Via Ross, I see that it’s become Gerson–bashing week. It’s nice to be a trend-setter. If his latest column is any indication of what his book has to offer, I don’t think “heroic conservatism” is going to take off. For instance, saying things like this naturally open him up to withering criticism from all sides:
Traditional conservatism has a piece missing — a piece that is shaped like a conscience.
The article describing Gerson’s book has strange echoes of a different account of Gerson’s gloryhounding when he was a speechwriter:
Time and again, Gerson depicts a lonely struggle to advance measures that would benefit AIDS patients, impoverished children or prisoners reentering society.
Gerson is always engaged in a lonely struggle, undoubtedly waged from his base camp from deep inside some social democratic beanery, at least when he is not single-handedly writing Inaugural speeches at Starbucks.
Update: Gerson appeared on The Daily Show this week. He seems to have been on the verge of tears half the time.
However, something like the reverse is also true: Just because the initial invasion was almost certainly a mistake doesn’t necessarily mean that the continued presence of U.S. troops is a mistake as well. And I detect some goalpost-shifting here among the partisans of immediate withdrawal.
But given that only six weeks ago he [Yglesias] was throwing out “4 or 5 more years” as a timeline for when Iraq might start to settle down, I think it’s also “at least plausible” that when we look back on the last year of American military operations in Iraq, we’ll judge them to have played a major role in putting the worst behind us earlier than most people anticipated.
I suppose I must chime in with my usual dose of pessimism. The “continued presence of U.S. troops” would only not be a mistake if there were reason to think that the changes that have yielded some marginal, temporary improvement in security were going to continue and serve as the foundation for some enduring security. As Prof. Bacevich has said:
The general has now made his call, and President Bush has endorsed it: the surge having succeeded (so at least we are assured), it will now be curtailed. The war will continue, albeit on a marginally smaller scale.
This goes to the heart of Prof. Bacevich’s criticism of Gen. Petraeus, which is that the plan that seems to be producing some results is being brought to a close because it was not politically viable under the current circumstances to keep it going, much less expand it. Bacevich again:
Petraeus has chosen a middle course, carefully crafted to cause the least amount of consternation among various Washington constituencies he is eager to accommodate. This is the politics of give and take, of horse trading, of putting lipstick on a pig. Ultimately, it is the politics of avoidance.
Yet Petraeus has chosen to do just the opposite. Based on two or three months of (ostensibly) positive indicators, he has advised the president to ease the pressure, withdrawing the increment of troops that had (purportedly) enabled the coalition to seize the initiative in the first place.
This defies logic. It’s as if two weeks into the Wilderness Campaign, Grant had counseled Lincoln to reduce the size of the Army of the Potomac. Or as if once Allied forces had established the beachhead at Normandy, Eisenhower had started rotating divisions back stateside to ease the strain on the U.S. Army.
Having achieved modest gains with a half-measure, Gen. Petraeus counsels us to go back to our trusty quarter-measures. As I have said earlier, the “surge” is necessarily temporary in its application and in its effects. Its temporariness is implicit in its official propaganda name of “surge” and in the stated policy of the U.S. government, in that the “surge” was always going to come to an end. Its purpose was to buy time, which it seems to have done. However, this time is basically worthless–though bought at too high a price in American blood–if it is not going to be used well.
We have seen temporary increases in force levels before, and they did not ultimately halt Iraq’s downward spiral. The “surge” was, by the account of its own backers, supposed to be completely different from these earlier efforts. This time, there would be political reconciliation, and this time Iraqisation would happen, and this time the lambs would lay down with the lions. Okay, they didn’t say that last part, but the other two were just as likely to happen as the third. Unsurprisingly, none of them has come to pass, nor does any one of them seem likely to happen anytime soon.
During the “bad, old days” of “clear, hold and build” you would read stories about how one neighbourhood of Baghdad would be secured, life would begin to resume and then the U.S. deployment would be shifted to another part, whereupon the stabilising neighbourhood reverted to violent chaos. What is supposed to be different when force levels drop and whatever pressure that the “surge” did exert weakens?
Now the paired element with the “surge” of brigades was always the old “Iraqis standing up” bit. We don’t hear a lot about this part of the plan, because this is the part–the fundamentally more important long-term part–that isn’t working very well. We all know that the political reconciliation part is a farce. If anything, I’d have to say that Yglesias’ estimate of 4-5 years before Iraq “settles down” may be unduly sunny and positive, because there is nothing to keep things from unraveling again once the “surge” ends. There was never going to be anything to keep things from unraveling once the “surge” was over, which is why the “surge” was a mistake in the beginning. It perpetuated the worst-of-both-worlds approach that Mr. Bush has applied to Iraq for years: too few soldiers to properly stabilise the country, but too many to avoid all the costs and burdens of being an occupier. There are two coherent positions that can be taken (huge increases in force levels or large-scale withdrawal), and one of them is politically and practically feasible. Or we can continue to muddle through as we have done until some calamity throws Iraq into a new round of upheaval.
I have given Chuck Hagel a lot of grief over the past year, but today I’m willing to give him a lot of credit. Via Steve Clemons, I see that Hagel has apparently called on the President to consider “direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran.” Common sense is infiltrating the Washington Iran policy debate! No doubt, the administration will file this in the trash can, but it is significant that someone in government is arguing for direct talks with Iran.
So Karen Hughes has had enough and is going home. (Mark down another departure, James.) It has been easy to give Karen Hughes a hard time, and it hasn’t really been fair to her. The administration has made an art form out of cronyism, and the President has chosen some of the most inappropriate people for fairly important tasks based on their close relationship with Mr. Bush. Rather than a former ambassador or someone accustomed to the work of diplomacy, Mr. Bush thrust Karen Hughes into a role for which she wasn’t terribly well prepared and which was already going to be monstrously difficult for the most qualified person. It is some consolation for Ms. Hughes that administration policy had already done so much damage to our international reputation that there really was little that she could do, and so perhaps it is not very surprising that she didn’t try to do very much.
The notion that somehow changing the tone means simply that we let them say whatever they want to say or that there are no disagreements and that we’re all holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ is obviously not what I had in mind and not how I function. And anybody who thinks I have, hasn’t been paying attention. ~Barack Obama
When you get down to it, I guess I’m sympathetic toward Hillary but really, really wishing that Obama would give me a good reason to change my mind and support him instead. But he just never does. Domestic policywise he’s been fairly cautious and mainstream. On the foreign policy front he’s better than HRC, but only by a couple of notches. And his Kumbaya campaigning schtick leaves me cold. Worse than that, in fact: it leaves me terrified that he just doesn’t know what he’s up against with the modern Republican Party and won’t have the instinct to go for the jugular when the inevitable Swift Boating commences. ~Kevin Drum
Then there was this bit from Ryan Lizza’s mid-September article on the leading Democratic candidates:
Edwards dismisses Obama’s argument that more consensus is needed in Washington. The difference between them, Edwards told me, is the difference between “Kumbaya” and “saying, ‘This is a battle. It’s a fight.’ ” When I asked whether he’s a populist, he lifted a riff from his stump speech: “If it means you’re willing to stand up for ordinary people, the kind of people that I grew up with, against very powerful, entrenched interests, then yes, I am a populist.”
There seem to be a number of people, whose job it is to pay attention to and be engaged in politics, who think that there’s a bit too much Kumbaya-ism in Obama’s campaign. As I’ve said before, you can hardly blame people for coming away with this impression when Obama has offered such a vague and non-descript vision.
In fairness, most people, including myself, who use the word Kumbaya as a way of mocking someone’s ridiculously optimistic worldview are doing a disservice to the song in question. The song itself is a perfectly unremarkable spiritual folk song. The drippy, saccharine nonsense that Obama offers is so much worse that it demeans the song to link the two together.
And on yet another level, that issue highlights the way the West, including the U.S., has been preoccupied with the killing of 1.5 million Christian Armenians by mostly Muslim Turks and Kurds. ~Leon Hadar
Certainly, there has been some attention drawn to the genocide in the West over the last 90 years, though the attention tended to be greatest when it was happening and has since settled into the background or vanished from collective memory. But preoccupied? The West has been anything but preoccupied with the Armenian genocide. But for active lobbying by Armenians, scarcely anyone would give it a second thought.
Ron Paul once again reframes the idea of “isolationism” in his discussion of Cuba policy:
Our isolationist policies with regard to Cuba, meanwhile, have hardly won the hearts and minds of Cubans or Cuban-Americans, many of whom are isolated from families because [of] this political animosity.
This echoes his statements in his response to the Union-Leader’s attack on him.
“The first time I voted was for Carter,” Scarborough recalled. “The second time was for ‘anybody but Carter,’ because he had betrayed everything I hold dear.
“Unfortunately,” Scarborough concluded, “there is the same feeling in our community right now with George Bush. He appeared so right and so good. He talked a good game about family values around election time. But there has been a failure to follow through.”
He didn’t really talk that good of a game. He played on his own experience with evangelical Christianity to sucker a great many people, both supporters and opponents, into believing that he was a hard-core social conservative. There was never going to be anything like the “follow through” that would have satisfied many of these evangelical voters.
Kagan manages to put together an entire column in which he never once shows that he understands the difference between “liberal autocracy” a la Singapore and illiberal democracy. For the truncated democratist imagination in which there is liberal democracy and everything else lumped under “tyranny,” this oversight is typical. No one, or at least no one of any consequence, thinks that Putin, Hu Jintao (or whoever will succeed him) or Chavez represent “liberal autocracy,” and only committed opponents of Putin’s and Chavez’s regime prefer to call their political systems autocratic. I’m prone to throw around the word autocracy to make a polemical point, too, but it is plainly imprecise and does not describe the form of government that prevails in these countries.
In China, the government is oligarchic and authoritarian and still significantly party-based. Russia’s government is oligarchic and authoritarian and based in the security services, but retains a number of formal democratic and constitutional features. Venezuela’s government is a much more straightforward illiberal democratic one, whose claim to being democratic has been denied by many American observers because the government is illiberal and quasi-socialist, which is to show that these observers cannot make basic distinctions in political theory.
So it is difficult for “autocracy” to be resilient in a place where there isn’t actually an autocracy. The authoritarianism in Russia and the populist demagoguery in Venezuela are both products of the very elections Kagan boosts. The fact is that liberalism has a small constituency in both countries (outside of a very few western European, Anglophone and North American countries, this has often been the case), and when put before the electorates of Russia and Venezuela liberalism fares very poorly. Some of this has to do with the fact that relatively liberal politics was associated with the wealthy elite and tycoons, and the effects of policies carried out in the name of liberalism were generally poor or even disastrous for the people who now back authoritarian populist leaders. There will be objections that Russian elections in particular are not fully “free and fair,” but against this I would note that even with fully free and fair elections the overwhelming majority would still want nothing to do with the Russian liberals. This is hardly surprising: in mass democracy, the politics of liberty tends to lose and lose badly, while one form of demagoguery or another (be it nationalist or revolutionary socialist) usually prevails.
Update: Ross has more.
One of Ross’ commenters makes what I assume he thinks is a clever remark:
This is really important work you’re doing. Thanks. Now that we know Venezuela is not an “autocracy” I can go to sleep tonight, comfortable that my children will not improperly label the various oppressive governments around the world.
Very droll. Of course, one might observe that misunderstanding the nature of a regime and then building an entire argument off of that misunderstanding will lead to the wrong conclusions. One might suppose that sloppy and inaccurate use of language reflects poorly on an argument. Suppose that someone thinks that the answer to the problems of Russia and Venezuela is a lack of elections, when the current regimes are at least partly the product of elections, and then that someone opts, whether out of laziness or sloppiness, to label these elected governments autocracies. Suppose that he also has a record of promoting confrontational policies against other such “autocracies.” Might it matter then that we give things their proper names and try to address the world as it is, rather than as it appears in the democratist comic book version?
Second Update: I have written on Kagan’s autocracy talk before.