Daniel Larison

The Limits of Ideology (II)

Ross has replied to my my earlier post. There are several things I would like to say in response, but I want to start with his concluding point:

If the “old right” is ever going to be anything more than a sideshow in conservative politics, it needs to take its own beliefs about the limits of ideological thinking more seriously, and apply its criticisms of neoconservatives and liberals to its own leaders, writers, and institutions. Physician, heal thyself.

Of course, that is what some of us have been working on for many years now. This has been happening not only at this magazine since its inception, but has been a mark of “paleoconservatism at its best” for some time. We have not only provided outlets for dissident conservatives and libertarians of various stripes, but here at TAC in particular we have tried to bring in writers from across the spectrum to rethink conventional ideological categories, challenge our own prevailing views, and publish criticism of our own leaders. Comically, the intellectual curiosity and honesty that lead us to do these things are frequently used against us as proof of our “phony” conservatism and our supposed crypto-leftism. Considering how many more pressing issues there are to discuss, and considering how many more dangerous, powerful ideologies exist, it is remarkable that we spend as much time on this as we do.

It is disappointing but hardly surprising that Ross mostly glosses over all of this and has lumped all of us together with paleoconservatism “at its worst” as interpreted in the most polemical and hostile way. The “no-enemies-to-the-right” instinct that Ross denounces is actually proof of how sick most of us are of ideological purity tests. If we spent more time expelling undesirables, we would be having even more of the purity tests and outbreaks of factionalism that Ross claims are also proof of our ideological habits. In other words, there is no way for paleoconservatives to win this game: either we refuse to engage in purges, because we find ideological purity tests to be mind-numbing and petty exercises, or we engage in many more and impose all sorts of arbitrary standards of what people can and cannot say. One way or another, we will indict ourselves as ideologues according to Ross’ standards. Essentially, unless we wish to remain a “sideshow” we must become increasingly indistinguishable from the largely unimaginative, ideologically-stifled conservative movement that we have been criticizing for years for its lack of imagination and ideological mentality.

Ross wrote earlier in this post:

And finally, there’s the impulse to take an admirable principle — whether it’s Rand Paul’s staunch federalism or Pat Buchanan’s non-interventionism — and push it so far that people begin to doubt your intellectual judgment and your moral soundness alike.

Put another way, there is an impulse (by no means universally or equally shared) to question received wisdom from official American historiography that puts major events in U.S. history beyond any serious criticism. No doubt it would be more politically expedient and useful to offer no opinions on any major or controversial past event. What is worth noting here is that this stubborn insistence on revisiting old, settled debates is evidence that ideological thinking is not really one of our problems. Something that needs to be said here in this discussion is that principle is not ideology. Ideology exists first and foremost to acquire and justify the exercise of power, and this requires frequent, convenient forgetting and the superficial synthesizing of incompatible arguments. Nationalists are quite good at this: they can idolize political figures and causes centuries apart that are diametrically opposed to one another provided that they contributed in some way to an increase in the power of the nation, and they will likewise demonize very similar political figures and causes if they happen to be on the “wrong” side of the nationalist narrative at a particular time.

Ideologues try to craft “usable pasts” that facilitate the success of their present-day agenda. Probably nothing could be less “usable” or helpful to the cause of non-interventionism today than to argue that America should never have entered WWI and WWII because these wars did not serve American national security interests. If we non-interventionists were more ideologically-minded and therefore more flexible in our principles, we should have no difficulty pretending that entering these wars served the American interest and leave it at that, but there is the problem that many of us don’t think it is true. If we don’t think something is true, we have this incorrigible habit of saying so.

It might be worth having Ross provide some concrete examples of how paleoconservatives have been taking principles so far in relevant, current policy debates that he has begun to doubt our intellectual judgment and moral soundness.


The Partial Success of the “Reset”

Robert Kagan must think that no one will check the Bush administration’s record on Russia policy, or else he would not have written this column. Kagan focuses entirely on Russian support for watered-down Iran sanctions to make his argument that the “reset” has achieved absolutely nothing, which is what you would have to focus on to make this argument. As I have said many times, the administration was foolish to link Russian help on pressuring Iran to the other “reset” efforts, because that help would either not be forthcoming or would be so minimal as to be irrelevant. Having made Russian support for Iran sanctions into the measure of success for Obama’s Russia policy, the administration needlessly set themselves up for criticism just like Kagan’s.

Last year I had impatiently declared the “reset” to be empty and meaningless because it seemed that the administration was going to change nothing, but that was a bit of an overreaction. The administration later addressed Russian complaints about the proposed missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic and changed the missile defense plan to one that was somewhat less irritating to Moscow. Kagan noticeably fails to mention that the administration has been pursuing an alternative missile defense program elsewhere in Europe. The Prague treaty on arms reduction was another tangible result of a less openly confrontational policy against Russia. Russian support for supply lines for Afghanistan has been another. Naturally, both of these are nowhere to be found in Kagan’s column.

Then Kagan objects to things the administration has no power to stop or change:

Obama has officially declared that Russia’s continued illegal military occupation of Georgia is no “obstacle” to U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear cooperation. The recent deal between Russia and Ukraine granting Russia control of a Crimean naval base through 2042 was shrugged off by Obama officials, as have been Putin’s suggestions for merging Russian and Ukrainian industries in a blatant bid to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.

By “continued illegal military occupation of Georgia,” Kagan means the Russian military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that has been there in one form or another for almost twenty years. Of course, he skates by the reason why Russia’s military presence continues there and why it increased in the last two years, namely the Georgian-escalated war that targeted Tshkinvali and killed Russian soldiers stationed there. Kagan does not mention that both separatist republics want Russian protection and many of the inhabitants of the republics, especially South Ossetia, have taken Russian passports and may ultimately want to have their territories annexed to Russia. He ignores all of this because it would make the administration’s position seem reasonable and understandable.

How could the Russian presence in the separatist republics be an obstacle to civil nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and Russia? Is India’s control of Kashmir an obstacle to the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal? Is Turkey’s military presence in northern Cyprus an obstacle to U.S.-Turkish relations? Are we actually in the habit of linking such contentious political and territorial issues to other aspects of bilateral relations? What could the administration have realistically done in response to the Black Sea Fleet agreement or the natural gas deal between Ukraine and Russia? Is Washington going to start spouting the Ukrainian opposition line and try to be more concerned for Ukrainian sovereignty than Ukraine’s own government? That’s silly. When there is nothing that the U.S. can do, there is no purpose served in throwing a fit and denouncing agreements that both states have accepted and ratified. The natural gas deal might well be a horrible, corrupt rip-off of Ukrainian consumers, but what is Washington supposed to do about it?

So Kagan’s critique of the “reset” is hard to take seriously. His description of the current state of affairs is simply wrong. There is no “wave of insecurity” sweeping the region, and it is misleading to refer to “expansive Russia” as if it posed a threat to the territorial integrity of its neighbors. Instead of contentious relations between Russia and its neighbors that Washington was constantly stoking and trying to worsen with its encouragement of reckless, anti-Russian leaders, there is now relatively greater stability throughout the region and warmer Ukrainian-Russian relations, all of which serve the interests of all nations involved and the interests of Europe as a whole. At the same time, U.S.-Russian relations have slowly but genuinely improved, which was the main point of the “reset” all along.


Rand Paul and Iran

Apparently Rand Paul doesn’t meet Justin Raimondo’s eccentric and ever-changing purity test. Six months ago, Raimondo was full of praise for two reliable hawks who supported the Iraq war because they happened to be making the right politically expedient noises on Afghanistan, and he was cheering on Rep. Jason Chaffetz in particular as an example that the antiwar right was on the rise. As I pointed out at the time, Chaffetz believes that the United States should “take out” Iran’s nuclear facilities, which means that he explicitly called for starting a war with Iran. That didn’t bother Raimondo. However, Raimondo does think that Rand Paul’s statements on Iran are intolerably bad. So once again a consistent, early opponent of the Iraq war gets no credit from Raimondo, and Paul is now being held to a higher standard on Iran policy than the pro-war, pro-gasoline sanctions Chaffetz Raimondo celebrates.

I don’t deny that Rand Paul’s position on Iran leaves a lot to be desired. In the interview Raimondo cites, Paul says that he opposes government subsidies to companies doing business in Iran. That doesn’t mean very much, since the U.S. government doesn’t subsidize companies that do business in Iran. It is a formally pro-sanctions position without any new sanctions attached. He also wants public pension plans to divest any Iranian holdings, which is hardly the stuff of “crippling” sanctions, and it is probably just as meaningless as the other one. Divestment is futile for rather obvious reasons, and Paul overestimates the threat to regional stability from an Iranian nuclear weapon, and it is mistaken to say that a military option is on the table if one has no intention of exercising it.

As unfortunate as some of this is, there are some encouraging signs here. What seems significant is that Paul does not claim to favor imposing gasoline sanctions on Iran, nor does he voice any support for “crippling” sanctions of any kind. He does not go so far as to say that Iran’s nuclear weapons pose a threat to the United States, but instead he takes the exaggerated but more defensible position that they would contribute to regional instability. Obviously, he doesn’t volunteer any view in support of preventive war. Compared to Jason “The Time To Take Out This Threat Is Now” Chaffetz, Paul is far better on Iran policy, and for that matter he is far better on Iran policy than just about any major party candidate for the Senate. If he does not yet meet an exacting non-interventionist standard on this, he is much closer than most electable politicians. If Raimondo were applying any sort of consistent standard, he would have been far more critical of Chaffetz last year and far more enthusiasic about Paul right now.

Despite all this, Raimondo has cut Paul no slack and he has misrepresented Paul on an important point. Pro-war Chuck Hagel just had to make a few speeches against the “surge,” and Raimondo became ecstatic at the revival of the Old Right he claimed to see before his eyes, but when it comes to Rand Paul, who can credibly lay some claim to carrying on at least part of the legacy of the Old Right, Raimondo is suddenly suspicious and looks for problems. Paul’s criticism of the Nuclear Posture Review is just as misguided as every other Republican criticism we have heard, but we should understand that Paul’s criticism is consistent with Peter Feaver’s argument that removing strategic ambiguity was a mistake. I don’t agree with this, but it is hardly the unspeakable evil Raimondo pretends that it is. It is a debatable point, and it does not mean what Raimondo says it does.

Let’s try to remember that the review was addressing the possibility of using nuclear weapons in retaliation against states that launched biological or chemical weapons (and cyber-war) attacks on the U.S. The review exempted non-nuclear states that were in compliance with the NPT. All that Paul was objecting to was the modest change that explicitly and publicly included this exemption. As Feaver said in his op-ed a month ago, “Reasonable people can disagree as to whether the bargain is worth it, but it is a bargain on the margins.” Contrary to what Raimondo claims, this doesn’t mean that Paul necessarily favors nuking Iran under any circumstances, but that he believes strategic ambiguity is important for increasing deterrence. I don’t expect many non-interventionists to agree with this view, and I don’t agree with it, but it is actually a fairly mild disagreement that doesn’t tell us anything about how Rand Paul would vote on the sanctions bills pending before Congress or on any Iran-related legislation.

It certainly isn’t true that “not even the wildest-eyed neocon” has seriously proposed using nuclear weapons in retaliation against Iran in the (highly unlikely) event of an Iranian biological or chemical weapons attack on the U.S. After all, this is current Obama administration policy as laid out in the review itself, and most neoconservatives have been complaining that the review’s explicit exemption for NPT-compliant non-nuclear states was a sign of weakness. Rand Paul’s overall position on Iran is not as good as it could or should be, but it actually appears to be less confrontational and aggressive than administration policy, and it is clearly superior to the position of such supposed “antiwar” Republicans as Chaffetz.

Update: Raimondo has responded, but typically has nothing interesting to say except to make a lame jab at my support for the war in Afghanistan, which most non-interventionists also used to support when it was the war Bush neglected. He dislikes people who support the one just war we are fighting, cheered on someone who wants to start a war with Iran, and distorts the Iran position of one of the few candidates sympathetic to our views.

Earlier, I said that Raimondo misrepresented Rand Paul’s position on the Nuclear Posture Review. In his response, he does so again:

Rand Paul is the one who brings up the question of our nuclear first strike policy in the context of the Iranian question, not O’Reilly, and while O’Reilly agrees with him that we should strike a pose of “ambiguity” in this instance, the Fox News neocon drives home the point that Jim Bunning, Rand’s Republican predecessor (and endorser) would opt for an attack if it came to that. Rand’s answer is that he would “not take it off the table.”

So he’s not opposed in principle to attacking Iran – with nuclear weapons, no less! – and it seems likely, from his manner and his now well-established record of caving in to pressure, that he would go along with the program when the bombs start falling on Tehran.

The video is quite clear that Paul objects to the change in declaratory policy. That doesn’t mean that he favors using nuclear weapons in retaliation against non-nuclear unconventional attacks. He objects to making an explicit, public statement outlining when such weapons would not be used. The review is not concerned with using these weapons to launch a war against another state, but addresses their use in the event that the United States is attacked with unconventional weapons. What we can say with confidence is that Paul does not automatically rule out military action against Iran. He also said, “It is equally reckless to say, well, if they get a nuclear weapon, I’ll drop a nuclear weapon on Tehran.” In other words, Paul is specifically rejecting the view Raimondo attributes to him. Simply put, everything Raimondo said about Paul wanting to nuke Iran is baseless and unfounded. Raimondo is assuming the worst about Rand Paul on extremely weak evidence, and there seems to be no real purpose served by any of it. Could it get any drearier than that?


Interventionism and International Order (IV)

It’s true that the U.S. has justified some of its more ill-conceived actions as being consonant with its international commitments, but in many cases (especially our big ticket wars), it was the U.S. pushing these institutions in the direction of activism, not vice-versa. The U.S. “forum shopped” the war in Kosovo, settling on NATO only after it failed to win over the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. was not led off to battle under the authority (or persuasion) of an international body. Ditto the second Iraq war, where the U.S. sought legitimation for an action it had already decided upon. Indeed, the entire liberal internationalist argument in favor of global institutions is precisely their ability to lend international legitimacy to actions the U.S. seeks to take in its own interest [bold mine-DL]. ~Greg Scoblete

I appreciate Greg’s response, and he’s quite right that Washington has used NATO and the U.N. as covers for actions it wanted to take anyway. I’m not sure it follows that the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq would have happened had there not been a major U.S. role in these institutions that provided the pretexts for military action. The practical and political objections to interventionism increase when the President cannot invoke American “leadership,” the “international community” or the “credibility” of this or that institution.

Obviously, the U.N. was not forcing George Bush into Iraq, but the heart of the legal argument for the invasion, such as it was, was that it was necessary for the enforcement of U.N. resolutions and the upholding of the authority of the U.N. Willful misreadings of UNSCR 1441 aside, the U.N. never authorized the use of force in 2003, but had the Bush administration not presented itself as the enforcer of international norms and used the U.N. as a source of legitimation for the invasion it is difficult to see how any first- or second-tier powers could have cooperated in the war.

For example, Britain could not have legally participated in the invasion or occupation, and the same would go for most of the others in the “coalition of the willing.” The invasion was already pretty blatantly illegal, but without the fig leaf of enforcing U.N. resolutions and the pretense that the security of the entire world was threatened the U.S. would have faced the prospect of being almost completely isolated and at odds with virtually every other major power in the world. Bush did not invade Iraq because of obligations to the U.N., but the administration’s spin on those obligations facilitated the invasion in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.

If the U.S. had not been a member of the organization and one of its five most politically important members, it is difficult to see how the U.S. would have ever been taking the lead in punishing and sanctioning Iraq, and it is difficult to see how any administration could claim that Iraqi weapons programs were a matter of national security. As it was, the idea of an Iraqi threat to American national security was hard to take seriously, but the skepticism and opposition at home would have been even stronger had the U.S. not spent more than a decade as an enforcer of a collective security that Iraq no longer seriously threatened.

Of course, there was no legal basis for the war against Yugoslavia, but had the U.S. no longer been in NATO in 1999 it is hard to see how a low-level internal conflict in the southern Balkans becomes an American concern. Had the U.S. not been intent on finding some new purpose for an outdated and irrelevant alliance, it is hard to imagine why so many American hawks would have supported the war. One of the original purposes of NATO was to “keep the Americans in,” and Washington has a made a point of keeping NATO going in order to provide an excuse for America to act as a European power. It was this involvement in a multilateral alliance that put the U.S. in a position of taking an interest in the stability and security of peripheral parts of Europe that had nothing to do with us, and it was this role as a European power left over from the Cold War that put the U.S. on a course to humiliate Russia by punishing its historic ally and client.

As for Bolton and other hawkish critics of the U.N., some of them might welcome the theoretical freedom of action that non-participation would seem to bring, but if what I have been arguing is right the U.S. is much more free to act (and sometimes act abusively) when it is integrated into these institutions and can claim to be acting in the interest of global security. Multilateral institutions do not provide checks on interventionist impulses, and in some cases they can enable interventions that might otherwise not happen. For all of their complaining about ineffectiveness and corruption, hawkish critics of the U.N. are generally quite happy to use the U.N. to legitimize aggressive policies abroad. They would be among the first to lament America’s non-entry into the League of Nations, and they would also be among the first to object to the “isolationist” sentiments of people who oppose their proposed aggressive policies. Despite their “unilateralist” inclinations, they have a considerable amount in common with liberal internationalists, and as we see all the time the difference between unilateralists and multilateralists is to be found in disagreements over the means and the not the end. They are no less interested in global governance than liberal internationalists, but would like to see global governance mostly concentrated in American hands.

It is probably true that there is no ideal arrangement that will keep interventionism in check, and the U.S. was involved in foreign wars and overseas empire-building before the world wars, so there is no guarantee that interventionists would not continue to join and start wars if the U.S. left these institutions. Even so, a reduced U.S. presence in international institutions could make future military interventions more politically and practically difficult to launch, and it might allow our debates over war and peace to focus squarely and solely on American interests. Ultimately, interventionism will survive and thrive for as long as most Americans tolerate or celebrate it. Still, if future administrations cannot hide behind these institutions and the global “leadership” role that goes with them, it will probably be harder at the level of the political class and foreign policy elites to justify the same degree of global military presence and meddling in other nations’ affairs.


The Limits of Ideology


And it shouldn’t come as a shock that [Ron Paul’s] son found himself publicly undone, in what should have been his moment of triumph, because he was too proud to acknowledge the limits of ideology, and to admit that a principle can be pushed too far.

When I first read Ross’ column, it seemed to be a reasonably fair and effective critique of “paleo” flaws, but something about it kept bothering me. Some of this has to do with Ross’ references to ideology. Most conservatives sympathetic to Rand Paul abhor ideology as such and not only recognize its limits, but are acutely aware of its distorting powers and flaws. Indeed, it has been the “paleo” right that has been relentless in criticizing the ideological mentality that dominates so much of conservative thought today. It has been one of our main themes for the last decade. If anyone has been aware of the limits of ideology, it has been people like Rand Paul. If anyone has been oblivious to those limits, it has been the people on the right who acknowledge Paul and his supporters only by way of belittling and dismissing them.

Something else that has not been discussed very much in response to Rand Paul’s controversial remarks is that Paul’s main error derives mostly from an overconfidence in the rationality and morality of both markets and democracy. This is arguably the product of an unduly optimistic assessment of human behavior. No one would normally accuse paleoconservatives of any of these things, since we are normally considered excessively pessimistic and skeptical of both the market and mass democracy. Put another other way, Paul has been subjected to particularly intense scrutiny because he has expressed confidence in markets and democracy in a way similar to, but less naive than, the ideologues who championed the inevitable triumph of democratic capitalism and promoted the ideas of Near Eastern regional transformation by force and the failed “freedom agenda.” The rather obvious difference is that Paul’s remarks had and will have no effect on policy whatever, but he could very well be politically punished more than all the people who helped wreck entire countries and provided the justification for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

For the most part, when “paleos” err we err because we are very concerned to prevent abuses of government power and because we want to keep the government from using its coercive powers unnecessarily and arbitrarily. Given their deference to the national security and warfare state, our critics on the right cannot say the same. This may lead us to go to extremes or to take the wrong position in a particular debate on occasion. Nonetheless, the alternative to this is a conservative movement that has obviously “sold out to both big government and the military-industrial complex.” We are all well-acquainted with what this means for our country, and generally speaking it has been a disaster. Rand Paul’s success so far offers the possibility of something different and better. It is simply foolish to try to destroy that.

Update: I’m afraid that Max Fisher has misunderstood my second paragraph. The point I was trying to make, and which I apparently did not make very clearly, was that Paul is being raked over the coals for being overly confident in the rationality and morality of markets and democracy in a way that resembles democratist ideologues, but the latter are never held accountable for being even more hubristic and unreasonable in their ideological convictions that have had disastrous consequences in the real world. Paul made some controversial remarks on a cable news show that he has since clarified. Democratist ideologues helped destroy whole countries in the name of democratic capitalist triumph. If we believed Ross, they were well-intentioned do-gooders who just made a few mistakes, and Rand Paul is a proud ideologue blind to complexities of the real world. I was criticizing the dramatic difference in how Paul is being treated and the way that ideologues who are actually responsible for enabling mass destruction and death have been treated.


Confused Advice

Doug Schoen believes that Democrats should imitate Joe Sestak and Bill Halter, who were both more progressive candidates running against compromised “centrists,” but they should also imitate Mark Critz and “move decisively to the right.” As you may have noticed, this doesn’t make much sense. All three do have some anti-Washington credibility, and they can all cast themselves as being independent of the administration and party leadership in different ways, but there is nothing ideologically consistent about them. The correct lesson is that Democratic candidates should tailor campaigns to suit specific electorates, whether that means running away from, towards or (if it is possible) alongside Obama and the Democratic leadership. Critz’s victory shows how Democrats can win in conservative Democratic, McCain-voting districts. It is not “the only way the Democrats can win.” If the Democrats try to pursue a single model one way or the other, it will backfire.

There are states and districts where a Critz-style campaign would depress Democratic turnout and would do nothing to win over independents. This is what Creigh Deeds’ awful campaign did in Virginia, and he was routed decisively. The story for the last year has been low Democratic enthusiasm, which has translated into genuinely weak turnout in most off-year and primary elections. This has not happened because Democratic voters were disillusioned by a supposedly left-wing agenda, but at least partly because Obama coalition voters found that the administration favored “centrist” compromises and solutions most of the time. On the other hand, there are states and districts where Critz’s approach would work quite well. A suburban, Obama-supporting district such as Pennsylvania’s 7th will require a different approach and a different message from the anti-outsourcing, socially conservative message that worked in Pennsylvania’s 12th.

The DCCC and DSCC have a record during the last two cycles of correctly recognizing the differences and adjusting accordingly. Their Republican counterparts seem obsessed with running the same kind of candidate with the same broken-record, unimaginative national message almost everywhere. Rand Paul in Kentucky is practically the only Republican candidate that doesn’t match the cookie-cutter model that the party keeps trotting out at every election, and it is probably partly because of this difference that Paul generated such a strongly favorable response from primary voters. That doesn’t mean that Republicans should follow Schoen’s advice and try to copy Rand Paul in every other race. All that this would do would be to replace one uniform, national strategy with another.


Misunderstanding Iran and the Nuclear Deal

Forbes is on the warpath against the Turkish and Brazilian nuclear deal this week. Another contributor, Melik Kaylan, attacks the deal and Erdogan in particular for pursuing it. If Claudia Rosett showed that she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word quisling with her latest effort, Kaylan’s column proves that he doesn’t understand much about Turkish history or Turkey’s neighbors.

For example, Kaylan tells us that Iran is “an ancient rival with whom [Erdogan’s] people have fought incessant wars for a millenium.” It is true that there were several Ottoman-Safavid and Ottoman-Qajar wars, but I believe there were only eight wars total in three hundred years, all of which were between the early 1500s and 1823, and the last major war between Turks and Iranians was fought when James Monroe was President. So they haven’t fought each other for a millennium, and their fighting has been anything but incessant, and whatever rivalry once existed was a modern phenomenon and it no longer really exists. Other than that, Kaylan’s description is excellent.

Elsewhere, Kaylan informs us that Russia is “expansionist,” which is typical misinformation. Kaylan is hardly the first and won’t be the last to abuse this word to refer to Russian foreign policy, so while it is false it is less remarkable than his description of Iran. He doesn’t like that Erdogan has been improving relations with “an expansionist Iran with dreams of a transnational Shiite caliphate all around Turkey’s borders.” It would help his cause a bit if any of these things were true. Even if Iran were expansionist, which it isn’t by any reasonable definition of the word, it couldn’t have dreams of any kind of Shi’ite caliphate because Twelver Shi’ites don’t want a caliphate. Indeed, ever since the usurpation against Ali the institution of the caliphate has often been viewed as an instrument of oppression directed against Shi’ites, and this hostility was sealed with the murder of Husayn. Unlike Isma’ilis, Twelver Shi’ites have no history of establishing an alternative caliphate. For the duration of Ottoman-Iranian conflict in the modern period, the Ottoman Sultan held the title of caliph following the Ottoman occupation of Mecca and Medina. That means that ever since Iranian rulers have been identified with Shi’ism since the beginning of the Safavid dynasty they have been political rivals of the rulers who claimed to be caliphs. How the Iranians are going to surround Turkey with this imaginary caliphate that they don’t want is anyone’s guess. Perhaps there is an as-yet-undiscovered army of Greek Shi’ite caliphalists just waiting for the order to strike. Then again, perhaps not.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Kaylan has a very poor understanding of Iranian intentions, which hardly makes him the best guide in understanding the merits and flaws of the nuclear deal with Iran.


Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy (II)

Greg Scoblete raises some important questions in his comments on Rand Paul’s foreign policy and my recent column. He questions Paul’s support for withdrawal from major international institutions:

It’s one thing to make the case to the American public that U.S. foreign policy is too meddlesome in other states’ business, too quick to reach for punitive sticks and too grandiose in scope and ambition. If that was Paul’s message, I suspect it would find a lot of takers [bold mine-DL]. But this is only a piece of what is a larger, more radical frontal assault against the post WWII institutions that, for better or for worse, the U.S. has worked to shape and lead to our general betterment. Some, like NATO, have arguably outlived their usefulness. Others, like the IMF and World Bank, likely need reforms. But a blanket rejection of U.S. participation in all of them just seems ill considered.

Each of these points needs to be taken one at a time. Simply as an electoral matter, emphasizing one’s opposition to U.S. meddling in other countries’ affairs, bashing punitive policies, and criticizing American ambitions abroad are exactly the kinds of things that Rand Paul’s father did on a regular basis, and it was a political loser with the Republican rank-and-file. It may be that there are a lot of people who would respond favorably to this message, but they are mostly not Republican primary voters and Rand Paul understood that he would have gotten nowhere if he emphasized these things.

Greg says that the major institutions are ones that the U.S. had a major role in creating “for better or worse,” and he is right. The easy answer is that Paul and many of his supporters usually think it was for worse. The creation of these institutions was part of the United States’ assumption of enormous responsibilities in the post-WWII world. We can argue over how important it was that the U.S. take up those responsibilities at that time, but I think Paul would object to continued membership in these organizations because of the very activist and interventionist role the United States has played abroad in order to fulfill its obligations to them. He might also object to continued membership on the grounds that these institutions no longer need U.S. participation to function, and that whatever extraordinary role the United States may have had to fill after WWII and during the Cold War is now outdated. The non-interventionist appeal that Greg finds reasonable is closely tied to the general aversion to involvement in international institutions.

One reason why pro-sovereignty conservatives dislike membership in these institutions is the perceived and real costs membership has imposed on the U.S. For those of us who usually emphasize the costs to other nations that U.S. interventionism imposes, this may seem a bit odd, but it is a way to talk about the same problem in a language that otherwise hawkishly-inclined Republicans will understand and accept. Over the last twenty years, the United States has gone to war or deployed American troops overseas numerous times, but many of these were officially done to fulfill obligations to the United Nations, enforce U.N. resolutions or maintain the “credibility” of NATO. Sometimes American interests were also arguably at stake (Korea), and other times they clearly were not (Kosovo, Iraq). If one begins with the assumption that the United States should only use its military in national defense and defense of American interests, this seems like an intolerable imposition and a waste of American resources and lives. It is partly because of the demands made on the U.S. military and the country in the name of belonging to these institutions that many pro-sovereignty conservatives would prefer not to belong. For these reasons, even though he is often arguing for the same things as other non-interventionists, Paul’s emphasis on U.S. sovereignty resonates with these conservatives in a way that attacking U.S. interventions directly would not.

The more involved answer is that we have to remember that Paul believes that the United States should avoid entangling and permanent alliances, and so he does not approve of our government ceding any authority to international bodies. Concerning the latter point, I assume he objects to this because he regards these bodies as both unnecessary and unaccountable to American citizens. One can debate their necessity, but the accountability argument is much stronger. In this respect Paul’s pro-sovereignty position is roughly similar to that of strong Euroskeptics in Britain in their attitudes towards the EU. To the extent that Paul and his supporters already regard the federal government as too powerful and believe power is too centralized in Washington, they are going to be even unhappier with more distantly-removed organizations over whose operations they have no meaningful say. There is an important democratic self-government element to this pro-sovereignty view.

Regarding the IMF and World Bank, Paul’s opposition to U.S. participation is even easier to understand and explain. Put simply, he doesn’t want the U.S. providing funding for lending to other governments, which is an extension of his general opposition to foreign aid. This position certainly has something going for it. It removes the U.S. from institutions responsible for a different kind of intrusive intervention in the affairs of other countries, and it would keep American funds from supporting a bankrupt model of development aid that has been as much of a burden to the recipient states as it has been a help and has arguably delayed and retarded economic innovation and growth in those countries. If one agrees with Easterly that “[t]he real Africa needs increased trade from the West more than it needs more aid handouts” and if one applies that lesson more broadly, Paul’s position on ending U.S. participation in these two institutions may sound radical, but it also would seem to make sense for both creditor and debtor nations.

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Allies Are Not Lackeys, And Rising Powers Are Not Quislings

Perhaps if Obama had questioned Turkey’s credentials earlier, his administration would not have found itself grappling this week with Turkey’s quisling deal in Tehran. It is way past time for Washington to yank Ankara’s license as regional broker, and stop reaching out and start standing up tall to Iran. ~Claudia Rosett

How would Washington go about “yanking” a license it has no power to grant or revoke? What can it possibly mean to say that the administration should “start standing up tall to Iran”? It has been pursuing the same futile and bankrupt Iran policy of confrontation and isolation as its predecessor, and all the while it has been accused of capitulating to Tehran. Even when it is slapping down the Turkish and Brazilian nuclear deal, the administration is supposedly responsible for Turkey’s pursuit of its own foreign policy goals, and all because it did not treat a Turkish ally as insultingly as Obama’s critics falsely claim he has treated many other allies. On one of the few occasions when the U.S. actually has tried to humiliate a long-standing ally by dismissing the deal Turkey helped broker, the administration critics who cannot stop talking about his alleged “snubs” of U.S. allies are finally pleased and wished he had treated Turkey as dismissively in the past.

Yes, of course, their previous outrage about the mistreatment of allies was mostly feigned and opportunistic, but that is not the main problem. More important than that, these critics are perfectly happy to demand that our government give our allies whatever it is their governments want and go along with their policies, no matter how unwise, provocative or counter-productive they are. Then, when one of our allies does something constructive and useful that could possibly facilitate an end to the impasse with Iran, these critics are among the first to complain about the ally’s treachery. Turkey’s improved relations with Syria and Iran provide the U.S. with an opportunity, not an obstacle. If Washington insists that states have to choose between good relations with their immediate neighbors or good relations with us, there may come a time when they do not choose to be on good terms with us.

Turkey’s “zero problems” approach to its neighbors is a perfectly normal one, and one that the administration should welcome. It is the sort of thing one would think Washington would want to encourage, but of course we know that when it comes to the Near East, the former Soviet Union or East Asia it seems as if it has been standing policy to support governments that are happy to perpetuate or create problems with their neighbors and to denounce governments that attempt to minimize or resolve them. American hawks have had the same negative reaction to the election of Ma in Taiwan, Hatoyama in Japan, Roh in South Korea, and Yanukovych in Ukraine, and will undoubtedly see whoever succeeds Saakashvili in Georgia in the same “quisling” terms. Wiser observers understand that Ma’s rapprochement with Beijing is a good development, not least because it reduces the likelihood of a conflict over Taiwan, and that the warming of relations between Kiev and Moscow removes an unnecessary irritant from U.S.-Russian relations.

What Rosett finds objectionable about Turkey’s behavior is not that it has become a quisling state, which is a deeply insulting and unjustified thing to say, but that it does not play the part of an obedient lackey and puppet. Our allies are not lackeys to be ordered about and told to keep quiet, and their loyalty is not something to be taken for granted and exploited without any recpicrocity. Turkey will be an increasingly independent and assertive actor in the Near East and elsewhere, and it is going to pursue its perceived national interests. The more that Americans define Turkey’s pursuit of its interests as inimical to our own, the worse relations with Turkey will get until at some point Turkey may go from being an independent-minded ally to a state aligned entirely with other powers.


Making Sense Of The Elections

The victory of Rand Paul in Tuesday’s Republican senatorial primary in Kentucky – with the strong support of the constitution-obsessed, small-government Tea Party movement – shows that Republicans are ready to offer the public a drastic reduction in the size of government. They offered this before, of course, in 1994, but ran aground on their own corruption and the public’s shallow understanding of what cutting government actually meant. ~Christopher Caldwell

It can hardly be a bad thing after the last decade of illegality to be more Constitution-obsessed, but leave that aside. Most Republicans today aren’t ready to propose a “drastic reduction.” At most, we can say that a majority of Republicans in Kentucky apparently favor this view. Given the tendency of the Kentucky electorate to elect Republicans to statewide office over the last two decades, almost any Republican nominee would be in a good position to win in the fall there. Throughout the Midwest and the old border states, the NRSC has mostly recruited bland, presumably electable candidates such as Mark Kirk, Dan Coats, Rob Portman, and Roy Blunt, and they have no intention of campaigning on a platform of drastic spending cuts.

That isn’t meant to take anything away from Rand Paul’s success so far or from the importance of his message, but it is important to distinguish between one candidate’s fiscal conservative message that is necessary and politically viable in a particular state and the national party’s message that is basically unserious on fiscal policy but unfortunately also more competitive nationwide. Most Republicans are the new champions of the entitlement status quo, and their motto seems to be “Medicare Forever!” They cannot flee from Paul Ryan’s budget proposal fast enough, because they are terrified of being tied to its proposed cuts.

So most Republican candidates aren’t proposing any significant cuts at all, because they do not want to jeopardize their chances of winning in a favorable election cycle. There will always be the usual noises about “waste, fraud and abuse” and earmarks, but these are irrelevant to the fiscal problems we face, and for the most part Republicans are relying on the public’s ignorance about the budget to make their irrelevant anti-earmark rhetoric sound important and credible. In other words, when presented with what they claim is an unprecedented favorable election year they are content to sit back, take no serious risks, and provide no real leadership. Republican overconfidence in their political fortunes might be less annoying if it were matched by a similar confidence in proposing a relevant agenda.

The GOP did not propose “drastic reduction” in government before the ’94 election, but they did take their victory that year as a mandate for at least some reduction in spending. They were undone partly by their own misreading of the public mood and their misinterpretation of the election result, and partly by their poor leadership that was frequently outmaneuvered by a savvier Democratic President. There was corruption in the Republican majority, but it did not become an obvious, major issue until the 2000s, and even then it didn’t cost them much until 2006. The public may have a shallow understanding of what is involved in cutting government spending (in part because most people vastly overestimate how much money is spent on foreign aid), but what the majority does seem to understand is that there are some kinds of spending that it does not want reduced at all. The same Medicare spending that leading Republicans now treat as sacrosanct and untouchable was one of these. For the sake of short-term positioning, the Republican absolute defense of Medicare, which is at the core of any push for health care repeal, has made it virtually impossible to make a credible argument for getting public debt under control.

Caldwell does have a more interesting take on Tuesday’s election results than most:

Tuesday’s elections hint at a darker and more destabilising outcome: a Republican party not quite strong enough to stop the president’s plans and a Democratic party too weak and unpopular to pay for them.

This is possible. The difficulty is that a real Republican austerity agenda designed to eliminate the debt would be hugely unpopular, and their rank-and-file would not tolerate the tax increases that would probably have to be part of any solution. Having relied heavily on emphasizing how the unpopularity of a measure justifies opposition to it, as they did throughout the health care debate, they are in a uniquely bad position to argue for unpopular but necessary proposals for eliminating debt.

The GOP expects to win by default and expects to be rewarded for opposing the stimulus and health care bills. On the whole, the party leadership does not offer any proposal for how to pay off the staggering debt we are accumulating, and as I already mentioned it distances itself from the few serious attempts to grapple with that problem. Misinterpreting their losses in ’06 and ’08, they have adopted an anti-spending posture without any real fiscal conservative substance. Having lost the public’s trust during their time in the majority largely for other reasons they still cannot face, Republicans have done nothing to win it back and have been counting on weakness in the economy and the normal midterm correction to do all of their work for them. Despite the poor economic conditions and general discontent, this is why they remain the more unpopular of the two parties. That may partially avoid the destabilizing future Caldwell describes. It suggests that the public can thoroughly dislike the Democrats in Congress and will still trust their party more when it comes time to vote.

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