Jacob Heilbrunn

The Neocon Hazing of Robert Gates

Jacob Heilbrunn

 Robert Gates' recent remarks about Libya and foreign intervention have triggered no small amount of grousing on the part of some neoconservatives. Writing in the Weekly Standard, William Kristol acknowledged that while Gates was something of an improvement over his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld--how hard could that have been, anyway?--his resignation will prove no big deal. Good riddance was his message.

As Kristol put it:

let someone take over as secretary of defense who believes in the missions in which American forces are now engaged, and who does not shy away from the understanding that American power is a crucial force for good in the world.

As always with the neocons, it's best to be on guard when hackneyed phrases such as "a crucial force for good" are bandied about. They serve as a substitute for hard thought, offering moral uplift in place of critical scrutiny. The notion that Gates does not believe in the missions that America is engaged in is, in fact, rather bizarre. Wasn't it Gates who recently denounced America's NATO allies for seeking to sidle out of Afghanistan? Gates announced, "there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right." This hardly sounds like a closet pacifist is running the Pentagon.

The second part of Kristol's critique doesn't stand up either. The corollary of Kristol's remark is that Gates isn't simply someone who doesn't think American power is a "force for good," but that he might even think it's self-destructive. There have been times when that's been true as in Vietnam. But once again, it's hard to see that Gates has shown any specially avidity for dodging a fight. He was one of the coldest of the cold warriors--and was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev.

The gravamen of Gates' speech about intervention abroad, as I understood it, is the rather obvious point that the age of mass tank warfare has come to an end. All the services must adapt to a new era. Gates' remarks on March 4 at the United States Air Force Academy sound persuasive and cogent:


I’m concerned that the view still lingers in some corners that once I depart as Secretary, and once U.S. forces drawdown in Iraq and in Afghanistan in accordance with the President’s and NATO’s strategy, things can get back to what some consider to be real Air Force normal.

This must not happen. Stability and security missions, counterterrorism, train, assist and equip, persistent battlefield ISR, close air support, search and rescue, and the ever-critical transport missions are with us to stay – even without a repeat of Iraq and Afghanistan.

America needs to field a more nimble and agile force. I'm no expert on the American military, but, then again, neither is Kristol. Kristol's critique is motivated more by pique over Gates' caution about a no-fly-zone than anything else.

But Gates, by and large, has got it right over the past years, serving both George W. Bush, whose last two years he helped rescue, and President Obama, with distinction. As Michael Gerson observes, Gates, in many ways, is a throwback to the era of George H.W. Bush. Gates is a realist. During his final months in office, he deserves applause, not brickbats, for his service and unvarnished advice.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

Japan's Nuclear Problem

Jacob Heilbrunn

The earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan have been good for Col. Gadafi. By and large, they have overshadowed his murderous campaign to extirpate the rebels opposing his rule. The blunt fact is that Japan is more important than Libya. And one big problem that the Japanese crisis poses for the rest of the world, apart from the humanitarian toll, is the question of nuclear power.

The Wall Street Journal wades into the fray today to argue that fears of nuclear power are hyped. The safer we become, the more scared we get, argues the WSJ. No Chernobyl is about to occur. And so on.

But it won't be quite as easy as that to defend nuclear power, which unquestionably has become a major source of power, especially for France, Germany, and Japan. Can it be run safely? The reactors going blooey in the old Fukushima Daichi plant have to give anyone pause. Chernobyl is not the measure. What's occuring in Japan offers no grounds for complacency.

Putting power plants in earthquake zones like California is going to come under fresh review. And the boosters of nuclear power overlook the psychological terror that radiation (invisible) has on the average person. The pictures of four-year-olds lining up for radiation screening just aren't going to go over well. And the distribution of iodine pills in Japan, which the WSJ hails, is not likely to ease fears, either.

The problem with nuclear waste and radiation is that, for all intents and purposes, its permanent. The area around Chernobyl is a wasteland. The accident helped bring down the Soviet Union. It couldn't bring protect its own people, let alone create a socialist paradise.

The political shock in Japan and elsewhere is likely to be formidable. In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing a plan to allow aging nuclear plants to operate for another twelve years. That's almost certain to be a nonstarter.

Nuclear power isn't going away. But the shift back toward it has experienced more than a road bump. It's hit a crash barrier.

TopicsDefense RegionsJapan

America Must Help Japan

Jacob Heilbrunn

Japan is in crisis. It has been hit by the worst earthquake it's experienced--8.9 on the Richter scale-- since the 1923 Tokyo one that caused immense damage and is well-described by Joshua Hammer in a vivid book. Hammer argued that the earthquake unleashed nationalist impulses that led to roving bands attacking Koreans living in Japan and, ultimately, paved the way for World War II.

There's little chance of that happening today. Japan has fundamentally changed from the militaristic society of the pre-war, though a strong nationalist element remains active. But President Obama should send whatever aid Japan needs and underscore that it is a vital American ally. Obama has already announced that America "stands ready to help." Tsunami warnings have also been issued for California, Oregon, and Hawaii.

The earthquake offers a reminder that natural disasters constitute their own kind of crisis. The earthquake could prompt Japan to regroup and recover from its decades-long slump--or it could prove the body blow that ends any remaining aspirations to be a major power. It's in America's moral and strategic interest for it to remain one. China should assist Japan as well.

At a moment when Paul Wolfowitz is demanding that America intervene in Libya in today's Wall Street Journal, it is appropriate to wonder just how much Obama is supposed to take on. Libya will probably end up looking like a sideshow. But in Washington, reality does not always prevail: Obama's Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was drubbed for announcing that Russia and China are America's main threats and that Col. Ghadaffi, the mad dog of the Middle East, as Ronald Reagan once put it, will likely prevail over the rebels. Washington is a place where you can get punished for telling the truth.

But perhaps this new disaster will, at least temporarily, inject some sobriety into debates about American foreign policy. Obama would do well to avoid distractions. A vital ally is suffering. Our principal obligation is to help it.

TopicsHistory RegionsJapan

In Praise of Julia Gillard

Jacob Heilbrunn

 Australian prime minister Julia Gillard gave a corker of a speech to a joint session of Congress yesterday. You probably missed it. But it's more than worth reading. Sometimes it may take a foreign leader to push America to live up to its promise. Gillard gave it a real try yesterday. As Andrew Malcolm perceptively observed in the Los Angeles Times: 


Speaking with a heartfelt tone and, near the end some voice-wavering emotion, Gillard's 30-minute speech won 16 outbursts of applause, six of them standing. According to those in the House chamber, there were too some moist eyes at the end.

Gillard's point was that America has achieved greatness in the past and can be great again. And she noted that, again and again, the Aussies have been at America's side, something, incidentally, that can't always be said about its other allies. Her peroration was this:


The eyes of the world are still upon you. Your city on a hill cannot be hidden. Your brave and free people have made you the masters of recovery and reinvention.As I stand in this cradle of democracy I see a nation that has changed the world and known remarkable days. I firmly believe you are the same people who amazed me when I was a small girl by landing on the moon. On that great day I believed Americans could do anything.

I believe that still.

You can do anything today.

Sentimental and mushy? You bet. But at a moment when America faces a true crisis--the mounting national debt (within ten years, if the debt mountain is not stopped, 10 percent of the federal budget will be devoted to paying interest on the federal debt)--it's good to hear a foreign leader expressing a measure of confidence in America's ability to master its problems. And Senators Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mark Warner of Virginia appear to be offering a serious plan to tackle it. They're two politicians to keep an eye on.

So is Prime Minister Gillard.

Image by MystifyMe Concert Photography

TopicsHistory RegionsUnited States

NPR and Political Correctness

Jacob Heilbrunn

National Public Radio is making news again. A few months ago it created a stir when it fired Juan Williams as a commentator. Now it's embroiled in a new controversy.

James O'Keefe, known as a Republican procateur whose targets have included Acorn, managed to persuade NPR executives Ronald Schiller and Betsy Liley to attend a lunch with members of the fictitious Muslim Education Action Center Trust, which was dangling a $5 million donation. At the lunch Schiller laid into the GOP and the Tea Party, denouncing the racism allegedly pervading the latter movement. Much of what Schiller said sounds like liberal boilerplate.

The real reason to denounce Schiller isn't his clumsy statements about the GOP. They're about why a journalist would go to a lunch without even bothering to Google the organization or check into its bona fides. In other words, Schiller got suckered. What kind of standards does that represent?

There can be no doubting that NPR is filled with liberal journalists. But liberalism in its reports isn't really the problem, either. It's that the shows tend to be anodyne. The reporting that NPR does from abroad is its high-point. But otherwise the organization is listing.

What the Schiller brouhaha highlights isn't a problem with the reporters. It's with the management. Something has gone awry when executives feel like they can bloviate about their personal views to outsiders whom they don't even know. Schiller, who is apparently leaving the organization, was venting, presumably at least partly in the hopes of landing the juicy $5 million. Now it could stand to lose a lot more if the Congress does go after its federal funding. Is Vivian Schiller, NPR's head, capable of cleaning up the mess?

UPDATE: Latest reports are that Vivian Schiller has been terminated by NPR's board.

TopicsMedia RegionsUnited States

Barack Bush Obama

Jacob Heilbrunn

George F. Will scorned the notion the other day, propagated by Dinesh D'Souza and Newt Gingrich, that President Obama somehow has an anti-colonialist, "Kenyan" mentality. If only, Will observed. The truth is that he personifies the conventional views of an American academic, much like Woodrow Wilson, argued Will. 

Will's point was that many Republicans candidates, or at least potential ones, have gone off the rails. He observed that the only real contenders are Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and a few others. The danger for the GOP is that "the nominee may emerge much diminished by involvement in a process cluttered with careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons."

Of course Will is right. But is he also correct about Obama? Is Obama simply a repository of left-wing notions?

The administration's decision to endorse military trials at Guantanamo suggests that he is not. Instead, he is an opportunist and a realist. The opportunist side is his readiness to try and pose as the non-ideological president, the man above the fray. All presidents try to appear above party politics. But Obama is elevating it to a new art form. He fairly breathes reasonableness and a lack of ideological fervor. He broadcasts his eagerness to have everyone just get along. His latest stunt was to appear together with Jeb Bush at a Miami high school to talk about education. The visit has the left up in arms--at the very moment that teachers are being decertified in Wisconsin, the president is hanging out with an arch-conservative proponent of education reform.

Now comes the GITMO decision, which is likely to send many of Obama's supporters over the edge. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has it right when it declares, "Obama ratifies Bush." Indeed.  As 2012 looms, it's also the path that he's likely to stage out repeatedly. Like Bush, he's a big spender. Like Bush, he's continued wars abroad. And like Bush, he's continuing the trend toward an imperial president. Future historians may conclude that there was more continuity than change between Bush and Obama.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The GOP's Neocon Addiction to War

Jacob Heilbrunn

 Why has the GOP become addicted to war? The default response of the party to almost any international conflict has been to argue that America should intervene, or, to use a less polite term, intrude into what amounts, more often than not, to a domestic dispute. Add the political capital that congressional leaders and presidential aspirants believe can be derived from pummeling a Democratic president for passivity, appeasement, and you have a recipe for embroiling America in messy foreign conflicts.

Libya is a case in point. My TNI colleague Paul Pillar demolishes the arguments being made by Iraq last-ditchers that the venture was a blazing success as evidenced currently by the revolts sweeping across the Middle East. He notes that, contrary to Charles Krauthammer, Libya's Gadhafi was not quaking at the prospect of being driven from power, ala Saddam Hussein, but, rather, was interested in having sanctions lifted and that moves to negotiate with him date all the way back to 1999.

But I think one could go even further. The neocons who urged America to invade Iraq are now noisily denouncing President Obama for being a wussbag on Libya. At the same time, Sen. Mitch McConnell said that "arming the insurgents" should be considered. And so on.

But there are sound reasons to resist such a course. The last thing that America needs is to become bogged down in Libya. Yes, all power to the rebels for taking on Gadhafi. But frankly, it's their fight and they have to win it. Inserting America directly into the conflict would simply fan, not create, the perception that an outside imperialist power is once more throwing its not inconsiderable weight around in the Middle East. Maybe a no-fly zone could be established with NATO. But this is not the time for America to come swaggering in by itself. America's military may still be top gun, but this isn't a Top Gun moment.

White House chief of staff William Daley correctly noted "this has to be an international effort" on NBC's Meet the Press. Sen. John Kerrry suggested that Libya's runways could be bombed. But that's as far as it should go, if it even gets to that point.

The Wall Street Journal is denouncing "Obama's Libyan Abdication." It predicts,


The greatest danger now to U.S. interests—and to Mr. Obama's political standing—would be for Gadhafi to regain control. A Libya in part or whole under the Gadhafi clan would be a failed, isolated and dangerous place ruled by a vengeful tyrant and a likely abettor of terrorists.


It likens Obama's alleged passivity to the Bush administration's failure to protect the Shiites in Iraq whom it encouraged to rebel. But there is a distinction. The Obama administration did not encourage Libyans to overthrow the loathsome Gadhafi. Instead, Libyans are doing it themselves. Which is why Obama is right to be wary about inserting himself into a Libyan civil war that Gadhafi is likely to lose, whether or not American forces assists the rebel forces.

TopicsCongress RegionsLibya

A Special Relationship: Neocon Ties to Gaddafi

Jacob Heilbrunn

Correction: We were contacted by Richard Perle, who stated that he was never an adviser to Gaddafi. The National Interest always tries to achieve the highest standards, including in individual blogs, and regrets the inaccuracy.

One of the central tenets of neoconservatism, in its current incarnation, has been to espouse democratization and opposition to tyranny. Richard Perle, for example, co-authored a book called An End To Evil. In it, he laid out what the jacket flap calls a "bold program to defend America--and to win the war on terror."

But as Laura Rozen, among others, has reported in Politico, it seems that none other than Perle has been functioning, in the past several years, as an adviser to Col. Gaddafi. By any measure, Gaddafi is at least as terrible a despot as Saddam Hussein, the man whom neocons said it was essential to depose from power--and the ruler whom Ronald Reagan called the "mad dog" of the Middle East. That was then.

According to Rozen,


One of the more unlikely figures to have advised a firm which has worked to burnish Libya's image and grow its economy is not registered with the Justice Department. Prominent neoconservative Richard Perle, the former Reagan-era Defense Department official and George W. Bush-era chairman of the Defense Policy Board, traveled to Libya twice in 2006 to meet with Qadhafi, and afterward briefed Vice President Dick Cheney on his visits, according to documents released by a Libyan opposition group in 2009.


The firm is based in Boston and called the Monitor Group. It is apparently linked to a number of professors at the Harvard Business School. The idea was to bring prominent academics to Libya to try and polish up the regime's image. According to Rozen, the Monitor Group documents state that thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama and Bernard Lewis were recruited to meet with Gaddafi. The story was first released by members of the Libyan opposition, who have sought to highlight the extent to which the West has colluded with the Gaddafi regime. Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam also visited Harvard University under the auspices of the Monitor Group.

As I've previously written, the efforts of the Bush administration to reach out to Gaddafi made sense. Former Bush national security aide and neocon Elliot Abrams makes a persuasive case that it was necessary to cut a deal with the devil. In an act of realpolitik, the administration secured Gadaffi's nuclear materials, a major success.

But seeking to improve Gaddafi's image is another matter. Perle should explain what, precisely, he was trying to accomplish in Libya. What did he and Gaddafi talk about the two times that they met in Libya? What did Perle tell former vice-president Cheney when he briefed him about visiting Gaddafi?

As it stands, his actions appear dubious in the extreme. America did not need a special relationship with the man who presided over the Lockerbie bombing and numerous other heinous acts. Some reputations are irredeemable, and Gaddafi's, as he tries to send his country up in flames, as an act of personal vanity, before he is finally deposed from power, is one of them.

Image by Strassengalerie

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsLibya

Terrorism in Germany Against the American Military

Jacob Heilbrunn

Terrorism in Germany is not new. During the Weimar Republic, terror was routinely practiced, as mainstream politicians were murdered or beaten. Then, in the 1960s, the Red Army Faction (RAF) arose. Several generations, aided by the East German secret police, or Stasi, devoted themselves to targeting what they saw as western imperialism. The RAF, among other things, detonated a car bomb at Rhein-Main Air Base in 1985. "We are not misty-eyed social workers," the terrorist organization announced.


As the shooting of four members of the American Air Force who had arrived in Frankfurt airport from England reminds us, terrorism continues to flourish in Germany. The new threat, of course, comes from Islamic radicals. Hamburg is where the 9/11 plot was hatched. In March 2010, four converted Islamic radicals who belonged to the group Islamic Jihad Union were convicted of seeking to attack American military facilities. Now a Kosovar Islamic radical, the twenty-one year-old Arid U. who worked for the German post office at the airport, has apparently murdered two Americans and injured another two. The question surrounding his action is whether he is an isolated killer or part of a wider plot.

The Kosovo problem, in other words, may be coming back to haunt America, in ways that it did not anticipate. The danger presented by Islamic radicals in Kosovo has always been apparent. Is there a wider problem emanating from radical Kosovo organizations that are intent on targeting the American military? Did the killer have lethal ties back home? Or is this shooting the work of a loner, who had publicized his intention to go "amok" on radical internet sites. Nevertheless, the attack was carefully planned, as the pilots were dressed in civilian clothes and the shooter was familiar with their time-tables.

As it is, terrorism in Germany has mutated into the work of Islamic radicals, whether homegrown or foreign. Now, as then, American soldiers remain the target of delusional killers who believe that they are battling imperialism by engaging in murder.

TopicsTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Darrell Issa and A Press Scandal

Jacob Heilbrunn

Darrell Issa, the head of the Government Reform committee, has run into his own mini-scandal. He's fired his spokesman, Kurt Bardella, who was apparently feeding New York Times journalist Mark Leibovich e-mails from Politico journalists. Leibovich is writing a book about Washington's culture. Now, as Dana Milbank observes, Leibovich himself is being "sucked into the dysfunctional drama, which resembles nothing so much as a bad reality-TV show in which people put their honesty and judgment second to their quest to be players."

Politico editor John Harris is incensed, or pretending to be incensed, by the sharing of e-mails. But since when have e-mails ever really been private? It's not clear what's in the e-mails. But they could show that Politico journalists were trying to cozy up to Issa. Of course, this is what journalists do. Part of the fuss has to do with the mistaken idea of objectivity and neutrality--American newspapers remain afraid to admit that they have a partisan bias. Only Fox News comes closest to telling the truth about its approach to the news.

But the coziness does present a problem. It's what allowed the Bush administration to pull the collective wool over the eyes of the press during the runup to the Iraq War. The press corps essentially disabled its alarm detectors. The New York Times became a prominent purveyor of bogus information about Saddam Hussein, thanks to the credulous reporting, if that's the right term, of Judith Miller, who recycled Bush propaganda as fact, particularly when it came to weapons of mass destruction.

The press corps ended up destroying a good chunk of its own credibility. Next the media basically rolled over for Barack Obama during his presidential run (and, by and large, failed to hunt down the John Edwards/Rielle Hunter saga). If the press wanted to reexamine its role, it might look back to a pioneering study by Walter Lippmann called Liberty and the News, which studied the propensity of the media to purvey fiction as fact. Today Milbank is right to suggest that a "sense of detachment" is needed between those who are covering the newsmakers and the newsmakers themselves.