Daniel Larison

Partisan Mindset (III)

Ross has qualified the claims he made in his column, and explains how he thinks partisanship affects political opinions in a new post. He writes:

So the great T.S.A. debate doesn’t show that conservatives are about to repudiate everything the Bush administration did on national security….What it does show, though, is that conservatives are increasingly open to criticizing security policies that are specific to Obama from a libertarian rather than a national-security perspective (something you could also see happening a bit in the debate over assassinating Anwar al-Awlaki), if the libertarian argument offers the more plausible and popular case.

That makes some sense. Even so, it is worth pointing out that conservative critics of the executive’s claim that it has unreviewable power to order the death of U.S. citizens on the basis of secret evidence have been relatively few and far between. The al-Awlaki case has been one where the Obama administration has expanded on the power grabs of the Bush administration in a genuinely dangerous and destructive way, the libertarian argument against this power grab is the only plausible one there is, and yet for the most part there has not been any real backlash, not even from a “hypocritical and inconsistent opposition.” What that tells me is that most conservatives are not unduly concerned about Obama claiming powers to order the deaths of citizens without due process or judicial review, but many seem very agitated that they must go through an obnoxious airport ritual that they and the TSA agents and everyone else knows has nothing to do with thwarting terrorism. Consistency may be overrated, but one would think that the priorities would be the other way around.

If the partisan mindset were so very powerful, surely the executive’s claim to have unreviewable assassination power should generate more pushback than obnoxious scanning devices at airports. The assassination power claim is a new issue, and one that has far more frightening implications and potential for abuse than anything that the TSA is doing, but it goes largely unnoticed or even wins applause from the right. To make sense of this, it helps to compare it to mainstream conservative critiques of the war in Afghanistan, which usually take aim at its “nation-building” aspect. These critics are frustrated with nation-building as wasteful, but remain basically supportive of nation-destroying: the former is time-consuming, expensive, and complicated, while the latter can be quick, relatively “cheap” and “easy” and largely painless (at least for most Americans). Likewise, the TSA procedures are time-consuming, inconvenient, obnoxious and more directly affect people we know, and the other issue is remote and mainly affects other people. Whatever virtue there is in having a “hypocritical and inconsistent opposition” to act as a check on the concentration of power in the executive and in Washington would seem to be lost if the opposition can’t bring itself to protest against the truly egregious power grabs by the executive.

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Alarmism Won’t Save START

For most of the last two weeks, I have been arguing for START ratification, and I have been insisting that ratification will boost American and allied security. One of the advantages that treaty supporters have had is that arguments in support of the treaty have generally been well-grounded in reality. It is therefore remarkably unhelpful to have advocates of the treaty say ridiculous things like this:

So quick approval of this treaty goes beyond questions of national security. It’s about national survival. The terrorist attacks nine years ago were unspeakable, but America could withstand more Sept. 11′s. It can’t survive one major nuclear attack.

God willing, we will never have to test the limits of American endurance, but can Harrop actually be serious? Besides being almost comically alarmist, Harrop’s claim betrays an amazing lack of confidence in the nation’s ability to survive even one catastrophic attack. Something that ties together the worst hawkish opponents of the treaty with its most alarmist defenders is the largely irrational fear they have of North Korea, as if these states are going to hand off weapons they have spent years developing at enormous cost and risk retaliation from the U.S. in the event one of them is used. The far greater dangers are unsecured nuclear materials in Russia that might be stolen or sold. Failure to ratify potentially jeopardizes cooperation in securing those materials, and it makes it impossible to negotiate the reduction or elimination of tactical nuclear weapons. Obviously, we have a very real security interest in both of these things, and both are at risk if the treaty goes down, but the petty fearmongering of some treaty advocates is absurd and harmful to the already-poor prospects for ratification. Neither North Korea nor Iran is going to subject the U.S. to a “nuclear holocaust,” and it is reckless and foolish to say so. This isn’t going to make treaty skeptics more likely to support the treaty; it will simply prove to them that the administration has not been “doing enough” on these other fronts, and that its preoccupation with arms control is a waste of time.

It’s certainly true that failing to ratify this treaty is harmful to U.S. interests, and in combination with the Wikileaks debacle it will make the conduct of foreign policy extremely difficult for the rest of Obama’s term and beyond. It is shameful to pursue partisan advantage at expense of the national interest, but it is nonsense to describe this as treason, which is effectively what Harrop says Kyl has committed. If this is what supporters of the treaty are reduced to arguing to get a hearing at this stage, the treaty is in even worse condition than I thought.

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Partisan Mindset, Continued

Really? Because I’m fairly certain a lot of voters sort of expected Obama to be better on civil liberties than his predecessor. I’m quite certain that Obama did not in fact run on expanding the scope and intrusiveness of the TSA to include naked scanners and groping. I’m quite certain that many of the people defending the TSA and Obama’s various security efforts – from assassinations to drone attacks – would not be defending them were a Republican in the oval office. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure Obama himself wouldn’t support Obama policies if he were still a Senator rather than the Commander-in-Chief. ~Erik Kain

It was always going to be a pretty low bar for Obama to clear to be “better on civil liberties” than Bush. Regardless, whether a lot of people expected that or not, we need to remember that Obama voted for PATRIOT Act renewal in 2006, and went along with the FISA bill in 2008 that he had previously vowed to filibuster. It’s important to distinguish between primary-season rhetoric and what Obama actually voted for when he was in the Senate. If Obama promised one thing to Wisconsin primary voters in the winter of 2007-08 and then did the opposite in the spring when it came time to vote, it’s a bit of stretch to compare the Obama administration to the primary candidate’s rhetoric rather than the Senator’s voting record. There was little reason to assume that Obama would be a civil libertarian in office, and he has confirmed most of the worst fears that civil libertarian skeptics had about him. If many people expected that he would be a civil libertarian, that helps explain why they are dispirited and disillusioned, but it doesn’t refute the core of Fallows’ argument. An important part of that argument is this:

A harder case is Guantanamo, use of drones, and related martial-state issues. Yes, it’s true that some liberals who were vociferous in denouncing such practices under Bush have piped down. But not all (cf Glenn Greenwald etc). And I don’t know of any cases of Democrats who complained about these abuses before and now positively defend them as good parts of Obama’s policy — as opposed to inherited disasters he has not gone far enough to undo and eliminate [bold mine-DL].

It is not an argument on behalf of all liberals and Democrats to point out that Ross’ equivalence does not stand up to scrutiny. It is very hard if not impossible to find conservatives and Republicans who were supportive of or indifferent to Bush’s security policies on detention, interrogation, and surveillance, but who have since become passionate opponents of the same under Obama. If anything, Obama’s continuation of these policies makes them feel vindicated. For that matter, the civil libertarians who vigorously opposed these policies are by and large still opposing them now. There are fair-weather friends who might have mouthed some slogans about Bush-era policies and now say little or nothing, and that can be attributed to misguided partisan “team loyalty,” but on the whole these are not people who were speaking out much against the Bush administration on civil liberties. It is also fairly difficult to find as many active defenders of Obama’s most outrageous security policies on the left. If there are “centrist” Democrats defending Obama’s authoritarian policies against progressive critics today, it is probable that they defended these policies against those critics in years past, because “centrists” already favor these policies and use that support as proof of their “credibility” on national security.

Update: Mark Thompson explains the unworkable nature of a profiling system:

Instead, I think it’s pretty clear that the reason a “profiling” system would not work and indeed has not been attempted in the US is that it’s not scaleable. Israel has one major airport, which by US standards would only be “mid-sized.” Yet look at the security line at that airport, which is more befitting of Newark or Atlanta than it is of Pittsburgh or St. Louis. A good profiling system is labor-intensive in a way that 0ur system simply does not have the capacity to implement, and would unacceptably undermine the numerous sectors of our economy that rely heavily on air transportation. And this says nothing of the direct economic costs of appropriately training and paying security officers charged with conducting the profiling. Nor, as the article above suggests, does it say anything about eliminating the bureaucratic infighting and secrecy amongst American intelligence agencies in a manner that would allow tens of thousands of airport security personnel access to the intelligence necessary to adequately do their jobs.

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The Partisan Mindset, National Security, and Constitutional Liberties

Ross:

In the 1990s, many Democrats embraced Bill Clinton’s wars of choice in the Balkans and accepted his encroachments on civil liberties following the Oklahoma City bombing, while many Republicans tilted noninterventionist and libertarian. If Al Gore had been president on 9/11, this pattern might have persisted, with conservatives resisting the Patriot Act the way they’ve rallied against the T.S.A.’s Rapiscan technology, and Vice President Joe Lieberman prodding his fellow Democrats in a more Cheney-esque direction on detainee policy.

But because a Republican was president instead, conservative partisans suppressed their libertarian impulses and accepted the logic of an open-ended war on terror, while Democratic partisans took turns accusing the Bush administration of shredding the Constitution.

At first glance, this seems plausible. On closer examination, it doesn’t hold up well at all. As James Fallows notes, on the specific question of absurd security theater Ross’ claim is wrong. On the whole, people on the left who are not troubled by the obnoxious TSA scans and pat-downs have not been terribly troubled about most of the other infringements on constitutional protections carried out over the past nine years, and most of the people on the right who have discovered “libertarian impulses” in this case have shown no signs of such impulses until the last year and a half. These impulses were not suppressed during the Bush years. They did not exist. Instead, they have materialized out of nowhere.

Ross sets up the column by citing conservative responses to Clinton-era policies, but what he fails to do is show that the same responses are occurring this time. There would have to be a similar shift on the right under Obama, and it is largely not happening, so the distorting effects of partisanship don’t really account for that much. Aside from the backlash against obnoxious TSA procedures, can anyone point to a significant movement of conservatives towards more non-interventionist and libertarian positions on national security issues? Where Obama has continued Bush-era security policies, conservative commentary has ranged from the disingenuous claim that “Obama is turning out to be better on these issues than I thought” to the mocking attack that “the silly left-winger Obama has been forced to face harsh reality.” Where Obama has rejected or modified Bush’s policies in any way, mainstream conservative criticism has typically been that Obama is indulging his base and/or jeopardizing national security.

I would argue that much of the conservative criticism of Clinton’s foreign policy that we saw in the ’90s was not a tilt towards non-interventionism at all, but instead represented frustration with military interventions that did not strike at what these critics saw as the “real” enemies of the United States. Part of this was indeed just a partisan reflex to criticize the administration no matter what it did, but this meant that for every conservative critique of the Balkan interventions (of which only a very few were non-interventionist critiques) there were two attacks on Clinton for not taking a hard enough line against Iraq or Iran or North Korea or Russia or China, depending on which regime happened to be the preferred focus of outrage. The initial response on the right to intrusive legislation after the Oklahoma City bombing may have struck many of the right constitutionalist and libertarian notes, but this vanished within a year or two when it became much more useful to bash Clinton for being too soft on terrorism in general and Bin Laden in particular.

Today the story is not that different. Even when some conservative hard-liners have objected to the TSA procedures, it is usually not because they have rediscovered their inherent distrust of the national security state’s power (which they never had!), but because these procedures have simply underscored for them how silly it is to screen all passengers at airports. The uproar over obnoxious TSA methods has presented them with a new opportunity to revisit their calls for profiling. At best, most of these protests are complaints against inconvenience rather than objections against intrusive government, and many of them do not reject authoritarian practices, but simply want to change the form of authoritarian practices. To that end, rhetoric about preserving American liberty is useful, but these are often the same people who have tended to justify every government encroachment on liberty and every expansion of the warfare and national security state in the name of “defending freedom.” This is all fitted into the larger Republican attack that Obama refuses to “name” the enemy, and that he has erred by no longer referring to the “war on terror.”

There are other ways to test Ross’ claim. PATRIOT Act renewal came up for a vote earlier this year. If the “partisan mindset” is indeed awesomely powerful, it should have been the case that Republicans voted overwhelmingly against renewal. Instead, renewal passed the House 315-97 with 90% of the nays coming from the Democratic side. The measure passed the Senate by unanimous voice vote after privacy reform amendments were stripped out at the insistence of some Senate Republicans. That tells me that aside from a handful of honorable exceptions, including Ron Paul, Walter Jones, and Jimmy Duncan, there simply aren’t very many Republican representatives who object to intrusive and authoritarian anti-terrorist legislation no matter which party controls the White House. For that matter, there aren’t enough Democratic representatives who object to this sort of legislation on principle, but there were 87. If the “partisan mindset” changed national security views as dramatically as Ross suggests, there should have been many more anti-Obama Republicans resisting renewal of the PATRIOT Act than Democrats.

We could go down the list of relevant issues, and the pattern would be the same. Partisanship does not change that much in terms of the positions taken by members of the two parties. What it can do is change the intensity of feeling. This means that antiwar activists and civil libertarians are caught in an odd bind: many of them are genuinely appalled by Obama’s continuation of Bush-era security policies on detention and surveillance (and especially by his outrageous new claim of assassination powers), they are disgusted that his administration is hiding behind the state secrets privilege to cover up for the Bush administration, and they object to escalating the war in Afghanistan. However, they know very well that the alternative to Obama is to have all of these things, plus torture, aggressive foreign policy in all directions, and possibly war with Iran.

Of course, people should be outraged by the intrusiveness of these new procedures (because the entire process is an absurd overreaction to a real, but limited threat), just as they should have been outraged by the damage done to constitutional liberties for the past decade and more in the name of anti-terrorism, but one of the reasons that there are so few members of Congress willing to cast votes against excessive anti-terrorist legislation is that their constituents do not value constitutional liberties as highly as they claim they do. More to the point, when it does not directly affect their constituents it is clear that there is even less concern for the constitutional liberties of others. Indeed, what we might conclude about a significant part of the backlash is that the slogan of the protesters is not so much “Don’t Tread On Me” as it is “Why Won’t You Leave Me Alone and Go Tread On Them?”

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What Happens After START Fails

My new column for The Week on the consequences of New START’s failure is now online.

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A Terrible Time For NATO Expansion

Institutions should do what they are good at. And the expansion of NATO is one of the few true post-Cold-War foreign-policy success stories. By including some of NATO’s old enemies inside its security umbrella, we ensured, at a minimal cost, the political, economic and ideological “Westernization” of an enormous swath of the continent.

We could continue that process. The stakes are lower – 2010 is not 1990, and the countries outside NATO are poorer and more turbulent than even those that have recently joined. Nevertheless, the very existence of a credible Western military alliance remains – yes, really – an encouragement to others on Europe’s borders. This is a uniquely propitious moment. Right now there is a pro-Western government in Moldova; Ukraine’s geopolitics are up in the air; elections are due to take place in Belarus in December. We in the West might have gone sour on ourselves, but Europeans on our borders still find us magnetically attractive. But we will only remain so if we try. ~Anne Applebaum

Of course, if an institution has long since outlived its purpose, its continued expansion is not a sign of health or proof of success: it is a stubborn refusal to accept its irrelevance. Applebaum is arguing more or less for expansion of the Alliance for expansion’s sake. For that matter, if NATO still has a purpose, it is not to promote “Westernization.” If it has any purpose, it must be as a military alliance that exists to contain Russian power, and there will be no other way for Russia to view NATO if it continues to expand into the former USSR. All of this is harmful to the stability and security of Europe, and especially for the security of those states that border Russia. Western critics of Russian foreign policy often cite the Kremlin’s view that NATO is the major threat to Russia as proof that the Russian government is paranoid, but what is the Russian government to think when defenders of NATO keep agitating for expansion to the east and insist on framing expansion as a process of “Westernization” that is explicitly defined as coming at the expense of Russian influence?

As Dmitri Trenin pointed out in a recent Foreign Policy article on the “reset” and New START, one of the crucial factors in the success of the “reset” has been the administration’s refusal to press the issue of additional NATO expansion:

For Moscow, Obama’s most important — and welcome — decision to date has been to end his predecessor’s efforts to roll back Russian influence in the former Soviet Union. NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia has been put on hold [bold mine-DL]. Arming Georgia has largely stopped. And Obama has scrapped Bush’s Russia-centric missile-defense plans, with their radar and interceptor installations in the Czech Republic and Poland, in favor of a system designed to thwart potential threats from Iran. It was the unilateral and unconditional removal of these three irritants by Obama that gave the new U.S. president credibility in Moscow’s eyes. As long as these issues are not revisited, the new cooperative relationship between Russia and the United States has every chance of continuing, albeit with new, more stringent limits.

Put another way, U.S.-Russian relations are not automatically doomed to deteriorate and worsen if the New START goes down in flames, but they will certainly worsen if Washington reverts to Clinton- and Bush-era provocations in these other areas. If the treaty fails, U.S.-Russian relations will suffer, but if the administration heeded Applebaum’s advice those relations would return to the poor state they were in two years ago. Applebaum’s recommendation of renewed NATO expansion is especially foolish right now. This is not a “uniquely propitious moment” to revisit NATO expansion. On the contrary, this is an exceptionally bad time to bring it up. Coming on the heels of the “reset” and Moscow’s willingness to accommodate Washington on several issues, a new push for NATO expansion would be interpreted as a betrayal of Russian trust and a return to the habits of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Meanwhile, it’s not much of an argument in favor of renewed NATO expansion that “the countries outside NATO are poorer and more turbulent than even those that have recently joined.” Applebaum might as well say that the likely candidates for new membership are all woefully unqualified and not very valuable as allies. Every one of the countries Applebaum mentions would be a glaring liability to NATO in one way or another. The idea of trying to bring Moldova into NATO is silly enough, given the ongoing Russian presence east of the Dniestr, but talk of bringing Belarus and Ukraine in is preposterous. Ukraine has already committed not to join any alliance, and even if Lukashenko were no longer in power Belarus would be a completely undesirable candidate on account of its poverty, corruption, and energy dependence on Russia.

Proponents of NATO expansion like to say that former Soviet republics should be free to make their own foreign policies and make whatever alliances they believe are appropriate, but what if it is actually the desire of most of the people in all of these countries not to become a pawn in a great power struggle? Are we prepared to accept that these nations do not see an advantage in defining their integration with Europe in terms of a military alliance, but instead regard it as unwelcome or even dangerous? There is every reason for these nations to integrate themselves economically with Europe, and to varying degrees they are doing so. It makes no sense to endanger this and spoil it by revisiting NATO expansion into countries that do not want it and would be unable to afford the expenditures required to improve their militaries. These are developing economies and countries hit hard by the financial crisis and the recession. For interoperability between their militaries and ours, all of them would have to go through an expensive process of military modernization that none of them can actually afford. It is particularly perverse to argue that these states need to devote significantly more of their national resources to military spending, which is what Moldova and Belarus would have to do for Alliance membership. Nothing could be worse for new democratic governments than the creation of an outsized military establishment. Applebaum would have us repeat the terrible mistakes Washington made in Georgia, and she argues for this as if the war in Georgia and the suffering it caused never happened.

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Behind The Times

Jackson Diehl outdid himself with an exceptionally poor column today. It was odd enough that he decided to choose the week after the Lisbon NATO summit to declare that Obama’s foreign policy is defined by the concerns of the early ’80s. At that summit, which saw the first meeting of the NATO-Russia council since before the war in Georgia, there was an invitation to Russia to participate in a joint missile defense project. This is not exactly the same agenda that prevailed in 1983. Then again, NATO is itself an outdated, anachronistic alliance, so perhaps the Alliance’s support for New START is simply a function of outdated thinking all around, but Diehl has never said a word about the irrelevance and obsolescence of NATO. The remainder of the agenda was dominated by the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which is for good or ill very much a present-day priority of our government.

There are many criticisms one might make about the administration’s on-again, off-again efforts to halt Israeli settlements and the embarrassing groveling to which the administration has been reduced to get a temporary halt to some of the construction, but it is daft to imply that settlements were foremost on the agenda in the early ’80s. Far from becoming “a sideshow,” settlements have been an increasingly significant political and policy problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last twenty years. No one needs to aspire to a “greater Israel” when the settlers have achieved de facto annexation of much Palestinian land in the meantime. There is no problem in formally accepting the idea of a Palestinian state provided that the Israeli government does what it can to prevent it from ever coming into being. Everyone can publicly agree that a two-state solution is desirable, and then most of the critical actors can refuse to do what must to be done to make it happen. Referring to Iranian “expansionism” in the same breath that he denies the significance of settlements is typical of this evasive style of argument: nothing is said about the state that is actually engaged in subsidizing and protecting an ongoing policy of territorial expansion, but its adversary is accused of expansionism for which there is no evidence.

As Michael Cohen observed, Diehl’s discussion of New START was ridiculous. Diehl’s praise for the treaty was the sort of passive-aggressive support that columnists for the Post seem to specialize in, and his apparent bewilderment at why the administration was spending so much time on the treaty conveniently ignored that it was maddening, unreasonable delaying tactics on the part of the minority that made the concerted effort necessary. The effort is an “uphill” one because the Senate GOP has apparently decided that all of the appeals of arms control experts, generals, and Republican elder statesmen are irrelevant.

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Chalmers Johnson, R.I.P.

I just saw today that Chalmers Johnson had passed away yesterday. Steve Clemons has written a long tribute to him at The Washington Note. Though he had a long career before he became a leading critic of American empire, it is for this criticism that he is best known to those of us in my generation. He and his arguments will be missed. Here is an excerpt from David Isenberg’s TAC review of Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire:

The four sorrows that provide Johnson with his title, however, refer to much more long-term and dire developments, above all for Americans themselves, that follow from this empire of
bases and the military-industrial complex that stands behind it. As Johnson writes:

If present trends continue, four sorrows, it seems to me, are certain to be visited on the United States. Their cumulative impact guarantees that the United States will cease to bear any resemblance to the country once outlined in our Constitution. First there will be a state of perpetual war leading to more terrorism against Americans wherever they may be and a growing reliance on weapons of mass destruction as they try to ward off the imperial juggernaut. Second, there will be a loss of democracy
and constitutional rights as the presidency fully eclipses Congress and is itself transformed from an
‘executive branch’ of government into something more like a Pentagonized presidency. Third, an already
well-shredded principle of truthfulness will increasingly be replaced by a system of propaganda, disinformation, and glorification of war, power, and the military legions. Lastly, there will be bankruptcy, as we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and shortchange the education, health, and safety of our fellow citizens.

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Hoping For Political Disaster

When Palin told Barbara Walters last week that she believed she could beat Barack Obama in 2012, it wasn’t an idle boast. Should Michael Bloomberg decide to spend billions on a quixotic run as a third-party spoiler, all bets on Obama are off. ~Frank Rich

The sheer silliness of this scenario is comforting. It’s as if everyone knows that an Obama-Palin match-up would be a disaster for the Republicans, but some try to think up some way to make speculation about Palin’s presidential chances seem relevant. Enter Mike Bloomberg.

A Bloomberg candidacy is a natural fit for this kind of speculation, because it is both just absurd enough and possibly the only thing that gives Palin an outside chance of winning via Heilemann’s imaginary outcome in which the Republican-majority House selects Palin as President. Journalists and pundits love the idea of a Bloomberg presidential run for a number of reasons. Many of them are irrationally attached to the idea that what this country needs is more “centrist” governance, when this is what we’ve had in abundance for decades. In practice, this means the worst and/or least popular aspects of both parties, and Bloomberg is almost the perfect embodiment of this. He is liberal enough on all the social and cultural issues that would make him unacceptable to much of conservative Middle America, but also not remotely progressive enough to justify third-party protest voting from the left. As mayor of New York, he has naturally been an ardent defender of Wall Street interests, which is exactly the opposite of what most Americans want their President to be. There is no constituency that objects to some aspect of Obama’s record that desperately yearns for more “centrism” and watered-down bipartisan, pro-corporate compromises.

As for Palin’s chances, I don’t know why anyone keeps talking about them. Like a Bloomberg run, a Palin presidential campaign in the general election is the sort of thing that journalists and pundits would love to see for the same reason that many NASCAR fans watch those interminable, dull races: they are holding out hope for a spectacular, destructive multi-car pile-up. Imagine how terribly earnest and serious an Obama-Daniels competition would be. That would be no fun at all. It’s much more fun to imagine one of the major parties consciously deciding to destroy itself, which is what a Palin nomination would be for the GOP. It’s been a generation since a major presidential candidate flamed out in truly awe-inspiring fashion, and many of today’s political observers are hoping that Palin can be their generation’s political Hindenburg.

In the highly improbable event that Palin wins the nomination, she would go on to lose at least 35 or 40 states in a two-way contest. The outcome of a three-way race wouldn’t be much better for her, as she would drive many people into Obama’s camp who would otherwise never go there. If Bloomberg did waste his time and money on an independent campaign and picked up any votes, I suspect that they would be coming from moderate Republicans horrified by Palin’s nomination but unwilling to vote for Obama. After the midterms, everyone has been offering Obama advice on recapturing “the center” and winning back independents and so on, but at least half of his work would be done for him if Palin became the Republican standard-bearer.

What has been interesting to see in the last couple weeks is that Palin is receiving much more respectful treatment in the mainstream press at a time when conservative media outlets are becoming more critical. Some on the right appear to be less willing to pass over her ridiculous antics in silence than they used to be. Instead of tedious justifications and loyalist excuse-making, The Weekly Standard has a review of Palin’s “reality” show that is as derisive and dismissive of Palin as anything a major conservative magazine has published about her in the last two years. The reason for this is straightforward enough: Palin was useful during the first two years of the Obama administration as a rallying point against the other party, but now the midterms are over and she has become enough of an embarrassment and liability that some of her former boosters no longer feel compelled to cover for her. Meanwhile, her detractors in the mainstream press would like nothing more than to see her run, and then crash and burn.

Update: David Boaz makes a similar observation.

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U.S.-Russian Relations (II)

In The Washington Post recently, Robert Kagan advised his fellow conservatives to show maturity and readiness to govern: “Blocking the treaty will produce three unfortunate results: It will strengthen Vladimir Putin, let the Obama administration off the hook when Russia misbehaves and set up Republicans as the fall guy if and when U.S.-Russian relations go south.” ~Maureen Dowd

Many people have been citing Kagan’s op-ed in “support” of the treaty to contrast Kagan’s supposed neoconservative seriousness with the fecklessness of the Senate GOP. This is mistaken. As the quote from Kagan’s column shows, his concern has nothing to do with the effects of the treaty’s defeat on arms control, U.S.-Russian relations, or U.S. foreign policy more broadly. Presumably, those would be the concerns of someone interested in “maturity” and a “readiness to govern.” Instead, what we get from Kagan is a warning that the Republicans are putting themselves in a bad position politically and are in danger of taking the blame for bad relations with Russia. This is what I was saying last week when the op-ed first appeared.

Of course, Kagan and many Republican hawks want to pursue policies that will guarantee bad relations with Russia (e.g., NATO expansion, re-arming Georgia, etc.), and they are not terribly concerned if U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate. In their view, that is what must happen so long as Russia is dominated by its current form of authoritarian populist government. This is an ideologically-driven view that insists that democracy and “autocracy” (as Kagan calls it) are inherently antagonistic and will work to undermine one another in international relations. What the hawks don’t want is to have to take responsibility for causing that deterioration. Ideally, they would like to blame the Russians or Obama or both together, because many of the hawks who supported Bush-era provocations of Russia believe that those policies had nothing to do with declining relations with Moscow. It is always someone else’s fault. Kagan is displaying the same ideological blindness that contributed so much to Bush administration failures in foreign policy, especially in U.S.-Russian relations, and yet somehow he has been getting credit for being a responsible or serious part of the debate.

Kagan argues that Republicans ought to support the treaty–which Kagan wrongly dubs a “nothingburger”–as a way of better serving their larger goal of outmaneuvering Obama. In answer to the Senate GOP’s short-term cynicism, Kagan proposes that they take a longer cynical view. He assumes that the “reset” is doomed to fail, presumably because he continues to labor under the assumptions of his faulty ideological reading of modern great power politics, and he wants Republicans to be in the right position to profit politically when that happens. To maximize the blame that Obama receives for the expected failure of the “reset,” which Kagan considers wrongheaded anyway, Republicans must play along for now. This is certainly a more subtle form of rejectionism, but it is substantively not much different from the views of the Senate Republicans Kagan is lecturing. Kagan has happened to land on the right side of the treaty issue for tactical reasons, but that shouldn’t blind anyone to the reality that Kagan’s overall rejection of Obama’s foreign policy is rooted in the same ideological delusions that prevailed in the Bush era.

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