Daniel Larison

Thomas Friedman, Pan-Islamist

Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny— in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving. ~Thomas Friedman

I would say that this is blinkered, but we’re talking about Thomas Friedman, so that would be redundant. One of the most irritating things I have noticed during the last decade has been the whining from American pundits about how ungrateful the world’s Muslims have been in response to our alleged beneficence on their behalf. The grimly amusing part of this is that the whining pundits accept the assumptions of pan-Islamists, but put them to different, limited use: Muslims everywhere must feel gratitude for any assistance we have ever rendered to a Muslim population. Of course, if our policies have ever adversely affected a Muslim population, Muslims everywhere should not think that they have any particular interest in this, but should instead resist the siren song of pan-Islamism. I have made this observation before:

In other words, Americanists want Muslims to think like Pan-Islamists when it serves Washington’s purposes (i.e., when it is supposed to make Muslims favorably disposed to us), but Muslims must never think like Pan-Islamists when it doesn’t.

U.S. foreign policy has not been “largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny.” U.S. foreign policy has worked to support the causes of certain Muslim groups, provided they had the “right” enemies (i.e., states that we already opposed or disliked), and to undermine the causes of other Muslim groups that had the “wrong” enemies. The same people who could not rush to the aid of Bosniaks and Albanian Muslims fast enough are perfectly content to see thousands and tens of thousands of Arabs killed by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces. The people who pretend to weep for Chechnya do not even blink at the displacement of entire provinces in Pakistan. The would-be champions of democracy in the Islamic world have happily embraced anti-jihadi dictators in Uzkbekistan and Pakistan as necessary. My point here is not that Washington was right or wrong in backing one group and opposing another, which is an argument for another day, but simply that it would not be hard for Muslims around the world to notice the far more devastating effects of U.S. and U.S.-allied hostility to certain Muslim causes more than they notice the relatively more obscure cases in which Washington backed Muslim causes.

We wrongfully and unjustly bombed Serbia on behalf of Albanian Muslims, and now the Friedmans of the world want Muslims elsewhere to give us credit for taking the “Muslim side” in a conflict that means nothing to them while conveniently ignoring the far more obvious and ongoing support for governments that mistreat or oppress Muslim populations in several countries. When the counter-Narrative is so transparently silly (America is the friend of Muslims!), it is not too surprising that “the Narrative” gains ground. So long as our political and pundit class genuinely believes that we have been almost entirely good to Muslims, we will never understand why so many Muslims distrust and resent U.S. policies and U.S. influence and we will not be able to correct the impressions that our policies have spawned.


Romney And The Manhattan Declaration

A declaration intended as the defining statement of conservative Christian principle in the post-2008 political landscape – endorsed by over 150 people over a period of a month – found room for not a single Mormon signatory. Mormons may contribute generously to social conservative causes like the National Organization for Marriage and the campaign against same-sex marriage in California. But when it comes time to define what is Christian and what is not, Mormons are not to be included. I have to think that’s ominous news for the Romney 2012 campaign. ~David Frum

In the last two years I have written extensively on Romney’s religious problem, and on this point I think Frum’s analysis is somewhat correct about problems for Romney in the future, but this is not because there were no Mormon signatories to this declaration. One qualification I would make is that conservative Christian leaders are not the ones who normally have strong objections to Romney’s religion. It is simply that rank-and-file conservative Christians, and not just evangelicals, will not support someone whom they do not regard as a Christian. The leaders may not regard him as a Christian, but they do not automatically refuse to work together with him in political causes.

The declaration itself makes clear that it is expressing the view of conservative Christian leaders on specific moral issues within the confines of churches that can claim membership in what conservative ecumenists like to call “the Great Tradition.” Despite enduring theological differences, members of these three confessional traditions have enough of a consensus on basic doctrine and moral teachings that they can make statements on moral questions that carry some authority. The broader the theological coalition one assembles, the weaker and vaguer the statements necessarily become. This does not automatically rule out claims to Christianity made by members of other churches. It is probably true that most of the signatories would deny that Mormons are Christians in the same way that Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants are Christians, but Mormons were “excluded” here just as much as Armenian Apostolic and Assyrian Christians were “excluded.” It could be that there were no Mormon signatories because they could not agree to the simple doctrinal assumptions made in the declaration’s first paragraph; it is possible that there were no Mormon signatories because conservative Mormon figures were not able to define themselves in the way that the others could.

P.S. As an aside, it is fascinating to find a document that can win the support of Patrick Deneen, Metropolitan Jonah and Jody Bottum.


Stop Reordering The World

The Economist had a strange leader on Obama’s foreign policy (subscription required). The title was “The quiet American,” and the leader went on to ask:

Does this president have a strategy, backed if necessary by force, to reorder the world? Or is he merely a presidential version of Alden Pyle, Graham Greene’s idealistic, clever Quiet American who wants to change the world, but underestimates how bad the world is–and ends up causing harm?

This is very odd. First of all, Alden Pyle was the character who had a strategy backed by force (to be precise, the employment of terrorism to undermine the current government) to reorder Vietnam, and it proved to be a disaster for all concerned. Pyle was certainly idealistic, and it was this trait that blinded him to dangers of his meddling in the affairs of another country that he didn’t really understand. The problem with the Pyle character wasn’t that he underestimated “how bad the world is,” but that he grossly overestimated his own abilities (and the abilities of Americans in general) to “reorder the world” as desired. In other words, The Economist wants Obama to be more like Alden Pyle and they don’t seem to understand that this is what they want. One would have thought that we had had quite enough of ambitious, world-reordering Presidents ready and willing to use force quite often.


Amateur Hour?

Andrew is making entirely too much of these news stories that Fallows has tracked down. Fallows was right to reject the excessive criticism of Obama’s Asia trip. For my part, I didn’t think the trip should be judged on the basis of winning concessions on issues on which China was unlikely to budge. If the trip yielded a few minimal gestures of cooperation on contentious issues, so much the better, but that is not why the critics of the Asia trip were wrong. When push comes to shove, Russia and China are not going to join a new round of sanctions against Iran, and it seems improbable that China will follow through on any of the pledges it has started to make, so we should not expect the “gains” now being reported to lead to anything significant. What Obama did manage to do was to maintain and improve the quality of our relationships with several major powers. This is valuable in itself. If that is considered a waste of presidential time and prestige, perhaps we have an all together too elevated and inflated view of the President’s importance in world affairs.

As minor as the Russian and Chinese gestures are, these recent reports do put the odd complaints of Leslie Gelb and Peggy Noonan in a different light. Noonan leaned heavily on Gelb’s charge of “amateurism” to support her argument this weekend. Gelb’s main complaint is that Obama did not push for some preeminent American role in East Asia’s own organizations, but there’s no reason to think that he should have been doing this. Gelb wants to see Obama imitate post-WWII Atlanticist policies and apply them to East Asia, which obviously takes no account of how very different East Asia today is from the Europe of sixty years ago. Noonan took Gelb’s dissatisfaction as evidence that Obama was losing the “foreign policy establishment,” which is a pretty big conclusion to draw from one op-ed, and given Gelb’s track record I’m not sure that I would want to hear him praising my administration if I were Obama. One thing that’s quite remarkable about the “foreign policy establishment” is how wrong it gets most of the big questions. If they are clamoring for Obama to do more in Asia, he should probably ignore them.

The U.S. is not in any position to act as an “architect” of new economic or security structures in Asia beyond what already exists. We are going to participate to some extent in the structures that Asian nations create, but the preeminence and centrality of U.S. leadership are never going to be as great in East Asia in the coming decades as it was in western Europe in the ’40s and ’50s. Because of that, the U.S. is going to make big “gains” less often and sometimes not at all, and that is a reality we have to recognize and adapt to in the years to come.

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I strenuously disagree that a little mystic nationalism is “a good and healthy thing.” But I heartily agree with what I take Jonah to imply: that patriotism has little emotional substance without mystic nationalism. ~Will Wilkinson

Via Conor Friedersdorf

This is a lot of nonsense, which is just what we should expect from Wilkinson on this topic. For Wilkinson, patriotism and nationalism are virtually indistinguishable, so it suits him to accept Goldberg’s mistaken “mystic nationalism” line when he can use it to indict the former. In fact, patriotism has considerable emotional substance that nationalists have exploited for centuries. “Mystic nationalism” in itself is usually the product of a simplistic retelling of history mixed with a hefty dose of self-congratulation. It is the antithesis of patriotism as much as anything can be.

Goldberg is utterly, laughably wrong when he says that Thanksiving is “America’s only nationalist holiday.” There is nothing even remotely nationalist about Thanksgiving. Nationalism elevates the nation and, in its later manifestations, the nation-state to a position of virtual religious sanctity. Few things are capable of greater impiety than nationalism. To the extent that it has any political dimension, Thanksgiving is the negation of the arrogance, presumption and self-absorption that nationalism teaches. The celebration of Thanksgiving is supposed to be a recognition that all things are owed to God’s Providence, and that without Him we can do nothing. Nationalism is an obsession with our own virtues and a boast of our own strength. An act of thanksgiving is an acknowledgment that we are utterly dependent on God for everything.

If nationalists have since tried to hijack the story of the Pilgrims, who were as far removed in spirit from ideas of national greatness and power as possible (as they were both religious dissidents and political exiles), that has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. It is a reminder that nationalists have no respect for history, and that they will distort the past in whatever way they can to advance their cause.


Brazil, Turkey And Iran

The Post has an op-ed denouncing Brazil’s reception of Ahmadinejad, which brought to mind an article I had read earlier on “how the West lost Turkey.” The Post’s predictable line was that Brazil was harming its chances of being taken seriously as a major power by welcoming Ahmadinejad. Many similar threats have been made against Turkey on account of the foreign policy moves Erdogan has been making. The interesting thing about these threats is that the Turks and Brazilians don’t seem to care.

Danforth notes near the start of his article:

Understanding Erdogan’s political calculus starts with understanding that in Turkey anger at the West is near universal.

As Turkey becomes more democratic, and as Turkish interests always seem to get short shrift in Washington and Brussels these days, the Turkish public is going to reward politicians who make a show of challenging Western policies and will not punish them for building closer ties with neighboring and other Muslim-majority states. Likewise, understanding Lula’s thinking requires that we see that what the Post calls “anachronistic Third Worldism” is actually a very savvy, timely effort to tap into a broad Latin American backlash against U.S. influence in the region. As in Turkey, the direction Brazil is pursuing can be seen as the “outcome of long-brewing domestic trends.”

What is interesting about both states is that it is their unwillingness to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, which has somehow become the West’s litmus test of respectability, that seems to bother Washington politicians and pundits the most. In other words, two significant regional powers, one of which is a long-standing NATO ally, refuse to toe the line on an absurd and unworkable Iran policy, and this is supposed to prove that they are being unreasonable and irresponsible?

Something that Danforth does not stress enough in his article on Turkey is how much U.S. policies (and to a lesser extent EU foot-dragging on accession) have created the “near universal” anger there. Typically, Erdogan and the AKP are blamed for whipping up and exploiting these sentiments, but for the most part they are simply playing to the crowd and feeding off of sentiments that already existed. The more democratized Turkey becomes, the more likely it is that its government will disagree more often with Washington, but this is practically guaranteed if Washington continues to take the alliance with Turkey for granted and ignores Turkish concerns when formulating policies for the region. Invading Iraq over strenuous Turkish opposition was one of the greatest blows to the alliance, but the ongoing effort to isolate Iran could be the thing that creates a wider breach between our governments.

There is every reason why the U.S. and Brazil should be able to build a constructive economic and diplomatic relationship. If Brazil is trying to use some of its newfound global prestige to push back against a foolish and futile Iran policy, perhaps the wiser thing would be to reevaluate the merits of our Iran policy rather than jeopardize good relations with a rising power in our own hemisphere.


Cheap Outrage

Sure, Iran sees Evin as the mirror image of Guantánamo. But undoing that U.S. aberration was central to Obama’s message. Speaking out against the abuse of Iranian political prisoners must be equally so. Obama should continue to seek engagement — it’s the only way forward — while denouncing the outrages. ~Roger Cohen

Remedying our own government’s errors is one thing, but it is not at all clear why “speaking out” against Iran’s abuses should be equally vital to Obama’s administration. “Speaking out” against another regime’s abuses cannot be as important as eliminating our own abusive practices. This is true even when our practices pale in comparison to those of other governments. There are some things over which our government has essentially no influence. Indeed, one of the reasons our government has so little influence in this case is the decades-old insistence on severing all ties with Iran and endlessly ratcheting up pressure to try to isolate Iran.

In this case, “speaking out” is worse than useless. It is the sort of empty rhetorical gesture that Westerners engage in to feel better about themselves and to make a public display of compassion for people for whom they cannot (and possibly would not) do anything meaningful. In the meantime, harping on Obama’s lack of public outrage aids the forces in the U.S. that would like nothing more than to see continued mistrust and hostility between our governments.

Cohen says that Obama “needs to express the outrage of the United States of America,” which takes several things for granted. He assumes that Americans are particularly outraged by the treatment of Iranian political prisoners. No doubt, all of us believe this treatment is unjust and wrong, but how many are really outraged by it? What does it mean to say that we are outraged by it? If Obama “speaks out” on behalf of Iranian political prisoners, it might give them momentary encouragement, but it would change nothing in the regime’s behavior, except perhaps to make things worse. The demand that Obama “speak out” is ultimately a selfish one made by people who want to feel as if they and their government have some control over a situation that is beyond our control. If Obama issued ringing denunciations of Iranian abuses, it would give Western audiences some comfort, and it would offer some false hope to Iranian dissidents who would expect to see Obama shape his policy decisions accordingly, but it would primarily be for our own consumption and it would be a very easy way for Obama to score cheap political points with a political and pundit class steeped in our modern moralistic foreign policy traditions.


No Disrespect

Extending such an honor to the leader who hosted a conference of Holocaust skeptics and deniers, often predicts Israel will disappear from the map, stole his last election and is stiffing the West on Iran’s nuclear program is clearly a poke in the eye of Barack Obama.

Nor is this the only dissing of Obama and America by Lula. ~Pat Buchanan

The other “dissing” is supposed to be the ongoing support Brazil has given to Manuel Zelaya, the deposed Honduran president, but this cannot really be a show of direspect to Obama and America when the administration has taken the same pro-Zelaya position as Brazil’s government. I think the administration has been horribly wrong in how it responded to Zelaya’s deposition, and its subsequent treatment of Honduras has been outrageous, but if Obama and Lula are both backing Zelaya it is hard to see how the latter’s backing can be seen as an anti-American gesture.

So what of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Brazil? Certainly, that is a bit more provocative, or at least the Brazilian government should have known that it would be seen as something of a provocation, but a good question might be why this matters. Brazil is a rising power, a country of almost 200 million people and the eighth-largest economy in the world, and Lula has somewhat unrealistic aspirations of making Brazil a major player in international affairs. Brazil is Iran’s largest trading partner in the hemisphere, most of Iran’s neighbors accept Ahmadinejad as the elected Iranian president, and Lula believes that isolating Iran achieves nothing. Washington has made Iran’s nuclear program one of its top priorities, so it is conceivable that Brazil’s government sees an opportunity to insert itself into a major international issue and raise its profile by representing the position of many non-aligned states that simply do not see Iran’s nuclear program as a problem. Once again, the trouble may not be that other states are “failing” to get on board with our Iran policy. The trouble could be that our Iran policy is so ridiculous that few other major states see any reason to support it.

What other displays of disrespect have we seen? Mr. Buchanan believes that the new DPJ government’s foreign policy shift, which I think American realists and non-interventionists should welcome and encourage, represents some disrespect for America. The disagreement about renegotiating basing rights on Okinawa stems from long-standing local complaints about the ongoing U.S. presence there and the DPJ won some of its support because of this Japanese dissatisfaction with the existing negotiated arrangement.

64 years after the end of WWII, why do we still have bases in Japan at all? To the extent that the DPJ’s decisions represent moves towards less Japanese dependence on U.S. military power and a more independent Japanese foreign policy, this is the natural and long-overdue result of Japanese postwar development and something that critics of empire and overstretch should be happy to see. If Japan is otherwise reverting to “checkbook diplomacy” abroad, providing financial aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan but not participating in military operations, that seems to me to be the best of both worlds. If Japan moves towards greater economic and political cooperation with China, as the DPJ seems interested in doing, that could reduce the likelihood of future hostilities between them and relieve the U.S. of at least one of its numerous security responsibilities. Unless we are going to be the guarantor of Japanese security forever, something like this will have to happen sooner or later.

Mr. Buchanan says that Iran has “slapped away Obama’s open hand,” but this is because of a fundamental flaw with the Iran policy of the last three administrations: we demand that they scrap a program that they will never abandon. Russia and China will not support sanctions, but I am reasonably sure that Mr. Buchanan also believes additional sanctions on Iran to be useless and unnecessary. Likewise, scrapping the missile defense program in central Europe has not resulted in a direct quid pro quo as some, including people in the administration, seem to have expected, but the decision was right on the merits, it has removed an irritant from the relationship with Russia and undid one of the most unnecessary provocations of the last years of the Bush era.

Buchanan mentions Moscow’s opposition to Yushchenko’s re-election, but when Yushchenko was first elected he did not see this as a great success for the Bush administration. If Yushchenko was “our man in Kiev,” so much the worse for both us and Ukraine. As I recall, Yushchenko’s Western backing combined with the insane idea of bringing Ukraine into NATO were precisely the things that drew Mr. Buchanan’s criticism of Western interference in Ukraine’s presidential election. If Yushchenko is on the verge of humiliating defeat, which is as much a result of Ukrainian disillusionment with his failed tenure as it has anything to do with Moscow’s meddling, that seems to me to be an almost entirely good thing. During the tenure of the “pro-Western democrat” Yushchenko, Ukrainian confidence in multiparty democracy has collapsed, and the aftershocks of the financial crisis have similarly shaken Ukrainian confidence in market economics. Not all of this can be laid at Yushchenko’s door, but like any executive presiding over bad times he is taking the blame. If Yanukovych becomes the new president, that will likely mean less antagonism between Moscow and Kiev, there will be fewer disputes over natural gas pricing and delivery and therefore fewer shut-offs (the two governments have already negotiated a new deal that should make these less likely), and this means that Europe’s supply of natural gas is less likely to be jeopardized by political quarrels to the east. All of this points towards a decrease in tensions over the Crimea and Black Sea Fleet and a gradual improvement of ties between Russia and Europe, all of which should come as a relief to Americans, who need no more crises and conflicts to manage than we already have.

It is probably true that the administration’s policy on Israeli settlements is the one where the other government has demonstrated that it has no respect for Obama and his demands, and on this one Obama really has no one but himself and the members of his administration to blame. Unlike our Iran policy, where we do not have the means to achieve the stated objective, our Israel policy is defined by refusing to use the means of leverage we have. In short, Netanyahu called Obama’s bluff. In reality, the policy did not fail because Obama made the demand, but because in the end he was unwilling to exact a price for refusal and Netanyahu already knew that he would not even try.

As Mr. Buchanan acknowledges in this column, none of the things he mentions “represents a grave threat to any vital U.S. interest.” It is also difficult for me to see how most of these things demonstrate contempt or disrespect for America. In almost every case, local political conditions beyond American control or unrealistic policy goals account for all of the “setbacks” listed here.


Obama In Asia

My new column for The Week on Obama’s Asia trip is now up. Tish Durkin makes a different, related point in her column from earlier in the week:

In short, if a goal of this trip was to foster a feeling among the Chinese that they can and should work with the U.S., that goal was certainly achieved.

Other, headier goals were not. But who set those goals in the first place?

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Lieberman Has Always Been Predictable

Peter Beinart is right when he says that Lieberman’s opposition to the public option is driven to a large degree by personal bitterness, but he begins with the odd claim that Lieberman was once an “interesting” “iconoclast” and has now become a “right-wing pol.” I suppose there was a relatively brief time when Lieberman’s combination of domestic liberalism and hawkishness abroad was different and interesting inside the Democratic Party, but most of Lieberman’s career has spanned the last two decades when this combination has been more or less the one preferred by party leaders.

Looked at from either side of the spectrum, Lieberman has been anything but interesting. He has been the reliable defender of the “centrist” consensus established in the ’90s that finally accepted welfare reform and insisted on U.S. hegemony abroad. In practice, this “centrism” can be used to justify the most extreme, violent and destructive policies, but it is considered reasonable and acceptable because it does not partake of “fringe” ideas and enjoys the support of respectable, “serious” people. The trouble for liberals who accept this consensus is that they feel a constant pull to align themselves with corporate and financial interests in addition to endorsing every military action and security measure imaginable.

What has embittered Lieberman was not just the decline in his personal political fortunes inside his party, but it was also his recognition that the party that had been dominated by New Democrats was increasingly coming under the influence of progressives. Even if the increase was minimal, Lieberman found it intolerable, and he has penned more than a couple of op-eds decrying the supposed abandonment of his party’s national security tradition. In fact, the shift in the party’s foreign policy has been negligible, and Lieberman’s tantrums have been unnecessary, but this is what has pushed him in the direction he has gone. While most on the left were in some respects radicalized during the Bush years and even many liberal hawks were forced to question some of their assumptions, Lieberman showed time and again that his priority was always the promotion of his deeply misguided foreign policy views, and in practice this meant identifying closely with the Bush administration and its supporters. It was this, along with his own pride and ambition, that drove him to run an independent Senate campaign in 2006 (because the antiwar Lamont had to be stopped), and it was the same thing that led him into McCain’s presidential campaign.

Over time, he found that all of his strongest defenders were to be found among hawks in the GOP, and most of his fiercest critics were within his own party. It has become easier to side with his new friends rather than with other Democrats. In this way, Lieberman is just like McCain, whose flirtations with the Democratic Party and the occasional liberal legislative initiative were similarly driven by bitterness over his experience in the 2000 primaries. Arguably, the health care fight ought to have pulled Lieberman back into his party’s orbit and could have won him new respect among the party rank-and-file, but the problem is that he is too much like McCain. They both have an unusually inflated estimate of their own importance, they both tend towards sanctimonious moralizing, and they enjoy the attention they receive for breaking with their party leaders. The more contentious the issue, and the more the party’s base wants something, the more attractive breaking ranks becomes. The health care debate was too tempting.

Domestic policy is secondary to both McCain and Lieberman, and they take their positions on it based on what will make them appear “independent-minded” and secure their “centrist” reputations. He cannot emphasize his unflagging hawkishness as McCain did when the latter needed to rehabilitate himself with Republican primary voters, and the habits of years of hewing to the “centrist” line have finally made it impossible for him to align himself with progressives in a major domestic policy debate.

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