The BuzzTNI's Daily Media Monitor
In the latest entry in the battle over Chuck Hagel’s possible nomination for secretary of defense, the Washington Free Beacon reported yesterday that Senator Marco Rubio “is threatening to place a hold” on Hagel should he be nominated. Interestingly, Rubio’s concerns have nothing to do with Israel, Iran or any of the other major concerns that have already been raised about Hagel. Instead, Rubio focuses on a totally different area: Cuba. The report quotes Rubio’s communications director, Alex Conant, who says:
Promoting democracy in Latin America is a priority for Sen. Rubio, and he’s put holds on other administration nominees over the issue. If President Obama were to nominate Sen. Hagel for a cabinet position, I’m sure we would have questions about Cuba positions.
Rubio’s opposition apparently stems from the fact that Hagel has previously said that “we have an outdated, unrealistic, irrelevant policy” on Cuba. Hagel has long been a critic of Washington’s embargo and a supporter of trade with Cuba.
Leave aside the fact that this is barely if at all relevant to the secretary of defense’s portfolio. There are at least a dozen other issues that are higher on the Pentagon’s priority list, and the White House and Congress are both far more powerful in shaping the future direction of U.S. policy toward Cuba. More important, if we do want to use this as a test of Hagel’s judgment, his position on Cuba is a reason to support his nomination, not oppose it. He’s totally right: our Cuba policy is an outdated relic of the Cold War, and there’s no reason why we should refuse to trade and engage diplomatically with Cuba when we simultaneously do so with any number of other autocracies. As Doug Bandow argued here at TNI last week, this policy has long since lost whatever utility it had, and it is past time to change it.
There is an old proverb that says that you can judge a man by his enemies. While we should perhaps not endorse this rule fully, it's certainly true that Hagel’s critics have only been making him look better and better.
In the aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, then defense secretary Robert Gates was agitated about the number of leaks that emerged from the White House about the details of the operation. As David Sanger relates in Confront and Conceal, the leaks were problematic because “the reaction in Pakistan grew uglier and uglier with every revelation of how long the operation had been planned and how the country’s leadership was deliberately left in the dark.” So Gates approached White House national-security adviser Tom Donilon and told him, “I have a new strategic communications approach to recommend.” Donilon asked what it was. Gates then memorably replied, “Shut the f*ck up.”
As the ongoing saga over who President Obama will nominate to serve as his next secretary of defense continues, Gates’s advice is particularly relevant. Last week, Bloomberg reported that former senator Chuck Hagel had emerged as the “leading candidate” for the position, according to “two people familiar with the matter.” This set off a furious campaign against Hagel led by neoconservatives and the “pro-Israel” Right. He was called an “anti-Semite,” accused of being “out on the fringes,” described as an “isolationist” and much more.
Others have convincingly countered the substance of these baseless attacks. See, in particular, Robert Merry here at TNI and Robert Wright at the Atlantic, who also has a useful roundup of Hagel’s other defenders. But it’s also worth noting that this leaking practice has created a number of significant problems for the White House. As with Susan Rice a month ago, Obama has given the impression that Hagel is clearly his preferred pick for the position. Now, if he backs down, he will once again be seen as having abandoned a potential nominee under political pressure. It doesn’t matter that there are perfectly good reasons to prefer other candidates—for example, John Hamre or Michele Flournoy. As Peter Beinart writes at the Daily Beast, “Throw one high-profile foreign policy nominee to the wolves and you look ruthlessly pragmatic. Throw two in the space of a few weeks and you look like an administration that can be rolled.”
More importantly, floating Hagel’s name and then backing down on it will only serve to further circumscribe the range of “acceptable” dialogue in Washington on a number of critical foreign-policy issues. The best case for Hagel’s nomination is precisely that he holds some of the opinions that he is being assailed for by people like William Kristol. Namely, he questions the utility of a military strike on Iran. He doesn’t believe that “supporting” Israel requires following every position of the current Israeli government, even when they conflict with America’s own national interests. And he thinks the defense budget can be reduced responsibly. Americans should welcome the idea of these views being represented by their secretary of defense. But if Hagel is not nominated now, it will create the perception and the precedent that these views are unacceptable for any future cabinet-level position relating to national security.
Once again, Beinart sums it up well:
By leaking Hagel’s name but not defending him, the White House has, in other words, encouraged major “pro-Israel” groups to pick a fight they might otherwise have ducked. And if Obama backs down, it will leave the perception that those groups have more power over top foreign policy appointments than they actually do. That perception will create a new reality since any future administration considering a high-level foreign policy appointee who strays from the AIPAC line will remember the Hagel fiasco. And even more importantly, anyone who fancies themselves a future high-level foreign policy appointee will take even greater care to avoid independent thinking about the Middle East.
In short, if Obama does not intend to nominate Hagel, these leaks will have done some level of serious harm. Conversely, if he does intend to nominate Hagel, he should do it now so that the former senator can begin to defend himself and the administration can begin to make the case for him. In either case, the leaks have not served him well.
The pullquote for Tom Friedman’s column yesterday perhaps said it best, “Returning to the same-old, same-old.”
Friedman’s repetitive writing has hit an a new low with his column “Pussy Riot, Tupac and Putin.” What does the piece have to do with any of these three figures? Very little, it turns out. In fact, the column’s intent is difficult to glean.
With the organization of a seventh grade essay whose author is chatting online and popping Red Bull, the column spends the lede recounting an obscure Chekhov play titled Three Sisters. This is significant because apparently Putin brings out the “Three Sisters in [Friedman].” No word on what that might mean. Being deeply interested in Friedman’s inner workings though, we are intrigued. He continues, “Every time I come [to Moscow], I expect to find that, this time, Russia is really pivoting from being a petro-state, with a heavy authoritarian gloss…to a country that has decided to invest in education, innovation and its human capital.” I can definitively say this figures nowhere into the desires or dreams of anyone in Three Sisters. This author would recount Freidman’s whole sentence for effect, but it’s nearly seventy words long.
With this bungled comparison in mind, Friedman then decides it’s time to talk about why NATO expansion was a mistake. No contest, but this has what to do with Chekhov and Tupac Shakur? We’re halfway through the column now, and these threads show no sign of intertwining. An odd paragraph that feels like Friedman wants to sit down with everyone who cares about Russia and stage an intervention ensues: “Russia would be so much more influential as America’s partner than it would be as Iran or Syria’s patron,” he pleads. After all, Russia couldn’t possibly view this situation differently than we do.
Teleport to Vladislav Y. Surkov’s office. Are we in Three Sisters? Crime and Punishment? Unclear. It emerges that Surkov is Russia’s deputy prime minister for modernization. He has pictures of Google co-founder Sergery Brin, TV pioneer Vladimir Zworykin, and Tupac Shakur up on his wall. You can almost hear the music now: One of these things is not like the others… Friedman presses Surkov on the similarities between Tupac and Pussy Riot to which, Surkov, the only sane person in this column says, “Pussy Riot is no Tupac Shakur.”
Indeed, sir. Indeed. But Friedman can’t leave it alone, “Pussy Riot is probably no Tupac.” (Did Friedman listen to either before writing this column in his sleep at 3 a.m.? Even he is unsure.) “But the band members were iconoclasts who broke the mold, albeit in an offensive and obnoxious manner. Isn’t that what critics said about Steve Jobs?”
I’m imagining that NYT editors have taken a “let Friedman be Friedman” approach to these situations. I’ll have to add my befuddlement with this column to the list of questions other women have for Tom. After all, I’m sure he can tell me what I should think about it.
In this month’s issue of Commentary, John Agresto, a self-described neoconservative who served as an adviser to the Iraqi government just after the 2003 invasion, thoughtfully questions the idea that the United States should actively and forcefully spread democracy. He identifies the assumptions that lie beneath the idea:
We seemed convinced of two things: First, that democracy is the form of government under which all men are meant to live, and that democracy, unlike autocracy of any kind, is just in itself. Being just, it includes the very essence of ideas of freedom, equality, protection of rights, and toleration. Democracy is natural, democracy is how men achieve just political life and, most surely, democracy means freedom. Second, we constantly gave the impression that democratic government, being natural, is easy. Throw off the tyrant, overturn the ruling class, write a constitution, hold elections, and voila—Democracy.
Phrased this way, the tension at the heart of the word “neoconservative” is quite clear—neoconservative foreign policy is rooted in radical, not conservative, conceptions of social order, social change and human nature. Institutions emerge ex nihilo. Old traditions and old elites are destroyed without consequences. Societies achieve stability without much effort. These are the thoughts of a Robespierre or a Marx, not of a Burke. Agresto seems to realize this, charging that he and his comrades
betrayed an understanding that was alien to our own country’s democratic beginnings as well as removed from any reading of history, ancient or modern. To be seduced by the rising tide of democracy worldwide, one had to block from view the democratic election in Gaza, where a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of its sovereign neighbor won the day. . . . One might want to look at the democratic mobs in Libya executing all the blacks they capture, both men and women; or the mobs in Egypt burning Coptic churches.
The real question for democratization, says Agresto, is not “Don’t all men want to be free?” After all, “some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods” over freedom, like order, safety or religious purity. “The right question,” he states, is “Do you want your neighbors to be free?” When the citizens cannot answer this with something close to “yes,” democracy cannot flourish.
The essay is worth reading in its entirety—it also includes a thoughtful discussion of the influence of culture and religion on democratic values. Abe Greenwald’s response to all this merits examination on its own. Greenwald takes Agresto to task for an inadequate examination of the possibility of cultural changes that can foster democracy—as he points out,
If you had asked 18th-century Americans . . . "Do you want your neighbors to be free?"—most would certainly have failed to produce the right answer, at least as regarded their black, Indian, and female neighbors. . . . To have been true to liberal values upon the Founding would have been to preside over its dissolution.
This is certainly accurate, but it also presentist—it uses modern attitudes to judge the past. It is right to condemn the gross illiberalism of a society that denied the vote to women and freedom to slaves. But we cannot fully understand the past unless we examine it by its own values. That lets us see the tension in a state that declared its independence with a claim that all men are created equal, yet which treated some men unequally. This tension was immediately seized upon by various critics, and they would eventually widen our definition of "neighbors" to include many more Americans. The Nineteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act didn't create freedom in America—they expanded it.
Greenwald attributes the failure of the democracy drive in places like Iraq—whose elections “can only be interpreted as evidence of at least a capacity for liberalism”—to American irresolution, arguing that “where the United States keeps its commitments to liberalism, transformative miracles occur.” This language of the supernatural is appropriate for discussing Iraqi democratization, for only a true believer could look at such a deeply divided society and expect democracy to emerge. The 2010 election Greenwald trumpets came after years of sectarian bloodletting and the departure of fully half of Iraq’s Christians and four in five Mandaeans; many experts see an Iraq primed for another round of violence. Could ancient animosities and prejudices really have been buried by American commitment? If so, Israel and the Arab states should be at peace, for our government has been against their conflict long before it was against a divided Iraq.
Agresto is quite right. America can help countries become democracies, but only when the social, economic and ideological forces driving democratization are strong and internal. Our might can break militaries and hang dictators; it cannot create toleration or forge common bonds.
The recent reports that former senator Chuck Hagel is likely to be nominated as the next secretary of defense have caused a flurry of commentary from foreign-policy writers and analysts. Among the most brutal assessments comes from Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute. Interviewed by Kevin Baron, Rubin says:
I think his vision of foreign affairs and defense goes beyond naïve and actually is malign. . . . The man really does seem to be an isolationist.
What about Hagel could have prompted such an accusation? Rubin says that Hagel would abdicate “the idea of America being a power throughout the world.” But let’s take a look at what exactly this means in practice. The major criticisms made against Hagel have been that he might support shrinking the defense budget (or at least limiting further increases), that he opposes a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and that he would be averse to future humanitarian interventions or nation-building efforts.
But presumably, even if Hagel were a dictator and could set America’s foreign and defense policies by himself, the United States would retain by far the largest military in the world, maintain a global network of alliances, trade and engage diplomatically across the world, and go to war if any of its core national interests were truly threatened.
In short, by any definition, it is ludicrous to call Hagel an isolationist. Simply put, hawks and neoconservatives have reduced the term “isolationist” to meaninglessness by applying it to anyone who doesn’t reflexively support using military force to solve every problem around the world. The fact is that, as TNI’s Jacob Heilbrunn suggests over at Foreign Policy, Hagel is comfortably within the old-school Republican realist tradition. Whether he is a terrible pick or a brilliant one, it’s wrong to pretend that he would represent an enormous shift from the foreign-policy mainstream in any significant way.
Over at Real Clear Politics, reporter Scott Conroy reviews some of the latest soul-searching within the Republican Party concerning the party’s future on foreign-policy issues. He quotes Danielle Pletka, who makes a somewhat remarkable statement (flagged by Daniel Larison):
The truth is that what matters much more in choosing a leader is that that person embraces a clear set of principles. And if they have a clear set of principles and a vision to go along with it, I’m not worried that they don’t know what the capital of Burkina Faso is. If they have no vision, no amount of knowledge is going to make up for it.
In response, Larison makes the crucial point:
Candidates that have “a clear set of principles and a vision to go along with it” but lack knowledge will tend to promote policies that are not tethered to reality. If a candidate has a “vision” and just a little knowledge, that can be the most dangerous of all, and the ambitions of his “vision” and his limited knowledge may be a very poor match. A more knowledgeable candidate that lacked a “vision” might not be ideal, but he’d definitely be preferable to his opposite number.
Larison gets this exactly right. Of course, Pletka is correct on the narrow point that we shouldn’t expect our presidential candidates to be experts on every area of the world. But while a “clear set of principles” and a “vision” are good things for a candidate to have, they’re certainly no substitute for at least a reasonable level of substantive knowledge on major international issues.
This is particularly relevant to the situation the Republican Party finds itself in now when it comes to foreign policy. Simply put, the party is still haunted by the legacy of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. The fact that the Bush administration launched that misguided war, along with the institutional GOP’s apparent inability to learn any real lessons from it, is probably the single greatest reason why the U.S. public still does not trust the GOP on foreign-policy issues. And the Iraq War was a textbook example of “vision” trumping expertise, with disastrous consequences. Indeed, in the lead-up to the war, some experts on Iraq and the region were actively banned from the war and postwar planning for ideological reasons. As Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state, later told Tom Ricks, “Anybody that knows anything” was removed from the planning groups.
Moreover, this attitude does not make for good politics either. Recall the scorn that was (rightfully) heaped upon Herman Cain after he declared during the GOP primaries that it was unimportant whether he knew who was the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.” The American people may not require that their president be the next George Kennan, but they also certainly don’t want him or her to be another Herman Cain.
In short, a party that downplays the importance of substantive knowledge is both unlikely to manage world affairs well and unlikely to be politically successful. The Republican Party still has a lot of serious thinking to do about what its “vision” is and what it stands for on foreign policy. But the work of restoring its reputation for managerial competence, which has been crippled since 2003, is equally serious.
With Italy's Mario Monti planning to resign as soon as his 2013 budget is approved, some motley majority of Italy's political parties will need to unite before the forthcoming elections, expected in February. Enter the omnipresent Silvio Berlusconi. Though Berlusconi is just gaining momentum, his return to Italian politics portends only bad things for the country's economic reforms and potential recovery. The New York Times explains:
Although Mr. Berlusconi’s party is running at only 18 percent in the polls, that is enough to give him considerable influence. He now positions himself as a pro-European but anti-austerity candidate, but other European leaders have learned not to take him or his ever-changing positions seriously. Yet if he attracts enough votes to make his party the largest center-right bloc in the next Parliament, he would be well placed to deny any government a majority, except on his destructive, self-serving terms.
One thing is certain. Angela Merkel will not be pleased.
Following a New York Times Magazine article about the challenges of conducting diplomacy while under security threat, the Times’ Bill Keller has expanded the conversation to similar tensions faced by journalists.
The death toll for journalists in dangerous situations is high—the Committee to Protect Journalists counts 956 since 1992. Keller notes that the Times is “running out of [meeting] rooms” to name after its fallen correspondents. Just like in diplomacy, a risk-averse culture has developed at some media outlets, leading to lower-quality coverage by reporters unable to move about freely and independently. Combined with newspapers’ shrinking revenues and “a wrongheaded belief that Americans don’t care that much about foreign news,” Keller sees a major shift in the media’s presence abroad—as of 2010,
Eighteen American newspapers and two entire newspaper chains had closed every one of their overseas bureaus. Other news outlets, including most TV networks, have downsized or abandoned full-time bureaus in favor of reporters or anchors who parachute in when there’s a crisis. They give us spurts of coverage when an Arab Spring breaks out or Hamas fires rockets into Israel, but much less of the ongoing attention that would equip us to see crises coming and understand them when they erupt.
This, says Keller, leads to mistakes as stories are written by reporters who aren’t even in the same country. Journalists for major publications writing from Cairo, Washington, and New York reported (as the U.S. government would) that the Benghazi consulate attack was carried out by a mob angered by the Muhammad video, only to be corrected later by journalists who were actually there.
A similar phenomenon occurred during the 2009 Iranian presidential-election protests. Thanks to better Internet and English skills, America heard more from the opposition than from others. This was a product of Iran’s postfeudal society, where class and political views are often entwined—the urbane upper and middle classes that had always loathed Ahmadinejad were also the ones learning English and tweeting. The result was an incredible torrent of anti-government coverage; the media at the time were concerned with sorting through it all, checking facts, and making sure everybody knew what a whole lot of tweets were tweeted. They did not seem aware—as anyone familiar with Iranian society should be—that the tweets were never going to be a cross-section of Iranian opinion. The result was an impression that the regime was being fought by the overwhelming majority of its people. The truth was far more complex.
More journalists on the ground—especially journalists with a deep familiarity with Iranian society—could have led to a fuller picture. However, the regime was heavily restricting Western journalists' access, and those with Iranian citizenship (even if they were dual citizens of Western countries) faced arrest and torture. The media didn't turn to Twitter because it was lazy (well, not entirely because it was lazy) but because many other options had been eliminated.
Keller is quite right that journalism needs to be wary of choosing safety over access, and his call for journalists on the scene—not staffers half a world away—to make final decisions about risk is sensible. But a fundamental question still remains: how can governments too repressive or badlands too unstable for safe access be covered accurately and comprehensively?
Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books, presents a convincing narrative suggesting that—to use a tired but apt cliché—Palestinians may have lost the last battle, but are winning the war:
[T]he price of war is higher for Israel than it was during Cast Lead [2008-09], and its room for manoeuvre more limited, because the Jewish state’s only real ally, the American government, has to maintain good relations with Egypt and other democratically elected Islamist governments. During the eight days of Pillar of Defence, Israel put on an impressive and deadly fireworks show, as it always does, lighting up the skies of Gaza and putting out menacing tweets straight from The Sopranos. But the killing of entire families and the destruction of government buildings and police stations, far from encouraging Palestinians to submit, will only fortify their resistance, something Israel might have learned by consulting the pages of recent Jewish history. The Palestinians understand that they are no longer facing Israel on their own: Israel, not Hamas, is the region’s pariah. The Arab world is changing, but Israel is not. Instead, it has retreated further behind Jabotinsky’s ‘iron wall’, deepening its hold on the Occupied Territories, thumbing its nose at a region that is at last acquiring a taste of its own power, exploding in spasms of high-tech violence that fail to conceal its lack of a political strategy to end the conflict. Iron Dome may shield Israel from Qassam rockets, but it won’t shield it from the future.
There is a danger in intimating that the Arab world is headed toward inexorable progress. But Shatz is right that the mainstreaming of Islamist politicians in places like Egypt brings new energy to Palestinian resistance.
Several technology monitoring services and The Washington Post are confirming that the Internet has been completely shut off in Syria since early afternoon today. While Assad's government is crying terrorist, all signs point to it following the Libyan and Egyptian models of a government-induced blackout to stifle communication among the opposition.
Perhaps the rebels' recent strategic victories are proving more troublesome to the Syrian autocracy than first thought.