Go Away, Tea Party

Paul Pillar

It is irresponsible to help create a mess and then to walk away and expect someone else to clean it up. That's true whether the mess is a spill in the kitchen or something comparably sticky, smelly or hazardous in deliberations in Congress. Multiple press reports observe that this is what the political tantrum known as the Tea Party has been doing. We haven't heard much from the Tea Partiers recently because they opted out of participation in the fiscal cliff drama as the rest of the country counted down the time remaining until the New Year's, and budgetary, ball drops.

In this latest phase in the tantrum, Tea Partiers unhappy that the political game has not gone entirely their way (with the outcome of the presidential election being, of course, their principal setback) have decided to take their own ball and bat and go home. As a South Carolina Tea Party activist put it, “Why in the world would I want to get involved in the games they [i.e., members of Congress] are playing? I have other things to spend my energy on besides lost causes.” Some of the causes which Tea Partiers evidently do not think are lost and to which they now are devoting energy include “nullification” by states of the Affordable Care Act, exposing corruption in Florida election boards that they believe illicitly handed the state to Obama, and opposition to a United Nations resolution on sustainable development that they contend is a threat to property rights.

Tea Partiers are providing some of their own drama with disarray and dissension within their own movement. The Washington-based Tea Party group FreedomWorks experienced an attempt by its chairman Richard Armey, accompanied by a gun-slinging aide, to purge his opponents within the organization, a few days before Armey himself was ousted in a counter-coup. Meanwhile, polls show public support for the Tea Party has dropped significantly from its heyday around the 2010 election.

This certainly does not mean—unfortunately—that we have heard the last of the Tea Party. But the more that this tantrum subsides or fades out of view, the better off the republic will be. Republicans, and more broadly those who believe in a healthy two-party system, ought to be especially hopeful that it will fade out of view. Tea Party activism during the primary season probably cost Republicans a couple of Senate seats. It also has cost the Republican Party the services in public office of some of its most distinguished thinkers, including Richard Lugar, a victim of one of those primary fights, and Jon Huntsman, who was the most sensible person on the stage in those primary debates but never seemed to have a chance to win his party's nomination.

The biggest damage the Tea Party has inflicted has been the less measurable but still major boost it has given to intolerance and inflexibility, with everything that implies regarding dysfunction in the American political system. It has been poison to any spirit of compromise and to the normal give-and-take of politics in a democracy. In this regard it is remarkable how, among all the attention to the details of the fiscal cliff negotiations such as where to set tax brackets and how to define inflation adjustments, so little has been said about how we got confronted with the cliff in the first place. To refresh our memories: sequestration and the other fiscal changes that define the cliff were devised as a threat to concentrate minds on the Congressional super-committee that was charged with reaching, but failed to achieve, a fiscal and budgetary grand bargain. The super-committee was in turn a device for getting out of the impasse created when one side of the aisle resorted to extortion by threatening to force a default on the national debt if that side did not get its way. The extortion was a marked departure from the normal way of conducting the people's political business, which is to try to enact one's preferred policies by winning support and winning votes for one's point of view, rather than by threatening to inflict harm on the country. Since then, the inflexibility and resistance to compromise have been, as Ezra Klein reminds us in reviewing the bidding of the last couple of years, far more on the side that did the initial extortion than on the other side.

The Tea Party cannot be blamed for all of this, of course. Roots of inflexibility such as no-tax-increase obsessions and related starve-the-beast notions have been around before there even was a Tea Party movement. Nor is it only Tea Partiers who today kvetch endlessly about the deficit but not long ago did not say a peep about it when the unprecedented combination of a very expensive war of choice and simultaneous tax cuts turned—surprise, surprise—what had been a budgetary surplus into a ballooning deficit. But the influence of the Tea Party has unquestionably made this whole sorry story substantially worse than it otherwise would have been. The very irresponsibility that the movement is exhibiting today, in walking away from the mess it did so much to help create, testifies to its character.

However much reasonable men and women may disagree about tax codes or the size of government, what is even more important to the health of a society such as America's are the give-and-take habits and attitudes that are necessary for a liberal representative democracy to function. Those habits and attitudes are ultimately what keep the United States from being an Iraq or a Syria. The Tea Partiers never seem to have understood that. We should all hope that they will consign themselves permanently to a safe-to-ignore lunatic fringe that burns its energy pursuing wacky conspiracy theories about Florida election boards and the like.

TopicsCongressDemocracyDomestic PoliticsIdeologyPublic Opinion RegionsUnited States

Refighting the Falklands War

Jacob Heilbrunn

A good case could be made that Margaret Thatcher was the greatest Western leader of the 1980s and 1990s. Her star has been steadily rising in recent years, partly as a result of her prescient opposition to British participation in the Euro. She got it right as well when she pushed George H.W. Bush not to go "wobbly" in facing down Saddam Hussein. Now newly released documents from the British National Archives are further burnishing her reputation and reigniting an old controversy about the Reagan administration's stance before the war over the Falkland Islands.

In 1982, confronted with the invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Argentine junta, led by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, Thatcher dispatched the British Navy to rescue the islanders from the malign embrace of the Argentines. She wrote a cable to the old thug Galtieri that said,

“In a few days the British flag will be flying over Port Stanley. In a few days also your eyes and mine will be reading the casualty lists,” she wrote in a previously unseen telegram that was ultimately left unsent to the Argentine leader General Galtieri. “On my side, grief will be tempered by the knowledge that these men died for freedom, justice and the rule of law. And on your side? Only you can answer that question."

The biggest obstacle to freeing the islanders seems to have come from the United States. The British were and remain apoplectic about the conduct of the Reagan administration, particularly its ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who made no secret of her sympathies for the Argentine regimeit was a "right-wing," not a "left-wing" dictatorship, and so fell under the rubric of her famous distinction between the two, with the latter supposedly being impervious to reform or collapse, which meant that the capital of the free world couldn't be too choosy about the reactionary, anti-communist dictatorships it chose to back. Kirkpatrick's behavior comes under particular censure from the British ambassador to Washington. Sir Nicholas Henderson concluded that she and State Department official Thomas Enders played an untoward role in helping to persuade the Argentine generals that that they could get away with occupying the Falklands. According to Sir Nicholas,

"Comparing Kirkpatrick with Enders, it is difficult to improve on the apophthegm going the rounds of the State Department that whereas the latter is more fascist then fool, Kirkpatick is more fool than fascist," he wrote.

"She appears to be one of America's most reliable own-goal scorers: tactless, wrong-headed, ineffective and a dubious tribute to the academic profession to which she expresses her allegiance."

Strong words. But Henderson was vindicated. The Reagan administration came around and the British triumphed, a triumph that was greeted rapturously in Great Britain where it signaled that aggression wouldn't go unchallenged, that the empire could and would strike back decisively. Now the British newspapers are engaging in a new round of schadenfreude, chortling over Kirkpatrick's missteps back in 1982, when she was outmanuevered by more pragmatic Reagan administration officials who saw that American loyalty to a vital ally trumped any concerns over backing the Argentine government. In short order the military men were ousted and Argentine became democratic within a year. The Falklands war proved the undoing of the regime. Thatcher won a smashing victory over both the Argentine junta and her doubters in the Reagan administration. It was not Kirkpatrick's finest hour, and it is one that the British are only too glad to relive decades later.

TopicsHistory RegionsUnited States

They Oughta Do Something

Paul Pillar

A plebeian plaint one sometimes hears about annoyances in a local community—say, some chronic traffic trouble spot—is that “they” ought to correct the problem. The “they” presumably means someone in a position of governmental authority with the power to take action on the problem in question. Exactly who that someone is does not get specified, even though there might be different levels or branches of government to which that vague description might apply. There also is commonly a failure by those doing the complaining to consider what are the feasible options for doing something, the advantages and disadvantages of those options, and whether the properly empowered authorities have already properly considered the problem and what might be done about it and perhaps have concluded correctly that there isn't anything else that can be done without creating or exacerbating other problems. To complain without considering these other dimensions is a carefree sloughing off of responsibility to someone else—perhaps a someone else about whom one enjoys complaining anyway.

At the national and international level there is, of course, an abundance of problems which one might wish some omnipotent “they” could solve. Many of those problems get discussed here at the National Interest, and some of the best discussions fully consider what alternatives for trying to solve the problem at hand actually exist, and what the costs and benefits of each are. John Allen Gay, for example, appropriately takes to task authors from the self-styled Bipartisan Policy Center for complaining about what they assert would be costs of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon without addressing what the authors themselves pitch as the principal alternative: going to war against Iran. Gay, also appropriately, details many of the costly second- and third-order effects of that alternative.

Actually, Gay treats the BPC task force authors too gently, even if one overlooks the numbers-pulled-from-air quality of their analysis. The argument those authors make centers around the idea that an Iranian nuke would generate regional fears of war, which in turn would cause the price of oil to rise, which in turn would have various other ill economic effects. Think about that for a moment. The reason they say we shouldn't be afraid to go to war with Iran is that an alternative to war is costly because it raises the fear of war. Got that? It's sort of like committing suicide because of fear of death.

The equivalent to “they” in many complaints in American discourse about international affairs seems to mean whoever is the incumbent U.S. administration. And again, there is too often little or no addressing of the feasible alternatives, the advantages and disadvantages of any such alternatives, and whether alternatives have been considered already. Dov Zakheim offers a litany of things to be unhappy about in the Middle East and South Asia—he's right in identifying some nasty messes—and criticizes the Obama administration for not doing something about them. But what, exactly, is the administration supposed to do?

Zakheim's theme is that we need action, not words. But with two of the four internally turbulent places he mentions, Iraq and Egypt, he doesn't suggest any action at all other than more words. “Washington says not a thing,” he says, about Maliki's consolidation of authoritarian power and the continued potential (left over from a previous U.S. intervention) for more upsurges in violence in Iraq. And in Egypt, he says, “the administration still breathes hardly a word about Morsi's excesses.” We are left to wonder about the action-filled alternatives. Send U.S. troops back to Iraq? Engineer a military coup against Morsi? Just guessing.

On Syria, Zakheim does specify an alternative: provide arms to the opposition. He acknowledges that the purpose of fighting off Assad's army and supporters is something the opposition is accomplishing anyway without U.S.-provided arms, but says that without opening up an arms spigot “Washington can expect little by way of thanks from whoever comes to power in Damascus.” That disregards the substantial record demonstrating that gratitude in civil wars simply hasn't worked that way, as well as not mentioning a host of other questions about what effect opening the spigot would have on the duration and bloodiness of this civil war, the nature of the fractured Syrian opposition, and longer term prospects for stability in Syria. Finally on Afghanistan, there are some recommendations about accelerating U.S. troop withdrawals while negotiating a status of forces agreement to permit the indefinite presence of trainers, but it is hard to see any difference from what the administration is doing now.

Zakheim has on other occasions offered astute observations on many other topics, and we could profit from his analysis of some of these unaddressed questions. Maybe he was just trying to be concise.

Taking careful and complete account of alternative possible courses of action, including all the costs and risks involved, is not only important in understanding and dealing with any one foreign policy challenge. Failure to address those dimensions tends to perpetuate the harmful tendency to think of Washington as a kind of global city hall, where “they” are assumed to have the power to fix any problem without creating even greater problems for the United States in the process.

TopicsAutocracyCounterinsurgencyDemocracyForeign AidThe PresidencyPost-Conflict RegionsAfghanistanEgyptIraqUnited StatesSyria

Iran's Guns for Gaza

The Buzz

Lee Smith over at the Weekly Standard has written an excellent introduction to Iran’s efforts to supply Palestinian extremists with guns. It’s a roundabout route—by sea from Iran to Sudan, then by land through Egypt and the Sinai, then down the tunnels into Gaza. Iranian personnel are believed to be present for at least some of this process; the Israelis periodically attack.

A new, non-Iranian source has also emerged: Libya. Gaddafi’s vast stocks of weapons were a boon to the international black market in small arms; the Standard shows a photo of a masked terrorist holding a Belgian assault rifle (a photo drolly cited “courtesy of Hamas”). This highlights two of the key challenges of modern global security: first, how do you arm your allies (or any state, if your arms industry is to be treated as just another business) without adding to insecurity in the long run? As the New York Times’ C. J. Chivers once illustrated, weapons last a long time—sometimes longer than the governments that control them. Second, how do you respond to state breakdowns that threaten international security? With its small stock of chemical weapons, large stock of conventional weapons, and proximity to Europe, the collapsing Libya was a danger to its neighborhood. Yet the world’s response did little to address that, and the new Libya is hardly a state in the Westphalian sense; Smith’s article highlights the problems such shell-states can cause.

So why is the Islamic Republic arming Hamas? The most straightforward reason is that it limits Israel’s regional strength. During the November campaign against Hamas, Operation Pillar of Cloud, nobody was talking about bombing Iran. Israel was consumed with its immediate security. Long-range Iranian rockets amplified Hamas’ power, and forced the Israelis to devote energy to hunting them down. There’s a deterrent element here—Tehran wants the Israelis to worry that an operation against the nuclear program will lead not only to retaliation from Iran, but also to a rain of rockets from Gaza in the southwest and Hezbollah in the north. Israel would then be fighting on several fronts at once and potentially facing more internal dissent.

But there’s another, deeper reason for Iran’s arms shipments. A key part of Iran’s brand at home and abroad is being the most powerful advocate of “resistance”—rejection of Israel and of the West’s regional role. Resistance is a key raison d’être of the Islamic Revolution, and the Palestinian conflict is by far the hottest issue for supporters of resistance. Hence Iran has aligned itself with Palestinian hardliners and eagerly trumpeted its ties to them when they act. Every rocket that lands in Israel and every Palestinian casualty strengthens the resistance narrative that accommodating Israel has accomplished nothing, and that struggle is the only way. The analogy to Iran's troubled relations with the West is obvious. The dark secret behind the guns for Hamas and other extremists, then, is Iran has no interest in an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It wants the conflict—and the suffering of the Palestinian civilians it claims to support—to be endless.

TopicsArms ControlFailed StatesGrand StrategyIntelligenceRogue StatesTerrorismSecurity RegionsIsraelIranLibyaPalestinian territories

Have They No Decency?

Paul Pillar

I was born just early enough to have some faint but direct memories of the stain on American history that became known as McCarthyism. One recollection is of my parents watching on television in 1954 substantial portions of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which was the first Congressional inquiry to be nationally televised. Although I was too young to understand it at the time, those hearings marked the beginning of the end of Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting campaign of slander. Before the end of the year he would be formally censured by the U.S. Senate.

One important factor in stopping McCarthy's reputation-ruining rampage was the working of media in those early days of the television era. Media coverage of the 1954 hearings, which lasted several weeks and in which accusations and counter-accusations were made and confronted in concentrated form within a single hearing room, made it impossible to turn a blind eye to what McCarthyism was about. The gavel-to-gavel television coverage, bringing such a dramatic event into living rooms across the country for the first time, was especially influential.

Another important factor was the willingness of visible figures to call McCarthy to account and to shame him, clearly and directly. A key figure was Joseph Welch, the prominent lawyer who served as chief counsel for the U.S. Army at the hearings. When McCarthy attempted to apply his usual method of innuendo and guilt-by-association to a junior lawyer at Welch's firm, Welch labeled McCarthy's tactics as “reckless cruelty” and spoke the most eloquent and memorable line of the hearings:

You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

The stars do not always align today in a way that encourages a calling to account of latter-day equivalents of McCarthyism. The mass media are far more diffuse, with a million ways to impugn someone via the internet and with talk shows inflicting more of the impact of television and radio than live broadcasts of Congressional hearings.

Then there is the matter of the willingness of visible figures to speak up and to call a spade a spade—clearly and explicitly. The Israeli journalist, academic and businessman Bernard Avishai writes about the dearth of such willingness as it relates to the most prominent current instance of McCarthyite-style tactics: the defamation (often under the disguise of what Avishai calls “fake campaigns against defamation”) of those who dare to question Israeli policies or U.S. abetting of those policies. The defamation is practiced by an assortment of protagonists who claim to have Israeli interests at heart but instead are enforcing unquestioning support for policies of the right-wing Israeli government of the day, which is something different. Avishai, who is slightly younger than I am, also begins by noting the similarity of the current phenomenon to the original McCarthyism. Today's defamation includes the dragging up of whatever can be used to sink nominations as well as reputations. This process features, but is not limited to, reckless and unjustified charges of anti-Semitism. And like the original McCarthyism, the process relies not just on the direct defaming of selected targets but also on intimidation of many others who might otherwise question not only the Israeli and U.S. policies involved but also the intimidation process itself. Avishai's piece is an especially earnest and trenchant call for speaking out on this subject; I could quote at length from it but instead will just urge that the piece itself be read.

Avishai's occasion for writing is the tumult over the possible nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. As I and others have observed, this matter has gotten so much attention that how it is resolved will have a major effect in either boosting the new McCarthyism or setting it back. It is encouraging that many prominent figures have come to Hagel's defense. But the president still has not acted.

Even if the Hagel matter comes out well, that is not enough. There is still the need for prominent people to name and shame, directly and explicitly, the new McCarthyism practiced by groups and people claiming to be lovers of Israel—and to name and shame it not just with respect to any one nominee or any one issue.

When Joseph Welch shamed McCarthy, the gallery in the hearing room burst into applause. I believe many as-yet-passive observers will applaud if the same thing is done to the new McCarthyism.

Image: Flickr/DonkeyHotey.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsMediaPublic OpinionThe Presidency RegionsIsraelUnited States