Friday, November 2, 2007

He Will Talk With Them!

Barak Obama is not exactly known for concreteness – or perhaps we in the media simply haven’t figured out the policy implications of “the audacity of hope.” In his satire of the last Democratic debate, David Brooks perfectly captures the essence of Barackian rhetoric: ”[T]he goal of my campaign is to make this county as noble as I am."

Well, on the same day that this little ditty appeared, Barack actually did get specific in an hour-long interview with the New York Times– and not just on the geo-strategic necessity of reaching out to Kenya but the prickly issues of Iraq and Iran.

The headline for the article – as it was on the Drudge Report – was “I'D TALK DIRECTLY WITH IRAN...”

Needless to say, Obama's willingness to actually conduct diplomacy would be a marked improvement over the current administration’s thinking that talking with your enemies only means that you’re giving in. Although Obama’s way of diplomacy might get tiresome fast: he claims he would “engage in aggressive personal diplomacy.” Obama’s “personal” diplomacy strikes me as the diplomacy of the photo op, the diplomacy of publicly hugging cute-looking third-world types.

Reading through the Times story, a few other concerns come to the fore:

Overall Obama tried to play Mr. Realist, claiming “There are no good options in Iraq.” This is certainly better than “let us spread democracy,” but is he so much more in touch with reality?

In terms of exit strategy, Obama think that, “based on conversations we’ve had internally as well as external reports,” only two brigades can be pulled out per month. Thus, he envisions as 16 month withdrawal period – that is to say, with Obama in the White House, we’d be out of there by April 2010 at the earliest. With the war costing 8 billion per month, Obama would only throw another 128 billion into the sand pit -- not bad!

I’ve never understood why withdrawing in an extended, domino-like fashion is any more difficult than ordering everyone out all at once. As Gregory Cochran has argued, the notion that we need to take home everything that we hauled over there – the hundreds of thousands of porto-potties and church pews included – seems completely perverse. Obama’s claim that his 16 month figure derives from his numerous “internal” conversation seems to be an obvious case of simply passing the buck -- "well, this is what the generals said."

I'm sure there are others in the arms industry, with lots of exorbitant government contracts, who would warn Obama of the perils of ending the occupation early, if he'd only ask.

But if the invasion was a mistake, and if “there are no good options,” then why on earth does Obama want to prolong the agony!?!

My guess is that, like Edwards, Obama wants to stop the war but keep the empire. That is, he wants to halt major operations but then leave significant forces in the region ostensibly to “stop genocide.” He can thus be both the peace candidate for the move-on/dailykos liberals, but then continue ot expand America’s presence abroad to please the globalists.

This desire to seem like a figure of “change” – an Obama mantra – but then basically keep all the Bush-era policies also runs throughout Obama’s description of his “personal” diplomacy with Iran. In wooing Tehran, Obama says he’s willing to promises that “we won’t seek regime change.” As opposed to seeing intervention around the globe as an inherently unwise course of action, Obama wants to use it as a bargaining chip.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

You Say You Want a Revolution?

For over a month now, there have been whispers that revolution is brewin’ in the GOP.

First, three very big names in the coalition – Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail guru and “funding father” of the conservative movement, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and talk-radio host James Dobson of Focus on the Family – warned that they might start up a third party if Rudy Giuliani got the Republican nomination. Their concern is centrally the candidate’s claim that it’d be “OK” if the Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade and his support of taxpayer-funded abortion while as mayor of New York. So far, talk of a social-con third party has remained only talk.

Ironically, the candidate many think best suited to keep social-cons voting Republican, Mike Huckabee, has sparked a second rebellion. While the former Baptist minister took second place in the straw poll at the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter” conference, fiscal conservatives and the hard right wing of the GOP coalition are none too pleased with him. Rand Milton, of Phyllis Schlafly's national Eagle Forum, called governor Huck "a pro-life, pro-gun liberal." That is, he’s good on right to life issues but completely unprincipled on taxing and spending—even worse on immigration. Put simply, Huckabee’s a “compassionate conservative.”

The Club for Growth has piled on, creating an anti-Huckabee website, and making it clear that they find the man from Hope completely unacceptable.

The social-cons, the pro-growthers, and the hard Right should be applauded – they have clear objectives and principle, they know when they’re willing to bend and when they’re not, and they take their stand.

It is, however, rather depressing to see how rebellions have sprung up around these issues and not American foreign policy, how serious dissent within the movement is possible on abortion and spending but on the Iraq debacle, it’s strictly verboten.

And yet politically this doesn’t make much sense.

On the issue that Dobson, Perkins et al. most care about—right to life—the American public is famously wishy-washy. In 2002, 57% of Americans generally thought that abortion should be legal in most cases, though few supported partial birth abortion or the termination of a pregnancy after six months. Whether one wants to call this moral incoherence or nuance, the fact is that a third party based on the abortion issue could never command a broad majority; pro-lifers’ ability to wield power within the GOP has its limited.

With regard to the issue fiscal conservatives most care about – limited government – the American public is even more difficult to understand. The words “taxes,” “big government,” “welfare programs,” and like usually inspire fear and loathing, but Americans are remarkably unprincipled on these areas. A majority supports “universal” health care, and the recent debate over the SCHIP program, and countless ones over failing public schools in the inner cities, sadly remind us that politicians need only say “we must help the children!” for Americans’ hearts to collectively bleed.

Support for limited government should be at the heart of the conservative intellectual movement, but sadly it’s hard to make this the basis of a populist platform.

And then there’s the war.

With large majorities disapproving of Bush and his handling of the war and want all troops out within two years. If one wants to form a third-party band of rebels – or create a third force that would make the GOP come to heel – then there’s simply no better issue than the war.

Indeed, one would think that even pragmatist who foresee a terminal decline of the party would support such a rebellion. And yet, even those willing to make compromises on a host of issues, won’t even contemplate the notion that the GOP should be made to change its positions on foreign policy.

Certainly, those most supportive of the war have done their job – the flagship publications remain staunch and a host of new websites, like that of the pressure group Freedom’s Watch, have arisen replete with lots of flags and menacing bald eagles. But beyond this, we who oppose the Iraq war and are on the Right must admit that we’ve failed. Groups like the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy has not been able to apply sufficient pressure (the group's website does not appear to have been updated since mid-September(!?!)). Publications like The National Interest and The American Conservative have produced some excellent writing, but they've hardly made the Republican Party alter its course.

But change the GOP must – whether its current crop of favored intellectuals like it or not. Sadly, this change might only occur after a Götzendämmerung of an ’08 election.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Brownback on Being Good

On Friday morning at the Washington Briefing -- Values Voter Summit, a conference sponsored by the Family Research Council, Sen. Sam Brownback made a rather bold pronouncement:

”[W]e are great because we are good, and if we ever lose our fundamental goodness, we will surely lose our greatness

It’s of course easy to dismiss this line as a hokey, forgettable platitude from a man with erstwhile presidential pretensions. When I was a high-school teacher, a colleague of mine loved to tell of how in the 1948 election, Thomas Dewey’s staff was so confident of victory that they simply wanted to coast and forbid the candidate to say anything that might possibly be controversial. He thus made policy statements such as, “Before me, I see America” and, “In the coming years, we’ll be living in the future.” Brownback’s “We are great because we are good” might be thought of similarly meaningless sunshine.

But I find Brownback’s comment to be highly significant in that it succinctly, almost perfectly, encapsulated the kind of thinking that has led so many evangelical Christian—who in other areas have good, conservative instincts—to support the foreign policy of George W. Bush

The first thing we can ask is if it’s true that America is really “good” in the sense that Brownback means, that is, is it a nation that acts in accordance with universal love and absolute morality.

Well, the last time I checked, America expanded her borders by brutally expelling, isolating, sometimes murdering the native population and absorbing large swaths of land from defeated neighboring states; she turned the western hemisphere into her sphere of influence through overt imperialism and warning other Great Powers “hands off – or else!”; she defeated a monstrous tyrant in Berlin by aligning herself with an equally if not more monstrous tyrant in Moscow; since then, she’s ensured world order through a doctrine of mutual destruction with her chief rival and intervened in other countries at will.

I don’t necessarily approve of all of the deeds mentioned above, but then I would never say that America is uniquely wicked. In seeking to ensure security and status, America acted no differently than other Great Powers of the past.

To be sure, in establishing a republican government and guaranteeing its citizens rights, America does have claim to being a uniquely ethical enterprise. But any notion of inherent goodness only go so far. Without a doubt, America did not achieve “greatness” – that is power and influence well beyond her borders – by dint of any ethical achievement.

Brownback’s comments emerge from a rather sentimental imagination populated by images of smiling families in the Kansas suburbs, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech,” and Church youth choirs singing “kumbyyah.” All of these things are wonderful, and Brownback is right to adore them. But to believe that these are the sources of America’s world standing is to be beyond naïve.

Brownback actually made his “America is great because she is good” formulation just after speaking of the success faith-based organizations have had in bringing down the recidivism of convicted criminals – “Working and engaging the heart and the soul of the individual.” Implicit in Brownback’s comments is his notion that we can treat the rest of the world – particularly those states and groups that threaten us – just like we treat those down-and-out criminals with hearts of gold. Our foreign policy will be therapeutic – once our enemies recognize that we’re good and that we’re here to help, they’ll shape up, become our friend, and happily be integrated into our benign world order. An intervention in Iraq is in the same category sending out foodstuffs to sunami victims and working to save lives in Darfur. In Brownback’s world, American Christians should feel “good” about helping out Iraq.

Brownback is completely blind to the notion that America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, stationing of troops around the world, claims to right to intervene anywhere anytime might have anything to do with power. I’m reminded of a recent debate on democratiziation in The National Interest. Andrew Bacevich argues that America actually does want to help others countries – expand democracy and freedom and all that. But Washington wants other countries to democratic in the way that Canada is democratic – “genuinely free and reliable acquiescent.” Even in action that might seem munificent, power is never entirely absent. (“No disrespect to Canada” of course.)

An ethical, responsible foreign policy is a rare but feasible achievement. But a foreign policy that adheres to absolute morality or “makes the world a better place” is simply too much to be desired. It’s about time we start being honest about this fact and dropping any Brownbackian illusions of "greatness."

The Senator from Kansas offers not a rethinking of American strategy but merely a sentimental, corny way of talking about it. We lose nothing with his exodus from the presidential campaign.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Partition This!

Agreeing with David Ignatius is, for me, a thing exceedingly rare – especially on the matter of foreign affairs. In fact, I think this might only be possible when an idea comes along so bad that a hard-nosed realist and a liberal interventionist – er, “postglobalist” – can unite against it. That idea is the partition of Iraq, which was approved by the Senate in a non-binding resolution, and which Ignatius has sensibly opposed in his latest column for the Post.

In my last Exit-Strategies post, I focused on the history of the interwar period, particularly Wilsonian “national determination” and the Paris Peace Conference’s creation of new nation-states, and statelettes, as all part of the bad history of ethno-nation-building form above. Ignatius’s analogy is Vietnam; or to be more precise, he sees a certain sentiment among U.S. policy-makers of the Vietnam era – the gist being, "It was necessary to destroy the town in order to save it" – resurfacing in today’s Washington.

It is a thoughtful, if not particularly original, critique: American war-managers and “laptop bombardiers” love to dream up that one big solution, that grand social-engineering project, that will solve all our problems – while consistently underestimating, or outright ignoring, the costs in human life. Carving up a county in order to save is in this terrible tradition. And one need not strain to dream up some “Iraq immemorial” – a Romantic vision of the nation of Iraq – as Ignatius does at the end of his piece, to oppose partition.

The endgame in Iraq may, indeed, be bloody – entailing either Shia hegemony from Baghdad, the rule of a ruthless strongman like al-Sadyr, or a resurgent Sunni class based in al-Anbar. Someone will become sovereign. But this is a battle in which America should not take a side by either arming and making deals with Sunnis in Anbar or supporting unconditionally the Iraqi parliament.

Indeed, as William Lind has observed, the U.S. has a reverse Midas Touch – anything we touch essentially turns to sh-t – it loses sovereignty and is perceived as “collaboration” or “treason” or a “puppet” of Uncle Sam. So too would any neat little ethno-partitions drawn up in Washington. A stable state will emerge in Iraq only when we get out of this mess.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Five Million Dollar Man

Ron Paul's $5 million third-quarter fundraising haul, bigger than all of the lower-tier candidates combined and within striking distance of some of the frontrunners, has turned some heads. Does it mean that antiwar sentiment has reached critical mass even among Republican voters and donors? It's a question Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio has asked, noting that Paul's totals are believed to be on par with John McCain's.

"Here's a guy nobody is paying attention to and he's raising real money," Fabrizio told a USA Today reporter, who described the GOP strategist as stunned. "The strongest pro-war candidate and the strongest anti-war candidate raised the same amount of money." David Boaz of the Cato Institute told the Politico, "“Everything that was wrong with the Republicans in 2006, Ron Paul is an answer to."

NRO's Stephen Spruiell downplays Paul's fundraising, noting that it hasn't yet translated into a substantial bump in the polls (though Paul has seen his numbers rise from asterik levels earlier this year to a consistent 2 to 4 percent; in national polls he is frequently tied with media darling Mike Huckabee and occasionally within the margin of error against Mitt Romney). It could also be noted that Paul's fundraising base is augmented by libertarians (of both the small and big L variety) and disaffected antiwar liberals, in addition to more traditional conservative Republicans. These voters won't necessarily crowd the GOP primaries next year, although New Hampshire and several other key states will be open to them.

It is easy to overreact to Paul's fundraising success, which is still a fraction of the money being raised by candidates like Romney (who is his own largest donor) and Rudy Giuliani. But anytime Paul exceeds expectations, it highlights the existence of antiwar sentiment on the Right and influences the political debate over Iraq.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

It's working, it's almost perfect -- now stop!: Andrew Bacevich on Petraeus's strange tactical logic

All of the main contributors to Exit-Strategies are associated, in one way or another, with The American Conservative magazine, and thus we’re going to make a conscious effort to refrain from too much horn-tooting, hat-tipping, and praise-singing of our current or former employer.

Nevertheless! – we would be remiss in not discussing Andrew J. Bacevich’s recent analysis of the Petraeus report to Congress, “Sycophant Savior.”

So far, the provocative title has garnered most of the attention and, as discussed below, has issued some maladroit comparisons to’s sophomoric “General Betray-Us” ad in the New York Times.

Far from resorting to name-calling, Bacevich demonstrates exactly how Petraeus was all too willing to cozy up to DC:

"Petraeus demonstrated that he is a political general of the worst kind—one who indulges in the politics of accommodation that is Washington’s bread and butter but has thereby deferred a far more urgent political imperative, namely, bringing our military policies into harmony with our political purposes."

This was hardly a partisan matter as Petraeus gave Dems something to take home as well:

“A modest drawdown comes as good news to Democrats... Accused with considerable justification of having done nothing to end the war since taking control of the Congress in January, they can now point to the drawdown as evidence that they are making headway. As Newsweek’s Michael Hirsch observed, Petraeus ‘delivered an early Christmas present’ to congressional Democrats.”

In the second half of his piece, Bacevich moves beyond politics and offers one of the most pointed critiques of America’s military tactics in Iraq I’ve come across.

Petraeus’s central message was clear – “the surge is working” – but this makes his central recommendation – “it’s time to draw down troops” – deeply puzzling:

“What then should [Petraeus] have recommended to the Congress and the president? […] A single word suffices to answer that question: more. More time. More money. And above all, more troops.

“It is one of the oldest principles of generalship: when you find an opportunity, exploit it. Where you gain success, reinforce it. When you have your opponent at a disadvantage, pile on. In a letter to the soldiers serving under his command, released just prior to the congressional hearings, Petraeus asserted that coalition forces had “achieved tactical momentum and wrestled the initiative from our enemies.” Does that reflect his actual view of the situation? If so, then surely the imperative of the moment is to redouble the current level of effort so as to preserve that initiative and to deny the enemy the slightest chance to adjust, adapt, or reconstitute.

“Yet Petraeus has chosen to do just the opposite. Based on two or three months of (ostensibly) positive indicators, he has advised the president to ease the pressure, withdrawing the increment of troops that had (purportedly) enabled the coalition to seize the initiative in the first place.

“This defies logic. It’s as if two weeks into the Wilderness Campaign, Grant had counseled Lincoln to reduce the size of the Army of the Potomac. Or as if once Allied forces had established the beachhead at Normandy, Eisenhower had started rotating divisions back stateside to ease the strain on the U.S. Army.

Nowhere else is the utter incoherence of late-Bushian Washington better expressed: “Our new tactic is working!, and therefore we’re finally able to stop doing it!”

If the government and the people we’re actually willing to do what it takes to achieve total, absolute victory in Iraq, we’d draft every man under 30 and ship them Babylon. We aren’t; we won’t. The public would rather go shopping; the government would rather use news of our great success as an excuse to do what it must do out of necessity – draw down the troops due to obvious strain.

* * *

So far, the response to the piece on the web has not been enlightening, and, interestingly, the pro-war Right has not forcefully responded.

Much of the moveon-dailykos-Left types have been fixated on the idea that the great monolithic right-wing conspiracy wouldn’t dare attack one of its own. The Pensito Review writes, “We’ll be waiting (but not holding our breath) to see if anyone drafts a similar measure [as the legislation] condemning The American Conservative magazine.” (Identical sentiments can be found here, here, and here).

These bloggers seem to have forgotten this lovely little 2003 front-page article in NR in which David Frum insinuated that those who opposed the invasion of Iraq did so out of evil anti-Semitic, America-hating motives.

When they were riding high, the pro-war Right savaged antiwar conservatives with distain and glee, now that they’re slowly being mugged by reality, silence towards serious critics on the Right is the new MO.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Republican Triangulation on Iraq

Republicans are hoping to pick up a House seat this month, in Massachusetts of all places, in a special election to replace former Congressman Marty Meehan of the Fifth District. In a recent American Spectator column, I explained some of the reasons the GOP is optimistic about their candidate, Jim Ogonowski, as well as some of the factors that make it less likely he'll be elected.

Perhaps of greater interest is how Ogonowski, a 28-year Air Force veteran whose brother was murdered by terrorists in the 9/11 attacks, has positioned himself on Iraq. Ogonowski does not merely criticize the administration for "mishandling" the war, although he does make those criticisms. He says he disagrees with the decision to invade Iraq in the first place, describing it as "wrong." He emphasizes how his plans will bring the troops home and says his Democratic opponent Niki Tsongas (widow of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas) would actually keep U.S. forces in harm's way longer.

Yet he's no antiwar Republican either, despite criticism from some hawks in this comments thread who say he's too soft on Iraq. Ogonowski says we still must win in Iraq. He supports the basic surge framework and maintains that General Petraeus should be allowed to continue to make progress is reducing the violence. While he attacks Tsongas for keeping residual forces in Iraq for too long, he also criticizes her for withdrawing combat troops too precipitiously.

Ogonowski is nevertheless as critical of Republican hawks as Democratic doves, taking shots at House Minority Leader John Boehner when the Ohio Republican used the phrase "small price" to describe the cost of the war. While he predictably talks about getting tough with Iran and Syria, most of Ogonowski's concrete proposals in that area focus on diplomatic engagement. Ogonowski always emphasizes the eventual drawdown of troops and the need for the Iraqi government to be held accountable. Ogonowski's position can be best described by the Clinton-era word "triangulation."

Mitt Romney, who Ogonowski supports for the Republican presidential nomination, has positioned himself similarly. He refuses to say whether he would have invaded Iraq knowing what he knows now (though he has refrained from saying he would not, as Ogonowski has). He always emphasizes troop drawdowns without abandoning the overall surge framework. He keeps his options open even on the surge, refusing to say unequivocally that it is working -- much to John McCain's consternation.

Whether this is the beginning of a slow Republican reappraisal of the Iraq war and Bush foreign policy more generally, or whether it simply represents a potentially more appealing way to dress up the same familiar hawkish position, only time will tell. A lot will be decided by how well candidates like Massachusetts Republicans Ogonowski and Romney do with the voters -- and how willing they'd be to deviate from the status quo if elected.