There is a curious paradox in criticisms of President Obama from the right. On the one hand it complains that he is vastly expanding the range and reach of government domestically. On the other hand it complains that he is not expanding the range and reach of government enough in foreign affairs.
A good case of the latter impulse comes in a lively recent column by Bret Stephens, a leading neoconservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal and winner of a Pulitzer prize. Stephens raises what he calls the "Kissinger question," which, as he defines it, is whether or not America needs a foreign policy at all, the title of a book that Kissinger published a few months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In Stephens' view, America, under Obama, does not. It has what amounts to a series of tactical moves designed to obscure the fact that Obama is, at bottom, uninterested in foreign affairs. Stephens goes on to suggest that this presidential disposition is widely shared. Even Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass comes in for a drubbing—he, of all people, Stephens warns, has suggested in a pithy new book that foreign policy, given the battered state of the American economy and the dubious outcomes of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, should begin at home.
As Stephens sees it,
These are the sorts of views—isolationist is the only real word for them—that crowd my inbox every week, and they're not a fringe. A growing number of Americans, conservatives too, have concluded that the lesson of the past decade is that, since the U.S. can't do it all, the wisest, most moral, and most self-interested course is to do nothing.
Not being privy to the contents of the items that fill up his inbox each week, I can't really comment on who is writing to Stephens. But his contention that a wave of isolationism is sweeping across the country seems as overwrought as the old neocon conviction that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of building nuclear weapons that he was preparing to hand over to Al Qaeda. Like the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka, who also invoked the isolationist bogeyman in a recent column, he makes it a little too easy for himself by bifurcating the debate over foreign affairs into neoconservatives (globalists) and the everyone else (ostriches).
To accomplish this task, Stephens does violence to the subtle thought of Henry Kissinger. He alludes to a book by Kissinger called Does America Need A Foreign Policy? to contend that it anticipated the kind of neoisolationism that Obama would propound as president. The only problem is that it doesn't. Remaining cautious about intervening directly in the Syrian civil war, as Obama has plainly indicated he intends to do, hardly is tantamount to the dreaded word of isolationism. It has more in common, in fact, with traditional Republican realist tenets propounded by presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. If Obama was really an isolationist, would he be pivoting to Asia? Would he be beefing up military cooperation with Israel, a country he recently visited? And so on.
Nevertheless, there is something to Stephens' complaint. While it is too much to brand it isolationism, there is clearly an upsurge in caution about intervention abroad, an impulse that seems both logical and inevitable and one that the neocons themselves helped create by championing a war in Iraq that boomeranged. Is it any wonder that Americans, confronted with the anfractuosities of societies riven by tribal and ethnic feuds, have developed an aversion to the notion that American forces can safely be inserted to set wrong aright?
But this disposition, in my view, is far closer to Kissingerian realpolitik than neoconservatism. Kissinger never argued for hegemony, as have the neocons. Instead, his entire foreign policy was based on the idea of an equilibrium of the great powers, analogous to the one that emerged at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and, more or less, kept the peace in Europe for much of the nineteenth century, and, it could be argued, only truly went under in August 1914, when the houses of Europe engaged in what amounted to a mutual suicide pact. The quest by a leader to topple world order is bound to provoke a countervailing coalition and invariably leads to destruction and chaos, whether it is Napoleon or Hitler.
What Kissinger was calling, indeed has always called, is to avoid what the political scientist D.W. Brogan termed the illusion of omnipotence. An equilibrium rather than hegemony has always been, and remains, the soundest basis for peace and prosperity, particularly revelant at a moment when China is a rising power and the grim realities of international rivalries have not subsided, despite the ebullient prognostications of the proponents of globalization. The extent to which Obama is carrying out an overdue realignment of American foreign policy can be debated. But to dub it isolationism and to invoke 1939, as does Stephens, is not merely unhelpful, but also quite misleading.
The Obama administration is mired in a fresh scandal of its own making. The revelation that the Justice Department has been snooping into the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors indicates that the administration's ruthlessness when it comes to trying to protect its reputation and sources knows no bounds. Attorney General Eric Holder, always a poor choice for a cabinet post, should resign. Coupled with the revelation that the IRS has been selectively targeting Tea Party groups and the botched handling of the Benghazi terrorist attack, the administration confronts a second term that appears to be ending even before it has even really begun.
Obama has always prided himself on being squeaky clean when it comes to governing. He campaigned for transparency in government. He said he was against soft money. He said that members of his administration would have to demonstrate the highest ethical standards ever. Well, that was then. He has nominated the tax-dodging billionaire Penny Pritzker, who bankrolled his political ascendancy, to serve as his Commerce secretary. He has hoovered up any and all funds he can attract, infuriating proponents of campaign finance reform. And now his administration, in its mad and obsessive and destructive pursuit to quash any leaks, has besmirched itself by targeting journalists for investigation.
Leaks have always plagued presidents. They are a function of a national security state that has always aspired to total control in the post-World War II era—in 1986, Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff Don Regan proposed creating a standing cadre of FBI agents to ferret out leaks. But the ability of the state to exercise surveillance over its citizens was always limited. No longer. Technology has marched on. The president who can order an assassination by using drones—and initially claimed that he could target a U.S. citizen in America until Sen. Rand Paul denounced him—is also busily snooping on the media. The Associated Press says that Holder and his minions ran amok: They monitored
incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery.
Was Obama aware of this program? Did he order it? Or was it done solely on Holder's initiative? White House press spokesman Jay Carney says it had "no knowledge" of the secret program. If it didn't, maybe the White House should pay more attention to what is going on in the ranks of its administration.
It seems that the investigation of the AP journalists was prompted by the revelation that a U.S. spy inside the ranks of a Yemeni Al Qaeda group had helped to foil an airliner bomb plot. An aggrieved administration went on the offensive to try and discover who leaked the information. Instead, it has only embarrassed itself.
The fixation with leakers is counterproductive. The problem with targeting leakers, of course, is that they often play a valuable role in helping to inform the public about what, exactly, is taking place in the government when it comes to foreign affairs. Sometimes leaks redound to the benefit of an administration or allow it to spin the news. Obama, however, has displayed a kind of compulsive desire to stifle leakers from the outset of his presidency.
The result is what AP chief Gary Pruitt is calling a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into civil liberties and press freedoms. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told the Washington Post, "“This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen. They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.” It is no small irony that Obama, who declared that he would halt the George W. Bush administration's violations of personal freedoms, has exceeded the mendacity of his predecessors in creating a new star chamber to hunt down his detractors and enemies. Obama isn't protecting American freedoms. He's going rogue. If this keeps up, Obama may accomplish the impossible and create a wave of nostalgia for Mitt Romney.
Where should the Republican party head on foreign policy? Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute has a new essay called "Who Are We Again?" on the Foreign Policy web site, suggesting that the GOP is in the throes of a debate between neocons and realists. It's a stimulating and provocative piece.
Pletka says that she never thought the battle between the neocons and realists would be joined so quickly. The proximate cause, as she points out, is Syria, where President Obama is trying to muddle his way through, with his critics arguing that the muddling is precisely what is making a bad situation worse, a point that both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editorial pages—but not the New York Times—agree upon. Has President Obama's refusal to engage in Syria, in fact, made it more likely that he will end up engaging militarily? She also acknowledges that in some areas defense spending could be safely cut. And she notes that realist tenets can themselves become shibboleths about building at home rather than abroad, and so forth. Any credo can, of course, degenerate into a doctrine.
But her basic point is this:
we are in the throes of a minor revolution in national security policy which has ranged the Obama Left with the Libertarian Right, spawning -- forgive the imagery -- an isolationist Frankenstein monster. Chin-stroking denizens of op-ed pages and journals that preoccupy themselves with foreign policy -- this one included -- are clamoring to align themselves with oracular philosophers of op-ed pages past (Walter Lippmann? D.W. Brogan? Who knew?), seeking a veneer of
antiquityauthority for their musings about the wisdom of staying home and resting.
A few weeks ago I wrote a review in the Daily Beast, which Pletka cites, of Richard Haass' new book Foreign Policy Begins At Home, a succinct and calm appeal for America to repair itself before it embarks upon repairing the rest of the world. I started the review by quoting the British political scientist D.W. Brogan's famous essay in 1953 in Harper's—well-worth reading today, I think—about the illusion of American omnipotence. Brogan's basic point was that Americans, particularly on the right, tend to think that conspiracies are involved when Washington encounters setbacks abroad. He was pointing specifically to the Soviet Union and China and McCarthyism—the idea that there had been a sell-out, that Alger Hiss had singlehandedly subverted America at Yalta (when he was, in fact, a minor State Department official). Americans, Brogan suggested, needed to abandon the idea that they can alter the world at their whim.
Whether this amounts to isolationism, however, is a different story. Brogan was trying to get Americans to abandon the devil theory of foreign policy and take a more sober look at foreign afffairs. And isn't there a line between choosing carefully when to intervene and when to remain aloof that doesn't have to constitute isolationism? It's too elastic a term to be intellectually profitable. One of the interesting things, incidentally, about the pre–World War II isolationists in the GOP, moreover, is that the term may be something of a misnomer. Many on the right actually admired the Nazis in the 1930s and thought that they would be a useful instrument to help battle the Soviet Union.
Though there may be some on the contemporary right who would embrace isolationism—Ron Paul, for example—it is not even clear that Rand Paul would go that far since it would constitute electoral suicide, at least when it comes to running for the presidency. Pletka may also be overly impressed by the power of the realists that she detects—George F. Will and a few Senators do not yet constitute a burgeoning movement. But there can be no doubting that realism does have an opening and that the GOP is far more receptive to returning to its older tenets than was the case even a year ago.
You could even interpret Pletka's essay as an indice of the apprehensions among neocons about growing realist influence. But there's more to it than that. If anything, it sounds like she is calling for something of a cease-fire in the wars between the realists and neocons. The most interesting conundrum raised by Pletka is where to define America's limits in a country where limitless possibilities have always beckoned even as the world beyond turns out to be more tenebrous than the champions of democracy promotion envisioned. So where Pletka is dead-on is in her challenge to realists to define what America should, in fact, do. She writes, "Fighting about what we don't want to do is an exercise in futility. What is America? What do you want it to be? Answer me that."
Anyone who thinks it's easy to answer doesn't have a persuasive one.
Michael Hirsh, one of Washington's ablest commentators on foreign affairs, has a provocative piece in the Atlantic arguing that Mitt Romney got a bum rap during the election campaign when he declared that Russia is America's No. 1 geopolitical foe, a clear and present danger to our national security. Romney's observation created an uproar. Russian President Vladimir Putin observed, "“I’m grateful to him (Romney) for formulating his stance so clearly because he has once again proven the correctness of our approach to missile defense problems." At the same time, Romney was roundly mocked, including by yours truly, for indulging in cold war nostalgia rather than confronting contemporary realities. President Obama seized upon the remark to suggest that it demonstrated Romney was an utter doofus when it came to foreign affairs.
Fiddlesticks, says Hirsh. Romney, we are told, was on to an inconvenient truth about Russia, which has become increasingly truculent in its approach to America and the West. To the joy of former Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who has already tweeted about Hirsh's piece, his candidate is now being vindicated. The truth about Russia is in plain sight even if Washington policymakers are loath to acknowledge it. Russia is returning, under President Vladimir Putin's leadership, to a virulently anti-American stance, one that draws on imperialist czarist traditions to insert a pudgy thumb in the eye of the West:
To a degree that U.S. policymakers have not really acknowledged publicly, Russia under Putin has become the chief countervailing force to U.S. power and influence around the world, even more so than China (which often follows Moscow's lead in the U.N. Security Council). Mulishness toward Washington is not just an attitude; it is today Russia's foreign policy. And this goes well beyond recent tit-for-tat, including Putin's suspension of U.S. adoptions and barring of nongovernmental organizations after Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law named after a murdered Russian lawyer under which the U.S. government can penalize Russian human-rights abuses. Washington, in fact, has been getting Putin's real aims largely wrong since George W. Bush...
Hirsh points to Putin's attempts to sanitize Stalin's image by depicting him as an effective manager who almost singlehandedly won World War II, while soft-pedaling the fact that Uncle Joe carved up Poland together with Nazi Germany. He points to Russia's possession of thousands of nuclear weapons and desire to check America around the globe. He points to Russia's intransigence on the UN Security Council. And he points to Russia's refusal to accede to American efforts when it comes to trying to create a post-Assad Syria.
The only problem for Hirsh's bold thesis is that Russia appears to be backing down on its refusal to cooperate with Washington on Syria. While the international conference that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has endorsed may not have tangible results—though it is too soon to know—it is a promising move, one that suggests that on the big issues perhaps more unites than divides Russia and America. Neither country has an interest in seeing Islamic terrrorists capture Syria or for it to succumb to its fissiparous tendencies and become carved up into various fiefdoms, with Islamic radicals establishing a beachhead in the country.
Russia and America may remain at loggerheads in the decade to come. Russia may well remain an adversary. But to suggest that this ramshackle nation, plagued by abundant natural resources and an inability to invest them properly, will exceed China in might and influence over the coming decades is unpersuasive. Romney's statement remains as bogus as it was the day he uttered it in September 2012.
The search is on for the new wave of presidential contenders in the GOP. Today's Washington Post has a lengthy piece on Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose aides have suggested to the National Review that he considers himself presidential timber. So does Rand Paul. And Marco Rubio.
But what about the intellectuals and pundits who have generated the ideas that have animated the GOP over the past decades? Are there any fresh voices and ideas percolating that might act as a shot of iron into what has become a fairly anemic party? The Washington Monthly, that astute chronicler of the nation's capital, features a sprightly look by Ryan Cooper at the rise of what it deems a new and younger generation of reformist conservatives. Cooper, who suggests that, in the wake of the crushing November election loss, a form of glasnost is breaking out in the GOP, contrasts the GOP with the Democratic party in the 1970s. He indicates that the younger conservatives face a steeper path to success. Cooper observes:
It’s two decades after Bill Clinton’s first presidential victory, and there is still no Republican equivalent of the DLC. During last year’s GOP primary, the only candidate who ran as a moderate reformer, Jon Huntsman, garnered almost no party support, quit in disgust, and started advocating for a third party. The one commonality between the two reform periods is that, as with Democrats in the 1970s, the rethinking on the right today, such as it is, is being led by a loose network of reformist writers and policy intellectuals—though the task on the conservative side is more treacherous than it generally was for liberals.
The result is that conservative writers have been more careful to adhere to some pieties, while broaching what would until recently have been considered heretical thoughts enunicated by what Sen. John McCain tried to stamp as "wacko birds."
Who are the conservative writers that Cooper singles out? David Frum and Michael Gerson makes cameos. Overall, Cooper's choices are a somewhat heterogenous lot, ranging from Yuval Levin of National Affairs to Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, from Daniel Larison of the American Conservative to David Brooks of the New York Times. But in many ways that's the point. Doctrinal unanimity is what has led the GOP into its current impasse. Larison is in some ways the most unpredictable member of this gallery of conservative authors. He is aptly described: "An acerbic critic of American interventionism in both parties, Larison has few fans among the GOP’s neoconservative wing. However, his brand of paleoconservatism is on the upswing among the more libertarian-minded Republicans, most recently on display during Rand Paul’s famous filibuster." Cooper may go somewhat astray in suggesting that with "Obama's relative hawkishness," Larison's views could gain greater traction in the GOP. Actually, unless I am misreading him, Larison has at times been complimentary of what he views as Obama's realist proclivities. So the gulf between the paleocons and Obamaites may not be all that great—unless, of course, Obama buckles and intervenes in Syria.
Another canny pick by Cooper is the economist Bruce Bartlett, a vigorous and provocative writer who has not hesitated to upbraid conservatives for failing to stick to their avowed principles. He puts intellection before party. Bartlett broke ranks when he denounced George W. Bush as a phony conservative in his book Imposter. Cooper notes that Bartlett, who served in the Reagan administration in the Treasury Department, "was happily ensconced in the right-wing think tank world until the passage of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit. This led to more and more fierce criticism of President Bush, culminating in Bartlett’s 2005 book Imposter, for which he was fired from his position at the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) and ostracized from conservative circles."
It is this osctracism that has become the most conspicuous of the conservative orbit. Yes, glasnost in the Soviet Union led to the collapse of the entire enterprise. But in the GOP, it could have a revivifying effect. But only if the party is interested in reviving itself rather than maintaining the old-time faith among a dwindling band of true believers.
For decades the Franco-German alliance has been at the core of the European Union. But under the pressure of the European economic crisis, the two sides are increasingly sniping at each other in a war of memos. The tensions between Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande after the loss of Merkel's chum Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 that both sides seemed initially to have successfully suppressed are now out in the open. Gallic pique is running up against Teutonic stubborness, and it's not hard to see who is going to win this latest round in the Franco-German confrontation.
First a memo from the French socialists leaked in which they urged "confrontation" with Germany and attacked its economic "selfishness." The Socialists see a German-British cabal that is trying to enforce a free-market diktat upon Europe. Their summation is pretty accurate, minus the petulant tone:
The [EU] community project is now scarred by an alliance of convenience between the Thatcherite accents of the current British prime minister – who sees Europe only as à la carte and about rebates – and the selfish intransigence of Chancellor Merkel who thinks of nothing else but the savings of depositors in Germany, the trade balance recorded in Berlin and her electoral future.
Is Merkel not supposed to be thinking about the savings of German depositors, the trade balance, and the matter of her political future?
Now a memo has leaked from the German side, authored by members of Merkel's coalition partner, the Free Democrat Party, a band of doughty free marketeers who incline toward classical economics. The memo announces that France is on the skids, close to a lost cause. "Europe's problem child" is what it calls France—"French industry is increasingly losing its competitiveness. Businesses continue to move overseas, and the profitability of businesses is low."
There is a lot of truth to both memos. After visiting Germany last week, it became clear to me that Merkel is going all-out for reelection which means that she is not going to budge on the German insistence upon further auterity in Europe. She is thinking politically rather than economically, and she knows full well that German voters are transfixed by the prospect that their decades of savings may be sacrificed on the pyre of European unification, squandered by shiftless southern countries. A new political party has emerged on the right that is called the Alternative for Germany. It probably will not pass the 5 percent voting hurdle to enter the German Bundestag, a measure enacted to avoid a repetition of the Weimar Republic when tiny political parties tied the first German democratic republic in parliamentary knots. But the party is already attracting much attention as a populist, right-wing threat to the ruling coalition. It only needs to siphon off a few percentage of votes from Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Bavarian Christian Social Union to pave the way for a Red-Green—Socialist and Green party—coalition to return to power. Merkel is too shrewd to allow that to happen. So she and finance minister Wolfgang Schauble are pouring scorn on the notion that the way out of the European crisis is to abandon austerity and return to the free-spending of the days of yore. At the same time, the German Bundesbank continues to attack the European Central Bank for failing to remain sufficiently vigilant about combatting inflation.
Are the Germans, as the French suggest, being selfish? Well, yes. But it's hard to blame them. A famous German saying has it that "Bei Geld hoert die Freundschaft auf"—when it comes to money, there friendship ends. Perhaps the Germans are hostage to a mindset formed in the 1920s when the Reichsmark was debauched by hyperinflation and it took a wheelbarrow of cash to buy a cup of coffee. But that searing memory is based on real experience, not fantasy. The more the Germans look at Europe, the greater the mess looks. So the temptation to try and minimize the damage, particularly at a moment when the Germany economy itself is markedly slowing, is proving overwhelming.
For the Germans the crisis raises a host of older questions about the true nature of German identity. European? Or German? So far, the political elites have been firmly committed to European unity. There is no reason to believe that a rhetorical shift looms. But Merkel is making it clear that her priorities are winning reelection and safeguarding German assets. She is not about to break with the orthodoxy that more austerity is the road to prosperity. Instead, she is bolstering it. While the verbal brickbats that the two sides are hurling at one another hardly portend the dissolution of the EU, they do suggest that the fabled goal of European unity is like the horizon, always receding as you approach it. As the head of the most powerful country in Europe, Merkel is going to do it the German, not the French, way.
So the two suspected bombers—if suspect will even be the operative word later this day—are Chechens. Nothing illustrates the hollowness, the grandstanding of American foreign policy better than the fact that America has antagonized the one country that might have been able to help avert the blasts in Boston. One can only speculate what Russian president Vladimir Putin is thinking as he sees Chechen terrorists wreaking havoc in a major American city.
Over the past few months in particular Congress has been engaging in reckless posturing toward Russia, which is itself incontestably behaving in ways that are often repugnant. Congress' response has been to pass the Magnitsky Act which, as Matthew Rojansky astutely pointed out on National Public Radio this morning, targets some of the very intelligence officials who might have been more inclined to cooperate with America when it comes to stopping terrorists. The act is pyrrhic, an expression of disapproval that is counterproductive. Russia and America have a common interest in stopping terrorism. When it comes to Chechnya, Russia knows more about the region than anyone else. Has it employed brutal methods to try and subdue it? Absolutely. But it is a hotbed of Islamic militants who also fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they appear to be heading toward America itself in their deluded belief that they're waging a battle against the evil Western empire.
The Obama administration will have to study what went wrong. Part of studying that should include a reassessment of relations with Russia—not an ally under the Putin regime. But surely a country that America can cooperate with on mutual matters of national interests. Halting, as far as possible, terrorism is one such interest. No one can expect that the Obama administration will have a perfect record. But this event is another wake-up call. Only a few days ago the Washington Post featured an article with security experts who claimed that the threat from abroad had diminished perceptibly. But if these two Chechen brothers trained abroad—and are there others as well?—then that sanguine assessment suggests that the expertise of some experts may be wanting.
It is also revealing to listen to the contortions of National Public Radio, which has gone out of its way to avoid dubbing the brothers Tsarnaev "Islamic militants." This delicacy is touching. They may hail from Chechnya. They may not smoke or drink. But are they militants? Who knows is the response from NPR.
This won't do, and the political correctness will only prove temporary even if it reveals a timorous mindeset. But by the same token, this is not evidence of a vast Islamic uprising that some more excitable conservatives purport to detect abroad. We are not in war against the Islamic world even if some on the right would like to provoke one. Clarity, not panic, is required. But when an entire city has to batten down the hatches because of a sinister duo from Chechnya, then it's abundantly clear that the worst terrorist incident since 9/11 is taking place on American soil. It's a time for introspection, for grieving for the victims, and for getting serious about foreign policy rather than trying to score cheap political points. The costs are too high, the price too exorbitant for America to spurn a potential helping hand from abroad. President Obama needs to call Putin ASAP.
With the terror attack in Boston, the debate about how to deal with the perpetrators (or perpetrator), whether domestic or foreign, is likely to acquire a new virulence. As terrible as the blasts in Boston are they pale in comparison to 9/11 or the threat of a nuclear detonation in a major American city. One of the debates that has roiled America is the issue of whether or not torture is an efficacious and necessary measure to combat terrorist acts.
Now a new report issued by the Constitution Project that appears today says that what occurred after September 11 was not only unprecedented, but also completely unjustified. I have not yet read the report, but judging by the excerpts that appear in the New York Times, it sounds wholly sensible. Read in the context of Russia's response to the Magnitsky Act, which included banning the authors of torture such as John Yoo from setting foot in the Russian motherland (a move that he seems to be taking in stride), it provides a further reminder of the degradation left behind by the George W. Bush administration, which claimed to be advancing democracy while acting undemocratically. The point would seem to be simple: you can't purport to stand for human rights abroad even as you systematically violate them. This legacy continues to haunt the CIA, which was suborned into acting illegally and whose new chief, John Brennan, now claims he can't really remember with any degree of exactitude what he did or did not witness during the Bush years.
What is novel about the Constitution Project's report is that it was headed by Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, and James R. Jones, a Democrat. It flatly states that America engaged in torture. The report notes that "as long as the debate continues, so too does the possiblity that the United States could again engage in torture." The report also suggests that the use of torture was analogous to one of the darkest passages in America history, the detention of Japanese Americans after World War II. "What was once generally taken to be understandable and justifiable behavior can later become a case of historical regret," the Times says the report concludes. There may be some truth to this.
But the detention of the Japanese Americans also had economic as well as racial motives—in California growers were eager to confiscate their farms, which they did. In both cases, however, it would be mistaken to exculpate officials at the time. There were protests in the Roosevelt administration and there were warning voices at the time in the Bush administration as well. It was high-ranking officials (John McCloy, the John Yoo of his day, in the then War Department) and vice president Dick Cheney and his neocon coterie who pushed through malignant policies that they claimed would help protect Americans even as they subverted constitutional liberties. It also seems clear that President Bush was not always aware of what was taking place in his name, as Barton Gellman's Angler, among other books, has revealed.
Where does President Obama fit into this tawdry saga? He has essentially held his nose when it comes to the torture issue. He stated at the outset that he wanted to "look forward." This was an evasion of his responsibilities. How can you know where you are without knowing where you came from? So thanks to Obama's pusillanimity there has never been a national commission to study what went wrong
The lawless lawmakers, the proponents of torture—the Addingtons, Yoos, and Cheneys—will doubtless continue to asseverate that they acted, and would always advocate acting, to preserve American freedoms by endorsing the methods they employed to try and extort confessions and information from the bad guys. But apart from the question whether torture even elicits reliable information, it is staggering that they would conclude that it takes the Stalinist conveyor belt system of torture to safeguard the country. Perhaps the Constitution Project's timely report will help preserve us in the future from the fanatics who jeopardize what they purport to protect.
Former vice president Dick Cheney has reemerged periodically from wherever he's holed up these days to snarl at the media or complain about the Obama administration's laxity when it comes to national security. Cheney's take invariably seems to be that he did it better and more successfully. Yet his actual record of prognostication over the past decade has, of course, been spectacularly wrong. This is the fellow, after all, who instructed the American public that the Iraq insurgency was in its "last throes" just as it was really getting under way, not to mention the flowers he predicted would be showered upon invading American soldiers once they liberated Baghdad, as though it would be a rerun of Paris in 1945, when an entire city went on something of a bender after being freed from Nazi tyranny. Cheney, you could say, is a master at specializing in apocalyptic predictions that are aimed at frightening everyone into doing what he wants, whether or not the actual facts merit it. Then, when the rubble starts to rain down on everyone, he says it's only because his prescriptions weren't followed closely enough.
And yet when it comes to North Korea Cheney may be on to something in telling GOP congressional leaders this week, in a phrase first given prominence by George H.W. Bush, that "we're in deep doo-doo." Cheney's point—and it is not one that can be dismissed—is that we simply don't have a clear handle on what the North's new dear—and very young—leader actually wants or intends, or, to put it another way, thinks he desires. Is he simply trying to establish his bona fides in a Stalinist system? Is he attempting to upset South Korea's economy? Or is he aiming for economic concessions from North Korea's adversaries? Or does he actually mean what he says? Is he, in fact, preparing for war with the South?
In the New York Times, Andrei Lankov, who has written a book about the North, offers what might be termed the cool and sophisticated argument. He treats everything North Korea is doing with a big yawn. Been there and done that is his take. And so he maintains that Kim Jong-un is merely taking the world for a ride on his own giant ego trip. Far from being a fruitcake, the young lad in charge of the Hermit Kingdom, we are told, is unlikely to want to "commit suicide; he is known for his love of basketball, pizza and other pleasures of being alive. The same logic applies to his advisers, old survivors in the byzantine world of North Korean politics who love expensive cars and good brandy." Fair enough.
But not dispositive. Cheney is correct to suggest that we simply can't assume that North Korea will behave rationally. Rep. Steve Southerland says that Cheney observed,
Here's a young guy we don't know very much about – have very little intel on him, so we just need to make sure that we don't assume why he's doing what he's doing because he could be doing what he's doing for any number of reasons.
If the North does miscalculate and launch a serious strike on South Korea, President Obama would presumably not hesitate to authorize a devastating strike on the North's nuclear facilities. A full-blown war could result, but only if China was prepared to cut the North loose, which is wholly improbable. The optimal scenario for all the parties is, of course, to muddle through and hope that the North's bluster is exactly that and no more.
For now, North Korea is angering its neighbors, including Japan, which has installed Patriot anti-missile battery systems in Tokyo. It's possible that debris from a North Korean missile launch may rain upon Japan. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says that North Korea is "skating very close to a dangerous line." As always, the only predictable thing about North Korea is its unpredictability. But that is no reason to become habituated to the North's posturing. Ramping up the military response to the North's provocations and trying to work more closely with China to curb them are the right responses.
Few figures in twentieth century history aroused as much enmity and admiration as Margaret Thatcher, who died at the age of 87. "The Lady's not for turning," she declared, and, for the most part, she was not. The high points of her tenure were breaking the 1984 National Union of Miners strike, winning the 1982 Falklands War, keeping Britain out of the Euro, and, not least, recognizing that Mikhail Gorbachev was the real thing. But then again so was the Iron Lady who snubbed the British establishment—the ultimate boys club—to climb to the top of the greasy pole.
When Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, Britain—a swan's nest in an English lake, as Shakespeare put it—had been stripped of its empire, its self-confidence. Thatcher—and Thatcherism—sought to revive what could be revived. To a large extent, Thatcher set the stage for the boom that took place under Tony Blair, though the current downturns that England is experiencing have reemboldened her critics to charge that her legacy was toxic. But Thatcher didn't just have beliefs. She had convictions. In his important new book Strange Rebels, Christian Caryl notes that Thatcher devoted great energy to studying classic texts about economics, that she loved to debate ideas, that she would, more often than not, wipe the floor with her opponents, and that it was "the force of her drive to realize her radically conservative ideas that made her unique."
She was not the greatest prime minister in British history, a claim that even she, who had fallen prey to hubris in her final years at Downing Street, probably would not have advanced. But she was the first great Tory Prime Minister since the incomparable Winston Churchill and certainly one of the most formidable. By the mid-1970s, Great Britain had become a calamitous mess. England, once a byword for gleaming efficiency, had become sunk in sloth and ennui. The miners didn't mine. Teachers didn't teach. Workers didn't work—unemployment had reached 2 million. Manufacturing output had plummeted by about 16 percent in 1980 alone.
Into this morass strode one Margaret Thatcher, determined to restore not only economic liberty but also traditional morals. Her determination impressed even her most ardent detractors. In his memoir, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens recounted that in the late 1970s, the "worst of 'Thatcherism,' as I was beginning by degrees to discover, was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right." The tough economic medicine she administered—cuts in public spending—unsettled the Tory wets. Rather than try to placate them, Thatcher mocked them at a 1980 Tory party conference, where she told them they could cut and run, but she would not.
What might she have been right about? For one thing, she went about selling state-owned enterprises such as the British Gas and British Telecom. She refused to accept that the state, and the state alone, had a responsiblity to shore up faltering businesses or to keep the population on the dole permanently. Instead, she stressed thrift and hard work. She was also interested in ideas—ideas about private enterprise, liberty, morality. She refused to accept that Great Britain was a spent force. Instead, she argued that it could become great again, partly by maintaining its distance from the European Union.
In the long sweep of the twentieth century, she, together with Ronald Reagan, exercised a decisive impact on the fortunes of the West, both in domestic and foreign policy. When it counted, she also bucked up George H.W. Bush, telling him not to "go wobbly" in facing down Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. Thatcher is perhaps best-known in America as a cold warrior who was vigilant in warning about the Soviet threat. But she was also the first to declare that she could "do business" with Mikhail Gorbachev, then a young, by Kremlin standards, reformer who ended up demolishing the Soviet system of government. One of the few to pick up on the centrality of Thatcher's stance toward the Soviet Union is the Los Angeles Times, which notes "it was Thatcher who heralded his rise as more than another new face on a failed ideology. She urged President Reagan to give Gorbachev a chance to make good on pledges to stand down from the nuclear face-off and work for a less confrontational relationship between the superpowers." Together with Reagan, she helped to wind down the cold war that both had done much to fight. It was a great act of statesmanship.
So was a Thatcher a realist? No doubt her great mistake after the Cold War ended was to oppose German reunification. Here she was stuck in the past. But once again, her concerns were rooted in a balance of power. She had fought to preserve Britain's reputation and credibility and honor in the Falklands War. So, too, she tried in vain to persuade France's Francois Mitterand that they should together oppose the rise of a new and united Germany. She failed. She never seems to have lost her antipathy toward the Germans, the notion that they were itching for a fresh try to subjugate the continent and England. She was wrong.
But her overall record suggests a fairly pragmatic record when it comes to foreign policy. Thatcher left an indelible mark not only on England, but also the rest of the world. Perhaps her true proteges now reside in Beijing, where a kind of unbridled capitalism reigns that even she could never have reintroduced to the United Kingdom. Thatcher's economic legacy is once again the subject of debate, particularly in England, where the battles over the implications of her tenure have never really ended. But no one can dispute that she made the free market, not socialism, the center of that dispute. Thatcher may be gone, but not Thatcherism.