President Obama, long reviled by the left as a trimmer and the right as a socialist, delivered one of his most impassioned and liberal speeches at the inaugural, a fiery exhortation that sought to shift the cultural ground of America. He made explicit what has always been implicit in his improbable odyssey—his drive to unite America around a new credo of unification, based, in part, on a conception of the federal government itself as a unifying force to foster independent drive and initiative. It was an ambitious vision of a liberal and liberalizing and exceptional America. Obama sounded like Reagan even as he repudiated his disdain for big government. In his radical speech, Obama flung down the gauntlet to the Republican Party, defying it to defy him.
Nor did the radicalism end there. It was in foreign affairs that Obama staked out the most temerarious new ground. He made it clear that he was dispensing, more or less, with the George W. Bush era. For all his evocation of American exceptionalism, Obama essentially denied it in foreign policy. He made it clear that there will be no precipitous attack against Iran, a country that he did not even bother to mention in his speech. Instead, Obama enunciated that the age of warfare that has tormented America for the past decade will come to an end. His lodestar will be diplomacy. Liberal hawks and neocons alike will be disconsolate. The Washington Post editorial page is already decrying Obama for engaging in "wishful thinking abroad." Even "a barrelful" of it. My, my, my. Are matters really so dire? "America's adversaries," we are told, "are not in retreat; they will be watching Mr. Obama in his second term to see if the same can be said of the United States."
Maybe so. But there is a distinction between prudence—between husbanding resources and using them strategically—and promiscuous intervention abroad. Is Mali worth a fight or would it boomerang? Should America become directly involved in the Syrian civil war? What are the consequences of bombing Iran? Obama is not an isolationist. But he has no appetite for embarking upon new land wars in the Middle East in either Syria or Iran. He may also choose to pursue a more detached relationship with Israel. The results of the Israeli election today may well occasion more disquiet in the White House.
But will Obama's approach in domestic and foreign affairs be vindicated in the next four years? Scandals or an unexpected war could completely derail his presidency. His second term could lead to greatness or utter disaster, and the record of second term presidencies has been a shaky one at best. National Interest editor Robert Merry observes that Obama's biggest challenge will be reducing the federal budget deficit and entitlements over the next four years. In his speech Obama elided this problem by declaring that he would protect the elderly, the poor, and children. But there is an inevitable collision between entitlements and protecting the economy to promote greater economic growth. Perhaps Obama will elucidate his stance on the budget more clearly in his upcoming State of the Union speech. For now, he has made it clear, however, that he is in a fighting mood. The GOP has been warned. If it wants to pursue a different path, it will have to outline one rather than simply engage in noisy obstructionism. The GOP has already been caught flatfooted on taxes and on raising the debt ceiling.
But Obama, too, will have to perform a partial U-turn. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus says,
At some point, Obama is likely to need willing collaborators from the opposition—if he hopes to pass an immigration reform law, for example, or negotiate a long-term deal to reduce the deficit.
When that day comes, the president may find himself wishing he had devoted a few more words of his second inaugural address to offering an outstretched hand.
That day is coming soon.
Image: Flickr/Glyn Lowe Photoworks. CC BY 2.0.
Today the "Emergency Committee for Israel" is sounding alarms in the New York Times, where it has taken out a full-page ad to inveigh against the nomination of Chuck Hagel to become Secretary of Defense. It asks and simultaneously answers the question, "Who is Chuck Hagel, President Obama's anti-Israel nominee for Secretary of Defense?" It urges readers to call Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand to "put country ahead of party" and reject Hagel. The ad is good for the Times, which has been struggling to maintain ad revenue for several years and the paper can only hope that future Obama nominees will arouse similar consternation among the neocons, but it represents a blatant attempt to stir up hysteria among New York Jewish voters about both Hagel and Obama. What we are seeing is the emergence of the kind of self-indulgent behavior that neoconservatives routinely denounce when other minority groups demand special attention and favors in the name of multiculturalism.
There can be no doubting that the Emergency Committee—what, by the way, is the emergency?—can draw upon lurid quotes to tar Hagel's reputation. Rep. Eliot Engel, for example, is quoted as saying "there is some kind of an endemic hostility toward Israel." Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board has opposed Hagel, charging that his views "fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term—and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him." The Post's Jennifer Rubin minutes that "Hagel is the personification of 'out of the mainstream' thinking on Israel and Iran." She likens him to Ron Paul and, for good measure, calls his views "noxious." You start to get the feeling that she might not like Hagel.
This is weird stuff. Hagel's voting record in the Senate appears to be solidly conservative, not that of a leftist. For the past few years since he stepped down from the Senate, he has been a member of the Washington, DC foreign policy circuit. At most he has mused about whether more diplomacy might not prompt concessions from Tehran and remarked about the alleged power of the "Jewish lobby," as he put it. There's no reason it should be taboo to believe that another path other than military power should be employed against Iran. The fact is that the Obama administration is already putting the regime in Iran under intense strain with its sanctions program.
But this has not prevented Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elliott Abrams from concluding on National Public Radio that Hagel is "frankly an anti-Semite." A few days later, in the National Review Online, Abrams slightly qualified his remarks. Abrams wrote,
the press has carried several articles now suggesting some sort of a problem between him and the Jewish community, and that is the issue I have raised. In a Monday article in The Weekly Standard, I concluded that “one purpose of confirmation hearings should be to find out” whether this problem existed.
These are extremely serious matters, to be sure. Even the suggestion that there is something worth asking about here should never be made lightly. Various responses have called my allusion to this subject a distraction, a smear, and worse—predictably resorting to far more awful language to describe me personally. So why did I say a problem may exist? Because just as it would be a mistake to raise this entire issue lightly, it is a mistake to give Senator Hagel a pass on the record as it stands without further assessment by the Senate. To advance the argument, I will avoid the term anti-Semitism, because it can mean too many different, particular things, and does not help illuminate the nature of the issue I discussed.
In The Weekly Standard, I noted the remarkable comments by Nebraska Jewish community leaders about the coldness and indifference Hagel displayed to them. As I explained, the long-time editor of the Omaha Jewish Press said Hagel “didn’t give a damn about the Jewish community or any of our concerns.” How is it possible simply to ignore a comment like that?
Actually, it's pretty easy. I'm sorry if a newspaper editor in Omaha felt neglected by Senator Hagel—a not uncommon sentiment among journalists who often resent the politicians they have to cover—but what does that comment actually mean and what precise bearing does it have upon his qualifications to become Secretary of Defense? There is no "problem" that needs to be explored. Nor are these "serious matters." Quite the contrary. They are risible, which is why Abrams' language is as empty as it is portentous. The blunt fact is that in lieu of any hard evidence about the perfidy of Hagel, Abrams is proposing a senatorial fishing expedition that would end up submerging in a sea of innuendo any rational debate about the future direction of American foreign policy.
Image: Flickr/David Williss. CC BY 2.0.
Great Britain has been conducting an agonizing reappraisal of its relationship with the European Union. For months Prime Minister David Cameron has been trying to elide the issue of a referendum, while placating the anti-European fanatics in his own Tory Party. Now Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, has raised eyebrows in London with his statement that it would be foolish for Great Britain to attentuate, or even terminate, its attachment to the European Union.
Gordon apparently told journalists that the British should, in effect, get on with it. He said,
We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU. That is in America's interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.
How has it reached the point that Britain, which was denied entry in 1963 into the Common Market by Charles de Gaulle, is now contemplating an exit from the vastly more comprehensive European Union? On Wednesday evening the distinguished British commentator and historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft spoke as part of the Ellsworth lecture series at the Center for the National Interest to elucidate mounting British antipathy towards the European Union. Wheatcroft's message was clear and direct: Great Britain has never felt emotionally attached to the European idea. It was, as the historian Tony Judt observed, one of the few victors of World War II; it did not have to be liberated from the Nazi yoke. It felt superior, even smug, about its record and didn't have to flee, as did the Germans, into the idea of Europe as supplanting its old nationalism. Meanwhile, many Europeans perceived the European Union, at least in its earliest incarnation, as a kind of Catholic confederation, led by the likes of German chancellor Konrad Adenauer. So the British, from the outset, had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of European unity, which was captured in Winston Churchill's famous speech in Zurich in 1946, urging the Europeans forward but reserving an ambiguous status for Great Britain.
But for Great Britain to try and bolt from the European Union would be a disaster for both its and its allies and friends on the continent. Britain, as Wheatcroft suggested, would only end up stranding itself in not-so-splendid isolation. For one thing, the United States would not come of the rescue of its old World War II ally--the idea of a new Anglo-American confederation, which has been touted by some neoconservatives, is a pipedream. There is no conceivable economic incentive for America to elevate Great Britain above, say, Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe.
Meanwhile, the Irish, as the New York Times points out, are apoplectic at London's EU tergiversations. Prime Minister Enda Kenny said it would be "disastrous" for Britain to leave. He's right. Ireland, for one, has been milking the EU for eleemosynary funds; Kenny's latest tack has been to tell the Germans that Ireland needs further debt relief, which it will likely receive.
It would be foolhardy for Britain to test the patience of its European partners much further. The debate over Europe, as Wheatcroft suggested, is going much farther (and faster) than it ever should have gone. While it might be emotionally satisfying to sever ties with Brussels, the economic results would be catastrophic. Wishful thinking does not constitute sound or rational policy, a lesson that one might think the Blair years had driven home to the British. Alas, there is no guarantee at all that the Tory party, under considerable pressure from the U.K. Independence Party, won't buckle. If Cameron bungles British membership, he will accomplish the not inconsiderable feat of going down as one of the most feckless prime ministers in British history.
Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0.
Even Chuck Hagel, who, like most senators, probably does not have a modest assessment of his talents and abilities, must be taken aback by the furor surrounding his nomination to head the Defense department. Before President Obama nominated him, most Americans had probably forgotten, if they ever knew, who Hagel was or what he represented. His legislative record is fairly unremarkable. Nor, unless it has somehow escaped my notice, has he said anything memorable during his recent years laboring in obscurity as a professor at Georgetown University.
Yet his nomination has sent Washington into paroxysms. Feminists are lamenting that he is not a woman. Minorities are unhappy that he is not a minority. And conservatives are bemoaning that he is not a real conservative.
How has the Hagel nomination acquired such significance?
Hagel has become a kind of screen onto which the various members of the political class are projecting their own visions and animuses. For various Republican Senators his nomination has become an opportunity to vent their exasperation with his criticisms of the Iraq War which were, by and large, cogent and sensible. The fact that Hagel broke ranks, so to speak, and endeared himself to liberals is giving them a chance to wage war by other means, to refight the political battles of the Iraq War one more time, to suggest that the Vietnam War veteran is unworthy of the top defense post. This is absurd. There is no point in relitigating the Iraq War. It was a patent failure. Do conservatives believe that they can somehow convince the public that the war was, in the end, fine and dandy? If questioned about the war, Hagel himself will no doubt argue, with conviction and authority, that it is precisely his experiences in Vietnam which made it incumbent for him to stick up for the soldiers who were shipped into the field by Donald Rumsfeld and Co. with no real plan for the occupation of Iraq, apart from the conviction that the Iraqis, somehow or other, would welcome Americans and reorganize themselves along the lines of the American model.
But even this would not be enough to sink Hagel's nomination. It constitutes an irritant but not a positive disqualification. No, what is really transpiring are, I think, three things. The first is that neocons initially thought that they might have another Charles Freeman on their hands, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia whose nomination to head the National Intelligence Council was scuttled by a concerted campaign to depict him as a perfervid anti-Semite. Taking down Hagel would set an even bigger marker. But the attempt to transform Hagel into anti-Semite has, to some extent boomeranged, which is why AIPAC has prudently decided not to oppose him. The second thing is what David Brooks points to in his New York Times column today, which is that the Defense department is going to be on the receiving end of some rather sharp budget cuts. Who better to oversee the surgery than a longtime Republican whose patriotic bona fides are, at bottom, indisputable? The third reason is an extension of the second, which is, as David Rothkopf shrewdly observes in Foreign Policy, that Hagel and John F. Kerry are, more or less, what he calls "disengagers." They have a different view of the world than either liberal hawks or neoconservatives, which is to say that they believe in restraint and diplomacy before engaging in the use of force. In this regard, they may end up following the approach of Richard Nixon; as Rothkopf observes, he "was a man who offset military disengagement with active diplomatic engagement. It would be an interesting irony if Obama, Kerry, and Hagel ultimately ended up emulating this underappreciated aspect of the late, not-so-lamented president's legacy."
Perhaps there is even more to it than that. Does all this represent a belated return to the Nixon doctrine enunicated by Richard Nixon in Guam in 1969, when he announced that American allies would have to fend for themselves first? Tomorrow, the centennial of Nixon, who entered office at a moment of great tumult and exited it even more tumultuously, will mark another occasion for America to come to terms with its changing geopolitical position. It would be a pity if the Hagel hearing degenerates into a prolonged and tedious forensic examination of his past statements rather than examining how the country can avoid accelerating its own sunset as a great power.
A good case could be made that Margaret Thatcher was the greatest Western leader of the 1980s and 1990s. Her star has been steadily rising in recent years, partly as a result of her prescient opposition to British participation in the Euro. She got it right as well when she pushed George H.W. Bush not to go "wobbly" in facing down Saddam Hussein. Now newly released documents from the British National Archives are further burnishing her reputation and reigniting an old controversy about the Reagan administration's stance before the war over the Falkland Islands.
In 1982, confronted with the invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Argentine junta, led by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, Thatcher dispatched the British Navy to rescue the islanders from the malign embrace of the Argentines. She wrote a cable to the old thug Galtieri that said,
“In a few days the British flag will be flying over Port Stanley. In a few days also your eyes and mine will be reading the casualty lists,” she wrote in a previously unseen telegram that was ultimately left unsent to the Argentine leader General Galtieri. “On my side, grief will be tempered by the knowledge that these men died for freedom, justice and the rule of law. And on your side? Only you can answer that question."
The biggest obstacle to freeing the islanders seems to have come from the United States. The British were and remain apoplectic about the conduct of the Reagan administration, particularly its ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who made no secret of her sympathies for the Argentine regime—it was a "right-wing," not a "left-wing" dictatorship, and so fell under the rubric of her famous distinction between the two, with the latter supposedly being impervious to reform or collapse, which meant that the capital of the free world couldn't be too choosy about the reactionary, anti-communist dictatorships it chose to back. Kirkpatrick's behavior comes under particular censure from the British ambassador to Washington. Sir Nicholas Henderson concluded that she and State Department official Thomas Enders played an untoward role in helping to persuade the Argentine generals that that they could get away with occupying the Falklands. According to Sir Nicholas,
"Comparing Kirkpatrick with Enders, it is difficult to improve on the apophthegm going the rounds of the State Department that whereas the latter is more fascist then fool, Kirkpatick is more fool than fascist," he wrote.
"She appears to be one of America's most reliable own-goal scorers: tactless, wrong-headed, ineffective and a dubious tribute to the academic profession to which she expresses her allegiance."
Strong words. But Henderson was vindicated. The Reagan administration came around and the British triumphed, a triumph that was greeted rapturously in Great Britain where it signaled that aggression wouldn't go unchallenged, that the empire could and would strike back decisively. Now the British newspapers are engaging in a new round of schadenfreude, chortling over Kirkpatrick's missteps back in 1982, when she was outmanuevered by more pragmatic Reagan administration officials who saw that American loyalty to a vital ally trumped any concerns over backing the Argentine government. In short order the military men were ousted and Argentine became democratic within a year. The Falklands war proved the undoing of the regime. Thatcher won a smashing victory over both the Argentine junta and her doubters in the Reagan administration. It was not Kirkpatrick's finest hour, and it is one that the British are only too glad to relive decades later.
One of the most significant lessons of the Cold War is that American toughness led to victory over the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan's defense buildup, coupled with his forthright talk about the heinous nature of communism, accelerated the collapse of the evil empire. The example of Reagan teaches that American presidents who refuse to treat with foreign adversaries and insist upon bringing about change will carry the day. Anything less savors of appeasement, of truckling to bad guys around the globe who will pounce upon any sign of American lack of resolve.
At least this is the line that neocons continue to champion, and the latest Wall Street Journal editorial on Chuck Hagel and John F. Kerry beautifully reflects it. The editorial is entitled "A Flock of Doves." Essentially, it bemoans that Hagel and Kerry are unlikely to lead America into further wars. Tough talk is treated as tantamount to a wise foreign policy. Really, it's as easy as that.
Which is why the Journal complains that Kerry's entire career has been that of a wussbag who, more or less, cowers at his own shadow:
His instincts have typically been to oppose the use of American force abroad and to engage adversaries as if they share our own peaceful goals. Like Joe Biden, he resisted Ronald Reagan's policies that ended the Cold War, opposed the Gulf War in 1990, supported the Iraq war but then changed his mind, and opposed the 2007 surge that salvaged Iraq.
If Kerry is bad news, the paper suggests, then Hagel is worse, much worse. The former Senator of Nebraska is, of all things, George McGovern redux. Now it is true that Hagel, like McGovern, actually fought in a major conflict—McGovern was a bomber pilot in World War II, while Hagel saw combat in Vietnam. To be sure, the Journal acknowledges Hagel's bravery, but in a rather backhanded way: "Though he fought he admirably in Vietnam (and has two Purple Hearts),"—did anyone, by the way, fight unadmirably in Vietnam?—"Mr. Hagel's security views have more closely resembled a George McGovern strain of Republicanism." It goes on to accuse him of "neo-isolationism," a rather elastic term in the hands of the Journal and its neoconservative confreres.
Does it really amount to isolationism to advocate, as does Hagel, talking to Iran? The truth is that a truly isolationist policy would consist of espousing that America wash its hands of Iran, distance itself from Israel, and declare that none of the messes in the Middle East are our problem. That does not appear to be what Hagel has said. Rather, he opposed sanctions on Tehran because he believed they would impede a path to resolving peacefully the tensions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. Call it naive, foolish, or misguided. But you can't dub this "neo-isolationist."
The Journal also complains about Hagel's stances toward Russia. Once again it sees him as the plaything of Vladimir Putin. Hagel, it warns, "has been a notable critic of missile defenses and he wanted to halt their development as long as Russia is opposed." But there are many reasons to approach the idea of a missile defense with caution—it makes little sense to antagonize Russia needlessly and any system would likely be prohibitively costly. The grumbling about Russia savors more of nostalgia for the Cold War than a rational approach toward a country that is neither friend nor foe. Anyway, Russia has enough internal problems without trying to embark on the kind of role as international troublemaker that those pining for a Russia threat envision.
What the Journal really seems to fear, however, is that Hagel would emasculate the military budget. It claims that he would provide cover for President Obama to "shrink the Pentagon so he can finance ObamaCare and other entitlements." But after a decade of ballooning spending, the Pentagon should be shrunk, and the shrinkage Obama is contemplating is hardly that radical. In fact, Obama is set to spend about $8 trillion on defense in the coming decade. Put otherwise, one-sixth of the annual federal budget will be spent on defense.
The Hagel brouhaha, in short, is more interesting for what it says about his neocon detractors than anything that it says about him. They want to lay down another marker about what constitutes the boundaries of debate over foreign policy on Israel and Russia. Hagel's own record suggests that, by and large, he has got it right on the big questions facing America. Whether President Obama has the determination to stare down the motley crew of neocons who are trying to swiftboat Hagel for his forthright stands is an open question.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/PumpkinSky.
Where does House speaker John Boehner go from here? It's time for him to resign his leadership post. Boehner staked his influence, his reputation—in short, his street cred—on the so-called "Plan B," which was supposed to shield everyone earning less than $1 million a year from a tax hike starting in 2013. It would have been a sensible stance for Republicans to adopt if they were interested in strengthening their bargaining position against President Obama, who came in at $400,000 a week ago. Instead, House Republicans revolted against their own leader and Boehner pulled the plan, which turned out to be no plan at all.
So what is the GOP planning next? Obama now holds almost all the cards. He has the Inaugural address coming up. He has the State of the Union coming up. And he has sweeping tax hikes coming up. The stock market is almost sure to plunge and Republican instransigence will be singled out as the culprit. Boehner exposed his own inability to lead when he essentially dumped the fiscal cliff problem on Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid's collective laps. But the blame for the fiasco should not really be laid at Boehner's doorstep. He is a victim of his own party. The Washington Post reports that Republican freshman Mike Kelly yelled into a microphone at an emergency meeting in a basement room at the Capitol, "Really, we can't support our speaker?" Apparently not. Republican consultant Craig Shirley told the Post that "The national GOP is now simply a collection of warring tribal factions."
This interpretation fits in well with Ronald Brownstein's observation that the Democrats are becoming increasingly unified, while the Republicans succumb to infighting:
The endgame over the fiscal cliff, like the first stirrings of debate about gun control and immigration, all capture a subtle but potentially consequential shift in the Washington dynamic.
On each front, Democrats are growing more unified while Republicans and conservatives are displaying increasing cracks. That inverts the alignment through most of President Obama’s first term--and indeed most of the past quarter-century.
Obama's adversaries, in other words, are making it easy for him. As he prepares for the inaugural and State of the Union, the civil war among Republicans is making the case for him that he is the only leader left in the capital of the free world. Meanwhile, the economy may well tank as Washington bickers and feuds. It is not a very nice national Christmas present. Let's hope the New Year gets off to a more congenial start.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
For decades the true special relationship has been between Germany and Israel. After World War II relations were slowly established between the two countries. Israel looked warily at the author of World War II and the Holocaust, while West Germany sought to establish ties with the Jewish state to demonstrate that it was becoming a solid and dependable democracy. German chancellor Konrad Adenauer negotiated a restitution agreement with Israel and visited it in retirement in 1966. Since then, successive German chancellors have worked to improve ties with Israel. Indeed, the current German chancellor Angela Merkel has been very much in the Adenauer vein. She has steadfastly defended Israel publicly and sold it submarines, which Israel is outfitting with nuclear missiles. She also voted against accepting the Palestinians into UNESCO last year.
But as the weekly Der Spiegel reports, she is no longer adhering to that tough line because of her exasperation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is antagonizing Merkel and injuring the close ties between Bonn and Jerusalem. The source of the tension is the issue of the United Nations non-member observer status for the Palestinians, which they won overwhelmingly in November. Initially, Netanyahu counted on Merkel to stop the major European countries from assenting to the resolution. But then it became clear that this would not succeed. So the Israelis asked Merkel to switch tactics: they wanted Germany to push for a general abstention. But as Der Spiegel notes,
the Israeli change of heart arrived too late. In the meantime, the governments of a majority of EU states, including France's, had decided to back the Palestinians. There was not going to be any across-the-board abstention from EU countries.
What happened next enraged Merkel. The Israelis insisted that Berlin now vote no on the resolution. Merkel refused. She was miffed that Israel saw Germany's vote as a bargaining chip that it could dispose of at it pleased. At the UN, Germany did not vote no. Instead, it abstained.
Germany is increasingly irked by the adamant refusal of Netanyahu to engage in serious engotiations with the Palestinians. Merkel is influenced by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's insistence that Israel needs to treat with the Palestinian leadership. In addition, former chancellor Helmut Schmidt has openly criticized the sale of submarines to Israel; "I would not have done it." With Netanyahu's decision to proceed, or threaten to proceed, with the E-1 construction of several thousand new settlements east of Jerusalem—a move that would effectively abolish a two-state solution—he is raising diplomatic hackles across Europe.
Nevertheless, Germany is remaining cautious. According to Haaretz,
"We've agreed to disagree over construction in the E-1 area," she said. "But that does not prevent us from agreeing over issues such as security."
Merkel said it was important for both Israelis and Palestinians to refrain from unilateral moves. But on E-1, "Israel has a different opinion, and it is a sovereign state," she said. "We can only express our opinion."
But Merkel's opinions are becoming clear. Netanyahu is nowhere near breaking the relationship between Germany and Israel. But it is fraying. Future chancellors of a Germany that is taking a more independent course in foreign affairs may not be as pro-Israel as Merkel. So Netanyahu is following a perilous path. He should be shoring up Israel's relations abroad. Instead, his true legacy may be that he has further damaged Israel's relations with key allies and isolated it.
Image: Flickr/Maarten van Maanen.
With his decision to retire from the Senate and join the Heritage Foundation as its new president, Jim DeMint has created a minor furor in Washington. Is he simply cashing in for the $1 million salary? Is he going to launch a new crusade from the precincts of Heritage to protect America's free market heritage? Does he believe that more influence can be waged upon the Republican party from without than within? Is his decision another sign that the conservative movement in turmoil?
Why not all of the above? The GOP didn't just lose the election but also its bearings. It has no coherent program for opposing President Obama—no concept for taxes or debt or immigration or even foreign affairs, other than to say that Obama is a bungler. At a moment when the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.7 percent and Obama's hand has again been strengthened in negotiating with the GOP, it's not a message that will appeal to any but the already-converted. The GOP is a party that's in search of a renewed political program, or at least it should be. The process of an agonizing reappraisal is in its infancy.
DeMint's decision is part of that process. He has drawn the logical conclusion from his tenure in the Senate, which is to say that he has never really been much interested in governing but, rather, in going on the barricades. The Senate may be moving in the opposite direction under the pressure to reach a deal on taxes and the budget deficit. DeMint's resignation points to the difficulty that the Tea Party has faced, and continues to face, in championing small government. It has no real substantive program to effect change and many of the candidates that DeMint backed, such as the loopy Sharron Angle, turned out to be unelectable.
As president of Heritage, DeMint will surely be in a stronger position to influence the direction of debate about the direction the conservative movement should follow. He's saying that the conservative movement needs to detach itself from the Republican party. Fine. But what new ideas will the movement espouse? Last evening I attended a discussion hosted by the conservative Claremont Institute at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington on the aftermath of the election. Claremont regularly holds such meetings to try to fructify thought on the right. This time the mood was pensive. Brian Kennedy, the head of the Institute, asked whether the American public was "deeply confused—or not so confused" about what was at stake. Has the public, he asked, begun to repudiate conservative principles? William Voegeli referred to "our time of affliction," suggesting that America was beginning to catch up to Europe in its spending habits. And Charles Kessler joked that "you begin to get the idea that somebody out there doesn't like us." Still, perhaps Obama's victory wasn't all that sweeping, it was suggested, since Republicans had retained the House of Representatives and won the lion's share of governorships.
My guess is that the Claremont folks would be receptive to what DeMint represents and that they, too, believe that moving the GOP to the right will offer a viable program, particularly in the economic sphere, to attract fresh voters. He will have to revive Heritage as well. Heritage's boom years were during the Reagan era when conservatism genuinely seemed like an insurgent movement. After decades of liberal dominance, a new breed of western conservative moved into Washington. With its Mandate for Leadership tomes and close connections with Reagan officials, Heritage was the it girl of think-tanks. Some of that luster has worn off as it retreated to pumping out position papers for Congress.
Still, it would be unfair to say that Heritage was ever a fount of intellectual ideas and that DeMint represents a lowering of the tone. He doesn't. He may take Heritage back to its roots—back to what Reagan once called that "feisty new kid on the conservative block." The latest chapter in the saga of the conservative movement, which has played such a profound role in reshaping America over the past few decades, is yet to be written. Whether it will be a script that attracts a new and attentive audience is an open question.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
William F. Buckley became despondent about the conservative movement in general, and the actions of the George W. Bush White House in particular, towards the end of his life. It was the influence of the neocons that he seemed to rue most as the Iraq war ground on and conservatism came into ill-repute. It's hard to avoid the feeling that Buckley, who played a pivotal role in creating modern conservatism, felt that it had morphed into something of a Frankenstein. His own son, Christopher Buckley, was effectively purged from National Review over his publicly voiced disaffection with the policies of the Bush administration and the direction of conservatism in the form of an endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2008.
So would the conservative movement benefit from a return of a Buckley-like figure to rescue it from its current torpor? That's the argument of David Welch, a former researcher for the Republican National Committee, in the New York Times. As Welch depicts it, the lunatics have taken over the asylum in the GOP. Just as Buckley ran the John Birch Society out of the GOP in the early 1960s, so establishment conservatives must exorcise the spell of Tea Party members over the GOP. Here is Welch:
The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.
Buckley often took issue with liberal-minded members of his party, like Nelson A. Rockefeller, and he gave some quarter to opponents of civil rights legislation. But he placed great faith in the Republican establishment and its brand of mainstream conservatism, which he called the “politics of reality.”
Does Welch's argument hold up?
One problem is that he is demonizing the Tea Party. It is true that the Tea Party contains members who are bonkers. But it's something of a stretch to liken it to the Birchers, who believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a dupe of the Kremlin and that there was an establishment cabal, headed by Jewish bankers and members of the Council on Foreign Relations, often one and the same, who were secretly running America, and not for the better. The Tea Party, by contrast, harkens back to older libertarian strains in American history—it's opposed to taxes and big government. If anything, it is a movement that has distinct Jeffersonian strains. The Birchers were fascists; to apply that label to the Tea Party adherents is unpersuasive.
Welch goes on to argue,
Replacing Buckley — an erudite and prolific force of nature — with one individual is next to impossible. But we don’t need to. We can face the extremists with credible, respected leaders who have offered conservative policies that led to Republican victories.
Dare I say it, or should I just whisper the word? We need “the Establishment.” We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, operatives like Karl Rove and Republican Party institutions.
Yes, Christie and Bush could help pull the GOP back to more sensible positions. But invoking the example of Buckley is not the way to do it. The truth is that Buckley launched his own crusade against the Republican establishment, against the middle-of-the-road moderation espoused by Eisenhower. Buckley himself was a pal of Senator Joseph McCarthy's and on the right of the party. He set out to destroy the traditional Republican party with his own insurgency. He succeeded. That is the story of modern conservatism. But like many revolutionaries, Buckley saw his own movement lurch out of control. The Leninists took over in the form of the neocons—endless wars in the Middle East, blind support for Israel, bloated military budgets, extravagant budget deficits, the very policies driving America toward fiscal ruin. Now the right resembles, as Sam Tanenhaus has put it in The Death of Conservatism, "the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology."
What Welch is really calling for is an anti-Buckley to reanimate the GOP. In my view the most intriguing thinking on the right, as David Brooks has noted, is taking place among the renegades at the plucky American Conservative, where libertarian propositions are freely aired, where American foreign policy is invigilated, and where, above all, few shibboleths are left unchallenged. It has the feel of what Buckley's magazine once represented, an insurgent movement with little to lose and much to gain. But whether that can translate into actual political influence is an open question. Welch urges a different tack: the emergence of an establishment figure from the ranks of the moderate establishment that Buckley originally set out to destroy. But as Geoffrey Kabaservice has chronicled in his new book Rule and Ruin, it would be a herculean task to reconstitute it. Will anyone rise to the challenge? And will anyone be listening?