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I feel like the Germany spying scandal–and spying on allies in general–is roughly equivalent to masturbation: we’re all intellectually aware that everyone does it all the time, it’s not comfortable to think about, we all choose consciously not to think about it and part of being in society is in not drawing peoples’ attention to it. That’s the real problem here: we’ve made it impossible to politely push it from the foreground of their minds. Not sure if it’s scarier if Obama is in the loop on it or not.
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I honestly wonder what a complete US withdrawal from the Middle East would look like for us. I don’t think it would completely eliminate terror aimed at us–our support of Israel would still be a big sore spot, and while the notion that they attack us because “they hate our freedom” remains illogical and stupid, being #1 does mean you’re a target for all manner of people to take out their frustrations. I don’t think it would be a panacea. But I also think that there wouldn’t be much of a downside for America, being as we’ve proven entirely unable to shape or even respond to events there that “we” want to respond to, and eliminating one of the most-cited extremist grievances couldn’t hurt. Don’t know how much that reduces the threat, but even if it reduces it by a small amount, that’s a lot of money and lives we save with basically zero opportunity cost. Seems like a pretty good deal for me.

Of course, basically no politicians endorse this. I don’t really understand why. I mean, sure, Israel, but they’re the regional powerhouse at this point, and they survived for the first forty years of their existence when we didn’t station troops in the region (and when they were relatively weaker). Part of it may be that we’ve developed this region as the Ireland to our England, just keeping on with the rough tactics until we have “justified” all the resources we wasted on some unwise/narcissistic statebuilding project, until some futuristic George Mitchell puts it to rights. Undoubtedly much has to do with a three-letter word that begins with two vowels, though it needs to constantly be said that if the main goal of all this policy is to keep us from buying oil from people we don’t like, then our choices of allies in the region (e.g. Saudi Arabia) doesn’t make any sense. Nor does any of the rest of it.

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Larison as always is on point:

It seems more likely that Obama’s ratings on foreign policy keep dropping because he sets goals that his policies can’t achieve, and so his policies are inevitably perceived as ineffective. The perception that a policy “isn’t working” reflects poorly on the administration and contributes to the impression that it doesn’t know what it’s doing. This is true even when the public doesn’t want the U.S. to be involved in the first place. As I’ve said before, Obama sets himself up to fail by trying to take the “lead” in crises and conflicts that the U.S. doesn’t know the first thing about resolving. The mismatch between rhetoric and action has been a persistent problem for this administration. For instance, Obama has made unnecessary declarations about the legitimacy of other leaders and governments (e.g., “Assad must go”) that would seem to require much more aggressive policies than he or the public would be prepared to support. As a result, his policy is judged against the much higher standard that he unwisely set for the administration. Pursuing more ambitious hawkish goals with limited means puts Obama in a bad position at home as well, since it invites attacks from hawks that always want the U.S. to “do more” without giving anyone else something that they can fully support.

I tend to think that Obama’s mostly-terrible second term foreign policy is related mostly to being out of touch. Obama constantly shows signs of understanding that the American people do not want anymore foreign adventures–it is how he got elected after all–but he doesn’t seem to understand how intense that antipathy is. He also seems to think there’s a much bigger base of support for liberal-hawk policies than there is–outside of the think tanks and political elites it’s trivial. So when he deploys rhetoric similar to presidents going back decades about America’s special responsibilities and evokes fear of the consequences of inaction, as he did with respect to Syria, he’s speaking to an audience that outside of the 212 area code no longer really exists. I don’t think he can get away with ignoring the preferences of elites but he should be aware of the gulf between D.C. and the rest of the country. He does not seem to.

He’s also eliminated the careful balance of actual realists and interventionists of his early years with a slate of full-on interventionists, with Chuck Hagel as the lone sorta-realist, though he also happens to be the least politically powerful member of Obama’s team, someone whose, ahem, reticence in opposing the Iraq War until it was quite safe (and then quitting politics rather than fight for his convictions) has ensured that he has no base, left or right. What’s more, his team now consists entirely of loyalists who reinforce his worst instincts, and invariably push in the direction of more conflict and more engagement. In the first term we heard a lot about how Obama, like Lincoln, had constructed a “team of rivals” to advise him. Looking at how disastrously the Syrian misadventure, say, was handled, what seems clear now is that Obama’s team is little more than a closed information loop, in which perspectives other than liberal interventionism go unheard. I think it’s time we revise the notion that Obama loves debate and different perspectives at least slightly, as there’s little evidence he does in this area.

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Interventionists like National Security Adviser Susan Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power had been eager for action on humanitarian grounds, and the administration felt pressure to back up the red-line stance or lose credibility. “In part, the reason why they were focusing on doing something on Syria is that they felt people were pushing them,” says another former White House adviser. “McCain, Lindsey Graham – it is unbelievable how influential Senator Graham was in the president’s thinking. They desperately wanted Lindsey on their side. It’s a fact that those two – and you have to include Joe Lieberman and Senator Kelly Ayotte – have had enormous influence on the way the White House thinks. But why? They have influence far beyond the reality of their power.”
Obviously this is an anonymous quote. But it has that ring of truth, doesn’t it?
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Robert Kagan’s absurdly long hawkish treatise is generally not worth reading–it’s as leaden and arrogant (“Americans have been Atlas carrying the world on their shoulders. They can be forgiven for feeling the temptation to put it down.” Really Bob? Oh Jeepers, thanks for giving us permission!) as one might imagine, and riddled with factual inaccuracies ranging from misinterpretations to flat-out whoppers (implying that U.S. power critic Reinhold Niebuhr is an antecedent to Kagan’s own views, for example). What is interesting about it are two things. Firstly, that it exists. Admittedly, publishing an insanely long article that’s mostly history we all know is as smarmy as one can get, but the obvious intent to crush readers under a ton of words tells us something about where he thinks things are at. Secondly, that it bends over backward to try to be nice. Kagan goes out of his way not to use the “isolationist” smear–in fact, he goes out of his way to rebut the charge. He avoids the easy slurs and cliches. He’s as nice as can be, and at times he even manages to reasonably simulate affect.

However, while hawks can pretend, Walter White style, to be decent, humane people who just care about the world and stuff for a short time, the inner Heisenberg can’t wait to burst out and start scaring the shit out of people. Fear is the only real way to talk the American people into continuing a foreign policy that is both morally unsatisfying and substantively unsuccessful. The only real criterion as to whether a hawkish argument is successful is in how much fear it generates in the audience. How does Kagan do? Not. Well. At all:

But who is to say that Putinism in Russia or the particular brand of authoritarianism practiced in China will not survive as far into the future as European democracy, which, outside of Great Britain, is itself only a little over a century old?

A liberal world order, like any world order, is something that is imposed, and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power. Putin seeks to impose his view of a world order, at least in Russia’s neighborhood, just as Europe and the United States do. Whether he succeeds or fails will probably not be determined merely by who is right and who is wrong. It will be determined by the exercise of power.

“Putinism” is an empty phrase, as it implies that Putin is an ideologue, which he is not at all, though Kagan clearly thinks he is. The politics Putin represents–nationalism, populism, the authoritarian ethos conservatives tend to mean when they refer to “strong leadership” in a person–is not novel. It is, in fact, extremely common in particular circumstances, circumstances hardly unknown in the West. The irony is that the recent European elections have empowered people across the continent with similar politics. Kagan sees a world in which American power is what keeps the next Hitler at bay. I see a world in which the global middle class keeps the next Hitler at bay–economics, not warmongering, being key. Europe’s far-right has become empowered as much of the continent has seen depression and the middle classes have been gutted there, which leads to furious anger, going after scapegoats, instability joined with violence and the corresponding desire for order, administered brutally. America has seen something similar, though so far on a lesser scale. There’s simply no precedent for a prosperous, successful country with good income distribution electing anyone in the neighborhood of a fascist. But countries that had a vibrant middle class and lost it? That, dear sir, is where these folks are bred. With respect to Russia, anyone who knows the history of post-Soviet Russia knows that the Yeltsin Administration’s goal of creating a stable middle class never happened due to terrible economic advice from the U.S. Treasury Department and other international finance bodies, and after the failures of Yeltsin’s rule on many fronts but particularly in terms of economics–culminating in the country’s debt default in 1998–autocratic rule was inevitable. People were tired of the violence, tired of the lack of positive change, tired of irrelevance and impotence. In fact, it had inarguably begun before Putin–Yeltsin’s shuttering of opposition newspapers, shelling of the Russian Parliament building and his bombing of Chechnya were signs of increasing authoritarian tendencies. I’m no Putin fan but I do have some inkling of what he offers to Russians: he’s globally assertive (though vastly less so than the former USSR), he’s done a better job managing economic growth, and he’s done a better job of maintaining order. That he’s done this by destroying nearly every vestige of democracy in his country is deeply sad, though given that democracy and capitalism in Russia basically meant oligarchy and cronyism amidst a backdrop of tragic poverty, it’s hard to judge the Russian people for making this trade. I don’t think they’re special, in any case, as it is human nature. Plenty of other countries have responded similarly to similar situations, not the least of which was Weimar Germany.

There’s a flip side to that coin as well. Tunisia has been the only Arab Spring revolution that seems to have worked out. As soon as Ben Ali was deposed, Tunisians swiftly went about the business of setting up democratic institutions. It has not been an entirely smooth process at all, but it’s nearing a fairly successful completion. What’s more, the country defies the neoconservative assumptions completely. Both the Afghan and Iraq Wars were sold in part on helping the women there, though without much in the way of results. In Tunisia, though, women make up a larger percentage of legislators than the United States and abortion is legal. Women actually hold power and exercise it there. This is a tremendous accomplishment, a decided contrast to the tragic, endless setbacks in Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan, all countries in which U.S. power has been deployed to varying levels. America had nothing to do with Tunisia’s transition into a very promising democracy. Why is that? Could it be perchance that Tunisia is a middle-class country with only moderate levels of income inequality, while the other four are not? Couldn’t be. After all, “Putinism” has to be defeated by freedom bombs, because as we know, the best way of dealing with ideas is with arms. If a country’s political orientation can basically be predicted by its fundamentals, what role does that leave for navel-gazing proponents of endless war like Bob Kagan? Because let’s be honest, nobody in the MSM is publishing twenty pages of ruminating on other countries’ GINI indexes.

I have to say, much as I hated Kagan’s piece, I mostly just found it sad. His theory of how the world works is just so inadequate, so impossible to square with the real-world disasters that have resulted from its use, in need of so many caveats in order to deal with all the outliers it can’t cover. While his fellow hawks–whether dressed up in conservative or liberal clothing–still believe in the old creed completely, the fear is quite simply gone in the people. I have no doubt that elected politicians will lag behind where the public is for some time, but fundamentally, this is an ideology that is sentimental, wrongheaded and deeply dangerous, and the preconditions for its continued existence are eroding fast. Within a few decades it’ll be as embarrassing as Rudyard Kipling’s worst output. One wonders why Barack Obama keeps hoping to associate himself with it.

I’m aware of the pundit fallacy and generally try to avoid pretending that everyone in the country agrees with my views on things. But I do think that the public really would just as soon America never get involved in foreign wars again, a proposition for which there is some real evidence, and increasingly it looks like a permanent thing, even a growing thing. And I think a large part of the reason why this perspective has been able to grow is because Washington is so dedicated to Freedom Bombs that it simply doesn’t even bother to try to address these different ideas. Elite consensus has drifted so far from what the public wants that anything more than strawman talk of “creeping isolationism” could lead down a path these guys do not want to go. It’s a bipartisan consensus: the left wraps it up in talk of human rights and liberal guilt, the right wraps it up in the language of nationalism and toughness, but it’s the same shitty present regardless of the wrapping paper, and the people just don’t want it anymore. Also, there’s obviously a money component with hawkish donors, defense contractors and so on. And probably a lot of people in the executive branch simply want to be able to say they did something about the crisis of the day, though given the past fifty years I’m unwilling to give Washington policymakers the benefit of the doubt, and ultimately I just don’t care if John Kerry and Samantha Power can sleep at night. It’s not really something I worry about.

What’s interesting is that this grassroots consensus, while it hasn’t seemingly affected the hawkish mindset of D.C. decisionmakers, has made actually conducting a hawkish foreign policy functionally impossible. I really think 2nd Term Obama has tried his best in that regard but even the half-loaf of a half-loaf he wanted to do in Syria was roundly, witheringly rejected, as it should have been. The Administration trotted out all the fear-inducing greatest hits (even Munich!) and they had no impact. Obviously I have no idea how this will go, but if the hawks are so out of touch with the emotions of the electorate that they are unable to scare people into taking rash action then I have no idea how they can retain any kind of influence at all over the long run. Absent enormous fear there’s no real way to sell foreign policy escapades to the public, and without that insulation, politicians will tend to be disinclined to do it.

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Larison’s discussion of the increased unpopularity of Pres. Obama’s foreign policy (parts one and two) is highly interesting, and got me thinking a bit. For example, why was the first-term Afghanistan “surge” something that did not hurt Obama, while the proposed Syrian bombing, which was about as wrongheaded but less destructive and dangerous, ultimately was? I can think of several reasons why this might be:

  1. The process was handled much better for the first case. In both cases Republicans attacked Obama for being irresolute, taking too long, and so forth, but those attacks didn’t stick because it was plain that there was a decision-making process in place, discussions were being had, different perspectives were being heard. I think the public understood this and the deliberative tone probably helped, especially since that debate was only a year removed from the brash impulsiveness of Bush. Last year, though, one saw a very different process, perhaps even a lack of one. We don’t have the benefit of the many, many books published about Obama’s Afghanistan decision in understanding how things worked with Syria, but there seemed to be no process at all, new principles were being developed on the fly, the Administration was clearly only listening to themselves and the hawkish pundits they choose to care about and the rhetorical overkill couldn’t mask the lack of an argument to use force. I do think Americans are a bit more willing to deploy military force than I would be, but you hardly need be a full-on dove to know the Administration’s case stunk.
  2. Republican critiques accomplishing an ironic resonance. Republicans have sought again and again to portray Obama as weak-kneed, irresolute, and weak from the start. Ironically, it might have been his attempts to avoid these labels that made them stick, as his apparent insistence on leaving his options open and not committing to any course of action has had the effect of forcing him into situations he didn’t want to be in, as happened with Syria. I’m reminded of the line from Ulee’s Gold to the effect that there are lots of different kinds of weakness, not all of which are evil. Of course, backing down from poorly chosen words is not necessarily a weakness, nor is flatly refusing to involve the country in the conflict in a military sense.
  3. In the same vein, while I welcome Obama’s joined opposition to bulk NSA data collection, this seems to be poorly timed to say the least. As with financial reform, it’s a reasonably good idea that ought to have been proposed much earlier to have much more political impact. Instead, Obama suffered months of backlash and spent political capital to defeat legislative measures that would have done this. The damage is done. Fairly reactive and slow-moving.

I suppose the differences are (a) an apparent decline in the professionalism/ability of the Admin.’s foreign policy team from the last term to this, and (b) this pushing perceptions of Obama’s similar conduct in both from positive to negative connotations. Any other ideas?

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