Daniel Larison

Romney’s VFW Speech

James Joyner notes that Romney’s VFW foreign policy speech is mostly unremarkable boilerplate. He also says this:

Even some of us who don’t take our talking points from Rush Limbaugh grumbled a bit about the “apology tour” in Obama’s early weeks. But that’s gone away as he’s settled into office.

The trouble with this is that there never was an apology tour. Obama never offered anything to any other nation that could reasonably be interpreted as an apology. This didn’t “go away” over time–it never existed! The “apology tour” is a complete fabrication. If Romney said this as a throwaway applause line once or twice, we could dismiss it as cheap politicking and no one would care, but this criticism has been at the core of Romney’s foreign policy message for the last two years. It is the main conceit of his campaign book, No Apology, whose foreign policy section is painfully bad. Romney has decided for some reason to put an obvious falsehood at the center of the argument why voters should trust him to set U.S. foreign policy.

Something else Romney said in his speech was more annoying because it could have implications for how Romney would conduct foreign policy:

American strength caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is at best only partly true, and it is potentially very misleading. It smacks of self-congratulation, but worse than that it perpetuates the myth that it was principally U.S. policies, rather than the efforts of the populations of eastern Europe and the USSR, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. George Kennan dismissed this idea as nonsense:

The suggestion that any Administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is simply childish. No great country has that sort of influence on the internal developments of any other one.

If Romney thinks otherwise and somehow wins the election, America could face many of the same dangers of overreach and hubris that we faced during the Bush years.

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A Highly Unusual Creature

Scott Galupo doubts that Romney can attack Perry from left (on entitlements) and right (on immigration) at the same time (via Allison):

But, at this point in the history of U.S politics, it would be a highly unusual creature who could launch both attacks simultaneously.

I would love to believe that Romney’s phony demagoguery will not do him any good, but why couldn’t Romney be successful in using both lines of attack against Perry? Perry’s record on immigration puts him much closer to George W. Bush and John McCain than it does to rank-and-file Republican voters. Perry has not been as visible or outspoken on the national level in support of mass immigration, but he is at odds with the vast majority of the party on this issue. There isn’t much public support for making changes to Social Security and Medicare. Even among those that Pew identifies as “staunch conservatives,” support for making such changes is just 47%. Positioning himself as the defender of entitlements and borders isn’t that strange of a combination. This is a fairly logical combination for someone running to be the nominee of a party with large blocs of elderly voters and opponents of liberalized immigration laws. It is certainly unimaginative, and no one is ever going to say Romney shows political courage, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t work. Besides, how better to describe Romney than as a “highly unusual creature”?

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Breaking News: Medicare Reform Is a Political Liability

Pete Wehner believes that Ryan’s budget proposal is not much of a political liability:

To put it another way, four months after Ryan’s plan was introduced, it is nothing like the political liability many people thought it would be. In fact, the public’s attention remains focused on the debt and the deficit as well as job creation; “Mediscare” tactics haven’t gained any traction at all (but not for lack of trying by liberals). All this might change, but based on what we know at this juncture, Ryan and his plan are doing rather well.

Wehner’s evidence for this is mainly that movement conservatives and House Republicans have sided with Ryan, some of them were enthusiastically urging him to launch a presidential campaign, and Gingrich’s direct criticism of Ryan’s plan doomed his presidential bid. It seems clear that support for Ryan’s plan is now more or less required among movement conservatives, but the political danger from Medicare reform has never been that it would turn the conservative movement and House Republicans against its advocates. Gingrich was hardly a serious contender in the first place. It would be a mistake to see Gingrich’s collapse as proof that Ryan’s plan is popular. What Romney’s advisers seem to understand is that candidates proposing major overhauls to Social Security and Medicare will be vulnerable to attack, and these candidates will not fare very well with larger primary electorates that include many more low-information and non-ideological voters.

Ryan’s refusal to accept the role of pinata in the nominating contest suggests that he understood that his proposed changes to Medicare are incredibly difficult to sell to voters. Unlike Perry, Ryan can fall back on his previous support for expanding Medicare. That makes Ryan’s pretensions to fiscal responsibility easy to ridicule, but it allows him to blunt the attack that he simply wishes to do away with the program all together. Perry has denounced these programs, but it is not clear that he could defend his position very effectively. Ryan proposed a less ambitious change to Medicare than anything in Perry’s book, and even this appears to be politically toxic with the public. It may win Romney no friends with Ryan’s admirers, but Romney is betting that most primary voters want something very different from what Ryan boosters think they want. The bad news for fiscal conservatives is that Romney will most likely win that bet.

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Romney and the MEK

Zack Beauchamp comments on the MEK rally in Washington today:

When was the last time you could remember any other terrorist organization that killed Americans demonstrating outside the White House and lobbying influential American politicians? What’s next, HezbollahPAC?

I suppose other organizations could try to do this, but no one would want to have anything to do with them. The surprising thing is not that the MEK is trying to mislead Americans into lending it support, but that many Americans now seem more than happy to provide that aid. Whether they do this because they don’t actually know what the group is, or because they know exactly what it is and see it as a useful instrument against Tehran, the effect is the same. Unfortunately, the MEK and its advocates are not receiving the sort of criticism they should receive because they happen to have the “right” enemy.

This is why virtually no one cares that both Perry and Romney have vocally pro-MEK advisers connected to their campaigns. In Romney’s case, this isn’t just some tangential, informal adviser. Mitchell Reiss is reportedly one of Romney’s main advisers on foreign policy. As Jim Antle’s article in the new issue explains, Reiss is considered to be Romney’s relatively less hawkish adviser:

In the New Republic, Eli Lake has reported that Romney’s foreign-policy advisers are divided. Lake described Reiss—who ironically was the man dispatched to convince Jennifer Rubin of Romney’s hawkishness—as a surge skeptic, while Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional
Authority in Iraq who later sent a distress signal to Republican hawks about the dovishness of senate candidate Rand Paul, was pro-surge. Reiss and Senor
still advise Romney today and are similarly at odds over Afghanistan.

It hardly bodes well for a future Romney administration that the more skeptical, less hawkish member of his team has been actively advocating on behalf of a terrorist organization. What’s worse, Reiss isn’t on the margins of these advocacy efforts, but has been very involved in them.

Like many other pro-MEK advocates, Reiss has confused the issues of the treatment of the population of Camp Ashraf with the question of whether the MEK should remain on the FTO list. The people at Ashraf should be relocated outside Iraq, and they should not be sent to Iran against their will, but this has nothing to do with the MEK’s designation by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. It ought to be possible to address what is properly a political refugee problem left over from the Iraq war without legitimizing a terrorist group.

P.S. Of course, Bachmann is even worse on this issue than the other two candidates, since she has personally spoken in support of removing the MEK from the list.

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The Huntsman Strategy

Ross doesn’t see much use in the Huntsman strategy Dan McCarthy discussed yesterday:

When Paul feuded with Giuliani over foreign policy four years ago, he was separating himself from the pack on an issue that actually mattered, both to the Republican electorate and to the country as a whole. Whereas by casting himself as the candidate of capital-S Science, touting his belief in evolution and global warming, Huntsman is staking out maverick-y positions on issues that matter far more to media-intelligentsia types than to most American voters.

No less important in giving Paul a modest advantage last time was the fact that he was the only Republican candidate who would have taken strong antiwar and anti-hegemonist positions. At least for those voters looking for a straightforward attack on Bush-era foreign policy, Paul was the only option, and he campaigned that way. Unless I have missed something, Huntsman has taken positions that are essentially identical to Romney’s views on these issues. Trying to be a less annoying Romney isn’t going to win a lot of support.

Not only were the issues that separated Paul and Giuliani more timely and politically relevant, but they also reflected disagreements on what the candidates believed the federal government should be doing. Having flirted with cap-and-trade as a governor, Huntsman now rejects it, so how does it really differentiate him from the rest of the field that he believes in anthropogenic global warming? When it comes to environmental policy, aren’t Huntsman and Romney currently on the same page as all of the other candidates? It’s not as if there is a large bloc of anti-Intelligent Design, environmentalist Republican voters out there anyway, but if there were they might just as well stick with Romney.

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Cobden and Bright

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s essay on the history of military intervention and its non-interventionist critics includes an interesting discussion of Richard Cobden and John Bright, who were the leading British opponents of the Crimean War:

Within a matter of years, this had ceased to be an abstract question: the Crimean War against Russia, ostensibly fought out of disinterested loyalty to Turkey, was the test case for Manchester noninterventionism. Cobden so despaired of this foolish and needless conflict that he retreated into silence once the guns began to fire. Bright did not. In opposition to the war, he delivered what have been called the greatest speeches ever heard in a parliamentary assembly.

Wheatcroft quotes from Bright’s speech, and this one sentence particularly deserves to be cited again:

It is not my duty to make this country the knight-errant of the human race, and to take upon herself the protection of the thousand millions of human beings who have been permitted by the Creator of all things to people this planet.

While they appear only very briefly in his The Crimean War, Orlando Figes pays some attention to the depressingly familiar treatment meted out to Cobden and Bright during the war:

Palmerston became so popular, and his foreign policy became so closely linked to the defence of ‘British values’ in the public mind, that anyone who tried to halt the drift to war was likely to be vilified by the patriotic press. That was the fate of the pacifists, the radical free-traders Richard Cobden and John Bright, whose refusal to see Russia as a threat to British interests (which in their view were better served by trading with Russia) led to the press denouncing them as ‘pro-Russian’ and therefore ‘un-English’. (p. 149)

As Anatol Lieven wrote earlier this year, Charles Kupchan identified the pro-war hysteria in Britain leading up to the Crimean War as a classic example of how democratic politics could lead to unnecessary war:

Thus in the 1850s, the rise of democratic politics and the mass media in Britain, by bringing chauvinist pressure to bear on foreign policy, helped destroy what had been for the previous four decades a somewhat competitive but peacefully managed relationship between Britain and Russia.

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Nothing Happened to Howard Dean

Conor Friedersdorf wonders what happened to Howard Dean:

He’s praising drone strikes and special ops because they’re less likely to attract the scrutiny and criticism from American citizens. It’s a position one doesn’t expect a prominent Iraq war dissenter to take — you’d think he of all people would understand that it’s vital for the American public to scrutinize the foreign policy decisions of its leaders regardless of the political party in power.

Conor reaches the conclusion that partisanship explains Dean’s support for the Libyan war, and that’s not entirely wrong, but it is possible to exaggerate the importance of partisanship here. As Scott Lemieux remarks, Dean was a Democratic “centrist” by reputation before he became the unlikely tribune of progressive antiwar sentiment. When he was still a presidential candidate, Dean made a point of saying that the real problem with invading Iraq was that the administration had ignored the “greater” threats from Iran and North Korea. Dean happened to oppose the Iraq war, but this was partly a matter of taking advantage of a political opening in a field dominated by pro-war candidates. Very much like Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war, it was an isolated judgment that seems to have nothing in common with the rest of his foreign policy thinking. When trying to understand the weaknesses and limits of the antiwar movement in America, a good place to start is the frequent habit it has of endorsing and backing candidates who happen to be aligned with that movement on one issue almost by accident.

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Where China Meets India

The Economist reviewed Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, a new book on Burma written by Thant Myint-U the grandson of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant:

But the book’s main analytical and polemical point is tellingly made: in the absence of a Western counterbalance, Myanmar is falling almost inexorably into the Chinese sphere of influence. There is an age-old dream of linking India and China through Burma. The Victorians even fantasised about a raised railway from Calcutta (now Kolkata), soaring above the jungle.

The dream is at last coming true, as the solution to China’s “Malacca dilemma”—its strategic worry about dependence on imported energy coming through the chokepoint of the Malacca Straits. A new port, oil and gas pipelines, and roads are already under construction, giving China for the first time direct access to the Bay of Bengal, and a new route for as much as 20% of its oil imports. Dams are springing up on Myanmar’s rivers, to generate hydropower to keep the lights burning in Yunnan.

The reviewer mentions Thant’s view that Western sanctions on Burma have been self-defeatingly futile. Obviously, I agree. This is also what Nader Mousavizadeh was arguing back in January 2010:

The two-decade-old policy of isolating Burma now looks like a carefully constructed attempt to weaken Western influence and open the door to China, while devastating Burma’s legitimate economy and doing nothing to improve its people’s human rights.

So it seems quite clear that Western policy towards Burma has failed in several ways, and it has deprived Western governments of whatever influence they might have been able to have. The reviewer notes that the leaders of the Burmese junta would prefer not to be so heavily dependent on China, but they have very few alternatives:

Yet the West, with its fastidious refusal to have any truck with them, seems to leave them little option but to cleave to China.

This is worth bearing in mind when considering how best to respond to Syria’s crackdown now.

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Myth of the “Martyr State”

Matt Duss debunks the myth that the Iranian government is filled with suicidal maniacs:

According to Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who spent years studying Shia theology in the Iranian seminary city of Qom, Ayatollah Khamenei — who, unlike Ahmadinejad, actually controls Iranian foreign policy — is much more concerned with the here and now. “Not one of [Khamenei's] speeches refers to any apocalyptic sign or reveals any special eagerness for the return of the Hidden Imam,” Khalaji wrote in a 2008 report, Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy. “As the theory of the guardianship of the jurist requires, the most significant task of the Supreme Leader is to safeguard the regime, even by overruling Islamic law.”

The myth relies heavily on placing absolute importance on the peculiar religious ideas of the current non-clerical president, attributing them to the clerical leadership, and then studiously ignoring the many times that the leading clerics have rejected the building and use of nuclear weapons as contrary to the teachings of Islam. Only the most potentially alarming religious teachings, however badly misunderstood or misconstrued, seem to have any relevance for understanding what the Iranian government might do. The idea that the Iranian government might face more constraints on developing nuclear weapons because of its religious pronouncements never even comes up.

According to the “myth of the martyr state,” a particular form of fanatical millennarian belief is so strong in the government’s leadership that it will override all normal state interests and the natural desire for self-preservation. As Duss explains, there is simply no reason for believing that this is so:

“Given the novelty of the martyr state argument,” Grotto continued, “and how unequivocally its proponents present it, one would expect to encounter an avalanche of credible evidence. Yet that is not the case.” Finding both that “references are scarce in this line of writings, and certain references are cited with striking regularity,” Grotto determined that the “martyr state” view essentially rests upon a few neoconservative op-eds and a report by a right-wing Israeli think tank, whose claims have been bounced endlessly around the internet.

Perhaps the most famous and ludicrous of the op-eds in question was Bernard Lewis’ 2006 classic that warned of the coming nuclear apocalypse that might begin on August 22 of that year. Lewis expressed the core of the myth:

In this context, mutual assured destruction, the deterrent that worked so well during the Cold War, would have no meaning. At the end of time, there will be general destruction anyway. What will matter will be the final destination of the dead — hell for the infidels, and heaven for the believers. For people with this mindset, MAD is not a constraint; it is an inducement.

If the last few years should have taught us anything about the Iranian leadership, it is that the current rahbar is a deeply cynical political operator interested in preserving a regime that he controls. Ahmadinejad has become an annoyance, and one that the clerical leadership will be glad to see gone after 2013, so speculation based on Ahmadinejad’s unconventional opinions is even less relevant than it used to be. It is easy to imagine a cynical leadership exploiting religious fanaticism so that others take all the risks, but engaging in self-destructive behavior is something else entirely.

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Seeing Enemies Everywhere

For some reason, Michael Rubin hates the president of Kyrgyzstan (via Nathan Hamm):

Yes, that’s right: Let’s wish Otunbaeva, the former communist functionary who was one of the coup leaders who overthrew her predecessor and has since cozied up to Vladimir Putin in Russia a truly long life. May it be as long as Muammar Qadhafi’s will be.

One of the “coup leaders”? It’s true that her predecessor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was overthrown in what could fairly be called a coup, and she was instrumental in organizing opposition to Bakiyev, but under the circumstances Otunbayeva and her allies have done a reasonably good job of preparing Kyrgyzstan for its transition to a more accountable, elected government. A large number of people in post-Soviet politics throughout the old USSR and eastern Europe were at one time or another communist functionaries. Some genuinely changed to become democrats, others simply adopted the right rhetoric without believing it, and others have chosen to pursue some more recent form of authoritarian politics. By all accounts I have seen, Otunbayeva is one of the first group.

Bakiyev was a corrupt authoritarian ruler, and his seizure of power was one of the worse examples of the “freedom agenda” in action, and he precipitated his own loss of power with a brutal crackdown on protests. If that had happened this year, we would probably be reading overwrought commentary about the “Central Asian Spring.” Bakiyev’s downfall was a welcome development, and the incitement of his supporters to carry out attacks on the Uzbek minority in the country was a reminder of why Kyrgyzstan was better off without him. For her part, Otunbayeva has promised to step down from her interim position after the next presidential election.

Kyrgyzstan’s “cozying up” to Moscow is a reflection of basic political and economic realities: Kyrgyzstan is heavily dependent on the Russian economy in the form of remittances and trade. The relationship with Russia is simply far more important to Kyrgyzstan, and it would be absurd to expect any Kyrgyz government to pretend otherwise. The use of Manas air base has been the main U.S. concern in Kyrgyzstan for the last decade, and Kyrgyzstan will honor the existing, Bakiyev-era contract to let the U.S. use it through 2014, which is when the bulk of U.S. forces is supposed to be out of Afghanistan anyway. Despite the unpopularity of the U.S. use of Manas, and the association of the U.S. with Bakiyev’s rule, Otunbayeva did not end U.S. access to the base. This would have been very popular at home and satisfactory to hard-liners in Moscow, but she didn’t do it. Are there other cooperative foreign leaders whose early deaths Rubin desires?

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