In the new issue of TAC, Eve Tushnet sings the praises of Dupont Circle, and along the way expresses her annoyance with the “paeans to rural community” with which she is supposedly inundated by other Americans on the right. If the American right were suffering from an undue attachment to rural life and small towns, I might be able to understand better the source of Tushnet’s irritation, but what the right suffers from is a collection of deeply misguided policies combined with an excess of praise for the very communities their preferred policies decimate and change beyond recognition. I won’t begrudge the Dupont Circle resident her local patriotism, and I can appreciate her expression of what Kennan called a “loyalty despite” rather than a “loyalty because of,” but if the city is the “human condition with the volume on high” it nonetheless remains a kind of place relatively more hostile to moderation and virtue, and it will always be the kind of place prone to an exaggeration of all those desires that man needs to keep in check if he is to remain civilized rather than merely urbanized. In the meantime, the economic and political consolidation and concentration of power that our major cities embody are real dangers that threaten the urban professional and the farmer alike.
Jonah Goldberg is probably not working from deep familiarity with Cyril of Alexandria, so he probably doesn’t realize how this sounds:
Oprah promised Obama would help us “evolve to a higher plane.” Deepak Chopra said Obama’s presidency represented “a quantum leap in American consciousness.” Last month, Newsweek editor Evan Thomas proclaimed that Obama stood “above the country, above — above the world, he’s sort of God.”
Well, now he’s the god who bleeds, and once you’re the god who bleeds, it’s hard to get the divinity back in the tube, as it were.
Of course, Obama isn’t remotely divine, but if I were trying to make the point that Obama’s absurdly high elevation by his supporters has failed and he has come crashing back to earth I don’t think I would describe him in decidedly Christ-like terms. Yes, I get that Goldberg is making a Star Trek reference, but I am guessing that for most of his audience Kirok is not the first thing that comes to mind when describing a suffering divinity. More to the point, if you want to mock Obama supporters’ messianism, it might help to avoid describing their hero in such obviously messianic terms.
I haven’t said anything about the so-called “Birther” lunacy, because, well, it’s lunacy that really doesn’t deserve a moment’s consideration, but Steve Benen made a remark about it that I want to discuss briefly. Benen wrote:
Outside the South, this madness is gaining very little traction, and remains a fringe conspiracy theory. Within the South, it’s practically mainstream.
Now Benen already noticed that there is a significant partisan gap in the responses. The South has become the Republicans’ main region, and it has a disproportionate share of partisan Republicans living in it. My guess is that the reason why the South as a region has so many more people in agreement with Birther nonsense or those who are “unsure” about Obama’s citizenship is that it still has a much larger population of Republicans, and partisan hatred of the President is much greater there. This makes it more fertile ground for believing nonsensical claims about the President, because it is a region with a higher concentration of people willing to believe almost anything negative about a leading member of the other party. Hard-core partisans are quite often willing to believe the worst about their political opponents, no matter how baseless, and will happily ignore identical or worse claims about their own leaders no matter how well-supported.
If the President were McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone and whose status is therefore very slightly more ambiguous than Obama’s, this movement would not exist. The same people leading the charge today would probably be shouting down anyone who had the temerity to “raise questions” about McCain’s citizenship. I won’t rule out that race may have some role, but nationality and nationalism are far more important. Never underestimate how closely some of these partisans identify their own particular ideology and party with being truly American. The only way to make sense of the explosion of this lunacy is to see it as a continuation of the belief that Obama, by virtue of what he believes, cannot be a “real” American, so the obsession with his place of birth is really an extension of the presidential campaign in which he and his supporters were considered not to be from “real” America. We are endlessly treated to more respectable versions of this argument in articles that claim that Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, that he embraces national decline, etc., which pretend to be policy arguments, but which are ultimatey arguments against Obama’s American identity. The argument normally portrays Obama as being somehow anti-American, and therefore self-loathing. The Birthers have modified this argument and chosen instead to claim that Obama is simply non-American. Neither is true, but the former somehow hangs on as a credible, serious argument when it is just as baseless and wrong as the latter.
None of this excuses the gross, willful ignorance that is required to persist in the belief that Obama is not a natural-born citizen, but it may help explain why otherwise presumably rational people fall for such nonsense.
Update: Dan McCarthy has a longer post in much the same vein at Tory Anarchist.
With respect to Alexander Cockburn, he is being far too generous to Obama when he tries to explain Clinton and Biden’s recent statements this way:
At best Obama is presiding over an undisciplined cabinet; at worst, he is facing mutiny, publicly conducted by two people who only a year ago were claiming that their qualifications to be in the Oval Office were far superior to those of the junior senator from Illinois.
It would be gratifying for those of us who have given Obama the slightest benefit of the doubt on foreign policy to believe that his subordinates are sabotaging him, or to put all of this down to poor discipline and headstrong rivals. However, as a recent Michael Crowley article makes clear, this administration is one of the most tightly-run ships in decades, and this is true nowhere more than in foreign policy. The “team of rivals” is notable for the absence of rivals. If the result is “seamless continuity with folly,” which I won’t deny, that is the intended result. The fault is Obama’s, as Cockburn argues later, but his failing is not that he has not controlled his administration well enough, but that he controls it quite well in the service of bad policies. Gone are the turf wars of the Bush administration that occasionally gave realists and war opponents some reason to hope for sanity. “No Drama” Obama has a unified administration that is heading down the wrong, hawkish path. Obama is responsible for these things–we cannot blame subordinates for the President’s mistakes.
Whether Biden’s remarks in Ukraine and Georgia were precisely scripted for him or not, he was saying what Obama wanted said. If Clinton has put forward the nuclear “umbrella” proposal that she previously floated during the campaign, she did so with Obama’s approval. (It may be worth noting here that such an “umbrella,” while far from optimal, is much better than the alternative of launching military strikes against Iran, and it represents a modest turn back towards deterrence and containment and away from “pre-emption.”) As Cockburn acknowledges, Obama does have and always has had “an impeccably conventional view of how the world works,” so we should never have been surprised when he stocked his administration with people who have the same view and endorse policies consistent with that view.
Despite their age, Biden and Clinton may be positioning themselves for a future run at the White House, but their “disloyalty” would require them to be in disagreement with Obama on policy and offer them a way to separate themselves from his agenda. Far from being disloyal and distant from Obama’s goals, they are identifying themselves closely with the implementation of his foreign policy. Cockburn might as well say that Powell went before the U.N. to sell the world on invading Iraq because he was cunningly planning to run against Bush in 2004. As we know from Powell’s experience, the reputation of the leading Cabinet members in our presidential system rises and falls with that of the President, and this is true of the reputation of the Vice President as well. If Biden wanted to turn against Obama in 2011-12, he would make sure that everyone knew that he had been shut out of decisionmaking and he would claim that Obama had been unsuccessful in foreign policy because he had been ignoring his Vice President’s advice. As it happens, the opposite is the case.
There used to be a lot of Saakashvili apologists writing in Western papers and magazines, but it takes a special kind to outdo them all in sheer servility. I give you Andre Glucksmann:
If only such a vibrant opposition could exist under Putin’s regime—with newspapers, two television channels, and the privilege of blocking major arteries and access to official buildings by setting up political protests. In Georgia, I saw a protest take place for two months, while the police refrained from opening up traffic in order not to offend the demonstrators. How many minutes would it take to arrest someone so bold as to set up a protest in front of the Elysée Palace? And who would imagine for an instant that such a thing could be attempted in Red Square?
Of course, this only came after Saakashvili disgraced himself and embarrassed all of his willing defenders in the West by ordering a brutal crackdown on a similar protest in late 2007 that seriously injured 500 people, whom Saakashvili lamely claimed were working as part of a Russian-backed coup. Saakashvili tolerated the recent demonstrations because he realized that he could not simply bludgeon his critics and get away with it after having led his country into a disastrous war.
As for allowing a vibrant opposition, Glucksmann is greatly exaggerating. Imedi was shut down on Saakashvili’s orders, and he and his allies have been taking control of the rest of the media for the last several years. Regarding the “republic free of corruption” Glucksmann praises, this is also a vast overstatement. Corruption has been declining, but it has by no means been eliminated.
Earlier this year, The Christian Science Monitor reported:
The annual global survey by the New York-based Freedom House found that Georgia “slid backwards” in a few key democratic indices in 2008, such as independent media and electoral process, but still had a higher freedom rating than most other post-Soviet states.
But some Georgian experts take a dimmer view. “The human rights situation is worse today than it was under Shevardnadze,” says Nana Sumbadze, codirector of the independent Institute for Policy Studies in Tbilisi. “Last year’s presidential elections were faked. The [subsequent] parliamentary elections were manipulated; the media was controlled and opposition parties had no voice on TV. The public mood [about the elections] was dark,” she says.
It was under these circumstances that Saakashvili has held on to power. Meanwhile, Glucksmann is reduced to appealing to sheer majoritarianism to defend Saakashvili’s continued hold on power. From the same CSM article, this is how political opponents are treated:
Last month, Georgian authorities arrested seven members of Ms. Burjanadze’s party on charges of illegal weapons possession. Georgian intelligence chief Gela Bezhuashvili alleged they were part of a Moscow-backed conspiracy aiming to “remove Georgian authorities through internal disorder and destabilization.”
Looking for anything he can use, Glucksmann brings in the chimera of energy independence for Europe. What little gas and oil that can be moved through Georgian pipelines is not going to free Europe from its dependence on Russian energy. If it were the case that Russia did not have major agreements with the Central Asian republics concerning their energy supplies (Turkmenistan was just the latest), an alternate route might make sense, but it is not the case. For the foreseeable future, that dependence is not going away, and it is simply wrong to hold up potential pipelines through the Caucasus as a realistic chance to break Russia’s hold on the European energy market. To use this as a means to prop up a reckless authoritarian seems especially foolish.
Although diplomacy must remain the policy, the momentous upheaval in Iran has completely changed the political landscape. Opening talks with Iran’s current government at this decisive moment could backfire severely.
Having stated my support for engagement with Iran many times, and then having re-stated it after the June protests, I don’t agree with this. However, Parsi is someone whose arguments should be taken very seriously, so it’s important to explain why a “tactical pause” doesn’t make sense.
First, it is important to distinguish between different political landscapes. Even if the Iranian landscape has been “completely” changed, it does not follow that this changes the political calculus in the U.S. More to the point, one of the problems the protesters are facing is that the upheaval in Iran has not completely changed the Iranian political landscape. Indeed, the upheaval has not yet changed much of anything. Neither has the upheaval fundamentally changed Iranian or American interests, nor was it ever likely to do so. If engagement served the mutual interests of both states six months ago when the administration started gesturing towards it, it seems more likely than not that it still does.
Parsi places the political dispute at the center of his analysis, and he warns of what will happen if the protesters are denied any real remedy:
The likely result will be a radicalized population whose opposition to the government will be met with increased repression at home and more adventurism abroad.
I don’t know how many times I have seen this repression/adventurism pairing, but each time I see it I find it less and less persuasive. For many years, Iran has backed Hizbullah and Hamas under reformers, principalists and populists, in good times and bad, but this has been the extent of its “adventurism.” What shape would this increased adventurism take? Why should we expect that a regime beset by a radicalized, disaffected population would have either the resources or the time to devote to foreign adventurism? Iran has not waged a conventional war in over twenty years, and has instead fought proxy wars in which the cost in Iranian lives is basically nil and which therefore have limited political impact back home one way or the other, so what sort of adventurism would the regime engage in to distract attention from its failings?
Parsi says that opening talks with Iran could backfire severely, which is possible, and this is the more significant objectiong that needs to be overcome. How could it backfire? Parsi writes:
Delaying nuclear talks a few months won’t make a dramatic difference to Iran’s nuclear program. It could, however, determine which Iran America and the region will be dealing with for the next few decades — one in which democratic elements strengthen over time, or one where the will of the people grows increasingly irrelevant to Iran’s decision-makers.
Moreover, even nuclear talks would have a negligible impact on the election dispute, Iran currently is not in a position to negotiate. Some in Washington believe that the paralysis in Tehran has weakened Iran and made it more prone to compromise. But rather than delivering more, Iran’s government currently couldn’t deliver anything at all. The infighting has simply incapacitated Iranian decision makers.
If the talks would have a negligible impact on the political dispute, delaying them will have even less of an impact. Delaying talks is not going to determine “which Iran America and the region will be dealing with for the next few decades.” It will ensure that the diplomatic track stalls, the idea of engagement becomes a joke in Washington, and it will strengthen the hand of hawks who favor harsh sanctions and eventually want to see military action against Iran. If the dispute has weakened Iran, it won’t be more prone to compromise, but it is questionable whether the relevant parts of the government are as incapacitated as Parsi claims. On a more basic level, unless there is concerted movement towards opening talks with Iran U.S. policy will drift inexorably towards confrontation. I have this on good authority:
Unless a significant shift is made toward robust diplomacy—in which the two states negotiate an agreement for co-existence and a new order for the region—the clash is likely to be violent. In short, as geopolitical forces push the two toward a climax, there will either be comprehensive talks or a confrontation. Washington would be mistaken to think that containment and economic pressure can serve as a middle ground, evading both a costly military showdown and a potentially painful compromise with the mullahs.
These illusionary alternatives could potentially be pursued if the U.S.-Iranian clash was solely centered around the nuclear issue or Iranian involvement in Iraq. But in this larger strategic battle over pre-eminence in the Middle East, these policies are untenable, largely because time isn’t on America’s side. Sanctions can’t cripple Iran’s economy faster than Tehran marches toward nuclear capability, and perhaps more importantly, Washington can’t weaken Iran faster than it is being weakened in Iraq. As time passes, Iran’s position relative to the United States will likely strengthen. Indeed, Iranian leaders already refer to the U.S. as a “sunset” state and describe themselves as a “sunrise power.” Sooner or later, the containment policy will deteriorate into either talks or military action. More likely than not, the sanctions approach will increase the risk for a confrontation precisely because it renders a diplomatic opening less probable.
That was Trita Parsi writing in TAC two years ago. Parsi went on to say:
But whereas the simplest mistake—or even inaction—can spark a conflict, diplomacy can only be achieved if deliberately and persistently pursued.
Someone might object at this point that Parsi has even more credibility to call for a “tactical pause” because he has been such an outspoken advocate of pursuing a diplomatic course, but I think Parsi was right in 2007 that deliberate and persistent pursuit of diplomacy is the only way to ensure its success. A “tactical pause” makes sure that this pursuit is not persistent and may never be resumed once it is halted. Parsi’s objective remains the same, which is laudable, but it seems to me that he has erred in forgetting his own advice on how diplomacy with Iran can succeed.
Be that as it may, experts expect the Biden flap to blow over and not derail the Obama administration’s “reset” strategy. “In the long term this will pass,” Charap said. “I don’t think it reflected the administration’s thinking, it was just the words of a tired Vice President.” The U.S. and Russia “are moving to manage disagreements, agreeing to disagree, and not let things spiral out of control.”
It is understandable that Biden’s most provocative statements in the WSJ interview have captured most of the attention in the last week, but I think the experts Scoblete consulted are being all together too optimistic in their analysis. Were Biden’s interview an isolated incident, the Kremlin could laugh it off as an unfortunate mistake and leave it at that, but it came on the heels of a visit to two governments Moscow views as irritants at best and antagonists at worst and followed numerous public statements stressing American solidarity with Ukraine and Georgia. If rhetorically rubbing salt in the wound of diminished geopolitical status during an interview generated so much outrage in the Russian government, what do we think would be the Russian view of displays of support for Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO during formal state visits? Such membership is something that would be a very concrete expression of the diminution of Russian power if it ever happened, and it is something that we know Russia furiously opposes. If merely mentioning Russia’s diminished status angers them, how much worse is it to take high-profile policy positions that try to take advantage of that diminished status while visiting states that border on Russia?
Whatever the outcome, the Biden flap underscores the diplomatic minefield that the Obama administration is waltzing on: showing respect for Russia’s interests without appearing to concede a Russian “sphere of influence” over former Soviet territories.
This is right as far as it goes, but why does the minefield exist? It exists because we insist on defining their lack of a “sphere of influence” in terms of the expansion of our own to their borders. The issue is not just that the former Soviet republics are not aligning themselves with Russia, but that they are explicitly aligning themselves against it alongside the superpower. If the tables were turned, it would be as if the U.S. were forbidden from wielding influence over the Caribbean and Central America while the Russians insisted that Cuba and Mexico be permitted to join a military alliance organized to defend against American imperialism. Then imagine that Russia and its allies around the world portrayed the routine exercise of regional power that most Americans take for granted as insidious aggression and sought to penalize America for doing what Russia does as a matter of course in its neighborhood. There would be a much less hazardous diplomatic minefield if we did not insist on having our maximal demands for projecting our power and influence met as the sine qua non of any relationship and simultaneously portray another great power’s natural exercise of regional hegemony as something perfidious and evil. This is the fundamental problem in the U.S.-Russian relationship, which means that it was what Biden said during his visits to Ukraine and Georgia, and not what he said during his interview afterwards, that mattered and reflected administration policy.
It shouldn’t be happening this way, but at the moment it seems as if 2010 will be a rather lousy midterm election for the GOP. All the usual caveats apply, and the passage of an unpopular health care plan or the failure to pass it could have significant effects on Democratic chances next year, but CQ’s ratings for House and Senate suggest that Republicans are still suffering aftershocks all over the country. Even assuming that the GOP can hold NY-23, vacated by Army Secretary nominee McHugh, and pick up ID-01 and MD-01, which are traditionally Republican-leaning districts, they seem likely to lose three open seats in Louisiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The latter two are open because the incumbents are running for Senate and governor respectively, but the Senate does not look much more promising.
This is the first time these Senate seats have been up for election since the GOP’s implosion, and many of the same factors that cost Republicans Senate seats in Missouri, Ohio, North Carolina and New Hampshire in previous cycles are still at work today. If anything, voters in Missouri and Ohio have become more inclined to support Democrats than they were in 2006, the voters have not changed their minds that much in North Carolina and New Hampshire since last year, and Obama carried all four of these states. Most of the Senate toss-ups are Republican-held, and the Democratic-held toss-ups in Illinois and Connecticut are less vulnerable than they seem. Giannoulias is a known quantity in Illinois state politics, and Mark Kirk, whatever his good qualities may be, is considerably less well-known. That can be fixed with advertising and good campaigning, but there are also things that voters will not like when they find out more about Kirk. You can be sure that Kirk’s China blunder will haunt him for the entire campaign. Beyond being simply foolish, the China blunder can be used to portray Kirk as unprepared for higher office: “How can we trust him to represent all of Illinois responsibly?” and so on. Giannoulias will also be able to draw on significant funding here in the city, and simply because of Illinois’ recent electoral history he has to be considered the favorite. Dodd is more vulnerable because he is personally tainted by ethical problems, but it would be a bit surprising if Connecticut is the place where the GOP wins back support in New England while losing it everywhere else. Possibly the GOP’s best chance of a pick-up is actually in Nevada, where the electorate has been more evenly divided in the past and where Reid is not all that popular personally, but Republicans would need to field a candidate capable of taking advantage of these things.
So it is possible that Democrats could be looking at a net gain of at least one or two seats in the House and possibly a net gain of as many as five seats in the Senate. Many of the Republican-leaning districts that should remain in GOP hands are more vulnerable than they appear at first and certainly more so than they should be at this point. Rothenburg identified their problems earlier this year:
They [the DCCC] are also hoping that Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) will finally call it quits and retire, and that Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) will either retire or run for the Senate. Open seats in any of those districts would create real Democratic opportunities.
California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert’s surprisingly narrow win in 2008 obviously makes him a target, though his district certainly continues to lean Republican.
And Republicans such as Reps. Don Young (Alaska), Erik Paulsen (Minn.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Leonard Lance (N.J.) Henry Brown (S.C.) and Dave Reichert (Wash.), all of whom had close contests last year, have to prepare for another possible Democratic assault.
Finally, DCCC automated telephone calls into districts currently held by GOP Reps. Charlie Dent (Pa.), Judy Biggert (Ill.) and Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) reflect Democratic strategists’ views that those districts are either already Democratic enough or are becoming Democratic enough to present the party with new opportunities.
The last one, McCotter’s district, would be a very visible loss given his position in the House minority leadership, and losing there and in the Illinois seats would be in keeping with the general rout of the party from the Midwest. It should not be the case, but it seems that the public may not be finished punishing the GOP.
The Russians, and particularly Putin, took away a different lesson than the West did. The West assumed that economic dysfunction caused the Soviet Union to fail. Putin and his colleagues took away the idea that it was the attempt to repair economic dysfunction through wholesale reforms that caused Russia to fail. From Putin’s point of view, economic well-being and national power do not necessarily work in tandem where Russia is concerned. ~George Friedman
Friedman’s article reinforces my view that Biden’s recent statements in last week’s WSJ interview were not only foolish things to say publicly, but were basically flawed in their analysis of Russia’s response to its economic and other problems. Biden’s mistake in underestimating Russian strength because of their economic woes is the same one he was making when he told the Georgian parliament that Georgia could win back its separatist enclaves by building a prosperous model state: he evidently believes that political strength flows from economic strength and from no other source. As Friedman argues, this is not necessarily true of Russia. In any case, it fails to account for relative disparities of power between Russia and most of its neighbors, including most of Europe.
Friedman makes another important point, which is that Russian demographic decline will take a generation to lead to the kind of political weakness Biden is counting on. Biden and Obama are setting policy in 2009 that only makes sense in 2029 or later, assuming that the decline trend continues, or it is almost as if they still think it is 1999 and the U.S. may do whatever it likes in Russia’s vicinity. In the meantime, they are ensuring deepening distrust and antagonism from the one major power the U.S. needs as a regular ally. The administration has tended to approach foreign policy issues with very short-term thinking. I think we will find that their handling of Russia, while consistent with the last twenty years of U.S. policy and couched in all of this rhetoric about Russia’s long-term decline, is founded on an immediate perception of Russian weakness in the wake of the financial crisis and collapse of oil prices, which is not likely to be true of Russia in the next three or seven years. Russia may be declining over the long term, but in the present its exceptional weakness is a passing phase. We will probably never again see the $20 or $10/barrel oil prices of the ’90s that made Russia incapable of doing anything on the international stage.
As the global economy recovers, demand for oil will rise, and so will Russian oil revenues, which means that the unusually poor state of the Russian economy will not last for most of the rest of Obama’s time in office. While it is true that resource-rich state economies are fundamentally weak and too dependent on the export of a few commodities, they thrive in times of economic expansion, and the administration certainly has to be hoping for its own sake that global recession comes to an end. If Washington sets out to antagonize and provoke Russia during one of these periods of greater weakness, it will have no markers to call in when the economy recovers and when Russia is in a secure enough position to be willing to make certain concessions on negotiable issues.
What the administration does not grasp at all, as its predecessors have never understood, is that Moscow regards its influence over its near-abroad to be as non-negotiable as our government regards its influence in the Western Hemisphere. Short of total regime collapse, there are probably no conditions under which Moscow will tolerate further NATO expansion.