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Massachusetts Says No to 'Think Stuff'

The Buzz

Much has been written about the Massachusetts Senate race in the last few weeks, and E.J. Dionne Jr. made a worthy contribution in the Washington Post titled “Elizabeth Warren vs. Mr. Personality.” Given Warren’s position as a candidate in a heavily Democratic state, many are struggling to understand why Republican incumbent Scott Brown is even or beating her in most polls. Dionne attributes the success of baseball-loving un-elitist Brown to his downright likability and man-of-the-people attitude, perhaps captured best in his simple campaign slogan: “He’s for us.”

As Dick Flavin, “a veteran of the Massachusetts political wars” told Dionne, “A lot of people vote on how they feel about a candidate, not what they think about a candidate. And she’s doing the think stuff.” Brown’s success may seem less surprising when you consider that a seasoned political vet is calling analysis “the think stuff.” Tough knocks for Harvard professor Warren.

Dionne offers Warren some sage advice that he admits may be a little odd for a law professor: She can't out-personality him, so she has to link her political ideas to the voters’ feelings. Warren, a communicator so agile that an off-the-cuff remark about regulation went viral, needs to get voters emotionally involved in her policy recommendations.

Dionne is right, but perhaps could have taken his analysis a step further. On another level, what does this race say about us? Right now the Massachusetts Senate race suggests that being downright likable is a greater political asset than being able to express ideas persuasively. This author certainly hopes that’s not the case, but these days nothing seems out of the question.

TopicsPolitics

John McCain's Neocon Manifesto

Jacob Heilbrunn

It's no secret that John McCain, once a prominent realist, has steadily converted to neoconservatism over the past two decades. He is now the movement's most visible champion, which is to say that McCain has been at the forefront of championing almost every bad idea of the past decade, including serving as a cheerleader for the war in Iraq. Now McCain has issued a neocon manifesto for Mitt Romney in Foreign Policy. Whether Romney would agree with it in practice—as opposed to in his truculent rhetoric—is an open question. But McCain's article, which is measured in tone, demonstrates that he would like to see a reversion to the George W. Bush era, with Romney as the new Dubya—and perhaps himself as its Cheney, serving as defense secretary? If McCain's prescriptions were adopted, however, he would accelerate the very American decline he seeks to avert. In fact, the neocon approach to foreign affairs is what first began the erosion of American power and influence.

McCain, of course, does not see it that way. His argument can be boiled down to a simple argument: President Obama is personally culpable for everything that has gone wrong with America in recent years. In mismanaging the economy, he is sapping the ability of America to lead around the world. Add to that the projected cuts to defense spending, his failure to cater to allies, his eagerness to truckle to Vladimir Putin and—well, you get the idea.

It would be difficult to argue with McCain's assertion that American leadership is a good thing (though if you live in one of the countries that America periodically bombards you may have a slightly different view). McCain says,

We are now engaged in a great debate over whether America's core challenge is how to manage our own decline as a great power—or how to renew our capacity to carry on our proud tradition of world leadership. Ultimately, this is what's at stake in this election, and the stakes could not be higher.

This is not entirely persuasive. McCain is positing a false dichotomy. Instead of managing decline, as McCain puts it, the task may be put in a more positive light—how best to husband America's resources, to direct them where they should be directed rather than to squander them frivolously, as occurred in Vietnam and Iraq. America has never had limitless resources, and it is silly to pretend that it has been otherwise. It's also the case that simply throwing more money at the Pentagon, whose budget has soared precipitously, is not necessarily a recipe for winning influence.

There is a also difference between leading and hectoring. McCain's vision of American power and influence around the globe is so open-ended that it constitutes an invitation for hegemony, something that China is bound to reject. One thing that is missing in McCain's essay is that the Iraq War forms the origins of much of the current mess. The Bush administration expended trillions of dollars—with more to come in the form of payments to veterans over the next decades—trying to use Iraq as a demonstration shot for freedom in the rest of the Middle East.

Another flaw in McCain's analysis is that he exaggerates the Obama administration's passivity abroad. McCain suggests that Obama has alienated allies such as Israel. He writes,

This is the feeling in Israel and the Gulf, where the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is existential, but trust in America's willingness to address the problem has never been lower.

Really? Israel itself is experiencing a vigorous debate over whether it makes sense to bomb Iran—something that McCain does not demand that Obama accomplish, saying rather that there needs to be a realistic national-security threat. But it's difficult to discern how Obama could be much more accommodating to Israel, short of giving it carte blanche, which, I guess, is what would amount to a realistic threat for McCain. At the same time, McCain says that Obama is cozying up to America's adversaries:

This is the feeling across Central and Eastern Europe, where Vladimir Putin's Russia still casts a long shadow, but where many of our allies believe their national interests are being sacrificed by the administration's repeated, and largely unrequited, attempts to reset relations with Moscow.

This, too, is less than fully convincing. What "national interests" have been willfully cast aside by Obama? If McCain is referring to a missile-defense system, which is purportedly supposed to be aimed at Iran, then he is defending an expensive boondoggle.

But all of this is, more or less, window dressing for McCain's real cause, which is to urge American intervention in Syria. Once again, McCain paints a black-and-white picture of freedom versus tyranny, a contest in which American firepower can quickly and easily help the good guys win, as though it didn't have enough experience in the past with so-called freedom fighters such as Ahmad Chalabi, who turned out to be dubious figures at best. Here is McCain's cri de coeur:

In past struggles like Syria, when brave peoples fought for their liberation from enemies of the United States, we were fortunate to have presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, who recognized that it was in keeping with both our interests and our values to help the forces of freedom prevail. And they acted on that conviction. A Republican foreign policy would reclaim this proud tradition of U.S. leadership. It would, of course, accept that our interests require us to make tradeoffs at times, but wherever people struggle for human rights, no one should have any doubt whose side America is ultimately on. When people risk everything for their freedom, as they are doing in the Arab world today, our president should take their side—not just when it is safe and convenient for him, when they are on the verge of success, but when it really matters, when the fate of their cause hangs in the balance. And if Russia, China, or any other nation wishes to use the U.N. Security Council as moral cover for tyrants and war criminals, the United States should lead the effort to create multilateral action that is both principled and effective.

McCain, in short, has, to borrow from Talleyrand, learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Fifty Years of Paradigm Shifts

The Buzz

A half century ago, an obscure professor of the history of science did something rare in academic life: he wrote a scholarly monograph that had an enduring impact on both the academy and wider public discussions.

The initial evidence is in the sales figures. Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in August 1962, has over the years sold 1.4 million copies. That may not sound impressive to a blockbuster novelist or popular historian, but as John Naughton notes in The Observer, for "a cerebral work of this calibre, these are Harry Potter-scale numbers."

Naughton argues that while you may not have been among the purchasers of those million copies, your "thinking has almost certainly been influenced by his ideas." Ever heard the term "paradigm shift"? Kuhn coined it, and ever since then, it has become "probably the most used—and abused—term in contemporary discussions of organisational change and intellectual progress." Before Kuhn's Structure popularized it, even the word "paradigm" was mostly confined to use in linguistics. Now it passes through the lips of marketing experts, consultants, and all sorts of Powerpoint-wielding hordes.

Naughton argues that Kuhn's theory of theories nonetheless deserves recognition. Kuhn suggested that scientific progress wasn't really a long, linear march toward the truth, but rather, as Naughton puts it, "a set of alternating 'normal' and 'revolutionary' phases in which communities of specialists in particular fields are plunged into periods of turmoil, uncertainty and angst." Sometimes in these revolutionary phases, a new set of assumptions overturns old ones—Einstein's challenge to Newtonian physics, for example—and suddenly a paradigm shift occurs.

While Kuhn was focused on the natural sciences, others have pointed to paradigm shifts in the social sciences, which often in turn shape public policy. Hence it should be no surprise to readers of The National Interest, which recently released a special issue on the "Crisis of the Old Order," that U.S. foreign policy may be in one of these "periods of turmoil, uncertainly and angst." Something akin to a Kuhnian paradigm shift may be in the cards. Today's theorists can speculate. But only historians will have the final say.

TopicsHistoryIdeologyPhilosophy

Morsi Tackles Syria

Paul Pillar

For a second-choice candidate (the Muslim Brotherhood's original candidate in Egypt's presidential election was disqualified), Mohamed Morsi has been active and assertive since taking office. Most noteworthy was his successful engineering of the retirement of Egypt's most senior military officers and his reclaiming of some powers that the unelected Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had earlier taken away from the elected presidency. Now Morsi is spreading his wings in foreign policy with an initiative that aims to work with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to try to reduce the bloodshed in Syria.

This is just the sort of move that will generate significant heartburn among many in the United States (and even more in Israel). First, because Islamists, including anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood, get treated automatically with suspicion, and any assertiveness on their part is viewed with distrust. Second, because this particular initiative will be seen as undermining the isolation of Iran. And isolation of Iran has become even stronger dogma than suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood. That isolation long ago achieved the status of being treated as if it were an end in itself, with nary a thought given to whether isolation of Iran contributes anything to resolution of problems with Iran, rather than prolonging or even exacerbating those problems.

Actually, Morsi's initiative ought to be smiled upon. Its objective of reducing the accelerating bloodshed in Syria is a laudatory goal and one expressed by most other governments. The governments he is engaging are appropriate ones to engage on this problem because of their regional prominence and ability to bring influence to bear on the subject. One can look on this project as a good example, from the U.S. point of view, of what Leslie Gelb was talking about when recommending that the United States not try to solve every world problem itself but instead recognize that other states have problem-solving responsibilities too. The Syrian civil war is a thankless tar baby of a problem, and we ought to be pleased when someone else is willing to have a go at trying to do something about it. Morsi's prospects of success have to be rated as low, but it is hard to see any significant downside of even a failed attempt on his part.

Those who reflexively worry about any improvement in Egyptian-Iranian relations should note that even if such improvement were somehow contrary to U.S. interests—it isn't, and it could even represent a useful channel for the United States—Morsi is not rushing to bring about such improvement. He is not scheduled to have any bilateral meetings with the Iranians when he briefly visits Tehran for the nonaligned summit meeting this week. There evidently is no move afoot to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran, even though most other Arab countries have such relations. Morsi is not talking about Syria to improve relations with Iran; his government is talking with the Iranians to try to do something about Syria.

There are many ways in which players in the Middle East, acting out of their own interests, can do things that also are consistent with U.S. interests—as long as we do not try to impede such actions because of a rigid and artificial conception of who are good guys and who are bad guys in the region.

TopicsHumanitarian InterventionRogue States RegionsEgyptIranSyria

Ron Paul and the Tempest in Tampa

Jacob Heilbrunn

The action at the Republican convention in Tampa may not be Mitt Romney's coronation. Even as Hurricane Isaac barrels towards Florida, Ron Paul has been stealing Romney's thunder. The rise of what Ron Paul is calling the "liberty movement" is grabbing headlines, a phenomenon that should not be all that surprising since Paul is the most shrewd member of the colorful cast of characters who originally vied for the Republican nomination. Now he is preparing, or trying to prepare, the stage for a full-fledged Tea Party takeover of the GOP.

Romney has tried to liberate himself from the liberty movement by excluding Paul and his forces, as far as possible, from a prominent role at the convention. He's been largely successful. But Paul clearly isn't hesitant about going rogue, which is what he did on Sunday before his worshipful admirers. He thrives on taunting the GOP establishment. Unlike Romney, who has desperately been trying to appeal to the right, Paul actually believes in what he is promulgating. "The worst thing we could do is to be silent," he told a jubilant crowd at the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida. He isn't. Paul has been avidly spreading his doctrine--retreat from self-imposed obligations abroad and reining in the Federal Reserve. As Paul sees it, he won't have to come to the GOP. It will end up coming to him--"we'll be the tent."

Paul is the anti-neocon. While Utah Governor Jon Huntman expressed his reservations about the direction of the GOP more diplomatically, Paul has been scorching. Pull out of Afghanistan. Slash the defense department. Paul, unlike Romney and Paul Ryan, is utterly consistent about budget cutting. Where else but at a Paul rally, as Fox News observes, would an "Austrian school" economist get a rousing ovation? And where else would Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke be referred to as a "dictator, a traitor"? Paul himself declared that the "revolution" was unstoppable.

In the latest National Interest, Robert Merry and Zbigniew Brzezinski ponder the prospect of more turmoil being the prerequisite to create a consensus about tackling the national debt and job creation. But what Paul is proposing, I think, is much more radical, a revolution from below, not above. To many the excitable crowd at the six-hour rally will have overtones of an older and violent revolution that followed the American one--the French revolution of 1789. Paul is no Burkean. He embraces upheaval. But conservatism's true mission is supposed to be to conserve, which was the aim of William F. Buckley, Jr. and the older generation at the National Review (apart from William Rusher, one of the authors of the GOP's populist southern strategy, whose career is ably recounted in the new biography If Not Us, Who? by David B. Frisk). That is not Paul's aim. He doesn't simply want to upset the old order. He wants to topple it from the bottom up.

He may reserve more ire for heretics on the right than on the left. One thing seems clear: the 77-year-old Paul is not going away quietly. He is a tough old bird. And he has a successor in the form of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a more polished version of his father. Far from resembling a spent force, the Tea Party does not appear to be going away. Romney's mission will be to co-opt the excitement without drifting toward the lunatic fringe. His acceptance speech will go some ways towards demonstrating whether he's up to the job. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is preparing for 2016 even as Romney readies himself for a final, full-fledged assault on President Obama. If Romney fails, the GOP will most likely move further to the right, but before the party does it might well plunge into a civil war, divided between neocons, Tea Party followers, and a few remaining moderates.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

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