to be the Warsaw Pact, and you can at least understand that Putin’s saber-rattling should not be seen as not especially one-sided.
How did we arrive at this strange place—a de facto alliance with neo-Nazis and Chechen Islamists—waging a proxy war against Moscow on Russia’s border, while a docile media and one-note political class sounds a continuous alarm about Russian aggression? It can’t be what Obama intended: when Mitt Romney raised alarm about “the Russian threat” in 2012, Obama mocked him, and the country seemed to agree. One can’t help but observe that Obama can largely succeed in imposing on the country a progressive agenda when it comes to immigration, health care, and gay marriage and yet is relatively powerless against the momentum of what may be loosely called the hawkish military industrial complex.
Is it an accident of personnel? Hillary Clinton facilitated the rise of former Cheney aide (and wife of neocon strategist Robert Kagan) Victoria Nuland to the most powerful European post in the State Department. Obama had to placate Hillary, and the country looked the other way while Nuland pulled the levers to foment an anti-Russian coup in Kiev. Without this bit of caprice, would we be in the present showdown?
Or is the explanation more diffuse: that America somehow needs Russia as an enemy for its own sense of self? This is along the lines of what Georgi Arbatov, a Kremlin intellectual of the late 1980’s, had predicted. “We are going to deprive you of an enemy,” Arbatov said while Gorbachev was dismantling the Warsaw Pact, and you won’t know what to do. John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of three of his novels thought along similar lines: “Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?”
In a 1997 Foreign Affairs essay which bears rereading today, Samuel Huntington mused on the possibility that American would need an external enemy to mitigate its internal fissures. I’ve speculated before that increased diversity and multiculturalism at home would lead to a less militarized foreign policy, and still believe that’s the case. (There is no evidence that Mexican or Chinese immigrants, to take the most important of the new groups, have aggressive foreign policy agendas.) But Huntington weighs in on the opposite side: to smooth over or submerge domestic ethnic divisions, America may go out of its way to seek external enemies.
It’s an historical argument, but also speculative and psychological: no one in Washington would ever say, or even think, “Our national identity is in flux, so we need an external enemy to keep it together.” But it’s a sentiment Rabbit Angstrom’s creator would have understood. In rational foreign policy terms, it’s obvious that a conflict with Russia on Russia’s border, with America taking the side of neo-Nazis and Islamists, is the last thing America would seek if its foreign policy were determined by rational criteria. So what does explain it?
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
Imagine you are one of the dozen or so people who can influence a foreign-policy decision for the Obama administration. Not a top staffer, able to quickly master and mobilize complex data points for and against a given policy position, but someone who has also ascended the complicated personal networks of Obamaland. Valerie Jarrett. John Kerry. Ashton Carter. Joe Biden.
Suddenly you find the world seems to be going to hell at once. Triple—nearly simultaneous—terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France. Greece on the edge of default. Puerto Rico too. The Iran negotiations up against their deadline—the Ayatollah suddenly spouting nationalistic formulations about inspections which may not mean much in real terms, but which give the well-organized opponents of Iran detente new levers to agitate against the negotiations. Ukraine: the Kiev government, encouraged by John McCain and part of America’s State Department, hopes to pull the United States into a sort of alliance, giving it protection as it looks to escalate the war against its rebellious eastern provinces. (“Killing its own citizens” is how the mainstream media might describe Kiev’s actions in another context.)
Which of these issues is the most important, which do you have to make sure to get right? It’s not easy—and if you are John Kerry, you are probably still in pain every day from a badly broken leg. Plus it’s the week of July 4th, and though you are a serious person who doesn’t even think about vacation, you sense a gap between the urgency of saving the world from chaos and the fact that much of your family is in summer mode.
I hope Obama is hearing something like this from such people, which I suspect tracks with his own inclinations: We can’t know the consequences of a Greek exit from the Eurozone, but they will be manageable. The smartest financial analysts (like Nouriel Roubini, whose online newsletter people pay a pricey subscription to receive) have for years done serious projections on a Greek exit from the Eurozone, focusing on ways in which the worst disruptions can be mitigated. They almost certainly can be. For Greece, gaining control of its own currency and fiscal policy is probably necessary for any real recovery. The Euro project may have been doomed to fail eventually—there isn’t enough in common between its various components to make a genuine currency union viable.
The Greeks have as much reason to resent German overlordship as anyone in Europe. But in France too, arguments that the Euro and the Brussels bureaucracy curtails French sovereignty and democracy, or simply provides powerful lever for American financial hegemony, are heard increasingly on both Left and Right. It’s far from clear whether the weakening of the European Union or the collapse of the Euro would benefit or harm American interests, but it would almost certainly strengthen democracy within Europe. About the financial consequences, experts can figure out how to smooth them over, though it will surely take time. The European economy, including Greece’s, rests ultimately on a combination of an educated and skilled populace and decent amount of natural resources, and these will not disappear.
Oh, Puerto Rico might default too? Perhaps it’s a good thing then it isn’t actually a state, as many conservatives believed it should become back in the 1990’s.
Iran. A breakdown in the Iran negotiations would be a genuine tragedy, and would probably start the clock ticking inexorably towards war. There are powerful groups in the United States—everyone knows who they are—which actively hope for war with Iran and have for years. They were rebuffed in the latter years of George W. Bush’s presidency and early in Obama’s. But they are extremely well funded—their expensive full-page advertisements appear in the New York Times, and others will soon blanket the airwaves. They have every reason to hope that if they block a deal now, they will have a more malleable president within a year and a half.
The Iran hawks’ most recent talking point involves inspections, as they argue for the idea that anything less than unlimited inspections all over the country means that Iran will be able to cheat and construct clandestinely a nuclear weapon. This is pretty much nonsense: Iran has already agreed to a rigorous inspection regime, and is under one now. As for inspection of military sites—it is true that the Ayatollah railed against them recently in a speech to Iranian hard-liners; it is also true that Fordow, Iran’s once-secret underground enrichment and research facility—and part of a military base—has had inspectors crawling all over it, with Iran’s agreement, since the initial preliminary pact was signed two years ago. That will not change. The remaining gaps between the U.S. and Iran are technical and minor relative to the vast distance which has been covered.
There is momentum behind the agreement, some of it economic (you can’t read the financial page without seeing reports of major Western firms vying for position in a post-accord investment environment) and much of it strategic. That yet another Saudi committed suicide terrorism, blowing up a Shi’ite mosque in Kuwait and killing dozens of worshipers, adds to the growing recognition that tying American Mideast policy to the wishes of the Saudi princes, the main financiers of Sunni jihadism, is a form of madness. It is not clear what will happen with the so-called Islamic State—which may be easier to contain than destroy. But in almost any scenario, America will need allies in the region with troops willing to fight, and Iran is clearly the most powerful and most willing. It is one of history’s ironies that after years of Israeli and neoconservative propaganda proclaiming that Iran was a crazy terror-exporting state run by religious fanatics (for which there is little recent evidence), precisely such an entity did emerge from within Sunni Islam, while Iran has proven its most able—and indeed in the Mideast virtually its only—opponent.
In any case, it is likely that relations with Iran will move forward or backward—they won’t, can’t, stay in their present balance, where Iran is treated as a sort of back-door ally against ISIS, its diplomats and generals treated respectably by their American counterparts, yet under serious sanctions and reviled in much public discourse as the epitome of evil.
Foreign policy is about making distinctions between the important and the marginal. There is little we can do about Greece, but its exit from the Euro will not be tragic. There is virtually no one in Western Europe who wants to be a full-fledged ally of Ukraine, and the United States can and should learn something from Europe’s reticence. But Iran is important: a successful nuclear agreement will reveal that Iran is the key to containing Islamic State terrorism and probably to maintaining American influence in the Mideast.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.
There is probably no way Jeb Bush could have avoided awkward moments discussing foreign policy in the months before his official campaign launch. He might have prepared sharp answers to the inevitable Iraq questions, but what could they have been? Much of his party yearns, if not for endorsement of the war, at least for the kind of blame-shifting that denies it was a tragic mistake. References to “intelligence failures” and “what everyone believed” and “the surge” now abound in Republican discourse and were part of Jeb’s response too.
So conventional has this sort of excuse-making become that Jeb was unprepared in early May when Fox News’s Megyn Kelly asked him whether he would have invaded Iraq “knowing what we know now.” The former Florida governor seemed to mishear the question and sought cover by invoking faulty intelligence: “I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
But there is broad realization among the public and political class alike that whatever the excuses, the actual decision to invade Iraq was the most costly American foreign-policy error since Vietnam, and so Jeb later reversed himself and clarified that he would not have gone to war. A more incisive statement—noting that the neoconservatives who formed the core of his brother’s foreign policy team had long agitated for an Iraq invasion, adding that American intelligence conclusions about WMD and Saddam’s ties to terror were being “fixed around” a policy already decided upon—would have had the benefit of being true. But it would also have been political suicide, for which Jeb Bush has shown no propensity.
Before the Iraq questions arose, Jeb faced inquiries about his foreign policy advisors. In February he released a long list of them, weighted towards officials from his brother’s administration, including Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz and hawkish Cheney aide John Hannah. But he also included realists from his father’s administration, most notably former Secretary of State James Baker, then and now a lightning rod for neoconservative criticism. The neocons’ problem with Baker is that he is a forceful advocate of a two-state Israel-Palestine solution; as secretary of state he pushed hard to stop Israel from building settlements on the West Bank, and in the process was less than deferential to Israel’s right-wing prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and his then-ambassador, Bibi Netanyahu. “Pro-Israel” hawks never forgave him, and when it was announced this winter that Baker was speaking before J Street, the liberal Zionist pro-peace organization, they went into high attack mode. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson reportedly demanded that Bush force Baker to cancel the speech, and when that didn’t happen, Adelson was reported to be “ripshit” and said it would cost Bush dearly.
Jeb responded defensively: he noted the wide ideological range of his advisor list, added that he disagreed with what Baker had said at J Street, authored a column at National Review repeating standard hawkish talking points about demonic Iran and treacherous Palestinians and peace-loving Israel, and announced the hiring of two hardliners, one a Weekly Standard writer, as foreign-policy staffers. Finally, at a fundraiser in New York, he said that on most Middle East questions the person he most looks to for advice is George W. Bush. Clearly Jeb wanted to convey that he is as hawkish on Iran and deferential to Netanyahu as everybody else in the Republican field, save perhaps Rand Paul.
Yet despite the loyalty oaths, there remains doubt over where Jeb’s actual inclinations lie. The neoconservatives who pay the closest attention to such matters are pushing other candidates, particularly Marco Rubio. Jeb has not repudiated his brother’s foreign policy, far from it, but he has not repudiated his father’s either. He has said that he is “own man,” with a two-term governor’s record to stand on. But this record concerns foreign policy not at all. Why did he put James Baker on his advisor roster? Was he indeed about to hire Elbridge Colby—a respected realist foreign-policy intellectual who once wrote that war with Iran could turn into disaster with no conclusive outcome—as a foreign policy coordinator? (Colby’s hiring was reportedly nixed by the “political” wing of Jeb’s campaign, as was the hiring of pragmatist Meghan O’Sullivan before him.)
At this stage Jeb Bush’s foreign-policy utterances have little significance beyond their role in the nomination contest. To imagine what a Jeb Bush presidency might look like, it may be fruitful to look elsewhere. Because Jeb Bush is not only the son and brother of figures with important and contrasting foreign policy records, but an individual with an unusual personal history, there is much material to speculate upon.
Conservative commentators often scant how successful a foreign-policy president George H.W. Bush was. To end the Cold War on victorious yet peaceful terms, to set the stage for the reunification of Germany, to build a large international coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait—these were considered masterful accomplishments at the time and far exceed the foreign-policy achievements of Bush 41’s three successors.
Despite a business and political career begun in Texas, George H.W. Bush was inescapably a product of the Eastern Establishment—part of the last generation in which that WASP group held substantial influence in American life. In his presidency one can see traces of the attitudes of the men who constructed the architecture of the postwar era: a genuine affinity for the democratic leaders of Europe; a respect for international law, diplomacy, and the United Nations; a readiness to use force tempered by an understanding of the horror and unpredictability of war. In George H.W. Bush’s presidency there was no extraordinary deference to Israel, a state that the postwar foreign-policy establishment believed would likely present America many problems.
But this George Bush was a one-term president, buffeted by a recession and a public fight with the Israel lobby, and his son George W. Bush took lessons from that defeat. One was that it was politically necessary to stay on the good side of the neocons. Bush 43 by all accounts knew or cared little about foreign policy in the late 1990s, but he knew something about intra-Republican politics. After securing the nomination, he arranged to be tutored in Austin by Condoleezza Rice and neoconservatives Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. Said Perle of the sessions, “Two things became clear. One is that he didn’t know very much. The other is that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn’t know very much.” When Bush won, the tutors received high positions and were able to place regime change in Iraq, and possibly in Iran, on the new president’s agenda.
This record is what most see when Jeb Bush announces that he looks to his brother for advice on the Middle East. But it is often overlooked that by the middle of his second term, George W. Bush had ceased pursuing a neoconservative foreign policy. By early 2006, when it was clear the Iraq venture was an unmitigated disaster, he became determined to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Cheney talked the president out of it for a while, but finally, over Cheney’s objections, Rumsfeld was let go after the midterm elections. So was Paul Wolfowitz—moved to the World Bank—and Douglas Feith; the two who led the neoconservative shop inside the Pentagon. Cheney’s top aide, “Scooter” Libby, was under indictment, weakening the vice president’s influence. According to biographer James Mann, Bush increasingly began to form his own foreign-policy judgments. To replace Rumsfeld, he chose Robert Gates, a realist who had worked previously under Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, two of the most prominent establishment critics of his Iraq policy. Elevated to secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice became more influential. Cheney would recommend policies—bombing Syria, for instance—and the recommendation would be ignored.
Bush backed Rice over Cheney in pushing for a ceasefire to Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon; Cheney had urged America to let Israel “finish the job” while some neoconservatives hoped to escalate the conflict into a war on Iran. By 2007, Bush had authorized Rice to seek talks with Syria and Iran, and by 2008 Rice had sent William Burns to meet officially with the Iranians, a move that outraged the neocons. Jeffrey Goldberg reported in The Atlantic that by the end of his second term Bush had begun referring to Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys”, mocking their perennially belligerent policy recommendations. In short, any number of conclusions could be drawn from Jeb’s “reliance” on George W. as an advisor.
Then there is the suggestive matter of Jeb Bush’s personal biography. Both of George H.W. Bush’s office-holding sons, in quite different ways, moved away from the New England WASP culture of their parents. George W. Bush’s trajectory is the better known: at age 40, having lived as a fairly arrogant and entitled alcoholic, W. stopped drinking and became an evangelical Christian, shortly thereafter becoming his father’s chief political liaison with the Christian Right. If Barbara Bush once referred to evangelical leaders as “these fakes,” there was little artificial about their rising influence in the GOP. While evangelicalism can come in every shade, in late 20th-century America it most often coincided with conservative politics and gave a boost to Christian Zionism, which hardly existed as a political force before 1980. From evangelical ranks came numerous personalities who interpreted the 9/11 attacks as the prequel to an apocalyptic religious war between Christianity and Islam.
George W. Bush did not deploy such language overtly, though some of his rhetoric came close. A confidant of French president Jacques Chirac told a journalist that in 2003 Bush had twice urged Chirac to join the invasion of Iraq because the world had arrived at the era prefigured by Gog and Magog, signaling the arrival of God’s final days of judgment. Chirac was sufficiently disturbed by the claim to ask a theologian in Lausanne what the Gog and Magog business was about. It concerned enemies of Israel and the end times. Whether or not these conversations took place as reported, this was the impression that George W. Bush gave to Europeans, where this account circulated widely.
Jeb Bush also left his parents’ WASPdom, but in a different direction. In 1974 at age 21, he married, in a small Catholic ceremony at the University of Austin, a young, barely middle-class Mexican woman, Columba Garnica de Gallo, whom he had met three years earlier while in a work-study program of his prep school, Phillips Andover. He proposed in Spanish; when she accepted, she gave him a silver ring with a peace symbol. After graduation he took a job as a bank manager and moved with his bride to Venezuela. If there is a sociological context, it is that it was not uncommon for young establishment background WASPs coming of age in the late 1960s—that consummate era of WASP denigration—to seek to shed their heritage like an unwanted skin. But seldom was it done with this kind of life-changing seriousness.
Jeb Bush’s career in business and politics has hardly been that of a rebel. But he has certainly carved out his own path. He lives at least partially in the culture of wife’s Catholic faith, to which he formally converted in 1995, and of Hispanic Florida. He speaks Spanish at home, and associates describe him as completely bicultural. Like virtually all American Catholics who hold elected office, Jeb has picked and chosen what he wanted from church doctrine, opposing abortion, supporting vouchers that aided Catholic schools, rejecting Catholic admonitions against the death penalty. He has not been a particularly right-wing Catholic, the kind who rails against the supposedly liberal Vatican II doctrines emanating from Rome in the style of the 1960s National Review.
Jeb Bush has voiced positions about immigration that seem to reflect the influence of American Hispanics and the Catholic Church. Might his Church also inform somewhat his foreign-policy views?
Under the papacy of John Paul II, the Vatican plainly and forcefully spoke against George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Neither John Paul II nor his successors, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, have been staunch allies of Israel’s right-wing governments. If Jeb Bush opposes the Catholic Church’s position favoring Palestinian statehood, he has kept his disagreements to himself. Nor did he feel compelled to oppose the recent statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly endorsing President Obama’s efforts to negotiate with Iran. Perhaps if he disagreed, he wouldn’t say anything.
American Catholics are not, generally speaking, isolationist. Nor are American Latinos—and recent survey data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs indicates that their foreign-policy attitudes roughly mirror those of most Americans. But there are some subtle differences, sufficient to make it worth speculating whether, or to what extent, Jeb has absorbed Catholic and Latino attitudes into his worldview. Generally Latinos are more favorably disposed to the United Nations, more concerned about global warming, and somewhat more favorably inclined towards negotiation with groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
When Jeb Bush speaks, as he did recently, about America’s responsibility to fight injustice and persecution, he mentions the assaults on Christians in Iraq, Egypt, and Kenya, subjects addressed by the pope as well. The tropes are interventionist and globalist, yet clearly drawn from a different playbook than the one his brother adopted from the neoconservatives.
It is a good bet that this blend of WASP/Latino/Catholic hybridism would make Jeb Bush a formidable general-election candidate. S.V. Dáte, the Palm Beach Post reporter who covered Jeb’s governorship for two terms, writes near the end of a mostly scathing biography, “Imagine Jeb and his wife Columba on a bus tour of California—she speaking the English she learned upon moving to the United States, he slipping into the fluent Spanish he learned courting her. Imagine their sons setting up the Viva Jeb! headquarters in Santa Ana. Imagine the pure terror this would generate at the Democratic National Committee … the mere possibility of losing that state would drastically alter the Democrats’ strategy.”
Jeb Bush’s political record is his governorship: he was a forceful hands-on tax-cutting and bureaucracy-shrinking conservative, with a particular interest in education reform. More striking perhaps than his policies, which reflect Florida’s realities of 15 years ago, was the style: Jeb is a wonk, one who still can’t resist answering questions with blizzards of statistics and references to new studies. In offbeat forums like his lengthy 2013 Kindle interview with David Samuels, he reveals himself as unusually well read for a politician and deeply worried that a culture of complacency about education and student achievement will leave America behind in a global information-based economy.
Of course, the viability of a conservative domestic reform agenda depends on the United States not exhausting its resources in endless war. Many mainstream Republicans understand this well enough, but in the early 2016 campaign they have been drowned out by the hawkish billionaires and right-wing media and think-tank interventionists. Whether more sober Republicans find their voice depends, in great part, on a candidate willing to lead them. It is a role Jeb Bush would do well to fill.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.