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Thoughts On Things Foreign & Domestic

Perhaps it’s because I’m tired after a three-hour service for the reading of the Passion Gospels, but I’m in more of a contrarian mood than usual.  On the main blog, Freddy notes [1] a string of recent Clinton blunders in foreign policy after saying:

Barack Obama has been justifiably criticized for being vague on foreign policy. But at least he isn’t offending anyone. By contrast, Hillary Clinton, in her determination to grab the Democratic nomination, has hurled principles of international diplomacy out the window.

Obama hasn’t been offending anyone recently, but his comments on Pakistan last year (made around the same time as Tancredo’s “we might nuke Mecca” remarks) drew a rebuke from the State Department and his shot at the Australian contribution to the Iraq war prompted John Howard, then in a political tailspin at home, to engage in a very public argument with Obama.  As I said in my column [2] at the time:

From his widely reported spat with Prime Minister John Howard over Australian troop levels in Iraq to his saber-rattling against an unstable, vulnerable, and strategically critical state, Obama is proving as adept at irritating and unnerving U.S. allies as the Bush administration was in 2002 and 2003. Indeed, together with some incendiary remarks by Rep. Tom Tancredo, Obama’s statements caused such a tumult in U.S.-Pakistan relations that the State Department called on all presidential candidates to refrain from speaking so carelessly about foreign policy.

Add to this Obama’s rather blithe statement during a debate this year that we have “obligations” to defend Kosovo from attack, which is a security guarantee that presidential candidates shouldn’t be making regardless of the policy idea in question, and we begin to see that Obama can be just as careless and sloppy in his foreign policy statements as his current opponent.  More to the point, the dispute with Australia’s government was a pretty sharp criticism that Australia was somehow making a half-hearted or minimal effort, paying no heed to the protestations of the Australian defence minister that Austrlia’s armed forces were pretty much stretched to the max between Iraq, Afghanistan and its other obligations in the Pacific, so this was a more serious episode of effectively mocking an ally’s war effort rather than making a lame joke about the prime minister of an allied country that is not actively involved in ongoing military operations alongside the United States.  Luckily for Obama, Howard is out of office now, so if he should win the election there will not necessarily be much bad blood between him and the government in Canberra, but I have to think that there were more than a few Australians who found his comments fairly insulting and many of them are probably in the Australian military, which is the one military in the world that has been on our side in every major conflict of the last 100 years.  Such was the foreign policy and diplomatic finesse of someone who knows from his extensive experience in southeast Asia about other parts of the world.  It was a minor episode, but potentially a revealing one for what the Obama era of U.S. foreign relations might look like.

In domestic politics, there is a run-off election for Mississippi’s First District after neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote in the special election to replace Rep. Wicker, and Dan argues [3] that this is evidence of GOP doom in the South.  In this case, I think people are making too much out of apparent GOP weakness.  First of all, as I understand it, ballots in the MS-01 special election did not list party affiliation, so it’s possible that many of Childers’ voters did not think of him as the Democratic candidate.  By all accounts Childers has adopted every socially conservative position imaginable, while talking up a brand of economic populism and opposition to the war.  He seems to be a lot like Jim Webb, except he is even more like what some of us might have wanted Jim Webb to be like.  Davis probably comes across to small town and rural Mississippians as the standard-issue suburban Republican, while Childers is one of them; the race has broken down along geographic lines [4].  It occurs to me that this makes him something of a unique case resulting from unusually good Democratic recruitment paired against pretty bad Republican recruitment, plus a bruising primary battle for the Republicans and lackluster party support for the nominee.  Now it is significant that the NRCC has to fight for this seat at all, since it is notoriously low on cash and has been fighting holding actions in places where Democrats have no business competing.  That does point to the broader weaknesses of the GOP in the House elections this year, but even if Childers should pull off a remarkable upset in the run-off I am very doubtful that the Democrats could hold such seats come November.          

Meanwhile, there’s something Childers said that annoyed me, because it reminded me that this is the sort of antiwar argument that really works, and it is one of those arguments that is based on a lot of nonsense.  Childers said [5]:

But that cookie cutter message is not working. How long can you put a round peg into a square hole? Those people have been fighting for centuries [bold mine-DL].

It’s the last sentence that bothered me.  What it does is to make it seem as if foreign conflicts that started more recently would be more amenable to resolution, but obviously the more fresh, the more recent the injuries and wounds the harder it is to settle outstanding questions.  “Those people” are, of course, Sunnis and Shi’ites, I suppose, but any mix of people will do, and this can be applied to every conflict and it will typically be false in almost every instance it is used.  (In the Iraqi case, it is false.)  This is the sort of thing one heard during the ’90s all the time about different ethnic groups in the Balkans (centuries of violence! completely irrational!).  There are two kinds of people who like to perpetuate the myth that “those people have been fighting for centuries”: those who are uninterested in finding out the actual causes of a conflict, for whatever reason, and those who have a stake in making a conflict seem to be essential to one’s identity.  Thus Greek nationalists dusted off Basil II “the Bulgar-slayer” when it was suddenly necessary to start fighting Bulgarians over Macedonia, and Bulgarian nationalists reciprocated by idealising the medieval Bulgar empires and interpreting Bogomilism as an expression of “Bulgarian” resistance to “Greek” religion, but prior to the late nineteenth century Greeks and those who would later become Bulgarians belonged to the same general religious community and had no quarrel with one another at all.  Virtually no two groups today resent and dislike each other more, on the whole, than Turks and Armenians, but they had not been “fighting each other for centuries” when their greatest conflicts erupted.  We do not need ancient rivalries and grudges to explain something like the genocide (whose day of commemoration, incidentally, is today), since its origins are much more immediate and are to be found, again, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Talking about centuries of conflict allows us to ignore proximate causes and a lot of modern history, which is a way of making foreign violence, especially when it is on a massive and horrific scale as the genocide was, seem un-modern and a holdover from some barbaric, dark period to which we have no connection.  It makes perfect sense why this is the one kind of antiwar appeal that has real traction: it makes people feel good about themselves, which is usually what the jingoistic arguments succeed in doing.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Thoughts On Things Foreign & Domestic"

#1 Comment By davegnyc On April 25, 2008 @ 3:42 am

By all accounts Childers has adopted every socially conservative position imaginable, while talking up a brand of economic populism and opposition to the war.

But this seems to be huge news. An antiwar candidate does better than the prowar candidate in a Bush +25 district?

That is huge.

This is the second Republican to get hit in a strong Republican district. The war is BIG loser. It is the albatross around the necks of the Republicans.

#2 Comment By jaloren On April 25, 2008 @ 7:35 am

Mr. Larison,

I know this may not be the most appropriate venue, but I can’t find another means of contacting you.

I have recently taken an interest in Just War theory. I would be interested in any book recommendations about morally and legally defensible war and foreign policy in general. Currently, the only book I have found was Just and Unjust War by Michael Walzer and I must say I find foreign policy critiques based on universalist principles extremely annoying and rather dangerous.

If you have some suggestions, you can contact me at panopticon23 AT gmail.com or just post a comment here.

#3 Comment By Daniel Larison On April 27, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

Jaloren–I’ll try to get in touch soon. Thanks for the query.

Davegnyc–I agree that the war is a big loser for the GOP, and House results across the country this year will continue to reflect that, but even as good as Democratic recruitment has been they do not have a Travis Childers for every district or even for every competitive district. For some of the freshmen Democrats who took over districts because of scandals, whether in TX-22 or FL-16, this will be an extremely difficult election simply because of the make-up of the districts that they lucked into last time.

I pity poor Yarmuth in KY-03, who is probably going to be destroyed (politically) in the gale-force winds of anti-Obama sentiment that George Packer has described and that I have been noting in the Kentucky polling. Yarmuth’s likely difficulty because of his support for Obama doesn’t mean that the Democrats are losing their inherent advantages on the war or other policies; it means that local political circumstances could end up trumping secular trends. As for the Illinois district lost in the special election, that is much less remarkable than the Mississippi case, given the awfulness of Jim Oberweis as a candidate and the overall trends in this state that make an endorsement from Obama helpful rather than disastrous. Certainly, weakness in suburban districts in the Midwest should worry the GOP a lot, and I think some of the survivors of ’06 will not endure another challenge.

We may see the Illinois district balanced out by an anti-Obama backlash in Kentucky or elsewhere. Meanwhile, Childers may be an example of local politics taking precedence, where a Democrat does far better than anyone had reason to expect because of the unique traits of the candidate and his relationship to the district. Loose talk a few months ago from the Obama camp about “putting Mississippi in play” was silly, and I don’t think the GOP’s position in the rest of the South is fundamentally as bad as the MS-01 race suggests.