President Obama has said he doesn't believe in "wheeling and dealing" with foreign govnerments to retrieve Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who is currently holed up somewhere in Russia. But Obama's reluctance to wheel and deal has hampered much of his presidency, particularly when it comes to dealing with Congress. He wants to portray himself as above it all—indicating that he won't treat with foreign leaders to bring Snowden to heel. Nor will he scramble jets to capture him.
The truth is that Snowden wouldn't even merit the expenditure of jet fuel that it could cost to nab him should he briefly enter American air space. Snowden, as Alex Berenson wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times, should have been handled with kid gloves. He's in over his head. A deal should have been cut with him to cajole him to leave Hong Kong. Instead, the Obama admnistration went on the equivalent of Defcon 5, while former vice-president Dick Cheney harrumphed that Snowden was nothing less than a traitor. Please. He doesn't rise to that level. Rather, Snowden, who apparently freaked out when told that he would lose his computer privileges in jail, seems to be headed for a protracted exile in Ecuador, where he can while away his days googling his moment of fame.
The harrumphers in Congress were little better than Cheney. Rep. Peter King, a fairly recent convert to opposition to terrorism, breathed fire about Snowden's betrayal. Senator Chuck Schumer ranted about Russia's perfidy. Where have they been living for the past ten years? Guys, it's America that's been performing secret renditions, including capturing an innocent German citizen, torturing him, and then dumping him in a desolate road in Albania to find his way home. This is not a country that has built up a lot of good will abroad in recent years. It seems rather obvious that Beijing and Moscow would relish the opportunity to hoist Washington on its own petard, particularly since Snowden revealed that the NSA has been engaging in its own forms of cyber warfare and snooping abroad even as Obama piously upbraided the Chinese for their own efforts in that arena.
But perhaps the most egregious aspect of the Snowden case, as John Cassidy has pointed out in the New Yorker, is that the administration is trying to tar Snowden, at least in America. As Cassidy put it, "I'm all for journalists asking awkward questions, too. But why aren't more of them being directed at Hayden and Feinstein and Obama, who are clearly intent on attacking the messenger?"
But Obama's lofty dismissal of Snowden as a mere stripling a "twenty-nine-year-old"—he is actually thirty years old—can't obscure the fact that he has raised some significant questions that Obama and his minions at the Justice Deparment and the NSA would prefer to obscure. Russian president Vladimir Putin has his own motives for shielding Snowden. But the effect has been to heighten the notoriety surrounding Snowden, which is what Obama is belatedly trying to minimize. His own administration's hamhanded attempts to capture Snowden have only heightened the stakes. To a large extent, Snowden, you could say, is Obama's own creation, even if the president who promised to safeguard civil liberties when he campaigned for office in 2008 doesn't want to acknowledge it.
The Brandenburg Gate, where President Obama delivered a speech yesterday declaring, “the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity, that struggles goes on,” has become for many Americans a kind of symbol of triumphalism where good defeated evil. It is the scene where in 1987 President Reagan urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” which didn’t exactly happen—it was opened up in November 1989 partly as a result of misunderstandings at the East German border and West German detente with Moscow and the East bloc had a lot to do with easing fears of a revanchist Germany—but the peaceful end to the cold war prompted a wave of hubris among both liberal hawks and neoconservatives that seems never to have gone away, despite the debacle in Iraq. The idea was that America had won the cold war singlehandedly, that it had implanted its democratic values in Central Europe, and that there was no reason not to try it all over again in the Middle East.
Obama has never really espoused this credo. His cold war days were spent complaining about the nuclear arms race, a theme he revisited in Berlin yesterday when he proposed reducing American and Russian nuclear arsenals by one-third, a measure that would allow him to claim progress towards his vision of the abolition of nuclear weapons—a vision, incidentally, that he shares with Reagan. This is the old Obama, the man of moral uplift and stirring rhetoric.
But Obama’s talk couldn’t conceal the fact that his presidency has taken directions that he never anticipated. In Iraq and Afghanistan he has managed to wind down inconclusive and seemingly interminable wars. But in Syria he is being lured, willy-nilly, into a foreign policy trap, one counter to everything that he has preached over the past years but appears unable to resist.
His resistance to intervention in Syria has been plain. Red lines, shmed lines, Obama seemed to indicate after he was caught out on his avowal that America would intervene in the Syrian civil war should Bashar al-Assad be caught out deploying chemical weapons. Apparently he was. Obama went into a funk. For weeks he prevaricated. Now, in the face of mounting calls from liberal hawks and neocons, he has agreed to supply rebels in Syria with weaponry.
It’s a move that, as widely noted, he didn’t even bother to announce personally. Instead, he deputed it to his deputy Ben Rhodes. Obama had more important things to do like attending a reception. The civil war could wait.
Obama’s moves on Syria have not failed to stir a debate among intellectuals and the press. Professor David Bromwich, one of our leading intellectuals, has written a masterful dissection of the Obama administration’s road to war in the New York Review of Books. One of the proximate causes of the renaissance of the de facto alliance between liberal hawks and neocons has been the sorry fact that there really is no accountability when it comes to American foreign policy. Its possible to make catastrophic predictions and decisions, as in Iraq, and then go on to make fresh and equally sweeping predictions with impunity. But it isn’t simply liberal hawks who are endorsing military strikes in Syria. As Bromwich notes, Carl Levin, a staunch liberal and head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, endorses them in limited (whatever that means) form.
Still, Syria may end up bearing out Karl Marx’s aphorism about history beginning as tragedy—Iraq—and ending as farce, though the consequences for the Syrians themselves are far from farcical. In America Syria has become an arena for moral posturing by the likes of Senator John McCain, a chance to try and avenge the ghosts of Iraq. But for Obama, who is palpably reluctant to engage, sending in arms may be a mere sop to his critics. How much further he is prepared to go, even with the ascension of Samantha Power and Susan Rice, is an open question. He surely finds the idea of mission creep pretty creepy. Nevertheless, he has crept into the conflict. And he may find it increasingly difficult to detach himself from it as critics warn of a wider Middle East war lest America fail to back a winning side. The darker interpretation, one forwarded by Daniel Drezner, is that Obama is simply trying to protract the conflict. Fareed Zakaria observes, “If this interpretation of the Obama administration’s behavior is correct, then the White House might well be playing a clever game—but it is Machiavellian rather than humanitarian.”
Even as the critics try to parse Obama’s motives, however, the absence of debate over intervention in Syria in Congress is striking. Yes, Sen. Rand Paul, who is on the front-page of the Washington Post today, has blasted the idea of intervention as well as McCain’s trip to Syria. But his remains a distinctly lonely voice. As former Sen. James Webb recently wrote in the National Interest, Congress has largely become a doormat for the presidency when foreign affairs is the subject. As the White House becomes inexorably drawn into Syria, its abdication is a further sign of the corrosion of American democracy even as its champions urge exporting it abroad.
President Obama has hewed to a firmly realist course in refusing to intervene militarily in Syria. His picks of Chuck Hagel for Defense and John Kerry for the State Department signaled that he was in no rush to attack Iran, either. But now his administration is embarking on a different course—or at least balancing his foreign policy team with two advisers more inclined than not to engage in interventions abroad.
The two are, of course, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. Current national security Tom Donilon, who is a cautious lawyer and a former aide to Warren Christopher, who staunchly resisted intervening in the Balkans Wars during the early years of the Clinton administration, is stepping down. Rice, who was at the center of the controversy over Benghazi, will become Obama's national security adviser, a position that doesn't require Senate confirmation. Rice's Republican detractors will get another chance to fume over her clumsy talking points but will be unable to do much about her promotion.
Power has not attracted as much controversy as Rice. She is actually the more interesting and substantial of the two. Power is slated to replace Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Rice will presumably come to her post somewhat warier of engaging in partisan politics on behalf of the Obama administration. Her career did not implode over Benghazi but it cost her the opportunity to become Secretary of State. For Obama, her elevation gives him the opportunity to show that he is not truckling to his critics and stands by his loyalists. The irony is that Rice may exercise more power as national security adviser than does Kerry as Secretary of State. To a greater extent than any president since Richard Nixon, Obama appears to have centralized power in the White House.
What about Power? For her the UN post is the perfect posting. Power brings a moralistic penchant to the UN, which has proven a great launching pad for a number of her predecessors. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Madeleine Albright all made their reputations as staunch defenders of America at the UN. Power is a celebrity in academic and media circles, but her new position has the potential to propel her to much greater fame.
When it comes to foreign policy, Power will have little direct influence on foreign policy, though Obama clearly admires her. It is Rice who will be at the center of foreign policy. Perhaps Obama, like not a few presidents before him, is attempting to create competing power centers in his administration. If so, he has balanced the realists versus the interventionists. The question is whether Obama has learned a lesson from the Libyan venture, where he lost the trust, as David Bromwich notes in the New York Review of Books, of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, who felt "betrayed" by the insistence on regime change. Bromwich says,
Americans for a long time have tended to think (when we think of other countries at all) that the more new nations spring up, the better. This goes with our relaxed communitarianism but bears little relation to realities elsewhere. Our latest siege of optimism, which followed the collapse of the Soviet empire, has now been given a fair trial over a quarter of a century. It has not always worked out well. Not in the Balkans, not in the former Soviet republics, and not, it seems, in the Middle East.
Will Obama heed this lesson? Or will Rice and Power successfully push Obama to revert to the credo of the liberal hawks?
Here is the depth to which the Obama administration has sunk: "If you’re asking me whether the president believes that journalists should be prosecuted for doing their jobs, the answer is no.” So said White House spokesman Jay Carney. Good to know. Presumably, reporters everywhere are relieved to know that Obama thinks it's OK if they continue to trying to ferret out information.
Carney, himself a former reporter, felt obliged to reassure his jittery colleagues because of the latest leak case to embarrass the administration. It centers on James Rosen, an industrious and shrewd and affable reporter for Fox News. Rosen, if I may say so, is not the first person who leaps to mind as "at the very least, either . . . an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator" in an espionage case allegedly directed at the U.S. government. Rosen, who is a friend of mine, has always been a staunch conservative, a foreign-policy hawk, and an expert on subjects ranging from the Beatles and Watergate. But to suppose that Rosen would be involved in trying to subvert the American government is about as plausible as the idea that Obama secretly wants to slash taxes on the wealthy.
Yet this is apparently the conclusion that the the Obama administration arrived at a few years ago when it decided to go snooping through Rosen's emails. Its conclusion was that Rosen is, in fact, a criminal because he went chasing after a story about North Korea that the administration disliked. Enter the Obama plumbers. Rosen's offense was apparently suggesting to a State Department source, "Let's break some news and expose muddle-headed policy when we see it, or force the administration's hand to go in the right direction, if possible." As bizarre as the case may be it is, however, not a trivial one. As Dana Milbank correctly notes in the Washington Post, this may be the most flagitious example of the Obama administration's war on civil liberties.
According to Milbank,
The Rosen affair is as flagrant an assault on civil liberties as anything done by George W. Bush’s administration, and it uses technology to silence critics in a way Richard Nixon could only have dreamed of.
To treat a reporter as a criminal for doing his job — seeking out information the government doesn’t want made public — deprives Americans of the First Amendment freedom on which all other constitutional rights are based. Guns? Privacy? Due process? Equal protection? If you can’t speak out, you can’t defend those rights, either.
The irony, of course, is that Rosen, who wrote a book defending the record of Richard Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell, is now caught up in a fresh violation of civil liberties. Obama entered office claiming he would be the most transparent president in history. He is nothing of the kind. Instead, he has embarked upon an effort to suppress press freedoms, including the Justice Department's monitoring of the AP, that should give pause to anyone who believes that presidential administrations should not be allowed to operate as though they were medieval kingdoms immune to scrutiny and criticism. Obama may claim that he was unaware of the actions that were taken by his subordinates—where have we heard that before?—but the cold, hard truth is that his obsession with quashing leaks and suppressing what he views as illegal activity has led his own administration to act in a criminal fashion. The only question is who else the administration may have targeted? Come on, fess up.
Obama could help rectify his mistakes by inviting Rosen into the Oval Office for an interview and apologizing for the actions of his minions. I suspect that given what an engaging fellow Rosen is they might actually hit if off. But if Obama retreats into petulant silence or angrily dismisses the notion that he could be a party to violations of civil liberties, then his administration will have donned the shirt of Nessus, immolating itself on its partisan desire to silence any real or perceived detractors.
Sen. Rand Paul has been taking a number of moves to test the waters when it comes to running for the presidency. He garnered headlines in taking on President Obama about drone strikes. He addressed the Heritage Foundation, where he said, "I'm a realist, not a neoconservative nor an isolationist." He recently spoke at the GOP's annual Lincoln Day Dinner in Cedar Rapids. But no step might have more symbolic weight than if he were to apply for membership in the Council on Foreign Relations.
Historically, the relationship between conservatives and the Council on Foreign Relations has, to put it mildly, been a fraught one. The Council has long been a redoubt of establishment Republicans—Elihu Root, Henry Stimson, John McCloy, Henry Kissinger, and so on. It served as the bete noire of hardline conservatives. The Council, which was founded by New York financiers and lawyers, was seen on the right as being in cahoots with the British—a secretive organization, the agent of nefarious bankers intent on promoting world government. Many American conservatives loathed both Great Britain and the globalization. Perfidious Albion was America's enemy. It dragged gullible America into World War I and World War II. After World War II, it was seen as soft on communism by conservatives who called for rolling back the Soviet empire and scorned Kennan and Kissinger. Others continued to cling to the idea that the Council was part of a conspiracy for emasculating American sovereignty. But Paul would be wise to put as much distance between himself and these notions. Which is precisely why Paul should join the Council on Foreign Relations and, for good measure, sign on its president Richard N. Haass as an informal adviser.
Already Paul has begun the work of polishing his foreign policy bona fides. In his thoughtful speech at the Heritage Foundation, for example, he lauded the realist thought of George F. Kennan to insist that America needs to distinguish between peripheral and vital interests. Paul's main point was that containment worked during the Cold War, that strategic ambiguity can work. Ultimately, diplomacy and military force prevailed, backed by the fact that the "engine of capitalism defeated the engine of socialism."
Where are the Kennans of our generation, when foreign policy has become so monolithic, so lacking in debate that Republicans and Democrats routinely pass foreign policy statements without debate and without votes. Where are the calls for moderation, the calls for restraint?
Anyone who questions this consensus, said Paul, is "castigated" and "rebuked." The debate over what, if anything, to do about Iran, he added, seems to be "more robust in Israel than it is here." Containment and diplomacy, he concluded, should not be rejected peremptorily: "War should never be the only option."
Nothing would signal that Paul intends to be a serious candidate for the presidency than reaching out to mainstream Republicans such as Haass. Haass is the antithesis of a neoconservative, and it is neocons who, by and large, dominate the GOP, at least when it comes to setting the terms of debate. Whether they wield much influence outside it is a matter of debate. But as one of the avatars of shifting the debate on foreign policy, Paul would do well to broaden his message. Obviously, Paul is not going to abandon his libertarian credo. But it's hardly in conflict with tempering his message for a wider audience. His aim should be to present himself as a mainstream candidate espousing the revival of precepts that were successfully followed by GOP stalwarts such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush.
In his new book, Foreign Policy Begins At Home, Haass essentially lays out a sober case for a return to the precepts that have long animated the GOP—prudence abroad, a focus on rebuilding the American economy rather than engaging in foreign adventures. Haass himself acknowledges at the outset that he will be accused of being an isolationist, which he's not. But there is something quite novel about the head of the Council calling for America to retrench. Haass says that America “must recognize the limits to its influence.” In his view, “For the past two decades, American foreign policy, consumed with remaking large parts of the greater Middle East, has quite simply overreached.” His verdict on Afghanistan is withering: “What the United States will have to show for more than a decade of sacrifice and investment in Afghanistan will be minimal.”
None of these sentiments will come as a surprise to Paul who has, more or less, been saying the same things. But it does matter who says them. Haass, a veteran of the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, who famously told the New Yorker that he still doesn't know when or why the decision to go to war in Iraq was made, is one of the figures in the GOP who has been in a state of internal exile. If Paul is intent on making a real run for the Oval Office, then tapping into the network of realist thinkers with government experience and serious intellectual attainments would be a good way to start.
There is a curious paradox in criticisms of President Obama from the right. On the one hand it complains that he is vastly expanding the range and reach of government domestically. On the other hand it complains that he is not expanding the range and reach of government enough in foreign affairs.
A good case of the latter impulse comes in a lively recent column by Bret Stephens, a leading neoconservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal and winner of a Pulitzer prize. Stephens raises what he calls the "Kissinger question," which, as he defines it, is whether or not America needs a foreign policy at all, the title of a book that Kissinger published a few months before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In Stephens' view, America, under Obama, does not. It has what amounts to a series of tactical moves designed to obscure the fact that Obama is, at bottom, uninterested in foreign affairs. Stephens goes on to suggest that this presidential disposition is widely shared. Even Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass comes in for a drubbing—he, of all people, Stephens warns, has suggested in a pithy new book that foreign policy, given the battered state of the American economy and the dubious outcomes of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, should begin at home.
As Stephens sees it,
These are the sorts of views—isolationist is the only real word for them—that crowd my inbox every week, and they're not a fringe. A growing number of Americans, conservatives too, have concluded that the lesson of the past decade is that, since the U.S. can't do it all, the wisest, most moral, and most self-interested course is to do nothing.
Not being privy to the contents of the items that fill up his inbox each week, I can't really comment on who is writing to Stephens. But his contention that a wave of isolationism is sweeping across the country seems as overwrought as the old neocon conviction that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of building nuclear weapons that he was preparing to hand over to Al Qaeda. Like the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka, who also invoked the isolationist bogeyman in a recent column, he makes it a little too easy for himself by bifurcating the debate over foreign affairs into neoconservatives (globalists) and the everyone else (ostriches).
To accomplish this task, Stephens does violence to the subtle thought of Henry Kissinger. He alludes to a book by Kissinger called Does America Need A Foreign Policy? to contend that it anticipated the kind of neoisolationism that Obama would propound as president. The only problem is that it doesn't. Remaining cautious about intervening directly in the Syrian civil war, as Obama has plainly indicated he intends to do, hardly is tantamount to the dreaded word of isolationism. It has more in common, in fact, with traditional Republican realist tenets propounded by presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. If Obama was really an isolationist, would he be pivoting to Asia? Would he be beefing up military cooperation with Israel, a country he recently visited? And so on.
Nevertheless, there is something to Stephens' complaint. While it is too much to brand it isolationism, there is clearly an upsurge in caution about intervention abroad, an impulse that seems both logical and inevitable and one that the neocons themselves helped create by championing a war in Iraq that boomeranged. Is it any wonder that Americans, confronted with the anfractuosities of societies riven by tribal and ethnic feuds, have developed an aversion to the notion that American forces can safely be inserted to set wrong aright?
But this disposition, in my view, is far closer to Kissingerian realpolitik than neoconservatism. Kissinger never argued for hegemony, as have the neocons. Instead, his entire foreign policy was based on the idea of an equilibrium of the great powers, analogous to the one that emerged at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and, more or less, kept the peace in Europe for much of the nineteenth century, and, it could be argued, only truly went under in August 1914, when the houses of Europe engaged in what amounted to a mutual suicide pact. The quest by a leader to topple world order is bound to provoke a countervailing coalition and invariably leads to destruction and chaos, whether it is Napoleon or Hitler.
What Kissinger was calling, indeed has always called, is to avoid what the political scientist D.W. Brogan termed the illusion of omnipotence. An equilibrium rather than hegemony has always been, and remains, the soundest basis for peace and prosperity, particularly revelant at a moment when China is a rising power and the grim realities of international rivalries have not subsided, despite the ebullient prognostications of the proponents of globalization. The extent to which Obama is carrying out an overdue realignment of American foreign policy can be debated. But to dub it isolationism and to invoke 1939, as does Stephens, is not merely unhelpful, but also quite misleading.
The Obama administration is mired in a fresh scandal of its own making. The revelation that the Justice Department has been snooping into the phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors indicates that the administration's ruthlessness when it comes to trying to protect its reputation and sources knows no bounds. Attorney General Eric Holder, always a poor choice for a cabinet post, should resign. Coupled with the revelation that the IRS has been selectively targeting Tea Party groups and the botched handling of the Benghazi terrorist attack, the administration confronts a second term that appears to be ending even before it has even really begun.
Obama has always prided himself on being squeaky clean when it comes to governing. He campaigned for transparency in government. He said he was against soft money. He said that members of his administration would have to demonstrate the highest ethical standards ever. Well, that was then. He has nominated the tax-dodging billionaire Penny Pritzker, who bankrolled his political ascendancy, to serve as his Commerce secretary. He has hoovered up any and all funds he can attract, infuriating proponents of campaign finance reform. And now his administration, in its mad and obsessive and destructive pursuit to quash any leaks, has besmirched itself by targeting journalists for investigation.
Leaks have always plagued presidents. They are a function of a national security state that has always aspired to total control in the post-World War II era—in 1986, Ronald Reagan's Chief of Staff Don Regan proposed creating a standing cadre of FBI agents to ferret out leaks. But the ability of the state to exercise surveillance over its citizens was always limited. No longer. Technology has marched on. The president who can order an assassination by using drones—and initially claimed that he could target a U.S. citizen in America until Sen. Rand Paul denounced him—is also busily snooping on the media. The Associated Press says that Holder and his minions ran amok: They monitored
incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery.
Was Obama aware of this program? Did he order it? Or was it done solely on Holder's initiative? White House press spokesman Jay Carney says it had "no knowledge" of the secret program. If it didn't, maybe the White House should pay more attention to what is going on in the ranks of its administration.
It seems that the investigation of the AP journalists was prompted by the revelation that a U.S. spy inside the ranks of a Yemeni Al Qaeda group had helped to foil an airliner bomb plot. An aggrieved administration went on the offensive to try and discover who leaked the information. Instead, it has only embarrassed itself.
The fixation with leakers is counterproductive. The problem with targeting leakers, of course, is that they often play a valuable role in helping to inform the public about what, exactly, is taking place in the government when it comes to foreign affairs. Sometimes leaks redound to the benefit of an administration or allow it to spin the news. Obama, however, has displayed a kind of compulsive desire to stifle leakers from the outset of his presidency.
The result is what AP chief Gary Pruitt is calling a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into civil liberties and press freedoms. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told the Washington Post, "“This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen. They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.” It is no small irony that Obama, who declared that he would halt the George W. Bush administration's violations of personal freedoms, has exceeded the mendacity of his predecessors in creating a new star chamber to hunt down his detractors and enemies. Obama isn't protecting American freedoms. He's going rogue. If this keeps up, Obama may accomplish the impossible and create a wave of nostalgia for Mitt Romney.
Where should the Republican party head on foreign policy? Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute has a new essay called "Who Are We Again?" on the Foreign Policy web site, suggesting that the GOP is in the throes of a debate between neocons and realists. It's a stimulating and provocative piece.
Pletka says that she never thought the battle between the neocons and realists would be joined so quickly. The proximate cause, as she points out, is Syria, where President Obama is trying to muddle his way through, with his critics arguing that the muddling is precisely what is making a bad situation worse, a point that both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editorial pages—but not the New York Times—agree upon. Has President Obama's refusal to engage in Syria, in fact, made it more likely that he will end up engaging militarily? She also acknowledges that in some areas defense spending could be safely cut. And she notes that realist tenets can themselves become shibboleths about building at home rather than abroad, and so forth. Any credo can, of course, degenerate into a doctrine.
But her basic point is this:
we are in the throes of a minor revolution in national security policy which has ranged the Obama Left with the Libertarian Right, spawning -- forgive the imagery -- an isolationist Frankenstein monster. Chin-stroking denizens of op-ed pages and journals that preoccupy themselves with foreign policy -- this one included -- are clamoring to align themselves with oracular philosophers of op-ed pages past (Walter Lippmann? D.W. Brogan? Who knew?), seeking a veneer of
antiquityauthority for their musings about the wisdom of staying home and resting.
A few weeks ago I wrote a review in the Daily Beast, which Pletka cites, of Richard Haass' new book Foreign Policy Begins At Home, a succinct and calm appeal for America to repair itself before it embarks upon repairing the rest of the world. I started the review by quoting the British political scientist D.W. Brogan's famous essay in 1953 in Harper's—well-worth reading today, I think—about the illusion of American omnipotence. Brogan's basic point was that Americans, particularly on the right, tend to think that conspiracies are involved when Washington encounters setbacks abroad. He was pointing specifically to the Soviet Union and China and McCarthyism—the idea that there had been a sell-out, that Alger Hiss had singlehandedly subverted America at Yalta (when he was, in fact, a minor State Department official). Americans, Brogan suggested, needed to abandon the idea that they can alter the world at their whim.
Whether this amounts to isolationism, however, is a different story. Brogan was trying to get Americans to abandon the devil theory of foreign policy and take a more sober look at foreign afffairs. And isn't there a line between choosing carefully when to intervene and when to remain aloof that doesn't have to constitute isolationism? It's too elastic a term to be intellectually profitable. One of the interesting things, incidentally, about the pre–World War II isolationists in the GOP, moreover, is that the term may be something of a misnomer. Many on the right actually admired the Nazis in the 1930s and thought that they would be a useful instrument to help battle the Soviet Union.
Though there may be some on the contemporary right who would embrace isolationism—Ron Paul, for example—it is not even clear that Rand Paul would go that far since it would constitute electoral suicide, at least when it comes to running for the presidency. Pletka may also be overly impressed by the power of the realists that she detects—George F. Will and a few Senators do not yet constitute a burgeoning movement. But there can be no doubting that realism does have an opening and that the GOP is far more receptive to returning to its older tenets than was the case even a year ago.
You could even interpret Pletka's essay as an indice of the apprehensions among neocons about growing realist influence. But there's more to it than that. If anything, it sounds like she is calling for something of a cease-fire in the wars between the realists and neocons. The most interesting conundrum raised by Pletka is where to define America's limits in a country where limitless possibilities have always beckoned even as the world beyond turns out to be more tenebrous than the champions of democracy promotion envisioned. So where Pletka is dead-on is in her challenge to realists to define what America should, in fact, do. She writes, "Fighting about what we don't want to do is an exercise in futility. What is America? What do you want it to be? Answer me that."
Anyone who thinks it's easy to answer doesn't have a persuasive one.
Michael Hirsh, one of Washington's ablest commentators on foreign affairs, has a provocative piece in the Atlantic arguing that Mitt Romney got a bum rap during the election campaign when he declared that Russia is America's No. 1 geopolitical foe, a clear and present danger to our national security. Romney's observation created an uproar. Russian President Vladimir Putin observed, "“I’m grateful to him (Romney) for formulating his stance so clearly because he has once again proven the correctness of our approach to missile defense problems." At the same time, Romney was roundly mocked, including by yours truly, for indulging in cold war nostalgia rather than confronting contemporary realities. President Obama seized upon the remark to suggest that it demonstrated Romney was an utter doofus when it came to foreign affairs.
Fiddlesticks, says Hirsh. Romney, we are told, was on to an inconvenient truth about Russia, which has become increasingly truculent in its approach to America and the West. To the joy of former Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who has already tweeted about Hirsh's piece, his candidate is now being vindicated. The truth about Russia is in plain sight even if Washington policymakers are loath to acknowledge it. Russia is returning, under President Vladimir Putin's leadership, to a virulently anti-American stance, one that draws on imperialist czarist traditions to insert a pudgy thumb in the eye of the West:
To a degree that U.S. policymakers have not really acknowledged publicly, Russia under Putin has become the chief countervailing force to U.S. power and influence around the world, even more so than China (which often follows Moscow's lead in the U.N. Security Council). Mulishness toward Washington is not just an attitude; it is today Russia's foreign policy. And this goes well beyond recent tit-for-tat, including Putin's suspension of U.S. adoptions and barring of nongovernmental organizations after Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law named after a murdered Russian lawyer under which the U.S. government can penalize Russian human-rights abuses. Washington, in fact, has been getting Putin's real aims largely wrong since George W. Bush...
Hirsh points to Putin's attempts to sanitize Stalin's image by depicting him as an effective manager who almost singlehandedly won World War II, while soft-pedaling the fact that Uncle Joe carved up Poland together with Nazi Germany. He points to Russia's possession of thousands of nuclear weapons and desire to check America around the globe. He points to Russia's intransigence on the UN Security Council. And he points to Russia's refusal to accede to American efforts when it comes to trying to create a post-Assad Syria.
The only problem for Hirsh's bold thesis is that Russia appears to be backing down on its refusal to cooperate with Washington on Syria. While the international conference that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has endorsed may not have tangible results—though it is too soon to know—it is a promising move, one that suggests that on the big issues perhaps more unites than divides Russia and America. Neither country has an interest in seeing Islamic terrrorists capture Syria or for it to succumb to its fissiparous tendencies and become carved up into various fiefdoms, with Islamic radicals establishing a beachhead in the country.
Russia and America may remain at loggerheads in the decade to come. Russia may well remain an adversary. But to suggest that this ramshackle nation, plagued by abundant natural resources and an inability to invest them properly, will exceed China in might and influence over the coming decades is unpersuasive. Romney's statement remains as bogus as it was the day he uttered it in September 2012.
The search is on for the new wave of presidential contenders in the GOP. Today's Washington Post has a lengthy piece on Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose aides have suggested to the National Review that he considers himself presidential timber. So does Rand Paul. And Marco Rubio.
But what about the intellectuals and pundits who have generated the ideas that have animated the GOP over the past decades? Are there any fresh voices and ideas percolating that might act as a shot of iron into what has become a fairly anemic party? The Washington Monthly, that astute chronicler of the nation's capital, features a sprightly look by Ryan Cooper at the rise of what it deems a new and younger generation of reformist conservatives. Cooper, who suggests that, in the wake of the crushing November election loss, a form of glasnost is breaking out in the GOP, contrasts the GOP with the Democratic party in the 1970s. He indicates that the younger conservatives face a steeper path to success. Cooper observes:
It’s two decades after Bill Clinton’s first presidential victory, and there is still no Republican equivalent of the DLC. During last year’s GOP primary, the only candidate who ran as a moderate reformer, Jon Huntsman, garnered almost no party support, quit in disgust, and started advocating for a third party. The one commonality between the two reform periods is that, as with Democrats in the 1970s, the rethinking on the right today, such as it is, is being led by a loose network of reformist writers and policy intellectuals—though the task on the conservative side is more treacherous than it generally was for liberals.
The result is that conservative writers have been more careful to adhere to some pieties, while broaching what would until recently have been considered heretical thoughts enunicated by what Sen. John McCain tried to stamp as "wacko birds."
Who are the conservative writers that Cooper singles out? David Frum and Michael Gerson makes cameos. Overall, Cooper's choices are a somewhat heterogenous lot, ranging from Yuval Levin of National Affairs to Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, from Daniel Larison of the American Conservative to David Brooks of the New York Times. But in many ways that's the point. Doctrinal unanimity is what has led the GOP into its current impasse. Larison is in some ways the most unpredictable member of this gallery of conservative authors. He is aptly described: "An acerbic critic of American interventionism in both parties, Larison has few fans among the GOP’s neoconservative wing. However, his brand of paleoconservatism is on the upswing among the more libertarian-minded Republicans, most recently on display during Rand Paul’s famous filibuster." Cooper may go somewhat astray in suggesting that with "Obama's relative hawkishness," Larison's views could gain greater traction in the GOP. Actually, unless I am misreading him, Larison has at times been complimentary of what he views as Obama's realist proclivities. So the gulf between the paleocons and Obamaites may not be all that great—unless, of course, Obama buckles and intervenes in Syria.
Another canny pick by Cooper is the economist Bruce Bartlett, a vigorous and provocative writer who has not hesitated to upbraid conservatives for failing to stick to their avowed principles. He puts intellection before party. Bartlett broke ranks when he denounced George W. Bush as a phony conservative in his book Imposter. Cooper notes that Bartlett, who served in the Reagan administration in the Treasury Department, "was happily ensconced in the right-wing think tank world until the passage of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit. This led to more and more fierce criticism of President Bush, culminating in Bartlett’s 2005 book Imposter, for which he was fired from his position at the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) and ostracized from conservative circles."
It is this osctracism that has become the most conspicuous of the conservative orbit. Yes, glasnost in the Soviet Union led to the collapse of the entire enterprise. But in the GOP, it could have a revivifying effect. But only if the party is interested in reviving itself rather than maintaining the old-time faith among a dwindling band of true believers.