Daniel Larison

Two Options

Imagine if we had kicked Russia out of the G8 and broken most ties with Moscow—as the Republican nominee, John McCain, and many neoconservatives have long wanted to do. Then, when the Russians attacked Georgia, we would have had only two options—appeasement or war. ~Fareed Zakaria

This is all true enough, but Zakaria seems to miss something here.  This is always what will be left if you follow a foreign policy view that takes for granted that every international crisis can result in one of two things, namely appeasement or confrontation.  The worldview that says removing means of outside leverage against Russia is “punishing” Russia is the same worldview that holds every accommodation and every attempt to pursue common interests through some measure of compromise to be weakness and surrender.  A worldview geared towards ceaseless confrontation that defines anything other than ceaseless confrontation as spineless capitulation is a worldview that guarantees the clashes that it pretends are inevitable.

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Needed: New Talking Points

A half-term governor has more claim to leadership and experience than does a one-third-term U.S. senator who has risen through a big-city political machine. ~Lisa Schiffren

Mind you, this comes from the same person who thought that a ten and a half-year governor of Arkansas was beyond the pale and unspeakably foul because he sometimes raised taxes to pay for road improvements (oh, yes, and he also believed in God, which is very undesirable).  I’m not sure that a VP choice that satisfies Ms. Schiffren is necessarily politically savvy.  This is what the GOP hacktivists* are reduced to arguing.  It really is, as I have guessed it would be, a race to the bottom: which ticket will prove itself to be more absurd and unfit before November 4?  The slightly less absurd pair wins.

It’s not clear to me that Republicans should want to brag about a nominee whose only experience in statewide elected government has lasted just about as long as the current presidential campaign, much less should they want to remind voters that her experience prior to that was governing a small town with fewer inhabitants than the average Chicago ward.  It also doesn’t make much sense to stress that Obama did rise through a big-city political machine and managed to catapult himself to the political heights in less time than it took Palin to reach Juneau as governor, unless the goal is to remind people that he is, in fact, an impressive political talent.  As for Biden, it’s fair to note that he has often been wrong on foreign policy.  Together with John McCain, he fully backed the attack on Yugoslavia, whose after-effects are now being felt in Georgia, and together with George Bush he supported the invasion of Iraq.  Strange that Schiffren doesn’t mention that.       

* Hacktivist here is the combination of a hack and an activist; no hacker references intended.



In one of his last AFF posts, James ponders independence for the statelets:

Indeed, recognition affords the West a powerful opportunity to explain to Russia that once you play this game, you must play it fair, i.e. both statelets must not become mere Russian garrison states. Sure, there will be bases. But we know how this works; we know the difference between Qatar and Kosovo.

That’s true.  Qatar has oil, and Kosovo has none.  Okay, that was an easy shot.  Unlike Kosovo, Qatar is not plagued with drug traffickers, mafiosi and terrorists masquerading as a legitimate government, and it does not go through the farce of holding elections whose outcome is already determined.  Unlike Kosovo, Qatar has some reason to exist as an independent state, and its independence has some legal justification.  Qatar is a satellite state that basically does what it is told, while Kosovo is a wild card whose independence will come back to haunt us and Europe. 

While I’m on the subject, the Georgians have less claim to Abkhazia and South Ossetia than the Serbs have to Kosovo, but that’s no reason for people to go around recognizing enclaves.  The sort of logic employed in partitioning Serbia and Georgia does not bode well for multiethnic states that border powerful neighbors.

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A Simple Question

There is a great deal of admiration for Sarah Palin among my colleagues, with the notable exception of Clark, which makes me want to ask the simple question: what has really changed since Thursday that makes the GOP ticket any more acceptable than it was last week when it was, I assume, somewhere between loathsome and horrible?  As I said in the comments of another post, the choice of Palin will likely mean that, in the event that he wins, McCain believes that he has already bought off conservatives and need do nothing else for them.  Palin will become merely a figurehead, dispatched to quell restless conservatives whenever McCain tries to get some foolish immigration legislation passed or when he calls for a deployment to guard the Mongolian frontier against the Russians.  Having appeased social conservatives with a symbolic VP nod, he can ignore them even more than he already does.  Should the ticket lose, social conservatives are then left holding the bag and legions of East Coast Republican pundits will stream forth to explain that the ticket failed because Palin’s pro-life views were “too extreme” and why the GOP needs to get over talking about abortion.  How can we not get behind Palin?  Because she has agreed to work for John McCain, that’s how. 

Let’s also understand something very important: should McCain-Palin win in ’08, Palin is not going to be the future of the Republican Party at a national level.  Barring some accident or a one-term pledge, should they somehow prevail this time, Palin will likely remain second fiddle to McCain in 2012 as well and will probably then be reduced to the status of Thomas Marshall and, yes, Dan Quayle.  Should McCain not seek renomination, Romney, Huckabee and Pawlenty are all going to be waiting to take advantage of discontent with a President McCain, of which there will be plenty.


Always Hasty

One of the reasons why Palin’s name seems to have been kept such a closely-guarded secret in the weeks leading up to the announcement on Friday seems to be that the McCain campaign made the choice in haste and did not engage in the thorough vetting that one assumes campaigns do.  That lack of preparation ensured that the public and media would experience maximal surprise–and it will probably ensure future surprises for the McCain campaign!  This is the classic McCain style: blindly winging things from day to day with no coherent or consistent plan for what comes next.  While many people are taking the Palin pick as evidence that McCain is unserious or reckless or, when they want to pay him a compliment, a “gambler,” this is simply the latest in a long line of episodes when McCain tried to thrive on nerve and impetuous actions instead of relying on long-term strategy and careful planning.  In this move, McCain has shown, mostly for ill, that he is the antithesis of Obama.  A maverick temperament married to utterly establishment political views is probably the worst conceivable combination, since it carries with it all of the dangers of an unpredictable person who holds real power and all the flaws of Washington consensus politics. 

Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan has been on the warpath since Friday.  Andrew had the mistaken impression that McCain and the GOP were at some point in the recent past serious about national security, which the Palin pick now seems to contradict, and so he has been disgusted with the cynicism of McCain’s move.  Let’s remember this much: half of the modern GOP’s reputation on national security is based on bluster and exaggeration, and the other half is based on the successes of previous administrations that pursued courses of action that most of the modern GOP would find abhorrent and full of appeasement.  McCain’s candidacy represents the full embrace of the first half and the almost complete neglect of the latter, except when there is a useful Reagan reference to be made.  Choosing Palin is no more and no less cynical than anything else McCain has done over the years.   

There was something from one of Andrew’s latest posts that jumped out at me:

[Brookhiser]’s discovering that the actual people in the Republican base are much less interested in national security than in religious orthodoxy.

Whether or not Brookhiser is aware that the party base is not all that deeply attached to the Iraq war or that they are not especially concerned about national security on the level of policy, it seems to me that Andrew is misreading the reaction to Palin’s pick rather badly.  The activists and movement spokesmen are the ones who are excited and energized, but these are the very people who wanted to fight the candidacies of both McCain and Huckabee–the largest vote-getters–for as long as possible.  The bulk of GOP primary voters were not interested in national security or religious orthodoxy as such, but were instead drawn to appealing or seemingly appealing personalities, and they were particularly drawn to those candidates with what they call compelling biographies.  What the Palin pick has done is to excite all those activists who hated the idea of a McCain nomination and thought that Huckabee was something close to a lesser demon, which is to say that it has “solidified” behind McCain precisely those people on the right who were the most likely to crawl across broken glass to vote against Obama anyway.  Now they will be more enthusiastic as they crawl across the broken glass.  The choice has gained McCain next to nothing, and probably lost him a great deal.

Brookhiser is also badly confused if he does not understand that the only thing that saved McCain’s campaign during the primaries was his position on the war; the only thing that energized people about McCain’s candidacy was his view on the war and his constant yammering about the “surge.”  For a huge number of Republicans, his biography and his support for the war combined to outweigh all of his many flaws, and now choosing Palin has tipped the balance in his favor for most of those Republicans who were clearly unhappy that he prevailed instead of Romney.  Religiosity is just one piece, and perhaps not even the most important piece, of the enthusiasm about Palin.  Far more important for many of these people is the impression that McCain has finally yielded to conservative demands rather than having insisted on mocking and insulting their concerns.  Conservatives were girding themselves for the worst, for Lieberman, and instead they wound up with a right-wing Alaskan–I would put the exuberant reaction to the choice down to shock as much as to anything else.  Above all, it is the belief that movement conservatives have finally beaten McCain, and that the “maverick” has conformed to their wishes that fills them with so much excitement.


Back In Chicago

This morning I arrived in Chicago after my brief vacation back home.  There is a lot that has happened in the last few days that I will be talking about before too much longer, but for now I’ll say a few things quickly.  I should say that my initial reaction to the choice of Sarah Palin was much more like Michael‘s than anyone else’s I have seen.  While I have very few reasons to complain about Gov. Palin’s views (her foreign policy remarks on Friday being chief among them), I think it does her a tremendous disservice to name her to a national ticket before she is fully prepared for that role, just as it would have been a disservice to Jindal had he been named.  Leave aside for the moment the important point that drafting a governor not yet halfway through her first term neglects and devalues the importance of state government and insults Palin’s voters. 

If the goal is to drag down the ticket and at the same time provide a Buchananite scapegoat for Republican defeat in the fall, a defeat I now believe to be more likely than it was a few weeks ago, McCain seems to have done his work well.  As Gov. Palin’s remarks yesterday made clear, she seems unlikely to balance the worst instincts of McCain and his advisors and may instead be used to confer conservative legitimacy on McCain’s domestic and foreign agendas.  The remarkable thing about the choice is that it was done for transparently electoral reasons and appears at first glance to be a poor choice with respect to governance, but in reality Palin will likely prove to be an electoral liability, possibly costing McCain the election in the Midwest, and yet I think she would probably be a competent and effective Vice President despite her short time in statewide office.    

P.S.  The controversy over the firings of her state trooper ex-brother-in-law and the Public Safety Commissioner, which had already prompted the establishment of an investigation by the Alaska legislature last month, is also going to dog the campaign, whether or not Gov. Palin did anything wrong.  Correction: I misstated the nature of the controversy: Wooten, the ex-brother-in-law, was not fired, but Monegan, the Public Safety Commissioner, was fired.  It was the questionable nature of Monegan’s firing, which may or may not have been done in retribution for his refusal to fire Wooten, that drew complaints and prompted the legislature to authorize an investigation.

Update: Of course, it will be more difficult for the party regulars to blame the loss on a Buchananite if she insists that she never supported Buchanan.  Apparently, she did not support him in the 2000 election.


You're More Or Less Aloof

There are any number of theories offered for the tightness. One is that Obama is too temperamentally aloof for most Americans. ~Andrew Sullivan

The word choice here caught my attention.  Over the last few months, I have noticed “aloof” being used more and more often to describe Obama.  This jumps out at me because I remember using it back in February to describe him, or more precisely to predict how he would be perceived in the general election and why this would end up being his downfall:

The reason why the relatively more wonkish, detail-oriented candidates repeatedly come up short is that they confuse a display of competence and understanding with demonstrating intense expertise with the specifics of their policies, which matter primarily to interest groups, bloggers and box-checking ideological gnomes.  Romney could run rings around McCain and Huckabee with his expertise, but that didn’t matter.  The same has been true with Clinton in her struggle with Obama. 

All the things that horrify a republican about mass democracy–the identitarianism, the ”gut-level connection,” the vacuous rhetoric and the cheap, manipulative symbolism–help to explain why we end up with the candidates we do, and they will explain why the aloof, relatively more expert candidate in the general election, Obama, will end up losing.  

Tagging Obama as aloof was not entirely new in February, but my commenters at the time thought I was off the mark.  Politico apparently made the same claim in a December ’07 article.  However, I think the aloofness goes hand in hand with the wonkishness and expertise, so that while it is electorally a problem it is a signal of other desirable qualities.  It’s just not often the case that someone with this combination prevails in a popular election.  Most of McCain’s critics probably think that it deals him a serious blow to describe McCain as a visceral, emotionally-driven person, but I think those of us who are against McCain (regardless of whether we are for Obama) make a mistake if we treat this as an electoral weakness, just as we are missing something when we emphasize how little McCain knows about any policy questions.  They are the sources of his strength as a candidate, and I suspect that they are part of the explanation for why he continues to run far ahead of the generic GOP candidate.     

P.S. Extra points for identifying the origin of the title.  It’s not hard, but I thought I would try something a bit less serious before I go on vacation.


Dashed Expectations

Why won’t America and Nato help us? If they won’t help us now, why did we help them in Iraq? ~Djimali Avago (quoted in article)

Along with the Ossetian refugees who have fled into North Ossetia, the Georgian people are already suffering the consequences of their government’s criminal irresponsibility, and they are understandably bitter towards the West on account of the belief that the West would reward Georgia for charting a “pro-Western” course.  Earlier today I was remarking to someone that I would still like to go to Georgia, but after this week I supposed that Georgians might not care for American visitors.  Perhaps attitudes towards Americans as such will not change that much, but it seems impossible that pro-U.S. government sentiment is going to be very strong in the future.  Probably rather like Turkish public opinion, which had once been very keen on EU membership and soured after German and French opposition postponed entry indefinitely, Georgian public opinion may well turn against the political path that Saakashvili has represented.  It would not be the first time that disaster in the field has caused a dramatic shift in domestic politics, and it is probably more likely to happen since Saakashvili wagered his presidency on the success of this attack. 

I second Greg Djerejian’s remarks from the update to his post on the war:

It’s precisely because I care about innocent Georgian lives being needlessly spilled that I’m so dismayed by Saakashvili’s recklessness, including notably his naive belief in Western support should Putin get nasty (by the by, and to stress again, the notion that Georgia would become a full-fledged member of NATO was always absurd fare, and shame on Brussels and Washington for playing pretend).  

This might be an appropriate time to reflect on the exploitation of U.S. allies during 2002-03 and during the war in Iraq.  New and aspiring NATO members were particularly susceptible to the combination of arm-twisting and enticements that Washington used to get the heads of government from so-called “New Europe” to declare their support for an invasion of Iraq, but perhaps most tragic and inexcusable of all of these cases is Georgia.  While a boon to contractors, Georgia’s significant increases in military spending diverted resources in a poor country to building up the armed forces, an investment as misguided as it is now wasted.  To make itself an attractive candidate, the Georgian government had to demonstrate its eagerness to be out of Russia’s shadow, which inevitably involved confrontational posturing and actions that riled Moscow into increasingly punitive and often excessive responses.  In the twisted establishment view, to be pro-Western in the former Soviet states is first and foremost to be impeccably anti-Russian, which would be ridiculed as counterproductive nationalist bluster anywhere else but serves as a useful barometer of how willing a population is to be used as a pawn against the Russians.  The gradual realization by those who live in the country being used as a pawn that their country is being used this way naturally inspires resentment. 

Having been excited by the prospect of membership, which Western governments led Georgia to believe was only a matter of time, many Georgians unfortunately took Western assurances at face value.  And, after all, why not?  Yes, Georgia is just about as far from the Atlantic as you can get and still have any claim to being part of Europe and America has no vital interests at stake here, but there were so many other candidates admitted in previous rounds that made no more sense than admitting Georgia.  For goodness’ sake, even the Albanians have now been allowed to join, and no one would confuse their country with one that is either strategically important or militarily ready to merit inclusion.  You might say that if Albania is good enough for NATO, Georgia would be, too, except that neither belongs in the Alliance.  

That doesn’t change the expectation of being able to get in without much trouble.  Every time NATO expansion had happened in the past, the Russians issued grave warnings and denounced the U.S. but ultimately were not in a position to stop it from happening.  Relations between Moscow and the West kept getting worse, but the Georgian government must have taken Russian inaction over the entry of the Baltic states as the final proof they needed that Russia would do nothing.  From there it was a few short steps to launching the raid on the same assumption: Russia will protest and retaliate in certain ways as it had done in the past (e.g., economic sanctions, harrassing ethnic Georgians in Russia) but will ultimately yield. 

Clearly, Saakashvili guessed wrong and has endangered his country’s future in the process, but it is not entirely unfair for Saakashvili and his countrymen to protest at what they understandably feel to be abandonment.  Imagine how much more cruel the disappointment would have been had Georgia been put on the course to membership and the same hard political realities kept NATO from lending support.  Our government should never make promises that it cannot or will not keep, and while strategic ambiguity is useful in public it is vital that clients and would-be clients understand exactly how much support the U.S. government is willing to provide.  Saakashvili’s blustery rhetoric about how the war is a defense of American “values” and how the future of the world is at stake sounds ridiculous because it is, but he is simply acting as if what President Bush said in his Second Inaugural were the working policy of the United States of America.  While it does not excuse him, Saakashvili has above all made the mistake of believing President Bush when he said that American liberty depends on the liberty of the rest of the world.  Since he fancies himself the champion of Georgian liberty, regardless of how hard that it is to take, he may have thought that the “freedom agenda” would save him.  Instead, he has pretty much ensured that the “freedom agenda” will lose whatever credibility it had.       

Update: The NYT has a similar article on disappointed Georgians.


Speaking Of Gratitude…

Without wanting to dwell too much on Roger Kimball’s response to the war in Georgia, his new post concerning the candidates’ reactions prompted two reactions.  When I saw the headline, “The crisis in Georgia, 9/11, and the lessons of gratitude,” a strange thought flashed through my mind: “Maybe he’ll thank Putin for the help he provided us after 9/11!”  The more elaborate version of that momentary thought would go something like this: “Kimball’s a fair-minded guy.  He’s going to remind everyone that the first government to lend unequivocal support to the U.S. after 9/11 was the Russian government, and that Russia’s assistance and cooperation helped make the initial, overwhelmingly successful stages of the war in Afghanistan possible.  Maybe he’ll even work in a reference to Solzhenitsyn’s last published interview in which the great man talked about a missed opportunity in forging better U.S.-Russian relations.  I bet Kimball is going to temper all of his overheated rhetoric about Moscow reassembling the Soviet empire and remember that Russia was one of our strongest allies in the wake of the attacks.” 

From there he might have gone on to argue that the truly tragic thing about this unnecessary war is that both nations could be valuable U.S. allies, and that through a series of mistakes our ties to Georgia became one of the causes of the deterioration in previously decent U.S.-Russian relations.  Kimball could then have said that it makes no sense to perpetuate Cold War attitudes towards Russia in a post-9/11 world when a strong Washington-Moscow relationship is more vital than ever.  No such luck.  The post wasn’t about that at all.

Instead, Kimball offered these observations towards the end of the post:

On 9/11 we were grateful to have a leader who could distinguish between friends and enemies and who was not so crippled by moral relativism that he believed that victims should be equated with their victimizers. In 2008, we have a choice between 1) a man who knows evil and repudiates it and 2) a man who believes that there is “fault on both sides” and that discredited “progressive” institutions like the United Nations are better equipped to deal with disputes among sovereign nations than the nations themselves.

Which would you choose?

If I have only those choices and #2 is supposed to be Obama, then I would choose Obama.  No question about it.  It’s not even close.  You have to wonder how Kimball thinks wars between sovereign nations will be resolved if international institutions are rejected entirely and one of the belligerents is much weaker than the other.  It won’t work out well for the small country.  That much is certain.  In any case, after the last nearly seven years since 9/11, we have seen how the instinct that served Bush reasonably well in responding to terrorist attacks have been one of his most ruinous flaws in handling foreign policy questions, because he has consistently looked at conflicts and threats simply in terms of whether or not such-and-such a regime is to one degree or another evil.  I agree that McCain is very much like Bush in his aversion to complexity and hostility to the idea that both sides in a conflict usually do bear some share of the blame.  In this view, one side serves the forces of darkness and the other is simply resisting evil.  This view also contributes to the dehumanization and denigration of everyone on the side that is deemed reprobate, and it excuses injustices committed against that side because they are supposed to embody evil.   

But let’s think a little more about how Kimball is framing this.  By likening McCain’s Georgia response to Bush’s response to 9/11, Kimball is implying that Russian retaliation in response to an escalation of violence is morally equivalent to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 (i.e., both are evil).  That would mean that Kimball thinks that the military of an internationally recognized government engaged in a retaliatory operation in defense of a proxy is doing something very similar to what Atta and the other hijackers did.  This sort of equivalence will accomplish only one thing, which is unintentionally to legitimize the terrorists and blur the lines between legitimate and illegitimate uses of force.  Indeed, this is the logic employed by the very relativists Kimball attacks, since they also tend to blur these lines.

Even though Saakashvili escalated the violence and bears a large share of responsibility for the deaths that have followed, McCain evidently did not see that evil and did not repudiate it, which gets at the heart of how surprisingly flexible this gnostic approach to foreign affairs can be.  There is certainly no foolish consistency for the morally clear.  This moral clarity, so called, is the ability to see the crimes and villainy of people whom you already regard as villains, while being largely blind to one’s own flaws and those of one’s allies.  It also seems to involve a healthy dose of ingratitude towards those governments that have lent support and aid to ours in times of crisis, provided that those with “moral clarity” have decided that a given government is malevolent.


Reflexive Hostility Has Its Advantages

McCain, though, went with his instinct and with a sense of moral clarity that seems to have been borne out by Russia’s widening campaign. ~Ben Smith

So now McCain is trying to claim that he foresaw what Russia is currently doing in Georgia, when the only reason McCain “knew” what Russia would do is that he always assumes that Russians have the very worst motives and goals and then declares himself prescient when Russia does something objectionable.  At least Smith’s use of the word instinct is correct–McCain is viscerally opposed to Russia, and so instinctively lurches to whatever the anti-Russian position is on any given issue.  The video Smith digs up includes (the videos are being circulated by McCain aides) shows how fanatically anti-Russian McCain has been for at least the last decade and includes one of the many Shevardnadze references that McCain made during the 1999-2000 campaign.  Before he was the corrupt, dictatorial ruler who had to go (to make way for the reckless despotic one), Shevardnadze was, in McCain’s estimation, “one of the great men in the history of the world.”  Seriously. 

In the clip McCain imagines that the Second Chechen War was part of an agenda of reconquest aimed at former Soviet states, despite the rather important detail that Chechnya was within Russia’s borders all along and the war involved the suppression of a separatist movement that employed terrorist tactics.  By all means, let’s track down every pro-Chechen and pro-Shevardnadze thing McCain has ever said and look over his record on Russia very carefully.  Let’s remember how supportive of the Chechens he and those around him were, and how many excuses they used to make for anti-Russian terrorism.  That will, or should, scare enough people that it might finally start to undermine the media’s acceptance that he has foreign policy expertise, and it should draw a good, useful contrast between the two candidates by showing one of them to be possessed of a strange hatred for Russia that ensures that all of his policy proposals concerning Russia are hostile and dangerous.

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