Daniel Larison

You Can Say That Again

David Corn has a pretty good critique of Fred the Neocon, but he doesn’t delve deeply enough for my taste.  You don’t have to go back to early days of the Iraq war to find Fred’s sympathy with aggressive, interventionist foreign policy.  He has been declaring it for all to hear for the past few months.  His recent London speech is a good place to start, and one of his foreign policy consultants (her name starts with a ’c’ and ends with “heney”) is another clue.  Fred is, as I have called him before, a kind of “deep fried Cheney.”  Corn is absolutely correct that neocons can have no complaints about the four leading GOP candidates.  Come to think of it, they cannot really have many complaints about any of the candidates, except for Ron Paul (obviously).

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Another Kurdish Option

What is Washington to do in the dilemma of two friends battling each other on an unwanted new front in Iraq? The surprising answer was given in secret briefings on Capitol Hill last week by Eric S. Edelman, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and now under secretary of defense for policy. A Foreign Service officer who once was U.S. ambassador to Turkey, he revealed to lawmakers plans for a covert operation of U.S. Special Forces helping the Turks neutralize the PKK. They would behead the guerrilla organization by helping Turkey get rid of PKK leaders that they have targeted for years.

Edelman’s listeners were stunned. Wasn’t this risky? He responded he was sure of success, adding that the U.S. role could be concealed and always would be denied. Even if all this is true, some of the briefed lawmakers left wondering whether this was a wise policy for handling the beleaguered Kurds who had been betrayed so often by U.S. governments in years past.

The plan shows that hard experience has not dissuaded President Bush from attempting difficult ventures employing the use of force. On the contrary, two of the most intrepid supporters of the Iraq intervention — John McCain and Lindsey Graham — were surprised by Bush during a recent meeting with him. When they shared their impressions with colleagues, they commented on how unconcerned the president seemed. That may explain his willingness to embark on a questionable venture against the Kurds. ~Robert Novak

Let me guess that this will not make Peter Galbraith very happy.  Reihan said a mouthful when he wrote:

An American presence in Kurdistan will be more than a gesture of goodwill; it will likely be very costly.   

What backers of the Kurdish option (i.e., redeployment of U.S. forces to Kurdistan) and opponents have both not really been expecting is for the administration to use force in Kurdistan against the PKK.  Backers of the redeployment idea don’t want to upset the Kurdish political leadership, with whom they sympathise, and opponents or skeptics of the idea (including myself) have assumed that any U.S. military presence in Kurdistan would function as a screen for the PKK, not as a hammer to be used to smash them.  While the proposed action against the PKK may be as potentially explosive as a redeployment to the region (in this case, it will be the peshmerga, not the Turkish army, we will have to worry about more), it probably exposes U.S. forces to fewer threats in the north. 

Some distinctions need to kept in mind.   Novak writes of a venture “against the Kurds,” but it isn’t aimed indiscriminately at “the Kurds” and specifically focuses on one band of Kurds that, officially, the KRG condemns.  An Irishman from the Republic might broadly sympathise with his coreligionists in Ulster and could still refuse to endorse the methods of republican terrorists.  In theory, the KRG attempts to hew to this line of deploring mistreatment of Kurds in Turkey without endorsing terrorism against Turks.  Whether they will hold to that line should joint U.S.-Turkish operations start hitting PKK bases is less clear.  Needless to say, should something in this covert operation go awry and local opinion turns sharply against the U.S. (especially if there should be very many civilian casualties), the government may find that it has no good place inside Iraq’s borders where it can redeploy U.S. forces.

It is all the more remarkable that things have reached this sorry state now, when the Turkish government is probably more favourable to Kurdish rights and the public use of the Kurdish language than at any time in living memory (which isn’t saying much, but still) and when a sizeable number of independent Kurdish deputies were elected to the parliament in the last election.

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Put That In Your Pipe, Kaplan

Egemen Bagis, foreign policy advisor to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Turkish forces were prepared to mount operations against Kurdish PKK fighters who had taken refuge in Iraq, because the US had failed to intervene.

“We are hoping we will not have to do it. We are hoping that our allies will start doing something, but if they don’t we don’t have many options,” he said.

“Our allies should help us with the threat, which is clear and present. If an ally is not helping you, you either question their integrity or their ability.” ~The Daily Telegraph

Thank goodness the reform-minded, “pro-Western” Erdogan government was returned with a large parliamentary majority.  Otherwise, we would have had to worry about U.S.-Turkish tensions increasing over Kurdistan.  Ahem.

The time may soon be upon us when the “redeploy to Kurdistan” solution favoured by Galbraith, Sullivan, et al. will be like every other Iraq policy fix to date: it will start far too late and will have missed the window of opportunity where it might have achieved some of the goals envisioned by the advocates of the change.  The other problem with the “Kurdish option” is that it was never intended to be a redeployment that included the goal of curtailing the activities of the PKK; the redeployment would have been, and would have been seen as, a transparent case of putting Americans in between the Turks and Kurds to prevent the Turks from entering Kurdistan.  Such a deployment would be a deterrent against immediate action, at the expense of good relations with Ankara, but it would leave the Turks with no means of redress for their grievances.

Incidentally, the electorate that just voted AKP a big majority is the same electorate that doesn’t much care for the U.S., or at least U.S. government policy:

A poll last week by the US-based Pew organisation found that 72 per cent of Turks regarded terrorism as the key issue facing the country. The same poll showed that only 9 per cent of Turks had a positive view of the US, with more than three quarters concerned that the Americans could pose a military threat to their country. Many Turks believe that the US has been supporting the Kurds.

 

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A Far, Distant Country

Is it just me, or is this Yglesias post about his first ever visit to West Virginia this weekend really strange?  I suppose it’s really not that important, but it strikes me as a little unusual that someone who has been living in D.C. for years would have never gone to, or at least through, West Virginia at some point at least once.  This jumped out at me since I have driven through WV at least six times in the last ten years, and I was usually starting a bit farther away than Washington.  A New Yorker-inspired joke might be appropriate at this time.

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Unleash “The Beast”

Both Obama and Paul are internet-driven candidacies, crammed with small donations and hyper-enthusiastic volunteers. They are also representative of a budding and clear revival of what can only be called neo-isolationism. And they have the wind in their sails. ~Andrew Sullivan

Sullivan’s discussion of this “neo-isolationism,” if you want to call it that, has some interesting points, but I draw the line at the inclusion of Obama.  If he is an “isolationist,” the word really doesn’t mean anything anymore (not that it means much).  (It doesn’t really apply to Ron Paul, either, since he thinks the government should foster trade and diplomatic relations around the world–almost no one believes that America should actually be “isolated” from the rest of the world.)  Here is Obama a few months ago:

In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people. When narco-trafficking and corruption threaten democracy in Latin America, it’s America’s problem too. When poor villagers in Indonesia have no choice but to send chickens to market infected with avian flu, it cannot be seen as a distant concern. When religious schools in Pakistan teach hatred to young children, our children are threatened as well.

I keep citing this quote because it expresses so well the tiresome glibness and excessive ambition of Obama.  Obama takes a view that is essentially no different from Bush’s Second Inaugural in its key assumption that American security (or freedom) is dependent on the security (or freedom) of everyone else on earth.  If it is evidence of madcap idealism and near-utopianism in Bush, it is certainly the same with Obama.  Obama is not a candidate who pledges a policy of “opting out,” as Sullivan describes it.  He pledges the exact opposite–he stresses, as a progressive internationalist would do, interdependency and the need for greater involvement abroad.  Obama would probably also argue that involvement overseas needs to be done in different ways and more often by way of international institutions than has been the case in the past few years.  Whether or not his supporters rally to him because of this or because of his opposition to the Iraq war, Obama himself does not represent anything like a “neo-isolationism.” 

Incidentally, it is hilarious to listen to standard GOP attacks on antiwar Democrats that use such words as “McGovernite” to criticise their adversaries, since there is no major Democratic candidate who espouses anything remotely like a “come home, America” platform.

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Much More Moderation Like This, And We’re Done For

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s op-ed in the Post makes about as much sense as all of those teary-eyed columns written last summer about how poor Joe Lieberman was being “purged” from his party by “extremists.”  It hails from the same ideological universe: this is the place where being “moderate” and “centrist” consists in adopting the most irresponsible and dangerous establishment ideas as your guiding principles and refusing to yield no matter how much evidence there is that these ideas are horribly wrong.  As a “centrist,” you believe that these ideas are inherently good, regardless of whether they make any sense, because they are not held by large numbers of people from both parties.  This proves that the ideas are sufficiently high-minded and unsullied by anything as unimportant as constituents’ interests, informed understanding of the relevant problems or effective methods of addressing the problem at hand.  It is not “extreme,” and it is reformist–this is enough.  It also involves being open to “bipartisanship,” which is the means by which the horrible “centrist” ideas are implemented.

For “centrists,” partisanship can be found in anything and everything that thwarts the “centrist” consensus.  Moderation is defined by adherence to that general consensus–in this way Secretary Gates, Negroponte and Zoellick can be described as “seasoned moderates,” even though they have been active participants in foreign and trade policies that could hardly be described as moderate.  Before he was U.N. Ambassador in the run-up to the invasion, Negroponte was an old Cold War Central America hand involved in some of the shadier operations down there and long before he was in the Pentagon Gates was the CIA deputy director tied up in Iran-Contra and someone who advocated bombing Nicaragua.  Whatever you think about the intervention in Nicaragua, Gates was not one of the “moderates” then and he still isn’t today.  It is only when compared with Rumsfeld that Gates has appeared as the steady, sane alternative.  Zoellick, in his former role as U.S. Trade Representative, was a leading cheerleader for the Doha round, which seems very sensible and “moderate” to the establishment and which strikes many of the rest of us as anything but that.

Another example of “bipartisanship” feted by Slaughter is CNAS, a think tank whose board includes a Who’s Who of undesirable old Clinton-era Cabinet members and the odd refugee from the Bush administration (Armitage).  There is one slight surprise–Gen. Newbold, the only one of the anti-Rumsfeld retired generals who retired before the invasion because he would not participate in it, is also on the board there.  Let’s just say he is keeping distinctly odd company, when the think tank’s advisors include the perpetually wrong Michael O’Hanlon (how does that guy still get taken seriously?).

The Bolton and Wurmser examples are funny.  Of course Bolton and Wurmser object to diplomatic tracks with North Korea and Iran.  They are people who always oppose diplomatic tracks with such regimes.  This is not an example of “partisan” pushback, but an intra-Republican fight between hegemonists and those more inclined towards “realism.”  Further, these criticisms came as the result of changes in administration policy, and not as a response to bipartisan talking shops or the appointment of Bob Gates to be SecDef.  For these things to be related, you would have to be able to show that Bolton and Wurmser said what they said as a protest against the appointment of the supposedly “seasoned moderates” to key positions.  Except that this doesn’t make any sense, since two of the “moderates” already served the administration in one capacity or another and the nomination of Gates was met with relatively little opposition on the right.

Tony Smith’s op-ed made a good deal of sense, since many neoliberals have been enablers of neocon foreign policy.  He did not say that they were the only villains in the story, but was drawing attention to the shocking staying power of a foreign policy view on the left, embodied in the DLC and its think tank, PPI, that has been shown to be woefully misguided.  These DLC types were practicing bipartisanship like it was going out of style, and it was bipartisanship in the service of a bad cause.  Lind’s argument was of an entirely different kind, and had little to do with bipartisanship or partisanship–he was criticising a tendency among some prominent liberal internationalists to embrace democratising, imperialistic and interventionist views.  His point was that these foreign policy figures were tainting liberal internationalism’s supposedly good name by taking it in dangerous, militant and unsustainable directions.  As I made clear at the time, I don’t think Lind’s own position makes much sense, but his argument concerned an intra-liberal quarrel that had to do with the merits of democracy promotion and interventionism as such.  As it happens, the people he labels “heretics” are reliable Democratic ”centrists” on foreign policy (Ivo Daalder, for example), which is why Lind can be labeled as a “partisan”–because he criticises prominent ”centrists.”

All in all, Slaughter’s op-ed is one more installment in the Post‘s never-ending series dedicated to the idea that nothing is so wrong with Washington or America that more Beltway collaboration and insiderism can’t set it right.

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Preconditions And Propaganda

Even though most Americans don’t know anything about the Obama-Clinton spat, it has become a notable dispute between the rivals.  When I heard the answers from the two candidates, I thought Obama’s response was a bit odd.  I knew what he meant, and I could even see how he could argue for meeting with, say, Assad or whichever Iranian President is elected in 2009 during his term in office, but why pledge to meet with Kim Jong Il within the first year?  Chavez and Castro (either one) are fairly irrelevant, and meeting with them would mean nothing if it did not represent some shift in relations.  There are degrees of “roguishness” among the rogue states, and it is rather ludicrous to lump together the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Latin America together with important regional players in the Near East and the crackpot in Pyongyang.  Why not throw in Mugabe for a nice even half-dozen? 

In fairness to Obama, this was the question’s flaw, but the stupidity of the question might have been turned back on the person asking it in a smart and interesting way to show that he, Obama, knew that some of these regimes were worse and more obstinate than others.  Some might merit the direct attention of the President in certain circumstances, while others could be safely ignored or kept at arm’s length while lower-level contacts might pave the way for later meetings between higher-ups.  The approach that would ultimately be favoured by both Foggy Bottom and the public would involve incrementally developing contacts with these regimes that could lead, over the course of a year or two, to proper meetings between the Secretary of State and his opposite number, which might then lead to more contacts or not. 

Leaping to the conclusion of this process, where the President meets with the leader on the other side, would not only probably be jarring and horrifying to the diplomatic corps at the State Department, but would ensure that very little would come from the meeting.  If Obama appreciated the difference between meetings that represent the fulfillment of a long diplomatic process and meetings to show that he, Obama, is not some stand-offish yahoo like Bush (he’s lived in other countries, after all), he would have handled the question much differently.  To do that, he would have had to have understood something very basic but very important about diplomacy, but he did not, does not, understand.    

As a symbol of his departure from the methods of Bush, Obama’s answer made some sense, but like everything else he says on foreign policy (from his “I majored in international relations and lived in Indonesia, so I am more qualified than anybody” line to his recent article in Foreign Affairs) it comes off sounding fairly dopey, poorly conceived and clueless.  Some credit this to his inexperience in a major campaign with real opposition, while others (including myself) recognise that Obama sounds clueless on foreign policy because he is basically clueless.  His correct position on Iraq has been allowed to mask his otherwise misguided foreign policy vision, and his prescience on the disaster that the war could become has been mistaken for some overriding understanding of foreign policy.  Yet he has not demonstrated any such understanding since he took the position on the war that was, as it happens, also extremely popular in his district and his state. 

New Presidents choose the first foreign trips in their first year with what I assume is tremendous care, since they appreciate that these trips will possess a symbolism beyond what even they might wish to convey.  (Speaking of propaganda, presidential visits to another country are put to use in propaganda, er, public relations here at home.)  It mattered (more than some may have realised at the time) that Mr. Bush chose Mexico as his first foreign destination–it represented Mr. Bush’s immigration mania, his ignorance about foreign policy and the world beyond North America, and included a pointed slight to far more reliable allies when he declared that we had a “special relationship” with Mexico.  Later that year, he went to Europe, after which time there was not a great deal of time left to go jetting off to any other locations if he wanted to attempt to do anything else domestically.  Likewise, the leaders new Presidents invite to Washington or to their various retreats are also representative of the administration’s priorities and the President’s judgement (Mr. Bush’s soul-seeing moment with Putin was telling and a sign of his non-intellectual, instinctive style of policymaking).  Even meetings at relatively neutral venues, such as summits, stamp an administration in certain ways. 

Whichever method Obama might use to have these meetings, he would have to be very careful that he scripted it in such a way so as not to slight actual allied and large non-aligned countries. 

“Sorry, Chancellor Merkel, the President can’t see you for very long, because he’s got to have a sit-down with Chavez before the summit ends.”  The silliness of the entire scenario is part of the problem I have with the obsession with what are mostly powerless tinpot dictatorships that our foreign policy establishment, political class and media cultivate.  The President shouldn’t have to meet with most of these leaders at any time, much less during his first year in office, because they are mostly second or third-rate powers, if not outright economic and political basketcases.  Would the President go racing to meet with the leadership in Estonia and Thailand in his first year?  It is unlikely.  Why, then, pledge to be in a hurry to meet the rulers of states that are actually much weaker and poorer?  What we are arguing over here ought to be what the policy of the government towards the regimes would be.  In all of the sound and fury following the debate the other day, I have no sense that Obama and Clinton have any interest in fundamentally changing our policy towards Iran or North Korea.  As near as I can tell, except for Iraq, Obama would like to retain most of the overall policy goals of the current administration, but would like to go about pursuing them in a different way.  That makes his answer the other day far less important as a signal that he is going to change anything substantive.  What he wants to do is project a different image.  As with everything else in his campaign, Obama is proposing superficial, rhetorical and stylistic changes.    

It is therefore remarkable that public opinion tends to side a bit more with Obama’s position of meeting with “rogue nations” (42% support, 34% are against, 24% are not sure).  Remarkably, according to Rasmussen’s breakdown of the results, even 30% of conservatives and 31% of Republicans endorse presidential meetings with “rogue nations.”  Obama may be a foreign policy dunce, but he has actually picked a position that seems to be a political winner.

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Less Medising, Please

Galbraith has long been a consultant to the Kurds and, long before that, a passionate advocate for their cause. Still, an objective case can be made that the United States has a moral and strategic interest in Kurdish independence. Redeploying troops to the Kurdistan region accomplishes four goals, Galbraith argues. It “secures the one part of Iraq that has emerged as stable, democratic, and pro-Western.” It deters “a potentially destabilizing Turkish-Kurdish war.” It “provides U.S. forces a secure base that can be used to strike at al-Qaida in adjacent Sunni territories.” And it limits “Iran’s increasing domination.” ~Fred Kaplan

Kaplan is referring here to Peter Galbraith’s NYRB article on Iraq.  Personally, I’m a bit wary of anything offered by passionate advocates for Kurdish independence.  Kurdish independence attracts a pretty odd motley crew, many of whom do not generally show what I would call good judgement.  What other idea could unite Paul Wolfowitz, Marty Peretz, Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway in something like common cause?  As a stateless nation, the Kurds have been on the receiving end of plenty of oppression (and some Kurds dished out their share as well–ask the Assyrians and Armenians), and despite my criticisms of the ”Kurdish exception” rhetoric and my objections to the unduly optimistic assessments of what an independent Kurdistan would mean for the region I have no argument with the Kurds themselves.  However, it is quite legitimate to question the judgement of “passionate” advocates for the national cause of another people when they are calling on the U.S. government to do something for that people.  Galbraith talks about discharging our moral debt to the Kurds–have we not actually already done that in destroying the regime that terrorised them?   

Kaplan anticipates this objection and says that an objective case can be made for an independent Kurdistan.  What the points quoted above demonstrate is not that there is a case for an independent Kurdistan, but that a U.S.-occupied Kurdish protectorate might achieve the goals Kaplan mentions.  Almost by definition, a Kurdistan that requires an American presence, even a relatively small one, to guarantee its existence against outside invasion is not fully independent, and a Kurdistan that exists as a forward U.S. base and a sort of buffer zone between Turkey and central and southern Iraqi chaos will not necessarily remain stable or pro-Western (and it already isn’t really very democratic) for very long.  Kurds are “pro-Western” to the extent that they are (and I would not assume that it is a very great extent) because they have enjoyed protection and stability thanks in part to the U.S. military, but like any other people–and perhaps more than most–a desire for independence and the continued presence of American forces, even if they are there in a purely defensive and supporting role, will probably create increasing resentment and hostility towards that presence.  It seems to me that it is not a coincidence that the one group in Iraq that still has generally favourable views of the U.S. is the one that has had rather less contact with the military presence in Iraq.

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Instead Of Lots Of Exceptions, Maybe We Need A Better Rule

Though the Bush Administration is glibly mocked for making Mr. Musharraf an “exception” to the Bush Doctrine, the U.S. has no interest in destabilizing a nuclear-armed government already under a jihadist threat. ~The Wall Street Journal

Without pre-empting any of my forthcoming column, let me say very briefly on a separate question that it is not the toleration of Pakistan that bothers critics nearly as much as the Bush Doctrine itself.  By the standards of the Doctrine (regime change carried out against supposed and real proliferating, terrorist-supporting rogue states), if so it can be called, Pakistan ought to be one of our top state enemies, since it has done both in spades.  Since that would clearly be insane and inimical to actual U.S. interests, the Bush Doctrine doesn’t actually have a lot to recommend it in the real world.  Its application against a regime that fits the Doctrine’s description least well of all the possible candidates simply drives home the hollowness of the Doctrine.

The Journal concludes with the obvious analogy and displays its sudden acquisition of profound understanding of cultural difference: 

Jimmy Carter made that mistake with the Shah of Iran, another imperfect Muslim ruler whose successors were infinitely worse. Pakistan is not the Philippines, a Catholic country with long ties to the U.S. whose political culture we well understood when Reagan pushed Marcos from power in 1986.

The difference between Iran then and Pakistan now is, obviously, that we did not bring Musharraf to power by overthrowing the local democratically elected government–Musharraf did that all on his own.

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The Landslide Brought Them Down

This Noam Scheiber op-ed makes some interesting points about the DLC and its increasing irrelevance to the debates within the Democratic Party.   He is not arguing quite the same thing as I was in my TAC article on neoliberalism (sorry, not online) a couple months ago, and I may have given the DLC more credit as a going concern than he does, but our conclusions are not all that different.  The New Democrats are on the wane inside the Democratic Party, and with them go the fortunes of at least one variety of neoliberalism that they represented.

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