World War II is the good war, the one where evil was defeated. But there was always a rub. The great ally of England and America was not a democracy. It was a totalitarian power. And it did the heavy lifting, which is to say that Stalin's Red Army carved up the German Wehrmacht. It engaged, at a horrific cost, in the big battles that settled the course of the war that Stalin's original gamble—conniving with Hitler and his henchmen to conquer and divide Poland, the western Ukraine and the Baltic States in 1939—had helped bring about. It was the Red Army, in short, not the American or British one, that fought the battle of Berlin in the spring of 1945 to liberate the German capital from the Nazis, a pivotal moment closely covered by Michael Dobbs in his forthcoming book Six Months In 1945.
Winston Churchill had said he he would "sup with the devil" if it would help bring about victory. So he—and Franklin Roosevelt—did. They allied themselves with Stalin, even pretended, at least publicly, that he was a fine man and the Soviet Union an even finer place. Now, with the release of numerous documents from the National Archives about Stalin's murder of over twenty thousand Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn forest in 1940, we know in even more detail just how far they were prepared to go to extol and defend the Soviet Union.
Stalin's aim was to break the spirit of the Polish nation, to destroy its governing class. The Nazis discovered the graves in the spring of 1943 and tried to blame the massacre on the Soviets. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels hoped the announcement would cause dissension among the wartime allies. But Churchill and Roosevelt were having none of it. England had gone to war over Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939. Churchill and Roosevelt didn't want to disrupt relations with Stalin, who was always accusing them of trying to cut a separate peace with Berlin. What Katyn indicates, I think, is that the West had effectively given up on Poland's freedom far before the Yalta conference.
All along Stalin was intent on installing his Polish creatures based in Lublin as a postwar communist government. The Polish government in exile in London, by contrast, wanted to investigate the Katyn massacres. Roosevelt's response? "I am inclined to think that Prime Minister Churchill will find a way of prevailing upon the Polish government in London in the future to act with more common sense," he wrote to Stalin, and the British, as the AP further notes, were not inclined to press the matter, either:
"We have been obliged to . . . restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempts by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom," wrote Owen O'Malley, Britain's ambassador to the Polish government in exile, in a May, 1943 letter. "We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre."
In 1944 Kathleen Harriman, the twenty-five year-old daughter of American ambassador to Moscow W. Averell Harriman, traveled to western Russia to visit the Katyn site, a visit well described by Allen Paul in his meticulous book on the executions. She concluded that the Nazis had committed the atrocity. She had been spun by her Soviet handlers. Her father wasn't going to disagree—he had been sent to Moscow to maintain smooth relations, though he tolerated his assistant George F. Kennan, who took a bleak view of Stalin's intentions. American POWs had sent a coded message in 1943 that Russians were responsible, but it didn't make, or was not allowed to make, an impression. It wasn't until the 1950s that Congress, in the form of the "Madden Committee," began taking a second look at the Katyn massacre.
On the basis of the new documents, it seems abundantly clear that Roosevelt and Churchill entertained few illusions about what had actually occurred in the forest of Katyn. The two Western leaders were engaging in a brutal act of realpolitik. With Stalin's forces overrunning Eastern Europe and the Western allies unwilling, or at least reluctant, to sacrifice the lives of their own troops to attack Berlin, they had a very weak hand to play. Now, decades later, it is even clearer just how many conifers they were prepared to use to disguise the actions of one of the most murderous tyrants in history.
It's the issue that won't go away. Today, on the anniversary of 9/11, it has returned. Was the George W. Bush administration willfully blind to the looming 9/11 attack? Kurt Eichenwald, former New York Times reporter and Vanity Fair contributing editor, offers new revelations about the Bush White House and the neocons in an op-ed called "The Deafness Before the Storm."
Eichenwald's contribution is to suggest that the August 6, 2001, CIA briefing in Texas—the one in which Bush dismissed a CIA analyst with a terse "OK, you've covered your ass"—with the famous headline "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," which he did in the following month. Eichenwald, however, provides a broader context for the briefing. He says that the daily briefings preceding that memo explain much more than the August 6 one. Here is his bottom line:
While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before.
It seems, in other words, that neocons in the administration were arguing that what the CIA was warning about was a bunch of hooey. They had their own pet cause—nailing Saddam Hussein, creating a democracy in Iraq (which appears to be coming apart at the seams). It was Iraq, the neocons believed, or purported to believe, that was the fount of all terror. Why focus on one measly terrorist leader in Afghanistan? He was a distraction. The real prey, the true threat, was none other than Saddam. Here is Eichenwald again:
An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.
Here's my prediction: the more that the record of the Bush administration is surveyed and uncovered, the worse the role of the neoconservatives will appear. And this is saying quite something. I don't doubt that the neocons will respond by saying that Eichenwald is engaging in his own version of conspiracy thinking or that he's trying to trip up the Romney campaign, which is filled with neocons. But the issue is an important one: Why has Romney filled his camp with advisers whose advice led to one of the most calamitous and costly debacles in American history?
In any case, quarrels about the election campaign do not alter the gravamen of Eichenwald's charge. He ends by saying that "we can't ever know" if the attacks would have been stopped. But it's worse than than that. The Bush administration, it seems, never even tried. Its negligence, which is a charitable way of putting it, testifies to the danger of elevating ideology above analytical rigor. Now the CIA, long demonized by the neocons, is striking back to try and set the record straight.
President Obama did not deliver a slam-dunk speech last night. But nor did he lose the ball to the opposing team. Instead, he drove in for a layup and everyone got to watch as the ball wobbled around the rim before dropping through the net.
The most interesting speech was delivered by, of all people, Sen. John Kerry. After being thumped by George W. Bush and swift boated by the swift boaters, it must have felt good for Kerry to be able to do what the GOP has been doing for decades—play the national-security card. Kerry effectively lashed into Romney for surrounding himself with "neocon advisers" and for proclaiming that it would be silly to try and move "heaven and earth" to locate the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Kerry had game. Moxie. All the things that were missing in his 2004 bid.
Obama? Not so much. His task was a tough one. Bill Clinton had already mesmerized the crowd, and much of the press corps, with his folksy lecture about how Republicans had destroyed his legacy—balanced budgets, a thriving economy—and launched two wars, plus tax cuts. He did his mightiest to set the stage for Obama—and for Hillary in 2016, who is jetting around the globe, killing time until she can make another run for the Oval Office. If Obama could tap Bill Clinton as his running mate, he would have a much better shot at reelection.
As it was, Obama delivered a somewhat lackluster speech, long on denouncing Romney, short on what he would actually do in a second term. Obama announced,
Have a surplus? Try a tax cut. Deficit too high? Try another. Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!
But what about Obama? What would he undertake to restore the economy at a moment when, the USDA reports, more Americans than ever are going hungry? Nothing doing. The president contrasted himself with Romney and left it at that. Small wonder that the Washington Post is bemoaning that Obama was chary about providing any specifics about job creation. At most he seems to be suggesting that he could create one million jobs by tinkering with the tax code to encourage companies to shift production back to America from abroad. Meanwhile, job creation right now is lackluster, with the latest report indicating that only ninety-six thousand were created in August.
Obama, in other words, is playing injured. He will probably be able to hit one last shot at the buzzer that will secure him a second term. His greatest asset isn't anything he has done. It's that his adversary is Mitt Romney, the most hapless Republican candidate since Bob Dole. In any case, the odds were always against Romney. As Andrew Hacker points out in the New York Review of Books, only one Republican challenger has been able to unseat a Democratic president in the past six elections—Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter.
In a second term, Obama, like most of his predecessors, would probably seek succor in foreign policy, the one sphere where the commander-in-chief can really be commanding. Foreign leaders have become comfortable with him. One such leader is Vladimir Putin who is calling Obama "genuine" in contrast to Romney who is "mistaken" about Russia. Obama would surely pursue a more conciliatory path toward Russia than Romney, who has stamped it as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." Even Putin knows that this is rhetorical flapdoodle for the campaign trail, but he must also realize that Romney would pursue a harder line than Obama. But whether Obama wants to embrace Putin's endorsement is another matter. If Putin becomes his last hope, then it will be clear that he's really in trouble.
Image: Steve Jurvetson
The Democratic National Convention is making it clear what the Obama campaign is against. It dislikes Mitt Romney because he had it too easy. It opposes lowering taxes. It's against Republican efforts against abortion. And so on.
There is nothing surprising about these stances. To be sure, they have obtained an added vehemence in an unusually partisan election year, one in which the candidates are serially running phony, if not outright deceptive, campaign ads, prompting each candidate piously to accuse the other of engaging in deception. But what does President Obama want America to look like over the next four years? Forget whether we're better off than we were four years ago. The answer is obvious: a marginal yes. But will we be truly better off in the next four, or will the country simply continue to tread water during an Obama presidency?
This is the question that Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen and Dan Balz ponder today. Obama gets a pretty rough pounding from what, by most standards, would seem to be a fairly sympathetic board of examiners. To judge by Dowd's and Cohen's op-eds, the real problem is that Obama is lazy or, to put it another way, something of an intellectual square. He doesn't like to mix it up with the hoi polloi.
In contrasting Obama with the gladhanding Bill Clinton, Cohen says,
The president who will lay out his reasons for seeking a second term is an odd political duck, a politician who does not appear to like people. Among the people he seems to like the least are his fellow politicians, including members of the Senate with whom he once served. The other day I talked with one of them—a Democrat—who rarely hears from Obama. This senator has zero respect for the president’s political abilities. The commander in chief is not—pardon the cloying term—a people person.
This is the very complaint sounded by Dowd. She says that Obama's habitual pattern of behavior is to
Avoid sound bites and visceral connections because political games are beneath you. Instead of surfing the magic and using it to cow the opposition, Obama would retreat inside himself at crucial moments, climbing back to his contemplative mountaintop.
He rationed his smile, his eloquence and his electricity, playing the dispassionate observer, delegating, dithering and rushing in at the last moment to try to save the day. A cold shower to Bill’s warm bath. While Clinton aides had to act like sheepdogs, herding the boss offstage as he tried to linger and schmooze issues with crowds, Obama needs to be alone and decompress even after meeting with a few people.
Here, however, we have wandered into the arena of psychoanalysis. Can Obama's problems—if they are really that problematic—be diagnosed as a symptom of an aloof personality? Or might broader trends be at work? Could Obama be grappling with an American political system that has itself become dysfunctional and that he does not understand how to repair?
From this latter perspective, Dan Balz's column today seems to be the most trenchant. Balz suggests that Obama could turn things around with a convention speech that actually lays out a program for the second term, something that Obama has notably failed to offer. Perhaps Obama can perform a U-turn during his convention speech. Obama, after all, has the best pipes of any president since Ronald Reagan. But as Balz says, "Talking about the past may not do enough to win over voters who might be prepared to vote for him but aren't confident that he has a plan for the next four years." It's an amazing testament to how far Obama has fallen since he ran as the candidate of change four years ago. So far, he has been the candidate of the status quo.
Political conventions may not be important for the presidential candidates, but they do serve the function of acting as a kind of cotillion ball for other ambitious officials. Both Chris Christie and now Condoleezza Rice have used their speeches, ostensibly touting Mitt Romney's sagacity, to promote their own causes. While Rice dwelled on foreign policy, the real crux of her talk was more personal. It was to suggest, as the Washington Post has noted, that she has not finished her public service, that she is, in fact, presidential timber. Poor Romney. At this point Romney must be wondering, as Ronald Reagan once did, "Where's the rest of me?"
The truth, of course, is that no one can muster up much enthusiasm for Romney. Even his wife's speech had a defensive tone to it. And Condi's? She hauled out what has become GOP orthodoxy on foreign affairs. "We cannot be reluctant to lead, and you cannot lead from behind," she said. She added, "That is why—that is why this is a moment and an election of consequence. Because it just has to be that the freest most compassionate country on the face of the earth will continue to be the most powerful and the beacon for prosperity and the party across the world." All well and good. But what it translates into practice is another matter.
Rice indicated that President Obama had messed up everything that had been handed to him by George W. Bush. But what about the kind of leadership George W. Bush exercised? Rice was notably cryptic on the topic of Iraq, a war that she endorsed. I well recall meeting her at the White House when she was national-security adviser, declaring that because Bush had, more or less, made the decision to take out Saddam Hussein, there was really no need to debate the topic any further. The Decider had decided, and she was not going to buck his decision.
Now Rice, as Peter Beinart notes, treats Iraq as something of a footnote in history. The grand episode has become a marginal one. And Afghanistan is treated with complete silence. Beinart writes,
In her speech, Rice mentioned Iraq once, as a “fragile democracy” beset by “internal strife and hostile neighbors.” That’s a rather passive way to describe a country that the United States invaded and occupied because government officials like Condoleezza Rice swore it had weapons it turned out not to have. The other country that the U.S. invaded and occupied on Rice’s watch is called Afghanistan. Two thousand Americans have now died there. She didn’t mention it at all.
The truth, of course, is that Rice was Bush's enabler, but she didn't really espouse the neocon credo. Her roots are in the realist camp. But she got on board with the program during the early Bush years, trying to avert the worst of the lunacy. In 2006 her moment arrived. Donald Rumsfeld was sacked. Vice President Dick Cheney lost influence with Bush, who started to glimpse the costs of handing over his presidency to a glabrous schemer. But it was too late. Rice had risen in the president's estimation, but she was not able to accomplish anything momentous other than wearing her fancy black leather boots. That could change.
At the core of her convention speech was the notion that her personal success is perfectly aligned with the American dream of self-reliance and success. It's a powerful and conservative message:
And on a personal note: a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham—the most segregated big city in America—her parents can’t take her to a movie theater or a restaurant—but they make her believe that even though she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter—she can be President of the United States and she becomes the Secretary of State.
Steely and disciplined, relentless and ambitious, Rice may well ascend to the presidency, where she could dispense with the palaver she doled out at the convention and seek revenge on the neocons who tormented her during the Bush years. Watch out for Rice.
It's no secret that John McCain, once a prominent realist, has steadily converted to neoconservatism over the past two decades. He is now the movement's most visible champion, which is to say that McCain has been at the forefront of championing almost every bad idea of the past decade, including serving as a cheerleader for the war in Iraq. Now McCain has issued a neocon manifesto for Mitt Romney in Foreign Policy. Whether Romney would agree with it in practice—as opposed to in his truculent rhetoric—is an open question. But McCain's article, which is measured in tone, demonstrates that he would like to see a reversion to the George W. Bush era, with Romney as the new Dubya—and perhaps himself as its Cheney, serving as defense secretary? If McCain's prescriptions were adopted, however, he would accelerate the very American decline he seeks to avert. In fact, the neocon approach to foreign affairs is what first began the erosion of American power and influence.
McCain, of course, does not see it that way. His argument can be boiled down to a simple argument: President Obama is personally culpable for everything that has gone wrong with America in recent years. In mismanaging the economy, he is sapping the ability of America to lead around the world. Add to that the projected cuts to defense spending, his failure to cater to allies, his eagerness to truckle to Vladimir Putin and—well, you get the idea.
It would be difficult to argue with McCain's assertion that American leadership is a good thing (though if you live in one of the countries that America periodically bombards you may have a slightly different view). McCain says,
We are now engaged in a great debate over whether America's core challenge is how to manage our own decline as a great power—or how to renew our capacity to carry on our proud tradition of world leadership. Ultimately, this is what's at stake in this election, and the stakes could not be higher.
This is not entirely persuasive. McCain is positing a false dichotomy. Instead of managing decline, as McCain puts it, the task may be put in a more positive light—how best to husband America's resources, to direct them where they should be directed rather than to squander them frivolously, as occurred in Vietnam and Iraq. America has never had limitless resources, and it is silly to pretend that it has been otherwise. It's also the case that simply throwing more money at the Pentagon, whose budget has soared precipitously, is not necessarily a recipe for winning influence.
There is a also difference between leading and hectoring. McCain's vision of American power and influence around the globe is so open-ended that it constitutes an invitation for hegemony, something that China is bound to reject. One thing that is missing in McCain's essay is that the Iraq War forms the origins of much of the current mess. The Bush administration expended trillions of dollars—with more to come in the form of payments to veterans over the next decades—trying to use Iraq as a demonstration shot for freedom in the rest of the Middle East.
Another flaw in McCain's analysis is that he exaggerates the Obama administration's passivity abroad. McCain suggests that Obama has alienated allies such as Israel. He writes,
This is the feeling in Israel and the Gulf, where the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is existential, but trust in America's willingness to address the problem has never been lower.
Really? Israel itself is experiencing a vigorous debate over whether it makes sense to bomb Iran—something that McCain does not demand that Obama accomplish, saying rather that there needs to be a realistic national-security threat. But it's difficult to discern how Obama could be much more accommodating to Israel, short of giving it carte blanche, which, I guess, is what would amount to a realistic threat for McCain. At the same time, McCain says that Obama is cozying up to America's adversaries:
This is the feeling across Central and Eastern Europe, where Vladimir Putin's Russia still casts a long shadow, but where many of our allies believe their national interests are being sacrificed by the administration's repeated, and largely unrequited, attempts to reset relations with Moscow.
This, too, is less than fully convincing. What "national interests" have been willfully cast aside by Obama? If McCain is referring to a missile-defense system, which is purportedly supposed to be aimed at Iran, then he is defending an expensive boondoggle.
But all of this is, more or less, window dressing for McCain's real cause, which is to urge American intervention in Syria. Once again, McCain paints a black-and-white picture of freedom versus tyranny, a contest in which American firepower can quickly and easily help the good guys win, as though it didn't have enough experience in the past with so-called freedom fighters such as Ahmad Chalabi, who turned out to be dubious figures at best. Here is McCain's cri de coeur:
In past struggles like Syria, when brave peoples fought for their liberation from enemies of the United States, we were fortunate to have presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, who recognized that it was in keeping with both our interests and our values to help the forces of freedom prevail. And they acted on that conviction. A Republican foreign policy would reclaim this proud tradition of U.S. leadership. It would, of course, accept that our interests require us to make tradeoffs at times, but wherever people struggle for human rights, no one should have any doubt whose side America is ultimately on. When people risk everything for their freedom, as they are doing in the Arab world today, our president should take their side—not just when it is safe and convenient for him, when they are on the verge of success, but when it really matters, when the fate of their cause hangs in the balance. And if Russia, China, or any other nation wishes to use the U.N. Security Council as moral cover for tyrants and war criminals, the United States should lead the effort to create multilateral action that is both principled and effective.
McCain, in short, has, to borrow from Talleyrand, learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
The action at the Republican convention in Tampa may not be Mitt Romney's coronation. Even as Hurricane Isaac barrels towards Florida, Ron Paul has been stealing Romney's thunder. The rise of what Ron Paul is calling the "liberty movement" is grabbing headlines, a phenomenon that should not be all that surprising since Paul is the most shrewd member of the colorful cast of characters who originally vied for the Republican nomination. Now he is preparing, or trying to prepare, the stage for a full-fledged Tea Party takeover of the GOP.
Romney has tried to liberate himself from the liberty movement by excluding Paul and his forces, as far as possible, from a prominent role at the convention. He's been largely successful. But Paul clearly isn't hesitant about going rogue, which is what he did on Sunday before his worshipful admirers. He thrives on taunting the GOP establishment. Unlike Romney, who has desperately been trying to appeal to the right, Paul actually believes in what he is promulgating. "The worst thing we could do is to be silent," he told a jubilant crowd at the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida. He isn't. Paul has been avidly spreading his doctrine--retreat from self-imposed obligations abroad and reining in the Federal Reserve. As Paul sees it, he won't have to come to the GOP. It will end up coming to him--"we'll be the tent."
Paul is the anti-neocon. While Utah Governor Jon Huntman expressed his reservations about the direction of the GOP more diplomatically, Paul has been scorching. Pull out of Afghanistan. Slash the defense department. Paul, unlike Romney and Paul Ryan, is utterly consistent about budget cutting. Where else but at a Paul rally, as Fox News observes, would an "Austrian school" economist get a rousing ovation? And where else would Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke be referred to as a "dictator, a traitor"? Paul himself declared that the "revolution" was unstoppable.
In the latest National Interest, Robert Merry and Zbigniew Brzezinski ponder the prospect of more turmoil being the prerequisite to create a consensus about tackling the national debt and job creation. But what Paul is proposing, I think, is much more radical, a revolution from below, not above. To many the excitable crowd at the six-hour rally will have overtones of an older and violent revolution that followed the American one--the French revolution of 1789. Paul is no Burkean. He embraces upheaval. But conservatism's true mission is supposed to be to conserve, which was the aim of William F. Buckley, Jr. and the older generation at the National Review (apart from William Rusher, one of the authors of the GOP's populist southern strategy, whose career is ably recounted in the new biography If Not Us, Who? by David B. Frisk). That is not Paul's aim. He doesn't simply want to upset the old order. He wants to topple it from the bottom up.
He may reserve more ire for heretics on the right than on the left. One thing seems clear: the 77-year-old Paul is not going away quietly. He is a tough old bird. And he has a successor in the form of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a more polished version of his father. Far from resembling a spent force, the Tea Party does not appear to be going away. Romney's mission will be to co-opt the excitement without drifting toward the lunatic fringe. His acceptance speech will go some ways towards demonstrating whether he's up to the job. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is preparing for 2016 even as Romney readies himself for a final, full-fledged assault on President Obama. If Romney fails, the GOP will most likely move further to the right, but before the party does it might well plunge into a civil war, divided between neocons, Tea Party followers, and a few remaining moderates.
One of the more notable aspects of the debate over attacking Iran is that it is not really taking place in America but, rather, in Israel. To his credit, President Shimon Peres, who played a key role in developing an Israeli nuclear bomb and who is a longtime advocate of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, has now stated that it would be reckless for Israel to bomb Iran singlehandedly. He expressed confidence in President Obama—"it is clear to us that we, alone, cannot do this." In response, Netanyahu is apparently declaring, according to the website Arutz Sheva, that "Peres forgot what the role of a president in the state of Israel is."
Which is what, exactly? To remain silent and let Netanyahu drag Israel into a conflict that might have a devasating effect on its security and prosperity? No. Peres was present at the creation of Israel. He knows that it would be an act of moral cowardice not to speak out.
The truth is that sanctions appear to be biting into the economy of Iran. There is no credible evidence that Tehran has succeeded in making rapid strides toward a nuclear weapon. Instead, the thinking in Israel seems to be more political than strategic. As Roger Cohen reports in the New York Times in "Israel's Iran Itch," the idea is that now, in the run-up to the November 6 election, Israel might strike Iran with impunity. Obama, cowed by the prospect of losing Jewish votes, would acquiesce to an Israeli strike. If he is reelected, he might well be less sympathetic to one.
If this assessment is correct, it's no way to run foreign policy. Cohen notes that reports in Israel suggest that the country is ill-prepared for the consequences of a preventive war, for that is what, more or less, it would be, against Iran. Citizens don't even have sufficient gas masks. Perhaps this can be remedied, but not overnight.
The consequences of a war against Iran, however, might well be horrendous, a recipe for wider warfare in the Middle East. Hezbollah would almost certainly attack Israel from Lebanon. Syria is already in flames. Jordan could be threatened with internal instability. No doubt it's worth remembering that the nightmare scenarios that the critics of the first Gulf War predicted never came to pass. The Arab world did not rise en masse against Israel. But the consequences of a war against Iran are unpredictable, which is why it should be approached with great caution.
In assailing Peres' reputation—suggesting that his record as a supporter of the Oslo Peace Accords renders his judgment untenable—Netanyahu's followers are trying to suppress a debate inside Israel. Peres is trying to fuel one. Good for Peres.
It must be said that it is remarkable that a similar controversy is not taking place inside America. Instead, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are trudging faithfully to pay fealty to the self-appointed defender of Israel, Sheldon Adelson, at his Las Vegas casino. In a sense, it is a fully appropriate location. A strike against Iran would be one of the biggest gambles in Israeli history, and the payoff might not be what Netanyahu envisions. Which is why a public airing of the risks of an assault on Iran is precisely what is required before Israel and America embark upon a fresh war in the Middle East. A fierce battle of words about whether or not it is necessary to bomb Tehran makes eminent sense. Firing the guns of August does not.
Image: World Economic Forum
The issue of Paul Ryan's foreign-policy views is starting to attract some attention among the pundit class. Andrew Sullivan asked yesterday, "Is Paul Ryan A Neocon?" It's a fair question. Whether it is a difficult one to answer is another matter.
To be sure, Ryan does not have any real foreign-policy record. But reasonable inferences can be made from several of his statements. Brett Stephens, for example, devoted his Wall Street Journal column yesterday to suggesting that Ryan issued nothing less than a "neocon manifesto" in a speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society. He noted that Ryan declared that a belief in "universal rights" leads inevitably to the rejection of what he termed "moral relativism." Ryan added, "It causes you to recoil at the idea of persistent moral indifference toward any nation that stifles and denies liberty, no matter how friendly and accommodating its rulers are to American interests." It would be interesting to know exactly which society Ryan is alluding to—what right-wing or left-wing authoritarian country is "accommodating" itself to American interests? Does Ryan mean Pakistan—a grudging ally at best? Egypt? Or Saudi Arabia?
Sullivan also reprinted a tweet from Stephen Hayes that suggests "over past few months, Ryan has quietly been receiving foreign policy/national sec briefings from Elliott Abrams, Kim & Fred Kagan & others." Who might those "others" be? Someone like Danielle Pletka, who, Sullivan further indicates, apparently told the Daily Beast's Eli Lake that Ryan "understands the primary role of the federal government is the national defense and not the handing out of food stamps"?
How much of this justifies deeming Ryan a "neocon" may be questioned. But there is another, more compelling reason—apart from these Kremlinological tidbits—to surmise that Ryan is sympathetic to neocon views. It is this: the surprising thing would be if Ryan rejected neocon theology. The doctrine is dominant in the GOP. It offers a useful cudgel with which to bash Democrats as pussyfooting when it comes to national security. There is no conceivable incentive, in other words, for Ryan to embrace realist views on foreign affairs. It would cause him no end of grief and make Ryan an object of suspicion on the Right, which currently reveres him. So it is almost axiomatic that Ryan, who likely has no more than a passing familiarity with foreign-affairs issues, is inclined towards neoconservatism.
This distinguishes him from another young Republican vice-presidential candidate who was a realist and believed in engagement abroad. As a blog post at the Richard M. Nixon Foundation observes, Richard Nixon was only thirty-nine years old when Dwight Eisenhower tapped him as his running mate in 1952, and on paper Ryan might appear to have some things in common with Nixon. Ryan, too, is youthful and a hero to the Right. But Nixon had served in World War II, supported the Marshall Plan for Europe and helped unmask Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent. Ryan, by contrast, has denounced Nixon in the form of stating, as the American Conservative's Daniel Larison reports, that the Obama administration's foreign policy and failure to emphasize human rights is, in Ryan's words, "Nixonian." He has also, Larison notes, decried better relations with Russia as tantamount to "appeasement"—the very charge hurled at Nixon when he pursued detente and arms-control with the Kremlin.
No doubt he will issue the sorts of thundering pronouncements that Romney has been issuing when he debates Vice President Joe Biden on October 11. Russia, China and Iran will all be bashed by Ryan as he exhorts Americans to export freedom abroad and ramp up military spending even as the country crumbles from within. Anyone looking for fresh ideas or something unorthodox on foreign affairs from the Romney-Ryan ticket should think again.
Jennifer Rubin is the Tiger Mom of the neocon movement. She exhorts her charges forward and reacts ferociously to anyone who threatens her brood. A few years ago, she was in the forefront of the chorus decrying President Obama's selection of Charles Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to head the National Intelligence Council. Freeman had made some sloppy statements about Israel and was vulnerable. A kind of wilding took place in which Freeman was depicted as an implacable anti-Semite. After the Obama administration remained silent, Freeman withdrew, and the neocons had claimed a fresh scalp.
Now Rubin and other conservatives have a new and more formidable target in their sights, one they can denounce but not dislodge. It is Robert Zoellick, the former head of the World Bank whom Mitt Romney has deputed to head his presidential campaign's foreign-affairs unit, the somewhat portentously named "Project Readiness." It seems, however, that neocons are not ready for Zoellick. Instead, he is being accused of delinquency on a number of foreign-affairs issues, including Israel. He is seen as a realist, a reincarnation of the old-establishment GOP that believes in diplomacy first.
In her Washington Post blog "Right Turn," Rubin says that "for foreign policy hawks, Zoellick is an anathema." So she proceeds to anathematize him. Rubin declares,
As the right hand man in the State Department and Treasury Department of James A, Baker, who was infamous for his anti-Israel stance, Zoellick acquired a reputation as ”soft” on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state. His stint as U.S. Trade Representative, and Deputy Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush administration did nothing too alter his image with foreign policy hardliners. That tenure will no doubt complicate Romney’s efforts to distance himself from his predecessor. And in 2011, Zoellick shocked foreign policy gurus by delivering a speech praising China, suggesting that it was a “responsible stakeholder” in Asia, at a time human rights abuses and aggressive conduct in Asia were bedeviling the Obama administration.
It's not easy to know where to begin here. Was Baker really "infamous" for his allegedly "anti-Israel stance"? Or was he simply trying to promote the peace process with the Palestinians by discouraging Israel from building further settlements in the West Bank? Then there are Rubin's canards about the Soviet Union. The notion that Zoellick was "weak on pressuring" the Soviet Union defies logic. The Kremlin essentially capitulated at the end of the Cold War, surrendering its entire East European empire as well as the Baltic States. Germany was reunited and remained a member of NATO. Zoellick was the point person negotiating the 2 + 4 agreement with the Soviet Union that led to the peaceful unification of Germany. Eventually, NATO even expanded eastward, to the discomfiture of the Kremlin. Would Rubin have demanded that Zoellick insist upon official stationing rights for an American antiballistic missile system around Moscow's perimeter? And when it comes to China, Zoellick's sentiments are understandable. China has dialed down what Rubin deems its "aggressive conduct" in the past year. Whether it will prove friend or foe is an open question. But it makes no sense to antagonize it cavalierly. Zoellick is a friend of prudence, not adventurism.
But Rubin's complains are not isolated ones. As Foreign Policy's assiduous Josh Rogin reports, the Zoellick affair is creating convulsions in conservative circles. In his new post, Zoellick will be vetting the possible national-security members of a new Romney administration. The campaign says that he will not be determining policy. But of course Zoellick, a former deputy secretary of state in the George H. W. Bush administration, is no stranger to bare-knuckles political combat. He is surely aiming for a top position—secretary of state or defense secretary—and would most likely get it. And why shouldn't he? Zoellick has been a remarkably effective official, someone with political savvy and a keen understanding of international politics.
It is precisely Zoellick's negotiating prowess, however, that has some neocons worried. Rogin notes that neocons complain that,
"Bob Zoellick couldn't be more conservative in the branch of the GOP he represents," said Danielle Pletka, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. "He's pro-China to the point of mania, he's an establishment guy, he's a trade-first guy. He's basically a George H.W. Bush, old-school Republican."
Well, yes. No Republican president—no prudent one, that is—would rely solely on the neocons for foreign-policy advice. Presidents tend to have different camps in their administrations. Ronald Reagan had both neocons and realists, and to the vexation of the neocons he reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev to sign sweeping arms-control treaties—treaties that they denounced as tantamount to appeasement. What's more, George H. W. Bush's reputation keeps rising. He wound down the Iraq War before America could get enmeshed in Baghdad. He ended the Cold War without firing a shot. As he mulls over his foreign-policy course, Mitt Romney could do worse than to consider his example. His selection of Zoellick suggests that he is. Good for Romney.