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Jim Webb should run for president. This is sort of a better version of the Schweitzer for president idea–a presidential run focusing on a critique of hawkish foreign policy would be a worthy endeavor, considering that upwards of 70% of the Democratic base is dovish, and yet the Democratic Party is thoroughly hawkish in its elite makeup. Webb would be easily able to make a strong argument and communicate it well, and it would be unusually credible coming from him–even the mainstream media treats him as an authority on these issues, and he has the right resume–and he has nothing really to lose. It is admittedly very hard to imagine Webb assembling a winning coalition against Hillary–he would be in a good position to attract netroots activists and perhaps some conservative Democrats, though it’s hard to envision him really snapping up minority voters and women who strongly favor Hillary–but if he were to capture media attention and win a couple of primaries, it’s hardly inconceivable that it will force Clinton to make promises on the use of force that would constrain her later. There certainly is merit in providing a voice for the silent majority in any event, and a presidential campaign could be an easy way to create organization around the issue that will serve it going forward. Really, there’s nothing but upside to this whole concept. Also, he doesn’t stick his foot in his mouth every damn day he talks.

It’s eerie to see it laid out like this:


It’s been a year since he’s even broke even. And it’s clear that our year of intractable foreign crises can’t fully be blamed: this slide began last year. The key drop happened about a year ago, which was the time of the Syria debate. Then a little bounce back after that happened, followed by an even steeper drop.

What’s interesting is that this is entirely a second-term phenomenon, if you check the link you see that Obama’s approval ratings have been lame forever, but his actively terrible foreign policy ratings are rather new. It’s not even a matter of hawkishness per se, as the first term included the Libyan operation. I’ve been thinking recently about what’s different between the two terms of Obama, and probably the most interesting one is that Libya was sold self-consciously as an international, burden-sharing operation, while both Syria and the new Iraq thingy have been sold as American first and last. This is easy enough to explain away as the increased influence of Samantha Power, Obama’s UN Ambassador who hates the UN and loves unilateral action. (Just read her books.) The Libya bombing was a bad idea with bad results, but Americans were at least marginally willing to go along because of the work the Administration did to get allies on board. Obama’s second term has had the strong implication that America has to handle every world crisis alone, which is just about the worst argument you can make to the public at this time. They just won’t hear it, and I think this is where you see Power’s influence quite strongly. She’s a genocide scholar who unsurprisingly wants to stop what she sees as imminent genocides, immediately. On a side note, my wife (who is a genocide scholar as well) tells me that these are the last people in the world that you’d want setting foreign policy, almost universally they tend to be extremely hawkish and despise realism and practicality. We can in addition say they tend to ignore the political dimension as well.

You also begin to see just how much ground liberal hawks have had to give up between the disastrous outcomes of past adventures they support and the political realities they’ve helped to create. Obama seems to have absorbed the public’s severe distaste for ground troops or nation building and I believe him when he says there will be no troops. However, at some point liberal hawks will have to just confess that Iraq destroyed their worldview, since at present it can only offer bombs to any kind of crisis they want to go to work on. The question of “What comes next?” can no longer be answered. Compare this with the misguided but at least robust worldview of the Clinton-Blair days, where that question was UN Peacekeepers, basically. Didn’t work so well, but it was something, unlike the utterly intellectually unsatisfying liberal hawk worldview of today, where contradictions have been heightened to such an extent that all that remains is sanctimony and contempt for the limitations of power. Can’t wait for Hillary ’16!

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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.