Daniel Larison

How a Non-Event Creates a Conspiracy Theory

It’s a given that Marty Peretz is wrong whenever he writes about foreign policy, but his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal is useful as an extreme example of the delusion about what the “flexibility” comments mean:

But really the message, the important one, concerns us, here in America. It is that the American people can’t be trusted if the president is honest with them about what he proposes. More bluntly, that the American people are not trusted by their own president. Otherwise the president would tell us the truth about his intentions. And here he is, admitting his distrust of his own people to a leader of a nasty foreign government that seeks to thwart our purposes in the Middle East and elsewhere. President Obama is in cahoots with the Russian regime against America’s very body politic.

Probably the only significant political lesson to be drawn from the last week of manufactured outrage over these comments is that a great many hawks distrust Obama on foreign policy, but that’s not really news, either. What this week’s hysteria has shown is just how deep that distrust goes. How else could such a non-event trigger so many days of panic? The only way one can conclude that Obama is “in cahoots with the Russian regime against America’s very body politic” is if one is already very hostile to Obama’s foreign policy and that hostility is rooted in a number of falsehoods about how Obama has conducted foreign policy over the last three years. Otherwise, this statement comes across as a conspiracy theory so feverish and unfounded that it would embarrass the Birthers because of its lack of evidence and rationality.

After all, where in these unimportant comments is there any mention of distrusting the American public? Over the last few days, Obama has been fairly blunt in saying that he intends to seek additional reductions of nuclear weapons. Negotiating some sort of cooperation between NATO and Russia on missile defense has been on the public agenda of the alliance for almost a year and a half. If Obama’s interest in reaching an agreement on NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense was supposed to be a secret, he has done a very bad job over the last year of keeping it under wraps. The very strongly Atlanticist James Joyner commented favorably on the results of the NATO Lisbon summit:

The NATO-Russia issue was arguably the most stunning success of the Summit, with the sidebar meetings with President Medvedev going far better than anyone should reasonably have hoped. Not only did Russia agree to participate fully in a European missile defense shield — something that would have seemed absurd as recently as a year ago — but Medvedev insisted on “a full-fledged strategic partnership between Russia and NATO.” [bold mine-DL] Nor did this happy progress come at the price of future NATO enlargement, with the Strategic Concept continuing to maintain that membership remained open to European countries who met the Alliance’s standards and a reaffirmation that Georgia would one day be admitted. Balancing these issues in such a way that both Medvedev and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili walked away satisfied is a major achievement, indeed.

Since that summit, NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense has run into difficulties, and working out those difficulties, if they can be worked out, is not something that is going to happen in the next few weeks before Obama attends the Chicago NATO summit or meets with Putin at Camp David. Hawkish critics don’t understand this, or they’re pretending not to understand it, which is one more reason why the rest of us shouldn’t trust anything they have to say about this.

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Romney Traps Himself with Election-Year Ideological Rigidity

Nikolas Gvosdev warns Romney that he is painting himself into a corner with his campaign’s recent foreign policy attacks:

This is what makes the response of the Romney campaign, particularly the open letter released earlier this week, troubling. The United States remains the world’s preeminent power, but it is not a global hegemon. Advancing U.S. interest requires the ability to compromise and prioritize. One can certainly criticize where the Obama administration has chosen to compromise and what it has chosen to prioritize—but to suggest that Mitt Romney, if elected president, would somehow have the power to avoid making choices and trade-offs, or that every time an American preference is not upheld, it is due solely to the weakness or fecklessness of the president, is disingenuous. On defense, a president Romney would still have to decide where to make budget cuts and how to reshape U.S. military forces to best defend American interests within the realities of a constrained fiscal environment. Very quickly, he too would have to shift from “campaign mode” to “statesman mode”—with all the ambiguities and shades of gray that come with such a change.

One of the difficulties Romney has had all along in criticizing the compromises and priorities of the Obama administration is that he agrees with Obama’s priorities far more often than he disagrees with them, his disagreements are frequently just tactical and stylistic, and he is compelled for political reasons to exaggerate the extent to which Obama has compromised. Obama hasn’t betrayed any of the states that Romney says that he has, but Romney is committed to telling a story about how Obama harms friends and aids enemies. Those relationships that Obama has arguably managed poorly (e.g., Japan, Pakistan, Brazil, Turkey in 2010-2011) are not ones where Romney actually disagrees with what Obama has done, and there is no domestic political advantage in attacking Obama for being too demanding of other governments or insufficiently attentive to other states’ interests. The differences between Obama and Romney on foreign policy do not lend themselves to the sort of full-throated critique that Romney wants to make, which keeps pushing Romney into positions that he shouldn’t want to take, can’t defend, and probably wouldn’t be able to implement if elected in most cases.

When Romney has declared that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon if he is elected, he is setting himself up for failure or he is trapping himself into taking unwise military action to make good on his unwise declaration. There is something more than a little absurd about the ever-adaptable Romney expressing alarm about someone else’s flexibility, but because of the campaign Romney is adopting rigid views that would make it much harder for him later to conduct foreign policy without inviting accusations of betrayal and appeasement from his own side. Indeed, the one argument in Romney’s favor on foreign policy is that he cannot possibly believe what he’s saying now. According to this view, he is just saying these things to satisfy hard-liners in his party, and he will become much less inflexible and ideological once the election is over.

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In A World Filled With Desperate Partisans…

Alana Goodman comments on a silly new ad put out by American Crossroads:

How concerned you are about the hot mic moment probably depends on whether you think this was a one-time, off-the-cuff remark or a glimpse into Obama’s mindset on foreign policy.

I’m quite sure that the only people genuinely concerned about this moment are those who already despise improved U.S.-Russian relations and cannot stand the thought that U.S.-Russian cooperation might continue or increase. The rest of those feigning concern are simply opposed to Obama’s re-election for other reasons, but they think that this moment is damaging somehow and want to milk it for all that it’s worth. My impression is that this non-event will have no impact on the election, because once we get past partisan hyperventilating there is nothing in the comments that is particularly meaningful or interesting.

Here is the ad:

The framing of an old Bond movie complete with menacing Russians is a fitting way to convey the ad’s anachronistic paranoia. I don’t think the producers of the ad realize that they have unintentionally sabotaged their attack by emphasizing the campy, outdated nature of their criticism.

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Reagan and the Mythology of Reykjavik

Santorum gave a foreign policy speech last night at the Jelly Belly Candy Co. to show that there is no Reagan-pandering too egregious that he won’t try it. Among other things, Santorum invoked the spirit of Reykjavik:

In a reference to Reagan’s 1986 summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in which their nuclear treaty talks fell apart, Santorum said: “Ronald Reagan didn’t whisper to Gorbachev, ‘Give me some flexibility.’ He walked out of Iceland.”

What’s interesting here is that Reagan’s decision not to give up on SDI was arguably one of the biggest missed opportunities in the history of arms control. Ever since, it has been hailed and built up in Republican mythology as an example of what Reagan got right when he was dealing with the Soviets. What the mythology usually leaves out was how willing Reagan was to support nuclear abolition. Reagan didn’t whisper about flexibility to Gorbachev. They briefly entertained the possibility to eliminating both the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals, which is a lot more significant than a throwaway line about post-election flexibility. This discussion of the issues at the Reykjavik summit offers a helpful review. What Santorum doesn’t acknowledge in his speech was Reagan’s position on nuclear disarmament:

The abolition moment was over. Reagan lost the initiative on the U.S. side, as the Iran-contra scandal in November 1986 sank his approval ratings and the allies, the U.S. military, and the foreign policy establishment registered their astonishment that he was prepared to junk the entire mutual-assured-destruction deterrence scheme. Reagan was serious about that, but he was the only one in Washington who was.

Despite its failure, the Reykjavik summit also helped lay the groundwork for the next stages of arms control and created new trust between Reagan and Gorbachev that would be important in the remaining years of Reagan’s second term:

A spark of understanding was born between them, as if they had winked to each other about the future. And Gorbachev retained a certain sense of trust in this person. After Reykjavik, he never again spoke about Reagan in his inner circle as he had before.

While Santorum would like us to remember the Reykjavik “walk-out” simply as an example of tough defiance, it yielded later arms control agreements and contributed to a more cooperative relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev during the remainder of Reagan’s second term. In fact, the failure of the Reykjavik summit encouraged “flexibility” on both sides. The results were the INF Treaty and eventually START I:

The INF Treaty proved to be a political and strategic watershed that helped transform the U.S.-Soviet relationship. The pact established new verification provisions and eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, many of which had been deployed under Reagan’s watch.

Work on the draft strategic arms agreement continued during 1988 and at the next summit meeting in Moscow in late May and early June 1988. Despite the earlier success on intermediate-range nuclear forces, the sides failed to resolve remaining differences over the interpretation of the ABM Treaty and the terms of the offense/defense relationship under START. The START negotiations under Reagan would, however, lead to the eventual negotiation and signing of START I by Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush in July 1991.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Santorum’s selective memory of how Reagan related to Gorbachev as more of the usual ideological Reaganolatry that is unfortunately so common, but it becomes more meaningful when he uses this distorted interpretation of Reagan’s second term to mislead his audience into thinking that Reagan was opposed to diplomatic “flexibility.”

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Romney’s Foreign Policy: An “Anything But Obama” Vision That Pretends To Be More Than It Is

The Wall Street Journal reports on Romney’s hawkish outbursts:

The Russia remark has fanned concerns among both Romney supporters and nonpartisan foreign-policy experts that Mr. Romney’s desire to contrast himself with President Barack Obama has led the GOP candidate to take positions that would be difficult to maintain if he wins the presidency.

“I think Obama’s foreign policy is seriously flawed, but I worry that too much of Romney’s criticism is driven by what he thinks is best politically, and not by any larger strategic vision [bold mine-DL],” said Dimitri Simes, a Russia expert who was a Romney foreign-policy adviser in 2008.

No doubt Simes is right that Romney’s foreign policy is driven to a large degree by political considerations, but what may be even more worrisome is that Romney thinks he has a larger strategic vision when all that he really has is a grab-bag of “Anything But Obama” reactions. His hostility towards Russia is so pronounced because he is opposing Obama’s relatively more accommodating Russia policy, but his campaign also maintains that his description of Russia as our top geopolitical foe is a “carefully thought-out position.” It’s possible that no thought has gone into it at all, but based on what we have heard from Romney over the last few years that doesn’t seem right. It’s just that the thinking involved wasn’t very good.

Romney has been developing his foreign policy vision for several years, and according to that vision he sees the world as divided among “four different competing nations or groups of nations, representing four different ways of life, that are vying to lead the world.” He may not use this exact phrasing anymore after it was so mercilessly mocked, but his positions on Russia, China, and Iran suggest that he is still using this framework. This is tied to Romney’s idolatry of the idea of American exceptionalism, and his insistence that the U.S. must remain preeminent to prevent the emergence of a “Chinese century.” Like Paul Ryan, he claims to believe that without American “leadership” the “leadership” of the world will pass to Russia or China. Romney favors U.S. global hegemony, he seems to react very strongly against the possibility of a multipolar world, which he equates with American weakness and decline, and he sees major and regional powers that get in the way of hegemony as our main antagonists. It goes without saying that this is a flawed and incomplete way to understand the world and America’s role in it, but it is an attempt to make Romney’s foreign policy appear to be more substantive than it is.

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Waiting For Historical Literacy in America

As part of his complaint about Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba, Carlos Eire recounts previous papal errors. One problem with this is that he doesn’t have a terribly good grasp on church history:

Pope Honorius I (625 -638) agreed with the monophysite heretics in a private letter, and his remains were later dug up and thrown into the Tiber River.

It may seem like a trivial distinction to many people today, but Honorius did not express agreement with monophysites in his letter to Patriarch Sergios. Honorius and Sergios were corresponding about the ongoing controversy over the use of the language of energy (activity), which had created divisions among Christians in the east, and Honorius fatefully proposed his solution to the controversy over energy by proposing that everyone refer to “one will of Christ.” The context of their correspondence was Sergios’ desire to promote Chalcedonian teaching among the non-Chalcedonian churches of the east. In other words, their correspondence was explicitly anti-monophysite. Honorius’ monothelete (one will) formulation was rejected by many contemporary theologians as unorthodox, and later overturned at the sixth ecumenical council in 680-681. Honorius’ statement was viewed as an endorsement of a heretical denial of Christ’s human will. So that’s the actual history of Honorius and his condemnation. Suffice it to say, I don’t think Honorius’ error has much bearing on Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba.

It’s very curious that Eire would bring up this example in the context of criticizing the Pope’s visit to Cuba, which does not seem to have been quite the disaster that he claims. Honorius’ theological error is the main example used by non-Catholics and Old Catholics to refute the teaching of papal infallibility. I cannot think of anything that would be less likely to persuade the Vatican that it was in the wrong than bringing up the old Honoriusfrage. His other comparisons with Alexander VI (!) and Leo X could not have been more insulting to Pope Benedict if he had tried. Pope Benedict said in his homily, “The truth is a desire of the human person, the search for which always supposes the exercise of authentic freedom.” What could be a more powerful rebuke to a communist despotism than that?

Update: Pope Honorius aside, Eire’s assessment of the effect of the papal visit is mistaken, as I was suggesting at the end of the original post. This editorial from Investor’s Business Daily helps explain why:

But in reality, the pope did just enough to scald the legitimacy of the Cuban regime as news of his visit permeated the island. History has shown that papal visits to totalitarian regimes can plant the seeds of revolution even if they appear to co-opt despicable regimes.

Recall Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Poland in 1979, a visit that never directly challenged Poland’s communist regime [bold mine-DL] but did lead citizens to embrace personal moral power as superior to state power. That led to individual conscience so that by 1989, they rose up on their own to destroy the morally bankrupt regime.

Popes can make poor decisions, but it is not at all obvious that the way Pope Benedict handled his visit to Cuba should be counted as one.

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The Rubio Mirage (IV)

Harry Enten dispels the Rubio mirage once and for all (via Andrew):

Not surprisingly, then, there’s little sign that Marco Rubio really appeals to non-Cuban Latinos. In his 2010 run for Senate, Rubio ran 10 points weaker among non-Cuban Latinos, at 40%, than among Floridians at large (50%). That’s little better than McCain’s 33% support among non-Cuban Latinos in Florida. Rubio gained only 7 percentage points on McCain’s baseline among Latinos, even though he pulled a higher percentage of the overall vote than McCain did in Florida.

I had been assuming that any appeal among Latinos Rubio did have would be mostly limited to Cubans, and Enten’s figures seem to confirm this. The story here isn’t that Rubio isn’t going to help the Republican ticket, but that so many Republicans are already invested in the idea that Rubio is the obvious choice for Romney’s running mate. I can’t recall a recent example where there was so much activist and pundit support for a possible VP nominee so early, especially when the politician in question wasn’t a presidential a candidate. Why do Republican Rubio enthusiasts expect Latino voters to respond so favorably to Rubio when many of them would regard a similar maneuver by Democrats to be insulting tokenism?

Should Romney make the “wrong” choice by picking someone else, we can expect no end to the complaining about it that will follow from then until November. In that scenario, the Rubio VP nomination-that-could-have-been will become the new fantasy candidate obsession for disaffected Republicans. No matter how well the eventual VP candidate performs in debates, there will probably be a steady stream of articles claiming that Rubio would have done better. Maybe it would be better to put Rubio on the ticket just to test the proposition and prove that it was a misguided idea.

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The Ridiculous Reason Rubio Endorsed Romney This Week

Matt Lewis reports that Rubio was prompted to endorse Romney because of the missile defense non-controversy:

“I’ve never thought about this as a political calculation,” Rubio said of his endorsement. “I’m just sitting back here and watching a president that just got back from overseas — where he told the Russian president to work with him and give him space so he can be more flexible if he gets re-elected.”

“The stakes are so high. We’re not running against John F. Kennedy here,” he said.

This is only slightly more credible than Romney’s claim back in 2008 that he was dropping out of the presidential race because he didn’t want to aid in the “surrender to terror.” How could the truly unimportant “live mic” non-event be weighing so heavily on Rubio’s mind? Is he always so deeply troubled by insignificant comments?

Leaving that aside, what does Rubio think he is saying when he says that “we’re not running against John F. Kennedy”? JFK was unfortunately someone who indulged in a great deal of anticommunist bluster as a candidate, and then once in office he managed to preside over one of the most disastrous diplomatic episodes in postwar history at the Vienna summit in 1961. The first half of his term was littered with failures and near-catastrophes. It’s true that Romney won’t be running against someone like JFK, but that isn’t flattering to Kennedy. Indeed, if there is anyone in the election who bears a strong resemblance to Kennedy and his lack of foreign policy experience, it would be Romney.

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Idolizing Rubio Made It Easier for Him to Endorse Romney

Matt Lewis has a strange reaction to Rubio’s endorsement of Romney (via Andrew):

I’ve covered Rubio for years now, and have found him to be impressive. But if his goal was to help unite the party, he got the timing wrong. By holding out longer, and agreeing to be Romney’s running mate later, he could have served an important function as the bridge between the GOP establishment and the tea party/grassroots conservative base.

But this move seems to deprive Romney of the ceremonial, but very important, gesture of uniting the GOP establishment and conservatives by picking Rubio as a concession.

This doesn’t make sense. Movement conservatives are falling all over themselves practically begging Romney to select Rubio as his running mate, because many of them are so bizarrely enamored of the idea of promoting an unqualified junior Senator too rapidly on the national stage. That means that many movement conservatives have extraordinary confidence in Rubio and his judgment, and they attach great significance to what he says and does. All the movement conservative hero-worship directed towards him has given him much more influence than most other rising national Republican figures.

It’s debatable whether Rubio isn’t already a member of the so-called party establishment. After all, he is Jeb Bush’s apprentice and the former speaker of the Florida House. For whatever reason, he isn’t perceived that way. That’s one of the things that gives Rubio political space to endorse Romney without jeopardizing his credibility with his conservative fans. Rubio’s endorsement makes it easier for movement conservatives to accept Romney. Unlike other national Republicans, Rubio has been mythologized as a great conservative insurgent hero, and movement conservatives have invested so much time and energy in building Rubio up that he can support Romney without fear of being accused of selling out. One of the consequences of the excessive idolizing of Rubio is that he can more easily ignore movement conservative objections when he does something that some of them don’t like.

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Romney’s “Careful” and “Delicate” Incompetence on Foreign Policy

This must be some sort of joke:

Mitt Romney has made a point of carefully picking the instances in which he challenges President Barack Obama’s management of foreign policy, reflecting the delicacy the Republican faces in taking on a commander in chief whose foreign policy marks are relatively high.

Yes, the two words that immediately spring to mind when I think of Romney’s foreign policy attacks are careful and delicate. Who can forget the care that Romney showed when he accused Obama of having “thrown Israel under the bus” when Obama restated longstanding U.S. policy, or the delicacy with which he denounced a widely-supported, uncontroversial arms control treaty as Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake”? His attack on Obama’s dealings with China was so carefully done that he invited scorn from his own side because he had threatened to start a trade war. This reporter makes no effort to scrutinize Romney’s criticisms to determine if they have any merit.

Each and every time he has made a major foreign policy criticism, he has badly overreached, embarrassed himself, and demonstrated that his foreign policy agenda involves little more than repeating outdated talking points that he first used in No Apology. As the title of the book suggests, Romney’s attack on the imaginary “apology tour” has been at the heart of all of this, which epitomizes Romney’s disdain for the truth and his willingness to say anything if it gives him momentary credibility as a hard-line nationalist. Romney is possibly the least credible challenger to an incumbent on foreign policy in a generation, but one would never know that from reading this report.

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