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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Had a blow-out not too long ago with a rando — which, I realize, was mistake number one, and my own damned fault, to boot, for getting sucked in, but the truth, sometimes it yearns to be free. Anyway, I mentioned that some religious groups (and, of course, at least one major US political party) had a vested interest in keeping the hoi polloi uneducated; replied the rando, and I’m paraphrasing here: I should be ashamed of myself, and she had never heard such balderdash and vile utterances in all her doo-dah days. Or something to that effect.
Some creationists, though, don’t like the Big Bang; at Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, a critique of Cosmos asserts that “the big bang model is unable to explain many scientific observations, but this is of course not mentioned.” […]
…the [Discovery] institute’s Casey Luskin accuses [Neil deGrasse] Tyson and Cosmos of engaging in “attempts to persuade people of both evolutionary scientific views and larger materialistic evolutionary beliefs, not just by the force of the evidence, but by rhetoric and emotion, and especially by leaving out important contrary arguments and evidence.” […]
it seems some conservatives are already bashing Tyson as a global warming proponent. Writing at the Media Research Center’s Newsbusters blog, Jeffrey Meyer critiques a recent Tyson appearance on Late Night With Seth Myers. “Meyers and deGrasse Tyson chose to take a cheap shot at religious people and claim they don’t believe in science i.e. liberal causes like global warming,” writes Meyer.
Nah, christianists and what-have-yous are veritable fonts of reliable information. Lo, the scales have fallen from my eyes; abject apologies all around, y’all.
Somewhat tangentially, about three weeks ago, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Confederacy) cracked wise at CPAC about the Obama administration’s foreign policy…lack of oomph:
“Without firing a single missile, President Reagan actually brought down the Soviet Union, and you’ve got right not a President who’s you know, John Kerry’s flying around and drinking merlot with people, and saying, ‘Let’s all be friends,’ and they’re laughing at us right now,” he said.
Oh, the world’s laughing at us, all right. Just not for wine-guzzling diplomatic junkets.
(“Drinking merlot” means pantywaist, by the way. In case you missed that. Also, “without firing a single missile” means “Reagan’s schlong was so, like, humongous, that he could fuck Russia without ever taking it out of his pants.”)
I think the main reason why hawks are falling over each other trying to pressure Pres. Obama into DOING SOMETHING in Ukraine is because the strategy of spending lots of time calling loudly for Obama to DO SOMETHING (ultimately, to use military force) has had a pretty good record of success. Not always, mind you–Obama’s Iran negotiations are encouraging, and he’s not only ignored these people, he’s actively used his influence to beat theirs’ back. But generally speaking, foreign uprisings have gone in the same way every time: Obama initially stakes out a vaguely “no involvement” position. Hawks clamor for him to speak out. He does. At which point, either the thing over which he spoke out fizzles before further pressure can matter (e.g. Iran’s Green Movement), or the thing Obama said makes life much more difficult for him (e.g. Syria, Libya). And then, if he can get past domestic obstacles, then the bombing can commence.
I do think that Obama would personally prefer to avoid these entanglements. But it’s impossible not to conclude that he also is very disinclined to simply tell the hawks to piss off, that America will not use military force to respond to this week’s foreign uprising. This is probably due to some calculation of keeping options open but it’s actually just a different kind of prison, since hawks have learned that maximum volume often works in moving the needle from “vague no” to “tortured yes” with the key ingredient of time. The absolute best thing for Obama to do at this point would be to flatly rule out any sort of military intervention in this case, and challenge the hawks to explain why money and lives would be best spent getting in the middle of yet another foreign dispute in a country where we have nothing at stake, where public support would likely again be nonexistent. Given that Obama’s tragic flaw is that he assumes goodwill and rationality of all people this would be somewhat unusual, but it would demonstrably make him “stronger” because hawks would have to realize they could not push him around so easily.
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So, yeah, soon-to-be U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power is pretty much as horrible a liberal hawk as can be. This is not good, I’d say “embracing neoconservative rhetoric” is an apt description. Seems like it ought to be a disqualifier, though it won’t be.
I’ve been thinking recently about this. President Obama, while not a realist by most definitions of the term, certainly is one relatively speaking based on the mainstream of Washington foreign policy standards. However, he keeps promoting horrible liberal hawks through the ranks of the foreign policy bureaucracy. Though they aren’t the only people he’s put in top slots. Obama has put a fair amount of realists into top foreign policy slots, it’s just that they’re Republican realists. The Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel definitely trace their lineage through the (dying, if not dead, but once ascendant) Republican realist tradition. And while I’m hardly an expert, I draw a blank thinking about the sorts of Democratic realists who would be qualified for these posts. Democratic politics seems to have something of a bifurcated system in which, on the one hand, a lot of antiwar, noninterventionist politicians hold office, but on the other hand, staffer types and people who aren’t interested in running for office overwhelmingly incline toward a liberal internationalist hawk perspective, presumably so that they can get jobs at non-partisan interventionist shops like Brookings when the GOP has the White House. Republicans used to have a whole system in place to foster realist foreign policy types, between realist-inclined administrations and think-tanks. But the Democrats are well behind on that score, and the most prominent center-left think tank doesn’t even list foreign policy as an issue that they have experts in (though they do list “military” and “national security“, which are not quite the same thing).
In any event, my take on the White House is shifting a bit on this subject. I’m seeing things less in terms of what Lemieux terms the “Republican Daddies” syndrome, and more as a situation in which Obama seems interested in putting realists in top offices, but the only place they really still exist are the graying remnants of the Republican realist machine, and picking too many of those tends to generate serious flak. The problem seems to be that Democratic realists don’t exist because there isn’t really a track for them, in terms of getting jobs when the other side runs things. But this could be quite easily fixed if some antiwar Democrat billionaire endowed a realist think-tank with this express purpose. Still, it would be nice if Obama could try to find a few talented people of this type and put them into important jobs himself. At this point, virtually all the pushback against foreign policy adventurism in the executive branch has been by Republicans and military brass, which is something that ought to make war-skeptics uneasy.
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