Posts Tagged ‘George W. Bush’

The Populist Right Isn’t a Political Movement. (cont.)

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Thesis #1: There is a glaring discrepancy between:

  • the populist right’s rhetorical opposition to all domestic government action on the grounds that it is incompetent, ineffective, and a threat to liberty; and
  • the populist right’s support for apparently unlimited government power on national security and law enforcement matters on the grounds that it is highly competent, effective, and the defender of liberty.

(Initial post on the subject.)

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These contradictory views of the state have been a part of the populist right since its modern inception — you can see it in Barry Goldwater, in Ronald Reagan, in George W. Bush. In fact, despite the rhetorical agitprop that has accompanied every surge in the populist right, it is impossible to understand the inflows of energy into and out of it, or to understand how it has acted when entrusted with power, while taking seriously the anti-government views it constantly invokes.

Thesis #2: Populist right wing movements have not been historically anti-government despite their rhetoric; they have been anti-minority. They have supported the expansion of government power to check the threats from minorities and opposed the expansion of government power to benefit any minorities.

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Rather than opposing “government” as a whole, the populist right has gained its energy and support from opposing liberal government and especially from opposing liberal government support for the rights of individuals who are members of minority groups. They have also supported programs in which the government is seen to strongly take on the interests of individuals who are members of minority groups.

Given the rhetoric in recent days from Virgina Governor Bob McDonnell and the geographical concentration of the Republican Party and populist right in the Southern states that rebelled in the Civil War, it’s worth pointing out that that conflict was described by the Confederacy at the time, and by McDonnell today, in anti-government terms — as about “states’ rights” rather than slavery.

The populist right was decimated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency but finally began to become energized in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement as the South quickly flipped to the Republican Party; it further was energized by the feminist revolution and the rise of the counterculture in the late 1960s. Then Nixon became president and the populist right quieted down as he expanded government in every direction and the Supreme Court legalized abortion. After 2 terms of Republican rule, a liberal became president, was accused of being weak and not loving America enough, and the pro-life movement began to gather strength; and once again, the party of limited government and cheery jingoism  made a comeback with evangelical fervor. Ronald Reagan also expanded government, but reduced it’s role in helping minorities and the middle class, reduced regulations on corporations, and lowered the tax burden on everyone a little and the rich a lot. Once again, the populist right was quiet. The first Bush was never comfortable with the populist right and a splinter group broke away from his electoral coalition causing him to lose the 1992 election to a young, fresh-faced liberal. Once again, the populist right was called to arms with the militia and white supremacist movements thriving (encouraged by Ron Paul who saw them as a necessary evil). With welfare reform, budget surpluses, tax cuts for the middle class, and a humming economy, Clinton managed to quiet the populist right’s rage at government. But the right wing elites still despised the man, convinced he was somehow not a legitimate president. They fostered various conspiracy theories about his murder of Vince Foster, about drug running in Arizona, and about hundreds of women. Later, a second Bush was elected and once again trimmed regulations protecting consumers but expanded government involvement in security, in education, in helping the elderly further — but the populist right rallied to him as he invoked mythical Democrats endorsing therapy for terrorists and expanded the government’s powers to go after terrorists.

The populist right finally broke with Bush when he tried to push through immigration reform in 2006. Meanwhile, a massive investment bubble was growing under the hands-off policy of Bush and as it popped in the late summer and early fall of 2008, with the election looming, he oversaw the first steps of the cleanup of the mess — the infamous bailouts. The populist right (along with the populist left, the populist center, and most everyone) was angered and invigorated by this bailout. The populist right was further motivated by a personal animus towards Obama, as they were told that he wasn’t American in the way the rest of us were, that he was foreign, that he would “stand with the Muslims,” that he was sympathetic to terrorists.

After a brief lull after their defeat in the election, the populist right was once again galvanized by the health care debate and Obama’s treatment of suspected terrorist detainees. After some early talk of the health care bill as a secret conspiracy to give reparations to black Americans for slavery (it wasn’t) and controversy over covering illegal immigrants (it doesn’t), the attacks on the bill from the populist right centered on the idea that it was a government takeover of 1/6th of the American economy (it isn’t). Meanwhile, regarding the treatment of detainees, Obama has largely continued Bush’s policies with some attempts to… Yet despite this, the populist right has rallied to the idea that  Obama is engaged in various treasonous activities and of endangering American lives.

What you see is a Republican Party that exists to expand and use government to benefit large corporations, the military-industrial complex, the rich, and the elderly at the expense of everyone else. At the same time, the populist right loudly objects to the government being used to benefit anyone but them. “Them,” meaning the elderly, the rich, the white Southerners. Which is why Republicans and the populist right are in favor of Medicare — and against Obamacare. Which is why they don’t mind when people that they would never be mistaken for are held without trial, tortured, or killed — and it’s why they are so outraged when people they might be mistaken for are. Which is why they rally when a liberal is in charge and are calm when a Republican is.

The populist right has been inherently about opposition — and about cultural alienation. It is about ressentiment and anger at how the world is changing. It has indisputably been invigorated by racial tensions — from opposition to the Civil Rights Movement to absurd claims of “welfare queens driving Cadillacs” to the militia movement of the 1990s. It is about feeling shafted by the powers that be. It is a very white movement, with resentment being driven against government rights and benefits being given to different groups that are stereotypically associated with minority groups: Latinos (illegal immigrants), blacks (criminals and welfare queens), and Muslims/Arabs (terrorists).

Conclusion: Resentment of minority groups (broadly construed) makes sense of the populist right’s contradictory views on government in ways that opposition to the government cannot and explains its historical rises and falls.

N.B. I am not claiming all right wingers are racist. Or Republicans or conservatives. I am merely pointing out the fact that the populist right has historically been empowered during times of racial tensions and that it’s positions are coherent and do make sense if understood in these terms while they do not if one interprets these rises and falls from an ideology opposed to big government.

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Americans Want a Second Bush-Cheney Administration?

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Sometimes, I’m not sure when Andrew Sullivan means something literally and when he means something as a politically challenging debating point. I say this with the knowledge that the same can be said of me at times. When I tweeted the following, I was challenged to back up this “assertion”:

The Scott Brown Effect? DOW down almost 200 points since election of 41st Republican makes it harder for US to tackle fiscal matters.

I retreated eventually:

In all honesty, this Scott Brown thing was a reaction to the near-constant harping of people on the right about the “Obama effect” on the stock market. It was a way to gain a cheap political point in the short-term while planting the seed of doubt in the mind of those who actually thought Obama was the cause of the stock market drops last fall or today.

In other words, I was trying to win a debate point against those who decried Obama’s effect on the stock market. I wonder if Sullivan is doing something similar himself here:

From Day One, the GOP has had one strategy, utterly unrelated to the country’s interests, and utterly divorced from any responsibility for their own past: the destruction of any alternative to Bush-Cheney conservatism.

They believe that the policies of 2000 – 2008 are the right ones for the future…

It is the second sentence which seems more of a debate point meant to box your opponents in than a legitimate one – because as Sullivan has acknowledged before – the Bush administration’s views changed dramatically around 2004/2005. Which is why its not quite clear to me what one might describe as “the policies of 2000 – 2008.” With regards to national security and terrorism specifically – Bush took office nonchalant about terrorism, panicked after September 11, and then backed away from those panicked positions substantially while defending them as correct rhetorically.

This has been one of Sullivan’s main theses, and one which has profoundly shaped my views of both the Bush administration and the Obama administration in terms of national security policy. For while the Bush administration gradually scaled back the worst abuses, often due to court or rarely, Congressional, intervention, it never repudiated the precedents it set in the panic, precedents that if invoked would create an authoritarian executive. This is what bothered most of the liberals, what they feared. They saw in Bush’s immediate response an understandable panic, but in the precedents he set by refusing to repudiate the measures he took, the seeds of the destruction of our republic.

This is part of the reason Obama’s response has been significant – as he has attempted to gradually move the country to deal with terrorism rationally, in a nonpartisan fashion, and as a matter of law – to deal with it from a coherent strategic-legal framework rather than as the panicked, emergency, tough-seeming Bush policies. Obama has grasped the essential truth: What needs to happen – what is more essential than justice – is for our nation to come to a consensus on how we will deal with terrorism.

While Cheney, et al. attack Obama for abandoning the framework they created for the War on Terror (as they attempt to preemptively politicize the aftermath of the next attack), it is important to keep pointing out that Bush himself stopped using much of the Cheney framework by the time he left office. What we desperately need is for national security policy to become less polarized, less partisan. Mario Cuomo in the winter of 2007 foreshadowed this moment in history, as he called on Americans fed up with George W. Bush to seek:

Something wiser than our own quick personal impulses. Something sweeter than the taste of a political victory…

He called on Americans to instead turn to:

“Our Lady of the Law,” as she comes to us in our Constitution ─ the nation’s bedrock.

Because this is what many right wingers today reject as they defend – not the Bush administration as a whole – but this hard core Cheneyite view that Bush himself turned away from by the end of his time in office. They defend the panicked policies and fearful abandonment of American values as “tough” – asserting that it was this panicked response that “kept us safe” because they cannot quite bring themselves to acknowledge that no president can keep them safe.

What we so desperately need as a nation – if we are to maintain our power and not fritter away the rule of law and other strengths overreacting to terrorism – is to come to a national, bipartisan consensus on how to deal with terrorism. (We also need to come to a similar consensus on how to deal with our impending fiscal catastrophe – but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Andrew Sullivan sees the stakes – it is he who so often pushes me to confront them – to see that what we face is at its core “a crisis of civic virtue, a collapse of the good faith and serious, reasoned attention to problems.” To resolve this crisis, the ideologues and Cheneyites must be defeated; and they can only be defeated if we are able to take back control of the political conversation from the idiocrats.

Andrew Sullivan convinced me in his moving op-ed last year that the single individual most able to create this consensus is the man who so disgraced himself while in office: George W. Bush. Which is why I think it is a mistake to paint his administration’s policies with such a broad brush. We should condemn the Bush policies of 2001 – 2004, and embrace his gradual evolution to more nuanced positions. We must split those who supported Bush from those who supported Cheney in order to form a broader consensus; even if that distinction barely exists now – we must create it. From that barest of cracks is the beginning of a national consensus and the final marginalization of the Cheneyite view of executive power.

[Image by amarine88 licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Continued Failure of Right Wing Social Engineering

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

At some point it became part of the standard Republican playbook to criticize liberals for engaging in “social engineering.” Liberals – in this telling – see humans as perfectible creatures who just need the guidance of the a centralized state with scientific-minded engineers to become better. With proper planning and direction longstanding human problems could be taken care of and humankind would exist in a socialist utopia. This view was always a caricature – indeed an appropriation of a term created to describe the early efforts at deliberate manipulation of large populations through marketing and propaganda – from the Nazis to American corporations. But Republicans co-opted this term to describe the grand government projects taken on at the apex of mid-20th century liberalism, as in our hubris we sought to “engineer” enormous changes to the benefit of all society.

This story – this narrative framework – was influential because it struck a note of truth. Mid-2oth century American liberalism saw an exceedingly confident America which believed in the nearly limitless potential of American government action. After all, America – led by its government – had defeated a seemingly unstoppable enemy, pulled the nation and world out of a Great Depression, learned how to split atoms and create enormous destructive and productive power, finally begun to deal with the legacy of slavery, begun providing generous benefits to the elderly, and even sent a man to the moon. The declarations of American liberals of this time were bold and utopian. FDR declared that America must ensure that every individual in the world must have “freedom from want,” a sort of economic right. Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty! Richard Nixon (a realist in a liberal era) declared War on Cancer, War on Crime, and War on Drugs! Today this hopefulness seems painfully naive as we learned that every massive government “war” has had massive side-effects while not, as yet, achieving its desired result.

As confidence in government declined in the 1970s, the more thoughtful critics of this liberal tendency saw its core failing as hubris. They suggested a more modest approach in which government would act more as a gardener “cultivat[ing] a growth by providing the appropriate environment” rather than as some craftsman or engineer creating society anew through government coercion and radical changes.

But the Republicans who eventually took power on the wave of disgust, disappointment, resentment, and anger at liberalism’s excesses did not adopt this epistemologically modest approach. Reagan and his ilk replaced liberals’ confidence in the good government could do with the insistence that government was just getting in the way. Their conclusion was simple: Government wasn’t the solution to these problems – it was the problem! Rather than seeing the hubris of liberals as the problem, they thought liberals simply were certain about the wrong things. Their shorthand for this moral lesson was to accuse liberals of attempting “social engineering.” The solution was to cut taxes, to prune government, and to hold out the promise of slashing it eventually (to starve the beast.)

Politics though is about creating and shaping a society that we want to live in. It is less a matter of ideology and policy positions, and more about values. Right wingers saw that the problems they had identified as resulting from liberalism’s excesses did not cease as Republicans cut taxes and regulations and pulled the government back from involvement in the economy. Blaming liberal government action for upsetting the “natural” balance, right wingers yearned to shape society themselves in order to recreate what they had lost. They branded themselves as individualists even as they promoted the tyrannical, collectivist organizations commonly called corporations. From a complex web of ideological positions taken by the Republican Party to build their political coalition came a hodge-podge of goals which (though perhaps not cohering immediately) have solidified into an agenda of right wing social engineering. The Republicans began to use government to encourage the traditional nuclear family of a man, woman and 2 and 1/2 children; to promote and encourage a christianist lifestyle and increase the role and funding of religious institutions; to encouraged a particular brand of “rugged” individualism; and to aid the rise of American corporations at home and abroad.

The logical culmination of this new big government conservatism, this right wing social engineering, was the presidency of George W. Bush, as he increased the size of government mainly by outsourcing work and responsibilities to corporations, as he began 2 wars leading to 2 massive social engineering projects in the Middle East, as he allowed and encouraged government funding of faith-based charities, and most dramatically through his Ownership Society as he sought to transform America into a nation of homeowners with 401Ks and Health Care Savings Accounts instead of Social Security and Medicare and rentals. The right wing’s social engineering agenda extended past Bush though. The main right wing health care alternative adopted in some measure by Milton Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, and John McCain seeks to transform American society to make its citizens more individualistic. This alternative begins by eliminating tax credits for employer-sponsored health insurance and the encouragement of Health Savings Accounts and the evisceration of all regulations on the insurance industry (by allowing competition across state lines where most regulations exist thus creating a “race to the bottom” as states attempt to attract the health insurance industry.) It would culminate in the elimination of Medicare and Medicaid. Many on the right have also made clear their goal remains to obstruct any liberal attempt to solve the fiscal problem they have engineered to give them the opportunity to re-write the social contract.

Looking at current Republican agenda – you see a similar hubris to what they decried as liberals’ “social engineering” – as they seek to remake the entire health care sector and the economy.

Meanwhile, it is the Democrats who had adopted an epistemologically modest approach – of tinkering with our current system to try to save it rather than to provoke a crisis to remake society, tearing apart the social bargain between citizen and government.

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Real Fiscal Responsibility & Deficit Politics: Republicans

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

See Part 1: An Introduction here. Parts 3 and 4 discussing the Democratic approach and then lessons from this moment of “welfare scleroris/imperial overstretch” coming tomorrow and Friday.

Republicans have called themselves, and are once again trying to position themselves, as the party of fiscal responsibility. This is the pendulum swing of deficit politics in its second repetition – as Republicans run up massive deficits during their time in power and then attempt to pass off the blame for raising taxes or cutting programs onto the Democrats who succeed them in office.

The political challenge the Republicans face is intriguing. Their ideology holds the solution to the deficit is to shrink the size of the government. Yet the Republican base consists of corporate America, the military, and the elderly – the largest beneficiaries of current government spending. Given this, it’s not surprising that while in power Republicans have expanded rather than shrinking government. Bush expanded Medicare further than anyone since LBJ created it all while cutting taxes and engaging in two wars and allowing Congress to engorge itself with discretionary spending increases never before allowed. Bush was not an isolated example. Like his apparent role model, Ronald Reagan, he saw deficit spending as a way to win politically in the short term as you gave everyone what they wanted – and protected those interest groups who supported you – while in the long term the incredible irresponsibility would force government to shrink, and perhaps even discredit the idea of a competent or sustainable government program. In other words, deficits were the way to “starve the beast.”

Republicans did not jettison this approach along with Bush when they began to repudiate his legacy. John McCain – for all his talk of fiscal rectitude – offered more of the same in his campaign agenda. He proposed dramatic tax cuts without commensurate spending cuts (while masking this by proposing the elimination of pork barrel spending which represents a minuscule portion of the federal budget.) As an alternative to the stimulus, McCain and the Republicans attempted the same trick – attacking the plan for adding to the deficit with spending while proposing a plan that would add even more to the deficit through tax cuts (which the Congressional Budget Office determined was a less effective way to stimulate the economy.) For Republicans, increasing the deficit by cutting taxes is “fiscally responsible” – while increasing the deficit with spending is “generational theft.”

What’s tricky is how Republicans position themselves with regards to the looming fiscal crisis. The business conservatives who make up an influential portion of the Republican base tend to propose pragmatic but politically impossible solutions like cutting spending to the other core Republican constituencies – the elderly and the military, and sometimes, even the tax and other subsidies to big corporations. The other groups seem primarily concerned with ensuring that their own government dollars continuing to grow. The past two times a liberal has taken office following several terms of extreme fiscal irresponsibility by a Republican though, a semi-independent movement has sprung up, thus changing the political dynamics in the Republican party. This movement of citizens concerned about the size of government, of government debt, and especially of liberals being in charge of this government (which suddenly seems more intrusive now that it is in the control of those they don’t sympathize with) was incarnated in Ross Perot’s two presidential campaigns, the 1994 Republican Revolution, and today, the Tea Parties. In each instance, this movement has coalesced around an inchoate frustration with the way things are coupled with the remarkably fixed position of opposing everything the Democrats do, opposing tax increases, and supporting the reduction of the deficit. Though this logically must lead to cutting government programs, which programs will be cut always remains vague which works well enough until a Republican gets in power.

To balance and rally these constituencies while out of power – the anti-tax fiscal hawks, the elderly relying on government programs, the military reliant on government spending, and the corporations who profit from government favors – Republicans have adopted a framework whereby they condemn any new spending as “generational theft” while protecting the status quo. Within this framework, Republicans claim their protection of the status quo which is screwing over my generation is actually about protecting my generation. This language also comforts the elderly who don’t wish to see any reduction in their benefits. Under the Republican approach, the only elderly who will see a reduction in benefits under the Republican plan are the eventual elderly of the younger generations – as the government programs they are now paying for cease.

The challenge Obama has given to the Republicans though is to propose a solution to the looming fiscal crisis through health care reform. Republicans have responded by claiming that the plans will add to the deficit (contrary to the Congressional Budget Office) while at the same time they have been attacking any measures in the plan which might actually cut costs. For example, Senator Coburn has said, “If you’re a senior and you’re on Medicare, you better be afraid of this bill” – which is a difficult position to maintain while at the same time holding that any deficit spending today is “generational theft.” But it is of course, the only political answer they have.

The Republicans – for short term political expediency – are creating an interesting political dynamic (and an impossible situation for the country.) They are telling the elderly that any spending that adds to the deficit is stealing from their grandchildren and children – while telling them to be afraid of any cuts to the programs they like. Meanwhile, as they filibuster any attempts to alleviate the situation, they inculcate the belief among the younger generation that the government cannot do anything right – pointing to the approaching fiscal disaster as proof. The hope must be that if they are correct that this disaster cannot be averted, their obstruction of any attempt to avoid it will be forgiven, especially if the disaster itself discredits the government, thus bringing the younger generation ideologically closer to the Republican position.

Thus is the logic of deficit politics and starve-the-beast governance.

Reevaluating George W. Bush’s Legacy

Monday, September 21st, 2009

I think Ross Douthat gets something rather right in his column today – though I can’t quite endorse his thesis wholeheartedly. One glaring omission from Douthat’s analysis of the Bush presidency is the overall War on Terror – and especially the extraordinary legal measures Bush took in the aftermath of September 11, from instituting a policy of torture to various executive power grabs to the twin wars in the Middle East.

But what Douthat gets right is that Bush’s presidency was truly radical and ideological in the first term and caused significant damage to America’s power, both its base at home and in its influence abroad. And then, Bush spent most of his last term moderating these excesses and trying to undo the damage he had caused. In Douthat’s words:

America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.

Both fixes remain controversial. But for the moment, both look like the sort of disaster-averting interventions for which presidents get canonized. It’s just that in Bush’s case, the disasters he averted were created on his watch.

This capacity to turn around and change (always while avoiding manning up and taking the blame) is one of the core components of Bush’s presidency. But one must also look to the damage Bush did to our civil institutions in the name of the War on Terror; one must look to the effects of avoiding taking any serious action on climate change; one must look at the fiscal shape he left America in heading into a time when we needed greater government spending.

I once wrote a post defending George W. Bush’s legacy – arguing that he had been just bad enough to exacerbate our longstanding problems without escalating them beyond the point of no return – and that he had created a unique moment where the next president who I believed would be Obama would be able to take advantage of the situation. But given the the financial crisis and the continuing domestic polarization over War on Terror policies, I’m not sure how true this still is.

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Dana Perino’s Misleading Spin Regarding Matt Latimer

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

That’s how the media world works, unfortunately. But since I was there, I will try to do my part to stamp out myths before they gain traction.

Yesterday, I came across (from multiple sources) a piece in the new edition of GQ by a former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer – a kind of tell-all purporting to reveal what Bush really thought at the end of his term. (Beware: GQ has designed this piece to maximize page views, so it’s a pain to read, though overall worth it.)

The piece was interesting enough, though one could feel the editing of someone intent of keeping the material fresh and with the intent of enhancing the reputation of the author, so I wouldn’t classify it as inherently trustworthy. Latimer portrayed Bush as an almost comic figure – one who believed he had remade conservatism, who derided the “conservative movement,” who had excellent political instincts, who was willing to buck the crowd, and who governed and authorized statutes he had not quite understood. Overall, Latimer’s portrait represents a positive reappraisal of George W. Bush as a flawed but complex figure.

Dana Perino though will have none of it – and responds to the post with an extremely misleading post at NRO’s The Corner. For example, she makes a big deal of this as undermining Latimer’s account:

And I don’t think [Bush has] ever even said the word ‘keister.’ C’mon.

Yet the passage she’s referring is this one:

‘Wait till her fat keister is sitting at this desk,’ he once said (except he didn’t say ‘keister’).

She also writes:

For example, [Latimer] writes that President Bush didn’t know who Sarah Palin was.”

But in Latimer’s tale, he doesn’t claim this. Rather, he quotes President Bush as joking around after the announcement:

“I’m trying to remember if I’ve met her before. I’m sure I must have.” His eyes twinkled, then he asked, “What is she, the governor of Guam?”

I’m no defender of Matt Latimer – but also not a fan of dishonest spin.

Edit: I’ve emailed Ms. Perino as the obviousness of her misleading statements seems a bit too much to see if she is considering retracting them or has any other response.

Updated: Peter Robinson, also at The Corner also points out the two specific inaccuracies I mentioned. Perino them responded with a quasi-apology and seems to admit that she hadn’t actually read the piece. Her lack of knowledge though that did not stop her from smearing Latimer. But no surprise, she somehow ends up blaming the media coverage, though I would hope any old flack – let alone someone with her soapbox – would take the time to read something before attacking it in print.

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Explaining Obama’s “Double Standard” Regarding Iran and Honduras

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

A number of Obama’s critics have pointed out a disparity between Obama’s treatment of Iran on the one hand – and Israel and Honduras on the other.

In their view, Obama has refused to take a side in Iran even though he clearly should be on the side of the protesters if he values life, liberty, and the American way. In Israel, Obama has pressured the Israelis while giving free reign to the Palestinians who are really at fault. While in Honduras, Obama has clearly taken the side of the leftist friend of  Hugo Chavez who was removed from office with the endorsement of courts and Congress of Honduras as they sought to protect their democracy from the president’s power grab. In all of these cases, they claim, Obama has taken the side of anti-democratic forces – and only interfered with our “friends” – presumably because Obama is desperate for the approval of the European Union, which is in itself anti-democratic and leftist. This portrayal of Obama is based on their observation that in Iran Obama has reacted to major violations of the values he claims to hold with muted tones – but in Israel and Honduras he has reacted to minor violations with strident tones.

This caricature of Obama presumes he is acting in bad faith at all times, which is increasingly the sole item of agreement among the Republican opposition; and it attributes to Obama a nonsensical and inconsistent worldview. But you don’t have to be a right-winger to notice the sharp differences in tone between Obama’s cautious approach to Iran and his more aggressive approaches in Honduras and Israel.

David Rothkopf proposes one explanation – that frankly seems a bit too Beltway for me, but I’m sure is a factor in Obama’s change in tone between the Iranian coup d’etat and the Honduran one:

[A] reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one … regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today.

While I’m sure the law of prior incident played a role, it seems to me that there is a more basic explanation for this disparity – which likewise explains the difference between Obama’s approach towards Israel. The difference in how Obama dealt with these various crises comes from how Obama understands power in foreign relations. The President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie H. Gelb, in Power Rules, defines it:

Power is getting people or groups to do something they don’t want to do. It is about manipulating one’s own resources and position to pressure and coerce psychologically and politically….And American leaders would do well to learn, finally, that power shrinks when it is wielded poorly. Failed or open-ended wars diminish power. Threats unfulfilled diminish power. Mistakes and continual changing of course also diminish power.

Teddy Roosevelt understood this implicitly when he said:

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Alternatively, George W. Bush used grand language, made many threats:

From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush … wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.

What Bush did not seem to realize – and what right-wingers today still do not seem to realize – is that it weakens the United States to declare, “We are all Georgians!” as Russia invades Georgia and we do nothing – as happened under Bush. Yet the rhetoric is not the problem – as it actually strengthened America when John F. Kennedy declared, “We are all Berliners” and the Soviet Union, given the lengths Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had gone already to protect West Berlin, believed the young president was willing to protect Berlin at high cost. Many right-wingers have cited Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” as a model for what Obama should say to Iran. But what made Reagan’s exhortation more than mere empty rhetoric and bluster was the personal relationship he had with Gorbachev after years of meeting with him. And when Reagan made this statement, he was not demanding it – he was rather challenging Gorbachev to live by the values he claimed he held. Reading the actual speech this challenge is prefaced by an “if.” This is a very different proposal than what right-wingers want Obama to say: which is to endorse one side in an internal conflict and refuse to negotiate with this member of the “Axis of Evil.” Reagan on the other hand negotiated with the “Evil Empire” and stayed out of internal Soviet politics – realizing that the endorsement of an enemy could be toxic.

What Obama has shown in the past several weeks is an impatience with hollow rhetoric which presumes conflicts in other countries are really about us. The striking oratory he does use always seems to have a specific purpose – to reach out to Muslims angered by what they see as a war against them, for example – or to call on Europeans to send more troops to Afghanistan. Obama sees words in foreign policy as tools to be used rather than ways of expressing our feelings about other nations. Thus, despite his apparent feelings about Iran – and his great sympathy for the Green Wave – he does not feel the need to express this publicly if he does not see what it will accomplish. With many Iranians publicly saying they did not want Obama to take the side of the protesters publicly as it would undermine them (for example, here and here), he had little reason to do so.  So far he had not been willing to undermine his and America’s power by using puffery and empty threats on Iran just to please his domestic audience, despite pressure from the right-wing.

But Obama did speak more forcefully on Israel and Honduras. Why? Because in these two places he has significant leverage – and his words can have an impact. Also – in neither of these places was America regularly called “The Great Satan.” (Imagine if Ahmadinjad had endorsed Obama in our election. Would that have helped Obama?) With regards to these nations, Obama can say what America wants and put pressure on those in control there for it to happen as America supplies significant funds to both nations – and has diplomatic, economic, and military alliances.

Speaking about Iran, on the other hand, Obama can only offer wish lists – which he would not be able to pressure Iran to fulfill – and when Iran ignored him, America would look weaker.

I also believe there is another factor at work. I have already stated that I believe the Obama Doctrine – that will and is guiding his foreign policy – is a focus on creating and maintaining states of consent. One of the basic principles which is necessary to create a state of consent is Rule of Law; another is the freedom of people to peacefully protest and speak freely. Obama has limited himself to condemning those actions which have violated the principles underpinning a state of consent. Not having direct knowledge of the election results in Iran, he remained quiet – though the administration raised questions. When confronted with evidence of the violent suppression of peaceful protests and attacks on free speech, he condemned these in strong terms – though he still refused to take a side, saying the battle was internal. In the case of Honduras, the State Department had been working with opponents of President Zelaya as he took illegal and unconstitutional actions to see how Zelaya could be checked. This is why they knew so quickly that the coup d’etat was a clear violation of the Rule of Law. The American State Department had been working with the Honduran Congress and other leaders to determine what the constitutional steps would be to remove Zelaya. At the same time, the intervention of the military set a bad precedent, undermining ability of the people to consent to their government. As Der Spiegel explained:

Anyone who sees the coup as some sort of effort to rescue democracy must ask themselves what version of democracy involves removing the elected leader of a country from office while holding a pistol to their head.

Obama has here still neglected to side with either party – instead insisting both parties follow their commitments to the law of their land, which the military violated. The American position is that Zelaya should resume his place as rightful president – and impeachment or other proceedings could then occur, although the deal being negotiated instead merely ties his hands to prevent him from any further dictatorial actions (demonstrating that the military actually weakened their hand in dealing with Zelaya in overreacting.)

In each of these cases, Obama displays a common goal – to maintain and allow the space for states of consent – free from military or other violent forms of coercion.

What right-wingers are declaring inconsistency is one of results – not goals. The differences in responses can be quite clearly explained by looking at what leverage Obama had and by a consistent moral demand that the nations of the world govern by consent and not force.

[The above image is a product of the United States government.]

The Obama Doctrine

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

America has – since its inception – been a major influence on the world order, from the explosive idea of American democracy that reverbrated through Europe in the 18th century – to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points and FDR’s dismantling of the colonial empires and George W. Bush’s calls for elections to drain the swamps of tyranny. Since the 20th century, American presidents have been judged in a large part by how they affected the world order. Which is why today it is worth speculating what impact Barack Obama’s young presidency will have – and what vision of a world order Obama has already sought to articulate. I predict – and propose – that Obama’s vision will be of a world order grounded in the proposal that each nation must obtain the free consent of it’s people to govern. This idea is an interesting variation on the themes of American presidents since Woodrow Wilson, and indeed since America’s founding.

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, American presidents have had an outsize role on the world stage, especially in shaping the world order by laying out standards for the moral legitimacy of nations. The world order at the turn of the 19th century would be turned on it’s head by American interventions. At that point, colonialism was accepted; the right of a people to govern themselves was not; and most rules related to international warfare – from standards for treating prisoners to a respect for the sovreignty of nations (or at least European ones). But this system broke down and conflagration that followed was only ended with timely American intervention. Woodrow Wilson used this intervention as leverage to explain how the world order should change – and his vision of a world at peace captured a weary Europe. At the core of Wilson’s Fourteen Points was an amendment to the world order, as Wilson saw peace as contingent on granting peoples’ their right of self-determination:

We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve.

Wilson believed this goal – of democracy and therefore, peace – was best accomplished and maintained through treaties and a League of Nations. Of course, we all know that Wilson’s vision collapsed as he lay debilitated by a stroke and the Senate refused to ratify the treaty he had fought for. The next three presidents had a less expansive view of the American role in the world – and mainly ignored foreign policy matters.

Franklin Roosevelt focused on domestic matters as well as he sought to end the Great Depression at home. But as he positioned the country to enter World War II he framed the conflict as one of democracy against tyranny. And FDR saw the colonialism of Europe as another form of tyranny. Thus, as he, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin decided on the outline of a post-war world, FDR was able to secure the independence of many countries throughout the world from their colonial masters in Europe. At the same time, he bargained away Eastern Europe to the tyranny of Communism, convinced that the Soviet Union would take it anyway. FDR thus set in motion a new world order in which colonialism was no longer tolerated, but Communism was.1

This set up the Cold War as a battle of two competing attempts at changing the world order. Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK were less concerned about shaping the order of things than they were in securing advantages against the Soviet Union. What mattered more than how a regime acted or how it was legitmized was whose side it was on.  So, while all spoke highly of democracy – they were willing to accept all allies in their struggle against the Soviet Union - democratic or not. And they were willing to overthrow democratically elected governments if it fit their interests. Later, Richard Nixon, as a proponent of real politik, did not believe in the attempts to shape the world order with moral commandments, and thus he did not attempt to do so. But his significant contribution was to recruit China into the American-led world order (or at least ensure that it was not opposed to it) – thus paving the way for its gradual acclimation to the American-led order over the next decades.

When Jimmy Carter came into the White House, he attempted to redefine again what the world order saw as a legitimate government. Rather than focusing on the struggle against the Soviet Union, he attempted to set universal standards by which to judge both the American-led order and the Soviet order. He described this universal standard as “human rights”:

Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clearcut preference for these societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights. We do not seek to intimidate, but it is clear that a world which others can dominate with impunity would be inhospitable to decency and a threat to the well-being of all people.

With his  focus on human rights, Carter and more hawkish liberals such as Scoop Jackson attempted to point out the grave flaws of the Soviet system. This focus also explains why Carter championed the rights of Palestinians and pushed the Shah of Iran to allow greater freedoms to his citizens to protest his regime, leading in 1979 to his downfall.

Ronald Reagan used this foundation to call the Soviet Union the “evil empire” – though he abandoned the self-criticism that came with setting a universal standard. However, Reagan soon began to see the Soviet Union and the leaders he met with as more than the caricatures of evil he had railed against – and he sought to negotiate, to the consternation of many of his staff. Reagan believed that Communism was contrary to human nature – and that traditional forces – greed, laziness, religion – would be its downfall. Reagan’s genius was to combine in clear, forceful terms the human rights approach of Carter with the anti-tyranny framework of FDR – and to push the world to reject the Soviet world order as “evil.” Perhaps more importantly, he benefited from America’s dynamic economy and the Soviet Union’s dependence on oil revenues which, in sinking, sank the USSR.

George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – despite all the talk of a “New World Order” as the Soviet Union fell – only sought to enforce through diplomacy, sanctions, and when necessary military action, the previous conceptions of the world order. Bush condemned the crackdown at Tianamen on Carter-like human rights grounds and pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait as he violated the primary rule of the world order for the past century: do not invade another country. Bush and Clinton did begin to expand free trade as a component of the world order – and Clinton sought to create a consensus around amending the world order – creating delegitimizing exceptions beyond invading sovereign nations and the maltreatment of prisoners for terrorism, genocide, the development of weapons of mass destruction, and drug trafficking.

With September 11, though, George W. Bush felt compelled to shake up the world order – and instead of seeking mere amendments, he sought to change the basic ground upon which a regime was legitimized, recalling Woodrow Wilson’s demand and justification for self-determination.  As Bush declared in his second inaugural:

We have seen our vulnerability and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder, violence will gather and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.

But while Wilson had sought to use the leverage America had in the aftermath of the War to End All Wars, and FDR sought to use the leverage America in the aftermath of World War II, Bush seemed to believe the sheer rhetorical power of his words were enough. As Gregory Scoblete described it:

President Bush did speak out boldly against North Korea and Iran. And both made considerable gains in their nuclear capabilities. From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush … wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.

George W. Bush had radically declared that no nation was legitimate if it was not a democracy – and he declared that it was a vital national security interest for America to ensure that other nations were in fact democracies. This – if applied – would overturn the entire world order. Under this Bush Doctrine, America would become a revolutionary state exporting our values via force, invading for ideology, and fomenting revolution. It would mean that many of our allies were illegitimate governments. But these powerful words were undercut by apparent hypocrisy – as Bush, after insisting on elections, rejected those whose results came out contrary to his wishes – from Hamas in Palestine to Chavez in Venezuala At the same time, Bush was open to charges of hypocrisy as he had supported a coup against the democratically-elected Hugo Chavez – and as he rejected the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories. This freedom he sought to export to the world was also threatening to many – as majority-Muslim nations and their sharia law were seen to conflict with the Western model of freedom.

But the opportunity Bush left Obama was a significant one – by not being Bush, and by being a black man who had captured the imagination of America and much of the world, and most importantly, by coming into office after America’s radical actions had severely undermined the world order, Obama begins his presidency with a greater opportunity to re-shape the world order than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It remains to be seen what Obama will do with this opportunity – and if he will pursue the agenda that some in his campaign, including Samantha Power, believe is necessary – reinventing the international institutions maintaining the world order. So far, what Barack Obama has seemed to suggest is an amendment to Bush’s radical notion of democratic revolutions in his Cairo speech, as he referred not to “democracy” but to “consent”:

So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere…

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

America has re-defined its moral goals for the world over the past century: from self-determination, to freedom from tyranny, to freedom from Communism, to human rights, to the free market, to democracy, and now, with Obama, the consent of the governed.

  1. Mainly because he had no choice but to accept the powerful Soviet Union’s right to exist and have a sphere of influence. []

John McCain’s Hip-Shooting Onanism

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Joe Klein has had enough (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

McCain’s bleatings are either for domestic political consumption or self-satisfaction, a form of hip-shooting onanism that demonstrates why he would have been a foreign policy disaster had he been elected.

To put it as simply as possible, McCain – and his cohorts – are trying to score political points against the President in the midst of an international crisis. It is the sort of behavior that Republicans routinely call “unpatriotic” when Democrats are doing it. I would never question John McCain’s patriotism, no matter how misguided his sense of the country’s best interests sometimes seems. His behavior has nothing to do with love of country; it has everything to do with love of self…

The protesters admire our freedom, but…[they] consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran – a crude, unsophisticated demagogue…

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout “Allahu Akbar” in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program…

Klein’s exactly right on all counts. Except perhaps the “hip-shooting onanism” – that’s an image too far. For those unfamiliar with the biblical term, it refers to the story of Onan who was struck dead by God for “spilling his seed” on the ground. Onan was actually having sex with his dead brother’s wife at the time – but that was okay as his duty was to impregnate her. But he attempted to avoid impregnating her by “spilling his seed” – which wasn’t okay – and thus he was killed by God.
Despite the disturbing image, I can see why Klein found it hard to resist labelling McCain’s foreign policy views mastubatory. The compelling argument for the necessity of the President taking the side of the Iranian protestors is the same as the rationale for masturbation: It feels good, so do it.

Obama, meanwhile, has reiterated his position today:

This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose.

Obama realizes this is not about us – but about Iran. And though his comments equating Mousavi and Ahmadinejad may have gone too far, it is important to realize that we are not likely to see a Western-style democracy coming out of Iran. Many of the protesters in the street want more freedom – but they still support the nuclear program and political Islam and see the 1979 revolution as a positive event. But the rising up of the people helps to demonstrate why I believed – and still believe – “Iran and America are natural allies on most issues.” It’s why I find Les Gelb’s assertion that “Within ten years, Iran will be our closest ally in the region,” to be convincing despite our history of conflict over the past three decades.

Experimenting With National Security Policy

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

On September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was taken by surprise. Their immediate reactions are forgivable, if disheartening – the 7 1/2 minutes reading a book after being told “America is under attack;” the quick spreading of false information at the top levels as officials thought that the State Department had been attacked and that taxi cabs were planning on blowing themselves up in front of major Washington buildings; the order by Cheney to take out a civilian airliner, usurping the role of the president. President Bush and Condi Rice clearly panicked – as Rice has essentially admitted since leaving office:

Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after September 11th, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans. And I know a lot of people are second-guessing now, but let me tell you what the second-guessing that would really have hurt me – if the second-guessing had been about 3,000 more Americans dying because we didn’t do everything we could to protect them.

Karl Rove, seeing his dream of a realignment of the electorate threatened by the biggest terrorist attack in American history likewise panicked.

Cheney though was emboldened – his sense of purpose, his disdain for America’s delicate system of checks and balances, and his radicalism imbued Bush’s first term with a reactionary fervor. The War on Terror became synonymous with Cheney’s goal of creating an imperial presidency. At this point, in the aftermath of this devastating attack, Rove began to plan for ways to turn this glaring weakness into a strength; and Cheney attempted to change the American structure of government – believing that 9/11 would have been prevented if only the president had more power. Thus, Cheney began to systematically use this crisis to centralize more power in the White House – and to assert greater executive powers and to outright reject the powers of the legislative, judicial, and quasi-independent branches of government to check his or the president’s power. Laws were read in such a way as to maximally expand presidential power – with a statute declaring war on Al Qaeda secretly being understood to overturn decades of legislation, for example; vast areas of law were secretly held to be unconstitutional checks on the president’s power and were ignored. In so doing, Cheney began to fundamentally alter the American social bargain.

It wasn’t until far right-wingers from Office of Legal Counsel Director Jack Goldsmith, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General James Comey, and quite a few other top CIA, FBI, and Justice employees were about to resign that Bush finally realized how radical his administration had become. By Bush’s second term, he began to walk most of his more radical policies back – though refusing to admit any fault and maintaining his authority to do all of it.

Now that Bush is no longer in office, liberals, libertarians, progressives, and other Bush administration opponents had two basic conceptions of how to move forward and how to look at the radicalism of Bush’s first term and his assertions of executive power that he maintained until he left office. The first conception was well expressed by Tom Malinowski of the Human Rights Watch at a Congressional hearing on June 11, 2009:

We should stop experimenting. We should not build yet another untested structure on a foundation of failure. We should finally, at long last, bring to justice the men who killed thousands of people on September 11, and others who have committed or planned or aided the murder of Americans. And we should do it in a system that works.

On the other side, some who opposed the radical actions of Bush-Cheney still saw within September 11 something similar to what Cheney did – a unique threat to our way of life. What these individuals are forced to do is balance the threat of catastrophic terrorism with the desire to preserve our way of life. Rather than starting with the assumption that a stronger president with fewer checks on his or her power is the only way to prevent terrorism, these individuals believe we must experiment with our laws and institutions, to tinker with them, to achieve this right balance – all within the public realm and with the consent of the people, rather than in secret.

In an interview with a British paper, Philip Bobbitt, for example, makes the case for why we need to experiment with our national security policy – focusing specifically on the idea of stockpiling laws:

I think when you go to weapons of mass destruction you’re talking about just a completely different level of horror and disruption…We must come, as societies, to some understanding of what we’re facing, and in these times of tranquillity organise ourselves and debate about what we will do if a catastrophe should come to pass. We should stockpile laws for such an eventuality, just as we stockpile vaccines. Then I think we have an excellent chance of getting through these attacks with systems of consent in place. But if we don’t do that, if we say oh, get real, this isn’t another second world war, surely you’re exaggerating the threat, this couldn’t possibly threaten our society now! It hasn’t yet! And if you don’t use the democratic process to put laws in place now, then in a way you become the ally of the terrorists because when a truly terrible series of mass atrocities really does occur and you don’t have anything to fall back on, that’s when you get martial law, that’s when you get the system that’s in democratic collapse, and you become the source of terror yourself. No, Bin Ladin isn’t going to invade and occupy Westminster and put Mullah Omar in the House of Lords, he’s not going to take over. If Britain becomes a state of terror it will be because we did it to ourselves and we did it because we did not prepare when we had the time and the peace to do so by law and by consensual systems.The United States can do the same thing. If we are busy throwing away laws, the one steady craft we have to get through this, Washington will turn us into a state of terror, we’ll do it. We’ll embrace it enthusiastically…

We need to focus on making our society more resilient in the event of an attack, on spreading information regarding terrorism so that citizens can make informed choices (as was successful in preventing the fourth attack on September 11). The laws regarding continuity of government – from my understanding – are incomplete Cold War relics. We need to take the threat of terrorism from the realm of fear and bring into the realm of rational thought. Obama, as president, is uniquely positioned to do this.

It seems to me that Malinowski’s approach – while understandable – is misguided. In a changing world,  our government must adapt, must experiment. And the threat from catastrophic terrorism – the threat inherent in a globalized world, with technology increasing the power of individuals exponentially – is real. It must change the calculus, the balancing test. We need to experiment with our national security policies – and get away from the Culture War politics that thanks to Rove and Cheney have come to dominate this arena. The Rule of Law and our way of life is better protected if we reflectively plan for an emergency now rather than overreacting in fear in the moment.