Daniel Larison

Leading The Jacksonians


But the conservative coalition ought to naturally produce realists from its ranks, for their sake and its own, because realism’s cold-eyed pursuit of the national interest is the most logical and productive elite-level expression of the Jacksonian, don’t-tread-on-me nationalism that holds sway among a large swathe of the conservative base. Neoconservatism can and should speak for part of the American Right, but it can’t speak for the whole of it; it’s [sic] Wilsonian impulses will always be a bridge too far for many conservatives whose instincts run instead toward “to hell with them” hawkery. This “more rubble, less trouble” tendency within the Right’s coalition needs to be channeled in a constructive direction by the right-wing elite, or else it runs toward jingoism and folly of various sorts.

Reading Ross’ earlier post in light of his more recent comments, I am a bit puzzled. Proposing that a “coalition of the introverts” (i.e., an America First coalition on the right) would be unsuitable to govern, Ross nonetheless seemed to concede in his later post that the most logical, if perhaps not the most productive, expression of don’t-tread-on-me nationalism would have been Ron Paul-style “Jeffersonianism.” Leaving aside certain direct symbolic appeals to libertarian populist, don’t-tread-on-me sentiment (e.g., the frequent appearance of Gadsden flags at Ron Paul events and the flag’s popularity among Ron Paul supporters), it is not clear why realists/”Hamiltonians” offer the better elite expression of the “Jacksonian” nationalist view.

If Jacksonians tend to support wars when they are declared/launched far longer than any other group because of strong cultural habits and traditions of military service, but are themselves unconcerned and usually uninformed about international affairs, the typical elite complaint about them is that they are not zealous enough for this or that grand mission that Wilsonian and Hamiltonian elites have planned for them. This is what had Fukuyama (who must now be also be classed among the “Hamiltonians”?) agitated several years ago. To be blunt, jingoism and folly are the provinces of the Wilsonians and Hamiltonian elites who by and large pushed for or acquiesced in the Iraq war. These elites have not channeled Jacksonian nationalism in a constructive direction, but on the whole exploited it in a crisis and pushed the Jacksonians in rather destructive directions, and I do not see what will change in this dynamic in the future. “More rubble, less trouble” and “to hell with them” hawks are expressing the frustration of Jacksonians who have been conned or misled into foreign adventures on what were supposed to have been national security grounds that later gave way to woolly-minded nation-building projects. Had they not been incited by elites to support the adventure based on exaggerated threats abroad, they might not have been hawks in the first place. Before they said “to hell with them,” Jacksonians said, “Why bother?”

It is also taken for granted here that Jacksonian nationalists are not to have elites from their own ranks, because they are otherwise ruled unfit for government, and so they must be led, channeled, and directed by others. Even though the Wilsonians erred very badly, as Wilsonians will, and, as Ross said, “many of [Hamiltonianism's] practitioners, starting with the buffoonish Chuck Hagel, did not exactly distinguish themselves during the debates over the Iraq War,” these groups are still going to be permitted a leadership role in formulating center-right foreign policy thinking? On what grounds? If realists/Hamiltonians failed to lead and failed to distinguish themselves during one of the most important foreign policy debates of the last 20 years, why should Jacksonians or anyone else want to be “channeled” anywhere by them in the future? If up and coming realists were chastened by Iraq, what exactly have they learned that would distinguish them from the older realists who failed?


America Cannot Take Much More Of Such “Responsible” Government


Nor do I think that a Jeffersonian-Jacksonian “coalition of the introverts” could govern the nation responsibly unless the United States actually withdrew from its current quasi-imperial role, which almost certainly isn’t going to happen.

Following up on my earlier remarks, I should make another point here. There may be some political and even psychological reasons why a “Jeffersonian-Jacksonian” coalition would not succeed (the people who are called “Jacksonians” tend instinctively to support military action and executive power, and “Jeffersonians” tend to question both as a first impulse), but to the extent that both are interested in an America First politics I am not exactly clear why such a coalition could not govern responsibly. Unless, that is, we are defining responsible government here in such a way that includes aggressive, illegal warfare and military overstretch as responsible but excludes respect for other states’ sovereignty and international law as reckless. What Ross is saying in this aside is that such a coalition probably would not govern the empire, or quasi-empire, terribly well, because such a coalition would see no reason to keep the empire. If you have already decided, as the “Hamiltonians” have apparently decided, that the empire is non-negotiable and essential but in need of better management, the idea of giving up on it would seem inherently irresponsible. This has nothing to do with governing America as such, and has everything to do with America attempting to govern large swathes of the rest of the world. It is unlikely that America will give up on having a quasi-imperial role, in no small part because what Bacevich calls the “power elite” does its best to define the good of the nation in terms that maintain the national security state and U.S. hegemony, to which their own interests are closely tied.


What Would Hamilton Do? Do We Care?

Mead’s divisions of American foreign policy thinking into the odd quartet of Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian and Jacksonian, and Noah Millman’s smart plotting of the four on his chart, have never been very satisfying. Years ago, I outlined my problems with the use of the term Jacksonian to talk about foreign policy, because there is nothing particularly Jacksonian about Jacksonian foreign policy views. As I have spelled out before, Andrew Jackson’s foreign policy, to the extent that he had one that could be identified with his administration, was more or less the same as Jefferson’s in that both favored contintental expansion and neutrality and did not entangle themselves in foreign conflicts. Even more than Jackson, Jefferson countenanced unconstitutional acts and diplomatic skullduggery to pursue expansionist goals; had many modern “Jeffersonians” been alive then, they would probably have been on the side of my distant cousin William Plumer in denouncing him. The severe limitations of these terms seem clear.

Even to the extent that we grant that these terms refer to a mentality or persuasion rather than an identifiable foreign policy paradigm, we are still stuck with terms that obscure rather than clarify. One could say that Jefferson’s stated concern for neutral shipping rights, to which Wilson paid lip service over a century later, made him more “internationalist” than the Federalists including Hamilton, but no one would say that Wilson was a Jeffersonian because of their shared rhetoric of freedom of the seas. Hamiltonian is the most vexing term of all, because it takes realist internationalists (e.g., Scowcroft, Lugar, etc.) and gives to them the name of a Treasury Secretary, whose view of foreign affairs was limited for the most part to a desire to maintain commerce with Britain.

Millman complicated and confused matters by defining the dominant factors for realism and idealism respectively as interests and values. By and large, we Jeffersonians–if that is the proper name for our view–do not make values the dominant or even a significant factor in our thinking, but on the contrary focus almost exclusively on national interest somewhat narrowly defined. On the whole, we look at so-called hard-headed realists and find people who become rather soft-headed for different reasons than liberal interventionists or neoconservatives do. These realists value stability and tend to pursue what they think will guarantee it. The trouble that they encounter is that they can frequently misjudge what guarantees and what threatens stability, because they are inclined to accept conventional assessments concerning ideologies that stabilize and destabilize. Realists are defined as realists most of the time not because they question the desirability of, say, global democratization–because they generally do not question it–but mainly because they question its practicability. They sometimes disagree about means, but almost never disagree with more aggressive and “idealistic” groups about ends.

Realists, no less than other members of what Bacevich calls the “power elite,” have misinterpreted reality and inflated threats over the decades. The chief thing most realists have had going for them in the postwar period is that they are less prone to overreaction and ideological responses to events, but they are hardly immune from them. If there are no “Hamiltonians,” it is not just because the term Hamiltonian doesn’t mean very much, but because most realist internationalists are inclined to follow conventional thinking at any given time and so they effectively merge into the other groups from which they are supposed to be so distinct. This is not true of all realists (Kennan is an outstanding example of the exceptions to this rule), but it is true of so many that I think it is fair to put it this way. Liberal hawks, neoconservatives and most realists are all preoccupied with values to a large degree, so much so that a genuine language of Realpolitik can scarcely be found outside of what we are calling right-”Jeffersonian” and non-interventionist circles.

This is an awful lot of deck-clearing to get to the more important points, but it seems to be necessary. As I was saying the other day, the so-called “neo-isolationist” option is not understood well at all, so we need more precision in our terminology and our definitions and we need fewer terms that refer to vague tendencies. To take a specific example to illustrate how misleading so much of this terminology is, just consider the relationship of the drug war to U.S. foreign policy. The genuinely hard-headed realist would almost certainly not pursue the drug war in Afghanistan, which is clearly a case of privileging of values over interests, yet this is what current-and-future Defense Secretary Gates, the main Scowcroftian in the new administration, wants to do with NATO forces there. Adding drug interdiction to NATO forces’ mandate is rationalized as a means to secure the country, but what this actually represents is the establishment tendency, shared by such realists, to pursue broad, comprehensive solutions that try to address multiple problems simultaneously while sufficiently supporting none of the constituent parts of the plan. This is why any comprehensive Indo-Pak-Afghanistan solution or a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace process is ultimately misguided and why pursuing either will make it more difficult to resolve any of the individual issues. This tendency derives from an assessment of U.S. power and capabilities that is increasingly unmoored from the real world, and it is justified with a good deal of mushy thinking about the need for American “leadership” and America as the great force for good. Genuinely hard-headed realism would be an interesting change from the legalistic-moralistic view of foreign policy that the Hamiltonians also hold.


Salaam, Mumbai

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai have justifiably attracted global attention. As Ross rightly observes, these attacks represent an escalation of ongoing terrorist campaigns throughout India, some of which are indigenous while a great many others are sponsored from outside the country. Just the major attacks this year that have made international headlines–Ahmedabad, Delhi, Assam, and now Mumbai–are reminders of the frequency of political violence that Indians endure that Westerners, for all of our talk of being under existential threat, can scarcely imagine happening in our own countries.

It’s good to hear that Scott’s daughter is safe, and for my part I wish all the residents and visitors in Mumbai a return to peace and stability. More remarks to follow.

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Another Piece Of The Puzzle

A parliamentary hearing on the origins of the war between Georgia and Russia in August ended in a furor on Tuesday after a former Georgian diplomat testified that Georgian authorities were responsible for starting the conflict.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Tbilisi’s former ambassador to Moscow, testified for three hours before he was shouted down by members of Parliament.

A former confidant of President Mikheil Saakashvili, Mr. Kitsmarishvili said Georgian officials told him in April that they planned to start a war in Abkhazia, one of two breakaway regions at issue in the war, and had received a green light from the United States government to do so. He said the Georgian government later decided to start the war in South Ossetia, the other region, and continue into Abkhazia. ~The New York Times

By itself, this would not be definitive, but it confirms what all of the other evidence we have suggests. The timing of the decision detailed in this testimony is important. What had happened in April? The NATO summit was held in Bucharest in early April. There the U.S. pushed for a promise that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually become members of the Alliance. Whether it was this support for Georgia’s future NATO accession that Tbilisi interpreted (or misinterpreted) as a “green light” or there was another, specific endorsement of a campaign in South Ossetia, we have another piece of evidence that Washington directly contributed to the Georgian decision to escalate.

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Ultimately, New Consensus Is More Of The Same

Ilan Goldenberg writes:

What is interesting in my view is that what you now see forming is a broad consensus among liberals, liberal hawks and realists. There is relatively universal agreement among these groups that we need to begin withdrawing from Iraq, focus more on Afghanistan, opt for direct diplomacy with Iran, reengage with the world, improve our image, strengthen our alliances, close Guantanamo and deal with global warming and energy security.

For some reason, he excludes the so-called “neo-isolationists,” because Goldenberg evidently does not understand our view at all. He describes our view this way: “the view of complete disengagement held by some on the far right and far left.” No one who could fairly be classed with us believes in “complete disengagement” (whatever that would mean). This was the point of Ron Paul’s argument throwing the “isolationist” label back in the faces of the hegemonists who impose sanctions on and refuse to engage in diplomatic relations with state after state: we don’t favor disengagement, but interventionists practice it punitively all the time. We do refuse to define “engagement” in terms of a willingness to invade and bomb foreign lands and meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. These things are not engagement–they are power projection and attempted domination.

Indeed, if one had been reading TAC for the last six years or this blog for the last four, one would have found arguments for practically every one of these new “consensus” items months or years before they were championed by people outside of the far right and far left. These items command broad support today because they are now among the most obvious things to do, and they represent the beginning of a turn toward sane foreign policy, but by themselves they represent little more than slight modifications.

Of course, there are important differences between us and this emerging consensus, and they are to be found in the minimal nature of the new consensus’ departure from current policy. We don’t assume that engagement with Iran is an alternative means to dictate terms to the Iranian government, because we don’t think we should be dictating terms to them. We don’t think our image abroad can be improved simply by pursuing hegemony in a less heavy-handed and more consultative fashion, but by ceasing to pursue it. We think we should engage the world with respect for other states’ sovereignty, and not as a benevolent and paternalistic landlord. While this new consensus view is somewhat less blinkered than the one it is replacing, it will remain as fundamentally flawed as the current establishment consensus that it superficially modifies.


No Surprises Here

John Cole urges me to say something about Max Boot’s latest display of cluelessness, so how can I refuse? Boot is evidently stunned and “gobsmacked” by Obama’s national security and economic policy appointments, and their “moderation” overwhelms him. His administration already “exceeds expectations”! Well, I suppose if you were a fool who thought Obama represented McGovernite “neo-isolationism,” or whatever it was interventionists were calling it, and thought, as Ralph Peters did, that Obama’s Presidency would be a series of retreats and capitulations abroad, you would be stunned. Then again, this is the genius who tried to tell people that he is not a neocon and has tried to claim that various American deployments in the Caribbean and Latin America in the early 20th century were not driven by an effort to secure U.S. business interests. As John noted, Bacevich derided Boot in The Limits of Power for his hyperbolic praise of American military power:

Boot dubbed this the Doctrine of the Big Enchilada. Within a year, after U.S. troops had occupied Baghdad, he went further: America’s army even outclassed Germany’s Wehrmacht. The master displayed in knocking off Saddam, Boot gushed, made “fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison.”

All of this turned out to be hot air [bold mine-DL]. If the global war on terror had produced on undeniable conclusion, it is this: Estimates of U.S. military capabilities have turned out to be wildly overstated. The Bush administration’s misplaced confidence in the efficacy of American arms represents a strategic misjudgement that has cost our country dearly. Even in an age of stealth, precision weapons, and instant communications, armed force is not a panacea. Even in a supposedly unipolar era, American military power turned out to be quite limited.

In short, Boot has been wrong about almost everything he has commented on over the last decade, and his neo-imperialist nostalgia for pith helmets and jodhpurs, which he expressed early on after 9/11, is fueled by a fundamentally flawed understanding of American power and the ends to which that power should be directed. Today’s post is not so remarkable in light of that record. Had Boot been paying any attention over the last year and a half to Obama’s actual policy statements, he would have also noticed that no less than Robert Kagan was praising the exuberant interventionism in Obama’s earliest foreign policy addresses. Obama’s Chicago Global Affairs Council speech from last year prompted Kagan to go so far as to say this:

America must “lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.” With those words, Barack Obama put an end to the idea that the alleged overexuberant idealism and America-centric hubris of the past six years is about to give way to a new realism, a more limited and modest view of American interests, capabilities and responsibilities.

Indeed, compared to the content of that early speech the selections of Gates and Jones to his national security team are “moderate”–but only when compared to Obama’s own interventionist rhetoric in the past. There is some reason to think that there we will see some combination of a new Scowcroftian realism, represented by Gates, and the ambitious interventionism that Obama has laid out in more than just this one speech. There are plenty of reasons for concern that even Gates does not really have “a more limited and modest view of American interests, capabilities and responsibilities,” given his continued reckless support for NATO expansion, but if anything Gates and Jones are likely to have a restraining influence on the activist foreign policy Obama has laid out time and time again. Contrary to Boot, the national security appointments do not spell an end to proposed withdrawal timetables and negotiations with “rogue” states, but then people who have never understood how modest and qualified Obama’s withdrawal position was and who have never understood that negotiations with Iran are aimed at the same goal of halting Iran’s nuclear program would not be able to see this.

P.S. Clemons makes some important points about what keeping Gates will mean.


Obama and FOCA

By supporting and signing the current version of FOCA, Obama would reignite the culture war he so deftly sidestepped throughout this campaign. ~Melinda Henneberger

More to the point, he would reignite it in a way that would not be to his or the Democratic Party’s advantage, and that is particularly the case if the legislation would lead to the shutdown of just some Catholic hospitals across America. Even if the the latter did not happen, signing such a bill would feed into every hostile portrayal of him as a pro-abortion extremist (a portrayal, by the way, that is not an exaggeration of his record), and it would be exactly the sort of distraction from larger priorities that Emanuel has hinted the new administration will avoid. Whether or not Obama has already made a fool of Prof. Kmiec by promising to sign such a bill–a promise that renders absurd any hope of compromise or pragmatic problem-solving that was at the heart of Kmiec’s argument–he would assuredly be wrecking his Presidency for no good reason if he fulfilled that promise. If most people say they support Roe, even if they don’t know what they’re supporting, there is definitely not a majority in favor of such sweeping pro-abortion legislation.

Obama may be able to avoid having to decide whether or not to break his promise. As Henneberger notes earlier in the piece, just as I said in the closing days of the campaign, it is not at all certain that FOCA will pass. House members elected from marginal districts will not want the headache that voting for such legislation would inevitably bring them. This is the sort of legislation that would inspire intense grassroots opposition, and as with most issues the more vocal, focused and active side will sway many of these members in marginal districts. Bringing up such legislation for a vote would give Republican leaders an easy target and an occasion to pull away Blue Dog Democrats from the majority to deliver an early defeat to the other party. You would start seeing a media narrative of liberal overreach and establishment punditry would begin kvetching, “Where did the pragmatic, reasonable Obama agenda we saw during the transition go?” Besides, Obama’s own instincts to avoid political risk should tell him that he will profit nothing by signing this bill and will stir up intense opposition that he doesn’t need and should want to avoid. In certain cases, including this one, Obama’s desire to accommodate the status quo is preferable to the alternative.

P.S. One thing that almost all of FOCA’s co-sponsors have in common is that they come from absolutely safe Democratic seats.


Stupid Policies Have Consequences

McKiernan faces obstacles in making his plan work. A Washington Post article of November 19 detailed these obstacles, focusing on Taliban attacks on the supply route into Afghanistan from Pakistan. But that’s only a part of the problem. The other was caused by the Bush administration. “We should have alternative supply routes through the north and not have to rely on the roads from Pakistan,” a senior serving army officer says, “but we can’t get a northern route because the Bush administration pissed off the Russians in Georgia.”

Negotiations with the Russians over a northern resupply route that would be place the 67,000 US and NATO soldiers at the end of “a secure tether” have been stalled, according to this officer. “This is typical of the White House, they can’t see beyond tomorrow. They have never been able to plan ahead, to think through the consequences of their actions. They’re so proud of themselves, and we’re the ones who suffer.” He adds: “They can’t be gone soon enough.” ~Asia Times

This is worth remembering. In order to pursue a useless and provocative policy of NATO expansion and democracy promotion in post-Soviet space, Washington is jeopardizing a potentially very valuable relationship with Moscow that could contribute directly to the security and greater success of our soldiers in Afghanistan. As the hijacking of a supply train in Pakistan in recent weeks should remind us, U.S. and NATO forces are being resupplied along a route that has become less reliable and secure. It is high time to start setting our policy priorities straight. Squabbling for influence in the north Caucasus is nowhere near the top, and Afghanistan is.

Update: Steve Balboni reviews the history of tenuous supply lines through what is today’s Pakistan and reminds us of the British military disaster that ended with the massacre at Gandamak.

Second Update: Some good news for a change. Germany and Russia have negotiated a bilateral resupply deal for their forces in Afghanistan. Of course, Germany is one of our allies most in favor of engagement with the Russians and most opposed to expanding NATO. This is rather peculiar behavior for the rebuilders of a neo-Soviet empire, wouldn’t you say? This is what constructive engagement looks like, and it can yield real benefits. Washington would do well to follow this example.


First Truth, Then Reconciliation

At TPMCafe, I am participating in a discussion of Charles Homans’ new Washington Monthly article on an investigative commission concerned with, among other things, administration policies of interrogation, detention and surveillance.

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