Daniel Larison

Staying Out of Libya

Speaking of public opinion and foreign policy, Scoblete cites a new Rasmussen poll that casts more doubt on Mead’s tendentious interpretation of “the commonsense reasoning of the American people”:

However, as with the recent turmoil in Egypt, most Americans (67%) say the United States should leave the situation in the Arab countries alone. Just 17% say the United States should get more directly involved in the political situation there, but another 17% are not sure.

Americans are skeptical about the political changes that are likely to come from the growing – and, in Libya’s case, violent – protests. Thirty percent (30%) believe it is at least somewhat likely that most of these Arab countries will become free, democratic and peaceful over the next few years, but that includes just four percent (4%) who say it is Very Likely. Sixty-one percent (61%) view a democratic and peaceful outcome as unlikely, with 14% who say it is Not At All Likely.

As Greg says:

If we’re talking about common sense, not plunging the United States and NATO into an incipient civil war in a Middle Eastern country with strong tribal factions seems to qualify.

Quite so. As skeptical as I was of Mead’s claim about what “the American people” want, I am impressed by how much support there is for a relatively hands-off U.S. response to these events. The prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have deepened public skepticism about the wisdom of U.S. interventions in general, but I’m a bit surprised that the skepticism is this great.

Of course, the public debate doesn’t include very many advocates for the majority view. This speaks volumes about the relationship between actual policy debates and public opinion. It seems unimaginable to most of the participants in foreign policy debate that a minimal or neutral role could be the appropriate and best answer to the question of how the U.S. should respond. However, if ever there were a occasion to exercise caution and restraint in using U.S. power and influence, responding to an internal conflict in a country where the U.S. has little influence and no reservoir of goodwill would seem to be it.

Hawkish interventionists always want to plunge the U.S. into conflicts in which Americans have no stake and no part, and we have been paying the price for repeatedly giving into that impulse over the last twenty years. The U.S. cannot be completely uninvolved when political crises affect allied governments, but there isn’t an argument for inserting the U.S. into an internal Libyan conflict. It is appropriate to provide humanitarian aid to the population where possible, and imposing or rather re-imposing sanctions on the Libyan regime might make sense in this case, but beyond that there is no obvious U.S. role in this conflict.

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Is It “Pathetic” To Protect U.S. Citizens?

As of Tuesday, the State Department had been unable to get Libya’s permission to fly American citizens out of the country, officials said, prompting the U.S. government to temper its response to the Libyan crackdown.


Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated her “alarm” Tuesday about the loss of protesters’ lives in Libya but added that “the safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority.”


About 5,000 U.S. citizens live in Libya, most of them dual nationals. Roughly 600 American residents don’t have Libyan citizenship, Crowley said. The State Department on Sunday ordered the departure of 35 U.S. diplomats and their families. ~The Washington Post

That puts the administration‘s “deafening silence” in perspective, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if the U.S. government has a greater responsibility to its citizens than it does to condemning the activities of a foreign government. In fact, it would be a remarkable display of arrogance and folly to start denouncing Gaddafi’s crimes when U.S. citizens could immediately be exposed to violent reprisals or arrest. It doesn’t seem to cross the minds of interventionists in this case that our government could imperil fellow Americans by following their advice. If official condemnations have to wait a few days or weeks until U.S. citizens in Libya are safely out of the country, that is what a responsible government should do.

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The Huntsman Campaign-in-Waiting Should Stay Where It Is

A spokesman for the so-called [Huntsman] campaign-in-waiting noted, “You won’t see the same tired tropes and images that are the hallmark every other PAC website.” ~Erin McPike

That’s right. Horizon PAC has a new set of tired tropes that are all their own. Here was one that scrolls past on the front page of their website: “America will flourish. Someday COULD be today.” Even by the standards of vague slogans, this is pretty weak. When I clicked on the “more” button, I found a political call to arms that might have been written by Scott McClellan:

What Happened?

To America? To politics? To our politicians?

What happened to decency? To reason?
What happened to common goals? To calm? To respect?
What happened to actual, lasting solutions to problems?

Presumably Huntsman will be answering these at some point, but based on the questions I’m not hopeful that the answers will be much better. If there is one thing that we don’t need, it’s another round of political hand-holding in which everyone laments the lack of bipartisanship, as if that has been the greatest problem of the past decade or two. It sounds as if Huntsman’s allies are laying the groundwork for a Republican version of Obama’s “post-partisan” routine. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this will go exactly nowhere with Republican primary voters.

Obviously, for legal reasons Horizon PAC has to pretend that it isn’t directly linked to Huntsman, but this seems to be what we can expect from a Huntsman campaign. It’s far worse than I thought it would be. It’s not just going to involve preachy “centrism” and appeals to reasonableness, but there appears to be a lot of talk about very vague principles and no articulation of any specific positions. It is a PAC, so it is supposed to be engaged in supporting candidates that share its agenda. What is that agenda? The site says:

The political action committee supports free-market values, principled leadership and a commitment to long-term solutions.

As opposed to all the PACs that claim to support state ownership of industry, feckless pandering, and short-sightedness?


Gens. Jones and Shelton Flacking for the MEK? What?

Ex-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, U.N. ambassador during the Clinton administration, said the “thirst for freedom and democracy” in the Mideast and the failure to win concessions on Iran’s nuclear program had built support for the MEK in Washington. He said the designation “makes no sense at all” and predicted it would likely be lifted soon. ~AP

Via Race for Iran

Since the MEK has nothing to do with freedom and democracy anywhere, Richardson’s remark is significant for its implicit acknowledgment that lifting the MEK’s designation as a terrorist organization is intended purely as a political, punitive measure. The designation makes sense if the U.S. were interested in repairing relations with Tehran in the future. The designation ceases making sense if the U.S. has no plans for diplomatic engagement. Does anyone in Washington believe that de-listing the MEK will make Tehran more cooperative? What do the advocates of de-listing the group hope that it will accomplish? Are they trying to give the current Iranian government some free propaganda victories?

Iranians have no love for the MEK, which was a longtime ally of Hussein and operated out of Iraq during the war. Openly siding with such a group could make it much easier for Tehran to present all opposition to the regime as part of a U.S. plot. At the very least, it would be received as an insult by both the government and a significant part of the population. Bush’s former AG Mukasey has reportedly called the MEK a “moderate, secular and democratic political organization.” Well, they are sort of secular. They are Islamic socialists. That’s the only part of that description that is really accurate. The best thing that anyone can say on the MEK’s behalf is that they have been disarmed for eight years and haven’t been murdering any people recently.


Mourdock Challenges Lugar

Indiana’s State Treasurer, Richard Mourdock, has announced his intention to seek the Republican Senate nomination in 2012. Lugar now has his primary challenger, and in Mourdock he has someone who has been elected statewide and seems to have substantial support in the state party for his challenge. I don’t know if Mourdock can prevent Lugar’s re-nomination, but Lugar’s chances of returning to the Senate after the 2012 election don’t seem nearly as good as they did when his likely opponent was a more obscure state senator. On the whole, I don’t see a problem with Mourdock’s challenge. It seems perfectly healthy and appropriate for a primary challenge against someone who has been in Congress for 35 years. Mourdock is properly holding Lugar accountable for his support for the TARP. Indiana is a reasonably safe seat for Republicans with or without Lugar, so there isn’t that much danger for the GOP in replacing Lugar.

There is some merit to the charge that Lugar has moved left in recent years. Lugar’s lifetime ACU rating is 77, which isn’t terrible, but it’s a lot lower than one would expect from a Republican member of Congress in Indiana. By comparison, the ousted Utah incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett had a lifetime rating of 83. Even after we take into account that the ACU scored Lugar’s support for New START as a negative, his rating for the last two years has been below that lifetime rating.

One thing I would recommend to Mourdock is that he stop trying to pretend that he understands arms control better than Lugar. He doesn’t. It has never made sense to me why so many Republicans want to make opposition to this treaty into a litmus test, but it makes absolutely no sense to try to make Lugar’s support for the treaty into a significant issue in the primary. This is one of Lugar’s specialties, and it’s something that he takes very seriously. Lugar will be able to bat down Mourdock’s rehashed distortions without even trying, and by trying to demagogue on arms control Mourdock will simply expose himself to ridicule. Mourdock will only weaken his case for nomination if he tries to go up against Lugar on one of his strengths.

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The Problems of a Libyan No-Fly Zone

It was only a matter of time before political upheaval and violent repression in Arab countries led to calls for some form of U.S. military intervention. We can all agree that Gaddafi’s attacks on protesters are atrocious, but it is quite a leap from recognizing this and supporting possible military action against the armed forces of a government that has not actually done anything to the United States or our citizens in recent years. Lacking U.N. authorization, such a mission would be another U.S. intervention that it launched on its own authority.

It is doubtful that the U.N. Security Council would authorize a no-fly zone policy. The no-fly zones in Iraq were mainly ad hoc creations by the U.S. and Britain, which claimed authorization that the U.N. had never specifically given. Why are Russia and China going to approve of a policy designed to penalize a government for brutality toward civilians? That isn’t an argument for going around the U.N. It’s a real question for those advocating intervention: is the U.S. prepared to engage in yet another legally dubious, possibly open-ended commitment in policing the internal affairs of an Arab country with relatively few allies supporting our actions?

Not only would the U.S. very directly be taking sides in an internal Libyan conflict to which we are not party, but enforcing such a no-fly zone could turn into a prolonged commitment that will be one more mission added to the burden of an already overstretched military. No-fly zones are the sort of easy-sounding response to an immediate problem that can turn into an endless policy. If the reason for the no-fly zone is to halt Gaddafi’s assault on civilians, it probably won’t be long before the no-fly zone evolves into an air war against Gaddafi’s ground forces to achieve the same end, and that might escalate into a new war for regime change. Libya’s internal conflict is just the sort of situation that Americans should have learned to avoid by now.


Culture Does Matter

In their marrow, conservatives believe that culture matters, and many suspect that the only culture capable of sustaining liberal democracy is the Western kind. ~Peter Beinart

If there is anything more tiresome than the idea that Obama has been indifferent and negligent when it comes to democracy promotion, it is this claim that conservatives have shown themselves all to be realists after a few weeks of concern about Egyptian democracy. It takes a bit more than selective skepticism about democratization to make one a realist. Many of the same conservatives who continue to claim that Iraq is now free (rather than acknowledging the reality that it is unfree) and wanted immediate U.S. support for the Green movement have become skeptics of Arab democracy, but only after Obama appeared not to be a skeptic. Beinart wants to treat this as a return to old form, but it isn’t that simple.

Clearly, many conservatives want to position themselves as skeptics now because they see Obama moving towards support for protesters, but this is mostly a function of anti-Obama contrarianism just as opposition to Balkan interventions was the result of Clinton hatred. Many conservatives have convinced themselves that Obama’s foreign policy is aimed at undermining allies and empowering rivals. They have believed that since he was a candidate, and it doesn’t matter that it hasn’t been true. It used to be that Obama was supposedly too indifferent to the plight of the people, but now the line will be that he is paying too much attention to it. This isn’t a result of any considered beliefs about the nature of liberal democracy and its compatibility with non-Western cultures. That would be refreshing. It is a reflex of insisting that whatever Obama has done must be badly mistaken. The how and why are details to be worked out later.

A more serious response to Beinart is that culture matters a great deal, and that is something that is so fundamentally true that it shouldn’t be a serious disagreement regardless of political views. I think it’s fair to say that highly Westernized nations are capable of sustaining liberal democracy regardless of their earlier cultures. It isn’t necessarily the case that nations have to jettison their attachments to their earlier, traditional cultures to sustain liberal democracy, but significant Westernization has typically preceded the successful establishment of liberal democratic government. It is also not certain that significant Westernization is sufficient to make a nation capable of sustaining liberal democracy. In addition to habits and attitudes, institutions are vitally important, and those can be the most difficult to build in a way that is suitable to the existing constitution of a country. It isn’t an insult to other nations to emphasize how difficult finding the appropriate political structures for a given country can be, and it doesn’t follow that it is America’s responsibility to promote the creation of those structures in other countries even if they will be sustainable and enduring.

Most conservatives attacked and exaggerated Obama’s supposed indifference to democracy promotion because they saw an opportunity to oppose Obama’s fairly cautious and more realist approach by pretending to be idealists. Even now, many on the right want to find a way to fault Obama for not magically empowering the Green movement, which allows them to criticize Obama’s overall foreign policy without having to argue specifically against what he did in Egypt. Of course, all of this self-congratulation is a bit premature. Obama has facilitated and so far acquiesced in an Egyptian military coup. That may or may not lead to a more representative government, and that may or may not be a good outcome for Egypt. Obama’s critics and admirers are attacking or praising Obama’s role in ushering in something that has not yet happened.


Public Opinion and Foreign Policy

The Paulites are likely to lose this contest because the commonsense reasoning of the American people now generally takes as axiomatic that security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas. ~Walter Russell Mead

Mead has a bad habit of concluding that “the American people” favor something if that thing happens to become U.S. policy. It also doesn’t follow that “the people” accept or acquiesce in a policy because of their “commonsense reasoning.” If most Americans see nothing wrong with aggressive and activist foreign policy (or at least raise no objections to it), this is because many of them are simply accepting the status quo. That isn’t the chief obstacle to altering U.S. policies. One reason that “Paulites” will have difficulty in defining a “foreign policy for the Tea Party” is that there are a lot of people and institutions with vested interests in preventing significant changes to U.S. foreign policy commitments and military spending levels.

If Americans perceive a rising China as a threat, it is largely because their political leaders have encouraged them to view it in these terms. Having hyped the threat and stoked public outrage, supporters of aggressive and activist U.S. policies can then point to the “widespread public opinion” that favors their position. The good news is that public opinion is malleable, and support for or opposition to a policy is never very strong outside of a limited number of activists and analysts. The bad news is that public opinion doesn’t actually have much effect on the shape of U.S. foreign policy.

If it did, changing public opinion would have a much greater impact on policy decisions. If there is a revolt of “Jacksonian common sense” going on that relates to foreign policy, one would never know it by looking at most of the policies being proposed by the leaders of either party. Arguably, the one moment when Republican leaders have yielded to or encouraged what might be called Jacksonian distrust of internationalism was when they pushed for delaying or scrapping the new arms reduction treaty. Republican leaders were hostile to engaging with another state and their position was at odds with U.S. security interests, but it wasn’t out of deference to “Jacksonian common sense” that they took this position.

If we are talking about what “the American people” say they support, the treaty should have been of the least controversial things to come before the Senate in years. I should add here that the treaty ratification didn’t become a consensus position because it was popular, but it became popular (to the extent that this means anything) because there was an overwhelming consensus in favor of it. Instead of sailing through the Senate, it became one of the more hard-fought arms control treaties, and for some reason opposing an overwhelmingly popular and sound treaty became a new test of ideological and partisan purity. This wasn’t because Republican leaders were heeding “Jacksonian common sense,” but because they were intent on opposing the treaty for their own reasons, most of which had to do with protesting administration Russia policy, continuing reflexive opposition to every administration initiative, and indulging their obsession with missile defense.

I doubt that most Americans believe that “security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas.” The Jacksonians that Mead talks about are among the least likely to believe that. It seems to me that Jacksonians would prefer very minimal engagement overseas, and they are unlikely to define American security very broadly. What counts as “substantial” engagement for some might be excessive and unreasonable for many others. Even if most Americans approve of “substantial engagement overseas,” that doesn’t mean that there is broad public support for specific kinds of engagement. In any case, it’s a distraction to dwell on what the public does or doesn’t believe about U.S. foreign policy, since the factors that determine what that policy will be are quite different.


The Odd Conservative Hostility Towards Mitch Daniels

The back and forth over Mitch Daniels’ proposed “truce” on social issues seems very strange to me. Everyone treats the “truce” proposal as something very significant for one reason or another. The “truce” is not an example of “only Nixon can go to China” cunning, and there is no great political advantage to be gained in provoking core constituencies for no discernible purpose. It isn’t a brilliant, McKinleyesque plan to abandon culture war politics. If this were the idea, it isn’t a very good one as far as winning elections is concerned: culture war politics isn’t a net loser for the GOP, and it may be the only thing that keeps it competitive. Neither is the “truce” proposal really the unmitigated disaster that so many people claim. As far as I can tell, it was an unfortunate rhetorical feint that doesn’t mean very much, except to emphasize the importance of fiscal responsibility.

Daniels is a solid social conservative (as one would expect of most reasonably successful Republican politicians in Indiana), but social conservative activists seem intent on ignoring this important detail. That is their mistake. They can be saddled with another flattering panderer who will ignore them once he is in office, they can rally around a social conservative who also offers a credible governing agenda, or they can indulge in emotionally satisfying identity politics that will take them nowhere. I understand that social conservatives want to make sure that their issues are not ignored, but it is their own reliable support for a party that hardly ever delivers for them that has made them as easy to ignore as they have been. Throughout the entire Bush debacle, social conservatives largely remained supportive of the administration and the GOP when millions of people were running away from them. That showed that there was nothing that Republicans could ever do (or fail to do) that would alienate them. Because their support is so easily won and retained, social conservatives have been contributors to their own marginalization. It also showed that the political priority for Republicans was to win back those that fled rather than reassure those that stayed.

Social conservatives aren’t the only ones reacting foolishly to Daniels. On foreign policy and national security, Daniels has received criticism from hawks for no apparent reason. There is no evidence that Daniels is opposed to what national security hawks want, but some of them insist on treating him as if he were an outspoken critic of the warfare state. It would be welcome news if Daniels turned out to be such a critic, but there is no reason to assume that he is. Instead, hawks are reduced to making arguments from silence and hinting darkly that Daniels might be just like Obama:

Daniels’s other problem, as I have written before, is that he shows no interest in or willingness to become proficient in foreign policy. We have a president who is a “reluctant” commander in chief, at best, and who has trailed international events rather than lead. He has disregarded human rights and democracy promotion, which has been a moral and geopolitical failing. And he’s begun to slash defense [bold mine-DL]. Do we think Daniels would be any different? From what I know at this point, the answer is no. He’s not a fan of democracy promotion, and his natural inclination when presented with a national security issue is to rely on worn out clichés (“peace through strength”) and suggest we should be rolling back our commitments in the world. (In the Middle East? In Asia?) That’s not a formula that is going to appeal to many in the Republican electorate beyond the Ron Paulites.

Rubin is hardly the most reliable observer if she thinks that the Obama administration is “slashing defense” when his budget request includes a meager $13 billion reduction from this year’s budget. This tiny reduction is part of Gates’ phony “cuts” that aren’t cuts at all. All Republican governors resort to worn out cliches when presented with national security issues. It’s just that Daniels, unlike Romney, has chosen not to make demagoguing foreign policy into the main focus of his public statements.

Daniels may be no more proficient in foreign policy than Romney, but he doesn’t make a point of flaunting ignorance. Based on what I have seen from Daniels, he isn’t going to offer up specific positions until he is well-versed on the subject. Until he is actually a presidential candidate, it is a bit absurd to expect the governor of Indiana to have substantive foreign policy positions. He probably could make some of the same ill-informed attacks on supposed administration failures, but then he would be playing the part of an unscrupulous demagogue. One of the appealing things about Daniels so far is that he seems to be something else.

Rubin has no way of knowing whether Daniels is or isn’t a fan of democracy promotion. Opposition to democracy promotion is something she attributes to him because she believes it would discredit him by making him seem more like Obama. I would hope that he isn’t a democratist, but as far as I can tell he hasn’t stated a view on the record either way. She seems to be annoyed that he didn’t take the bait to engage in rote Obama-bashing she offered him last June.


New Mexico Senate Seat

Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has announced his retirement. This prompted some speculation that Gary Johnson could run on the Republican side, but he has flatly rejected that idea. On Bingaman’s retirement, I don’t really have that much to say. He has been a Senator in New Mexico for as long as I was there growing up, and I believe he’s the only member of Congress I have ever met in person. Bingaman’s politics aren’t mine, and I’ll be glad to see a Republican pick-up to change the Democratic make-up of most of our Congressional delegation. At the state level, New Mexico is a heavily Democratic state and it has been dominated by Democrats for almost eighty years, so anything that weakens the party’s grip on the state is welcome.

I would support a Johnson Senate candidacy, but the state Republican Party has tended to favor more moderate nominees for statewide offices for the sake of competitiveness*. People often refer to New Mexico as a swing state, but it is a much more Democratic state than that in Senate elections. The reality is that New Mexicans haven’t elected a new Republican Senate candidate since 1972. Johnson would be vastly preferable to Heather Wilson, but Wilson’s last run was so unsuccessful that she probably will not receive the nomination a second time.

As Weigel says, the benches for both parties are weak. I know the Republican side a bit better, so that’s what I’ll talk about here. Pearce just regained his House seat, so it’s doubtful that he would give it up again to run for Senate for a second time. Darren White has been working for Mayor Berry, and he didn’t have that great of a House run in the very Democratic year of 2008. John Sanchez has just been elected lieutenant governor, but he might see this as an opportunity to move up instead of languishing in Martinez’s shadow for four or eight years. New Mexico lieutenant governors do not succeed in winning gubernatorial elections in their own right later, so if he has ambitions for higher office this might be the best chance to come around in a while.

Update: Nate Silver seriously misunderstands New Mexican politics when he writes:

On the plus side for Mr. Johnson, New Mexico’s Republicans selected the more moderate candidate, Ms. Martinez, rather than the more conservative Allen Weh, as their gubernatorial candidate in 2010.

Anyone in New Mexico during the primary contest knows this isn’t how it happened. I was there, and I saw countless Martinez ads railing against Weh for his support for “amnesty.” Weh argued that this was a misrepresentation of his record, and he even called our house to say that he was not in favor of the 2007 immigration bill, but Martinez used it successfully to hammer him for months. It might be too strong to say that the immigration issue decided the nomination, but from the perspective of primary voters Martinez was running to Weh’s right. Her campaign was a classic law-and-order, prosecutor-turned-candidate performance. As former state party chairman, Weh was also associated with the generally more moderate leadership of the party, which made it easier to attack him as a moderate on immigration. If Weh’s ambiguous immigration position hurt him, Johnson’s much more openly pro-immigration position would make it impossible for him to get the nomination. My guess is that Johnson knows that, which is why he isn’t interested in running.

* It is a serious mistake to think of Johnson as a moderate Republican. His views on abortion and immigration aside, his fiscal views alone put him on the far right of the state party, and this is the way he would be perceived. In a way, Johnson faces the worst of both worlds: he is too liberal on social and cultural issues, and too conservative on economic and fiscal issues, and his views on military spending and foreign policy are liable to go down badly with the military and lab personnel in the state.

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