Daniel Larison

Foreign Policy as Part of the Culture War

Noah Millman follows up on the role of foreign policy in presidential elections (via Andrew):

Larison says that foreign policy was particularly important to Cold War elections, and that therefore this period was abnormal, but that view should be qualified because with the advent of the Cold War, big-picture foreign policy debate largely ceased. There was an overwhelming bi-partisan ideological consensus in favor of the basic architecture of containment.

Millman’s observation about the consensus is mostly true, but if “big-picture” debate ceased the quarreling over which party could be trusted with what he calls stewardship was very intense. At least during the 1950s and early 1960s, much of the GOP was rhetorically committed to a position much more radical and aggressive than containment in the form of rollback, and Eisenhower ran and won his first election on such a platform. In practice, Eisenhower was never crazy enough to implement the rollback doctrine included in the party platform, and we’re all grateful for that. Let us recall just how absurd the 1952 Republican position was. Their platform stated:

We shall again make liberty into a beacon light of hope that will penetrate the dark places. That program will give the Voice of America a real function. It will mark the end of the negative, futile and immoral policy of “containment” which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism, which in turn enables the rulers to forge the captives into a weapon for our destruction.

Certainly, it was more opportune to use foreign policy as a club with which to beat the Democrats in 1952, since the Korean debacle was still ongoing, but in retrospect we can see that the failure of the Truman administration was not that it preferred containment to rollback, but rather that it interpreted containment doctrine too broadly.

Turning to more recent elections, I agree that Republicans have been treating foreign policy as part of the culture war, and this partly answers Millman’s question why “anyone on the other side spend their time demagoguing on foreign policy.” The rest of the answer can be found in the substance of Democratic foreign policy positions. On the whole, there is almost nothing in these positions that hawkish Republicans actually reject, but Republican politicians have been conditioned to claim superiority on these issues, and their voters are used to hearing them make the claims. Continuity in foreign policy between administrations has been such that there is no way for Republicans attack to Obama on these issues except for alleged poor stewardship and to make them part of the culture war. As we can see, this doesn’t require candidates to know very much about the issues as such, and knowledge might even get in the way. After all, treating foreign policy as part of the culture war compels candidates to endorse nationalistic and confrontational policies whether they make sense or not.

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Who Can Forget All Those Anti-Bush Neocons?

Marc Thiessen tells the story of the anti-Bush neoconservatives:

This of course ignores the fact that many neoconservatives were deeply critical of the Bush administration during its time in office (for coddling Mubarak and Putin and mishandling post-liberation Iraq, among other policies).

I’m not sure what point Thiessen thinks he’s making here. Yes, neoconservatives were deeply critical of the administration when it failed to be as ideological and militaristic as they wished it to be. They became apoplectic during his second term when he backed away from some of their more disastrous ideas. After his first term was littered with disasters inspired by those ideas, it’s not surprising that this is what happened. They have nonetheless proved to be the most stubborn, fanatical Bush loyalists in the last few years, because so much of what the Bush administration did wrong on foreign policy and national security is correctly associated with them.

McCain was critical of how the administration handled the occupation, because he has never seen a situation where sending more troops was not his preferred solution. On the other hand, it was Wolfowitz who famously dismissed Gen. Shinseki’s estimates for the numbers of soldiers needed to restore order after the invasion. It is some hint of just how ideologically warped their view of the world is that Thiessen thinks he can plausibly describe Bush-era policy towards Russia as “coddling Putin.” What does Thiessen think antagonizing and provoking Putin would have looked like?

Of course, most of the 2012 GOP field is a bunch of “Bush neocon retreads” in most respects. The party’s foreign policy elite is still largely dominated by the people who contributed to the numerous failures of Bush administration foreign policy. It’s a mistake to refer to this as a “neocon resurrection.” They never went anywhere.

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How the “Reset” Favors the U.S. and Neglects Russian Concerns

Dan McGroarty is terribly worried about Russia:

Rather than reciprocate with a Russian ‘Reset,’ Moscow seems to have chosen to play the spoiler’s role. The playbook is fairly predictable: Keep the Middle East on the boil, fuel a little anti-Yanqui sentiment in the Western Hemisphere, sow a little discord in the Trans-Atlantic Alliance – the better to keep the U.S. distracted and give Russia a free hand as it reshapes its ‘Near Abroad’ into some semblance of its empire of old.

This is a bizarre reading of what has been happening in recent years. Russia doesn’t need to sow discord in the alliance. The alliance was genuinely split over the misguided decision to bring NATO into the Libyan war, just as it was previously divided over continued eastward expansion. There is no real discord over Syria because none of the allies is interested in a Syrian intervention. Russia has not noticeably been stoking anti-American sentiment in Latin America. In any case, there are several Latin American governments doing that already. Moscow didn’t compel the U.S. and its allies to distract themselves with the Libyan war, and it’s not as if the U.S. would be able to counter Russian influence among its neighbors anyway. To take one example, the openly pro-Russian candidate won the more or less legitimate election in Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyzstan’s interests are closely tied to those of Russia. What could the U.S. have done to prevent that, and why should it try? Proposals for integrating neighboring countries economically do not suggest much of an imperial revival. Moscow isn’t interested in keeping the Near East “boiling.” It would clearly prefer that the protests and unrest in Syria cease as soon as possible.

Something that most Americans don’t appreciate is how one-sided in our favor the “reset” has been so far. Andranik Migranyan explained the Russian view last week:

Russians aren’t inclined to underestimate the improvements, but they also don’t want to overestimate them. If anything, Russia considers the reset to have fostered significant concessions to the United States. These include the compromise on Libya, the help in Afghanistan and the pressure on Iran. The reset, as seen by the Russian side, is an attempt at normal dialogue and a framework within which to hear both sides.

The danger here is if the U.S. believes that it can extract these concessions from Russia and then expect that the U.S. never has to provide anything in return other than a lack of hostility.

Dan Trombly recently made some sensible suggestions for what U.S. policy towards Russia should look like:

A cold-eyed assessment of US policy towards Russia would recognize the value of keeping Russia relatively pliant, not just for bilateral arms reductions or securing the European Union, but because Russia is a potential counterweight to China and a more tolerable regional security partner in Central Asia than, say, Pakistan, Iran, or China, as far as US interests are concerned. Yet America continues insisting on policies which do remarkably little to concretely advance US interests, but do very much to heighten tensions with a great power, and the US does so essentially voluntarily [bold mine-DL].

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Aznar’s Contempt for Voters Lost the 2004 Election

Shadow Government offers up some revisionist history:

Many readers of this blog will remember that the PP was slated to win the 2004 elections before the terrorist attacks in Madrid. The terrorists act perpetrated by al Qaeda were designed to sabotage the PP and “punish” Spain for participation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rajoy lost that election and lost again in 2008.

It’s true that the Madrid bombings were intended as punishment for Spanish participation in Iraq, but the reason that the bombings doomed the PP in the 2004 election was Aznar’s remarkably cynical attempt to pin them on ETA. Aznar’s party might still have lost had it honestly faced up to the consequences of his government’s decision to support the invasion of Iraq, but as much as anything else it was the contempt that Aznar showed for the Spanish electorate that led to his party’s defeat.

When we’re talking about Zapatero’s “politically motivated” withdrawal from Iraq, we should not forget that the Iraq war was always deeply unpopular in Spain, the electorate never wanted to participate in it, and they expected their new Socialist government to end Spanish involvement in the war once it was in power. So, yes, Zapatero’s decision was “politically motivated” in that he was implementing the policy that the vast majority of his countrymen wanted. It’s called representative government. We might want to consider giving it a try.

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New START and the Next Arms Control Agreement

David Hoffman reviews the problem of tactical nuclear weapons:

Miasnikov urges change from the status quo. He proposes a two-stage process to improve transparency of both Russian and U.S. tactical arsenals. It would start with something very simple: an exchange of data. How many are there, and where? With both the United States and Russia in presidential election cycles, my guess is there won’t be any action soon. But when the political season is over, Nunn and Miasnikov have offered valuable ideas for how to make progress on this lingering problem. As Nunn writes, “This is a difficult web to untangle, but we must begin.”

One of the recurring complaints supporters of New START kept hearing last year was that the treaty did not address tactical nuclear weapons. Of course, there was no way that a strategic arms reduction treaty would include tactical weapons, but the need to account for these weapons and gradually to eliminate them is real enough. Had New START not been ratified, this would have been out of the question, but at least now there is a chance. One problem is that the fight over New START was so contentious that it has made it hard to imagine how any further arms control treaties would succeed here in the U.S. It would be encouraging if the anti-treaty Republicans who used this as a talking point last year were serious when they expressed concerns about these weapons, but based on what we have heard from them these past two years that would be expecting too much.

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Outlaw Nations

Rod comments on the storming of Britain’s embassy in Iran:

A Tehran mob invaded the British embassy and ransacked it today. This is incredibly discouraging. I strongly believe war with Iran would be a total disaster for us and for the world, but there can be no doubt that Iran is not a normal country, and is in fact a thugocracy. One that may soon have nuclear weapons.

Obviously, the storming of the British embassy is completely unacceptable for the same reasons that the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo was. If diplomatic missions are not protected, it becomes impossible to conduct relations between states, and states have an obligation under international law to protect these missions. The attack on the British embassy is unfortunately part of the ongoing escalation of tensions between a few Western states and Iran, and it may be intended as retaliation for the recent explosions that have taken place inside Iran in recent weeks. If the U.S. and/or allied governments are responsible for these blasts, they aren’t exactly demonstrating a great deal of respect for sovereignty and international law, either, are they?

I’m not sure what it means to say that Iran is “not a normal country.” The Iranian government’s tactics are actually quite typical for authoritarian regimes. I recall that Chinese protesters were encouraged to do some damage to the U.S. embassy in Beijing and other consular buildings around the country to retaliate for the “accidental” bombing of their embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war. That doesn’t excuse the behavior, but our government and allied governments have a bad habit of provoking and even attacking other governments and then reacting in amazement when they respond in kind.

P.S. I should have mentioned that it was new British sanctions on Iran’s central bank that triggered the assault on the embassy.

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U.S. Relations and Wehner’s Fantasy World

Pete Wehner recites the party line:

The efforts to “re-set” relations with Russia have failed. During the Bush presidency relations with Japan, China, India, Mexico, Colombia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Great Britain (to name just a few countries) were better than they have been during the Obama years.

Many Republicans hear these things somewhere, and then they repeat them religiously without bothering to think through whether they are true or what it might mean if they are. If we look at how the U.S. is viewed overseas, we generally see significant improvements in favorability ratings from 2009-2011 over ratings from 2003-2008. According to Pew, U.S. favorability ratings improved in five of the eight countries Wehner mentions when Obama took office, and for the most part they have not declined significantly since then. The 2011 ratings from these five countries are all above the 2008 ratings. The survey did not include Colombia or the Czech Republic, and it had just one result for India from this year.

The myth that changes to missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic represented a grievous betrayal of these allies is one of the most often repeated and baseless arguments of the last three years. The decision was not handled as well as it could have been, but most Poles and Czechs didn’t want the installations anyway. Despite the passage of a free trade agreement that will harm many Colombian cultivators, U.S.-Colombian relations are now hardly any worse than they were during the Bush years. The nuclear deal between the U.S. and India may be in jeopardy, but this is partly because of India’s liability law. Relations with China have deteriorated somewhat, but this is because the U.S. has been asserting itself more in the region and showing support for China’s neighbors, and it is doubtful that Wehner disapproves of these moves. Better U.S.-China relations in the last decade were the product of benign neglect.

Last year, relations with Japan were in fairly bad shape, but why was this? The Obama administration compelled the Hatoyama government to climb down and accept an Okinawa basing deal that it had pledged to oppose. Presumably, Wehner doesn’t disagree with the administration’s position on the basing deal, and he isn’t likely to fault it for the rift that this created with the Japanese government. Since then, because of U.S. support for Japan in its disputes with China and U.S. aid following the tsunami, the relationship has recovered, and Pew found that 85% in Japan had a favorable view of the U.S., which is the highest rating of the last decade. The same improvement can be found in France, Germany, Russia, and all of the other places where the world is supposedly souring on America. Some of the countries where U.S. favorability has dropped below Bush-era levels are those countries that the Obama administration has gone out of its way to insult or antagonize, such as Turkey and Pakistan.

If we’re not judging this by public opinion, Wehner’s charges are still hard to take seriously. The “reset” has not been a failure. This is by far the most ridiculous charge, since critics of the “reset” only complain about it because it has succeeded in repairing a U.S.-Russian relationship that they don’t want to cultivate. The “reset” has improved the bilateral relationship, reduced regional tensions, and provided some cooperation on policies on Iran and Afghanistan that Wehner presumably supports. Improved U.S.-Russian ties have contributed to the thaw in Polish-Russian relations, and the reason Polish foreign policy has become less reflexively pro-American is that Poland was shortchanged and abused by the previous administration after it lent its support to the Iraq debacle. Nonetheless, U.S. favorability in Poland is slightly higher now than it was for most of Bush’s tenure. Wehner writes that relations with France and Germany are worse than they were in Bush’s second term, but even if true this avoids the inconvenient fact that relations with both countries plummeted to historic lows during the first term.

This brings me to what is so tiresome about these complaints. Many Republicans spent eight years dismissing foreign public opinion and the views of foreign governments as irrelevant. Despite the Bush administration’s generally horrendous record on this score, many of them insist on claiming that U.S. relations with other states have worsened when they have mostly stayed the same or even improved significantly. Where U.S. relations with other states have actually soured, they have done so mostly because the Obama administration has continued or escalated Bush-era policies that these states reject.

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Presidential Elections and Foreign Policy

Dan Drezner recently embraced RINO status, but that wasn’t what interested me about this post. One of the comments that wasn’t included in his Spectator article on Republican foreign policy caught my attention:

[A]s an international relations specialist, I find the state of the state of the GOP foreign policy debate to be utterly depressing, but as a political scientist, I’m unsurprised. Still, as an American citizen, this state of affairs is disconcerting on multiple levels. We are not that far removed from elections in which foreign affairs and national security were the crucial issues in a campaign. Gerald Ford sabotaged his 1976 campaign when he insisted that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Both Michael Dukakis and John Kerry doomed their campaigns by appearing weak and vacillating on national security.

Except for the 2004 example, Drezner is describing presidential politics during the Cold War. During this extremely abnormal period of American history, foreign policy and national security received more attention because the U.S. was engaged in a major international rivalry with the USSR. Further, there was a bipartisan consensus that anti-Soviet containment was necessary and important, and presidential candidates were expected to demonstrate that they were competent to handle this responsibility. After 1991, it was natural that these issues stopped dominating presidential politics to the extent that they had earlier, and now that we are beginning to realize that there are no comparably grave threats to the U.S. these issues are starting to fade into the background again.

In the years immediately following 9/11, national security issues defined the political landscape. This made them major issues during the 2004 election, but it also produced the Iraq war debacle. Bush’s re-election was interpreted by the administration as a green light to continue their mismanagement of the occupation and many of their other misguided policies in the world. Considering the hysteria and demagoguery that shaped the national security debate during at least the first half of the last decade, I’m not sure that we are missing out on very much this cycle.

My guess is that Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon lost him a lot more votes than those debate remarks, but with the exception of 1988 these elections resulted in the victory of the less competent candidate when it came to foreign policy and national security issues. That may not have been entirely obvious in 1976, but it was in 2004. To the extent that these elections turned on issues of foreign policy and national security, they did so for utterly superficial reasons. I won’t find it the least bit disconcerting if this election isn’t decided by who happens to “appear weak.” Goodness knows we have had more than enough candidates eager to demonstrate how “strong” and “tough” they are with belligerent and demagogic rhetoric.

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U.S. Client States and American Prosperity

Bret Stephens advises Republican candidates to believe in fairy tales:

And it [our prosperity] depends on our embattled allies, from Taiwan to Georgia to Israel, knowing that we have both the will and the wherewithal to stand for their defense.

Whether or not the U.S. should defend these “embattled allies,” what is certain is that “our prosperity” does not depend on this. Of the three states listed here, Taiwan is by far the most important economically as our 9th largest trading partner, but that is all the more reason why the U.S. should not be unduly antagonizing China and increasing the chance of conflict. The U.S. obviously has no intention of defending Georgia, and the mistake Washington made then was in not conveying clearly to the Georgian government that it could not expect U.S. support in a conflict with Russia. The false belief that the U.S. was going to support Georgian actions contributed to the crisis three years ago, and it is important to avoid creating similar false impressions elsewhere. Of these three, Israel has the least need of U.S. protection, as it is perfectly capable of providing for its own defense. What all three of these states have in common is that they are client states that have become security dependents or liabilities, neither of which contributes to American prosperity.

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The Libyan War and Regional Opinion

Marc Lynch reviews a new survey of Arab public opinion, and mentions this in passing:

Only 35% now say that the intervention in Libya was the right thing to do — quite a decline from the enthusiasm in the spring.

46% of the respondents said that the intervention was a mistake. Let’s remember that one of the main arguments for intervening in Libya was to get on the “right side” of popular opinion in Arab countries to change the image of the U.S. in the region, and several months ago there was already reason to think that this wasn’t happening. Libyan war supporters put great emphasis on how intervening on the side of the rebels would earn the U.S. tremendous goodwill in the region, and this was why they insisted that it was so very unlike the war in Iraq. As it turned out, the enthusiasm for Western intervention was temporary and has not survived to the end of the year. Once again, Lynch deserves some credit for predicting this:

Despite the bracing scenes of Benghazi erupting into cheers at the news of the Resolution, Arab support for the intervention is not nearly as deep as it seems and will not likely survive an extended war.

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