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Jacob Heilbrunn

Was Mitt Romney Right That Russia Is America's Greatest Foe?

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.

Images: Left: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0. Right:, CC BY 3.0.

United States

Who Are the New Young Conservatives?

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.

Muckety Mucks
United States

A New Franco-German Feud

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.

European Union

Chechen Terrorism and the Vindication of Vladimir Putin

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.

The Presidency
United States

The Constitution Project's Vital Terrorism and Torture Report

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.

Human Rights

Is Dick Cheney Right About North Korea?

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.

Muckety Mucks
North Korea

The Lady's Not For Turning: the Thatcher Legacy

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.

Muckety Mucks
United Kingdom

Who Says North Korea Is Bluffing?

Why is everyone assuming that the latest supreme leader of the Hermit Kingdom is bluffing when he says he intends to settle accounts with South Korea and the United States? Apart from Victor Cha in Foreign Policy, the consensus seems to be that Kim Jong Un doesn't really mean anything he says. But maybe he does. Maybe he's spoiling for a fight. As he orders rockets to be readied for attack, the Dear Leader may be out to show that he's not so dear and that he has other things on his mind than hanging out with the eccentric basketball star Dennis Rodman.

It's not like anyone in North Korea could really stop him. The Generals would be hard-pressed to countermand an order to attack. If he lobs some short-range missiles at South Korea, how would America and its ally react? Would they stand by passively? Or would they respond and risk all-out war? In a situation like this the fruitcake has the upper hand, and Kim may just be delusional enough to go for it. The reckless gamblers, the Hitlers who try to overthrow the board and dice of international relations, don't show up that often. Before Hitler it was Napoleon who tried to thwart the natural balance of power. He failed. But it didn't stop either of them from trying. Perhaps young Kim is operating on the same faulty logic, though Victor Cha suggests that it would be premature to conclude that he is insane. Though anyone who runs North Korea, which amounts to a massive concentration camp, must, by definition, have a somewhat different grasp on reality than most other leaders.

Whether or not he actually wants a conflict, the Korean imbroglio also suggests that, like the man searching for his keys under the streetlamp because that's where it's bright, most American analysts have been focusing too much on Iran's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and not enough on the country that already possesses them. It's an interesting irony that Iran hasn't really made the kind of threats against America that North Korea has uttered against Washington, but it has been Iran, by and large, that has been the dominant topic of debate over the past year. Perhaps Kim is only seeking to rectify the imbalance by drawing attention to himself. Perhaps he's just in a snit because the U.S. sent several B-2 bombers over the Korean peninsula to drop dummy munitions.

But given the stakes, the U.S. is doing all the right things. Contrary to the prescriptions of some self-described realists, it would be wholly unrealistic for Washington to abscond from the area. It would be deserting an ally. It would effectively cede a sphere of influence to China. And it would be tantamount to deserting Japan, which would be bound to develop, almost overnight, its own atomic weapons. This is not a prospect that Washington could contemplate with indifference.

Still, the country that probably has the most to lose isn't America. It's China. The sight of America being further drawn into the region is anathema to it. But already President Obama is beefing up American defenses against North Korea. Maybe Kim figures time is not on his side. Better to take a swipe at South Korea and the imperialist running dogs sooner rather than later. He is, after all, running a country that doesn't have all that much to lose. The scary prospect isn't that North Korea is playing a game. It's that it might not be playing.

Image: Flickr/(stephan). CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Presidency
United States

The CIA's Moral Abyss

The CIA is once again staring into a moral abyss. Its new head John Brennan, who I argued should not have been confirmed to run the agency, is now confronted with a dilemma, as the Washington Post reports, about whether or not to approve the appointment of a senior official who was deeply involved in the torture program of suspected terrorists and who, moreover, sanctioned the destruction of dozens of torture tapes to head the clandestine service. The brouhaha further suggests why Brennan was a dubious selection on President Obama's part.

What Obama—and, by extension, the CIA—faces, or is refusing to face, is the corrupting legacy of the Bush administration. As a new documentary about vice president Dick Cheney shows, he remains unrepentant about his destructive role in the administration, claiming that he had "a job to do." What he did, however, was pull off a con job on both the president and the rest of America. He blustered and prevaricated his way to war in Iraq, attempting to scare the bejeezus out of ordinary Americans and inflating the terrorist threat out of all significance to its true proportions. In dealing with this legacy, Obama has stumbled.

There can be no doubting that Brennan has performed ably for Obama and has, according to numerous reports, pushed for a codification of drone policy. To deem him a villain would be stretching matters. But as someone who truckled to Bush and Cheney and who, despite his professions of an inability to recall all of his actions, appears to have been involved in some of the more unsavory interrogation practices not only countenanced, but actively promoted by the Bush camarilla, he is not an official who has the standing to rehabilitate the CIA.

The woman whom Brennan is considering to run the clandestine service apparently has an extremely accomplished record when it comes to her overall career. But Brennan is hedging his bets. The Post says the official "was also heavily involved in the interrogation program at the beginning and for the first couple of years." Brennan has convened a board composed of three former officials to "evaluate" several candidates. This is unprecedented. It testifies to Brennan's irresolution and desperation, for, as the Post notes,

The move has led to speculation that Brennan is seeking political cover for a decision made more difficult by the re-emergence of the interrogation controversy and the acting chief’s ties to that program.

But what does it say about his young tenure as CIA head that he doesn't even feel comfortable making his own pick to run the clandestine service? Does he really want someone who was, in effect, the torturer-in-chief to be promoted to a position of high responsibility?

The fundamental problem is that the CIA needs to be shielded better from the whims of presidents. Contrary to its image, at least in the past, of a rogue agency, the CIA has, more often than not, been the plaything of presidents. Its reputation suffered a body blow in the mid-1970s when reports of its ineptitude and assassination plots surfaced during the Church committee hearings, but it was the Kennedy brothers who had urged it to devise various schemes to overthrow the Castro regime. The George W. Bush administration once again soiled the reputation of the CIA by involving it in torture interrogations. Ambitious officials such as Brennan were only too happy to cater to the demands of their superiors rather than consulting their consciences.

Obama could have cleaned house. Instead, he shunned conflict and failed to repair the agency's moral deficit. Now the CIA is enmeshed in a fresh crisis that is a direct product of the Bush-Cheney era that Obama refuses to confront.

The Presidency
United States

Does Obama Get Too Many Presidential Perks?

Is President Obama getting too perky? That seems to be the latest charge directed at him from the right. Michele Bachmann, speaking at CPAC, thundered that Obama is living high off taxpayer money, complaining that he has five chefs on Air Force One and even a presidential dogwalker. Confronted by CNN, however, she punted, blathering on about how the real issue was that Obama messed up in Benghazi. Bill O'Reilly has gone on to bash Bachmann and others--"cut the nonsense"--for failing to focus on the real issue--Obama's handling of the economy.

The source of these allegations is one Robert Keith Grey, a staffer from the Eisenhower administration, who introduces himself as "Bob." He's the author of a book called Presidential Perks Gone Royal: Your Tax Dollars Are Being Used For Obama's Re-election. He's an old codger and doesn't make the best case for himself in this video. Bob, if I may use the informal address, wants to appear folksy, but doesn't appear entirely confident of his case. He strains somewhat for effect--he even trots out the presidential dog walker story, claiming that someone on Obama's staff is paid over $100,000 to keep his cuddly Portuguese water dog named Bo exercising. Not so. It appears that the White House gardener takes him for a stroll. As has always been the case. It's also the case that Bo was the star of the 2012 presidential Christmas card. Did the White House waste too much money snapping his photo?

The problem that Grey has is that he is trying to pin the blame on Obama. That's unfair. But he actually could have made a broader case. The real problem--an ongoing problem--is that we treat presidents like royalty. The British thinker Walter Bagehot divided democratic government into dignified and efficient branches. The monarchy represents the country; the prime minister runs it. In America we don't make that distinction. The presidency is both ceremonial and governing. So the presidency is treated with reverence, which isn't necessarily the way the founders wanted it.

The cold war has greatly exacerbated this tendency. With the emergence of the atomic bomb, the president really does have life or death power over human civilization. So his importance has been further magnified.

All this translates into the kind of perks that Grey is talking about--an enormous White House staff, presidential limos, helicopters, airplanes. The president gets to live like a potentate. Given the stresses of the job, you could say that it's small potatoes next to what's demanded of a president.

But Grey is on to something. The more the president is treated like a monarch, the greater the powers he (or, eventually, a she) will assume. This was surely the case in the recent flap about drones. Senator Rand Paul drew a clear distinction between our democratic form of government and a despotism. The president, he noted, doesn't have the authority, will-nilly, to aim a drone at whomever he deems a threat inside American borders. That would turn him into judge, jury, and executioner.

This isn't the debate that Grey is trying to promote. Instead, by raising a host of picayune objections aimed at depicting Obama as living larger than he deserves, Grey and his ilk are further debasing American democracy. If the right wants to attack Obama, it will have to do better than to pick on his dog. Doggone it!

The Presidency
United States

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April 17, 2014