Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

They Said It:

A small knowledge of human nature will convince us, that, with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is the governing principle; and that almost every man is more or less, under its influence. Motives of public virtue may for a time, or in particular instances, actuate men to the observance of a conduct purely disinterested; but they are not of themselves sufficient to produce persevering conformity to the refined dictates and obligations of social duty. Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it and we must in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed.

George Washington, “A Representation Made by the Commander-in-Chief to the Congress at the Army,” January 29, 1778.



On the off chance that you hadn’t noticed, the Middle East is on fire – literally and figuratively.  The Iranians are supporting rebels in Yemen with the hope of establishing a foothold from which to topple the House of Saud.  The Saudis, in response, have organized an Arab/Sunni army, essentially combining their wealth with Egyptian manpower, to remove the Shiite interlopers from the Arabian Peninsula.  Likewise, the Saudis now seem inclined to pursue their own nuclear weapons, intended to counter the nukes they presume the Iranians will soon have, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations currently taking place between Iran and the United States.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues to rape, murder, and pillage its way through Syria and Iraq, even as Iraqi government soldiers, with Iranian help, manage to retake plots of land once ceded to the new caliphate.  ISIS slaughters hundreds in Yemen.  Its affiliates slaughter dozens more in North Africa.  The Iranians deploy the Republican Guards throughout the region, hoping to increase opportunities to expand influence and power.  The Syrian regime of Bashar Assad continues to wage war – including chemical warfare – against rebels.  Egypt’s military government continues to fight against numerous enemies, internal and external.  And Libya continues to deteriorate into a failed state and a terrorist haven.

With one notable exception, the entire region is either at war or on the verge of war.  And this singular exception helps to explain why none of the American foreign policy schools of thought seems especially well prepared to deal with the preternaturally violent Middle East.

Of course, the Middle East’s problems are not especially new.  The violence there has been brewing and occasionally boiling over for more than a thousand years.  The expectation of lasting peace in this perpetually combative part of the world has always been a pipe dream.  And even in the decades since World War II, when the world has as a whole grown less violent and less dangerous, Middle East “peace” has remained elusive.  For years – decades, even – American policy toward the Middle East was dominated by “realism.”  But even as realism addressed some of the more serious global issues in other regions, it was unable to advance any semblance of peace in the Middle East.  Likewise, Human-Rights-based foreign policy and neoliberalism failed to dent the pathological psyche of the region, leaving intact the anger, frustration, and viciousness that would produce the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The response to the attacks of 9/11 took American policy in a different, bolder, more radical direction that proved, in the end, to be even less successful than its predecessors, setting the stage for an inevitable retreat from idealism and the current withdrawal into cynicism, selfishness, and the execution of personal crusades.  The last six years in particular have left the people and the nations of the Middle East in disarray, as the notions of trust, alliances, and national interest have all been turned on their heads.  The region is fully at war and there would appear to be no possible remedies that might address the fears of former allies or the predations of former enemies.  This war threatens to engulf the entire globe and to produce destruction and suffering not seen on this planet in more than seventy years.

Let us be blunt:  the current problems in the Middle East are of the Persians’ and the Arabs’ own making.  They were not caused by European colonialists or American neo-imperialists.  Period.  At the same time, however, the rush toward war and the explosion of violence has indeed been exacerbated by American foreign policy missteps, the most obvious of which was George W. Bush’s radical “democracy agenda” that dominated the decade after 9/11.  Unfortunately, Bush’s mistake has been exponentially compounded by his successor, and to date, no politician, political party, or policy adviser has offered any sort of plan to reverse the mistakes made in the last fourteen-plus years and thereby to help walk the Middle East back from imminent and perhaps catastrophically destructive war.

We don’t need to tell you that George W. Bush made a substantial break from tradition when he introduced the notion that it was in America’s interests to live in a world in which all nations are governed by democracies.  We called this notion “insane” in these pages at the time, and we were hardly alone.

Of course, we will never know if we were correct in our assessment because Barack Obama stopped Bush’s initiative in its tracks.  In the interests of fairness, we would have to admit though that while Bush’s approach to the Middle East in the wake of 9/11 proved to be less than perfect, there was something quite noble and perfectly in keeping with the Judeo-Christian tradition of natural law in his resolve to pre-empt global bad actors and to offer the oppressed people of the world an opportunity to participate in the great, God-given gift of self-determination.  If nothing else, the Bush Doctrine was based on the notion that all men are indeed created equal and thus entitled to the same rights; it was a calculated departure from the failed policies of the past, and it was unquestionably, if circuitously, guided by the pursuit of the national interest.

As it turns out, however, Bush’s personal utopianism seems to have encouraged Obama to adopt a similar strong personal element in his approach to foreign policy.  The problem in Obama’s case is that his vision does not fit well at all into any Western tradition and does not even have the benefit of being leavened by the Christian charity that motivated his Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter.  Instead, Obama’s foreign policy appears driven by his deeply held belief – commonplace on the postmodern Left – that any effort to protect and defend America’s immediate foreign interests are anathema to the greater interests of freedom and justice in the world at large and therefore harmful to America’s long-term interests.

We know we’re oversimplifying things more than just a little bit, but for our purposes today, we think that the responses to the failure of the Bush Doctrine can be divided into two broad camps, the “neo-neo-Realist” camp and the “Pseudo-Realist” camp.  The latter of these is defined principally by the Obama foreign policy, while the former is the contemporary Republican alternative, such as it is, to both Obama and Bush.  Each school of thought is woefully underdeveloped and woefully inadequate to the complexities of the global environment.  Moreover each suffers from a foundational prejudice that renders it unlikely to prove of much help in mending the post-Bush Middle East.

For many observers, particularly those on the Right, Barack Obama’s foreign policy doctrine has been and still remains a mystery.  He is aggressive at times, but achingly passive at others.  He is occasionally in favor of unilateral American intervention, belligerently opposed on other occasions.  He appears to have no formal policy positions and no formal adherence to any predominant school of thought.  Many people assume he is just “winging it.”  But he is not.

Obama’s foreign policy doctrine is, in some ways, the leftist alternative to the old “realism” that dominated American foreign policy throughout most of the 1960s and 1970s.  Realism, as you may know, is the school of thought that argues that leaders of nations must be political leaders first.  They can and should be concerned with morality and legalism, but they must recognize that their responsibility, first and foremost, is to their nation, which they advance through concern principally for national interest.  In layman’s terms, realists know that the world presents moral and legal challenges, but they choose to subordinate those challenges to the pursuit of power.  Hans Morgenthau, the godfather of modern realism, describes the school of thought as follows:

The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power.  This concept provides the link between reason trying to understand international politics and the facts to be understood.  It sets politics as an autonomous sphere of action and understanding apart from other spheres, such as economics (understood in terms of interest defined as wealth), ethics, aesthetics, or religion.  Without such a concept a theory of politics, international or domestic, would be altogether impossible, for without it we could not distinguish between political and nonpolitical facts, nor could we bring at least a measure of systematic order to the political sphere.

We assume that statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power, and the evidence of history bears that assumption out.  That assumption allows us to retrace and anticipate, as it were, the steps a statesman — past, present, or future — has taken or will take on the political scene.  We look over his shoulder when he writes his dispatches; we listen in on his conversation with other statesmen; we read and anticipate his very thoughts.  Thinking in terms of interest defined as power, we think as he does, and as disinterested observers we understand his thoughts and actions perhaps better than he, the actor on the political scene, does himself. . . .

Realism assumes that its key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid, but it does not endow that concept with a meaning that is fixed once and for all.  The idea of interest is indeed of the essence of politics and is unaffected by the circumstances of time and place.  Thucydides’ statement, born of the experiences of ancient Greece, that “identity of interests is the surest of bonds whether between states or individuals” was taken up in the nineteenth century by Lord Salisbury’s remark that “the only bond of union that endures” among nations is “the absence of all clashing interests.”  It was erected into a general principle of government by George Washington . . . .

Yet the kind of interest determining political action in a particular period of history depends upon the political and cultural context within which foreign policy is formulated.  The goals that might be pursued by nations in their foreign policy can run the whole gamut of objectives any nation has ever pursued or might possibly pursue. . . .

Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action.  It is also aware of the ineluctable tension between the moral command and the requirements of successful political action.  And it is unwilling to gloss over and obliterate that tension and thus to obfuscate both the moral and the political issue by making it appear as though the stark facts of politics were morally more satisfying than they actually are, and the moral law less exacting than it actually is.

Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place.  The individual may say for himself: “Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish),” but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care.  Both individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles, such as that of liberty.  Yet while the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival.  There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.  Realism, then, considers prudence – the weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions – to be the supreme virtue in politics.  Ethics in the abstract judges action by its conformity with the moral law; political ethics judges action by its political consequences.

Like traditional realism, Barack Obama’s foreign policy is cold, calculating, and based on power relationships.  It is unflinchingly unidealistic.  Last year, Fred Kaplan tried hard to make the case that Obama is, was, and ever shall be a realist.  He put his argument as follows:

More than five years into Obama’s presidency, the single word that best sums up his foreign policy is “realist” — in some cases, as one former adviser told me, “hard-nosed,” even “cold” realist.

Like all postwar presidents, Obama speaks in hallowed terms about America’s global mission.  But his actions reveal an aversion to missionary zeal.  He has ended the regime-changing wars he inherited, and done much to avoid new ones.  He rarely hectors foreign leaders about their internal affairs, at least in public.  He suffers no ideological hang-ups about negotiating with dreadful rulers or sworn enemies, such as Iran, for the sake of national-security interests.  To ease America’s way out of Afghanistan, he has cozied up to Central Asian autocrats and tolerated Pakistan’s duplicity.  With almost clinical detachment, he has reassessed U.S. relationships in East Asia, embracing authoritarian regimes in Myanmar and Vietnam to promote trade and check an expansive China. . . .

It’s curious that a president so previously inexperienced in foreign policy would emerge, so early in his term, with any worldview, much less a hard-nosed one.  Still more intriguing is how a man with a passion for righting domestic wrongs like racism and inequality can seem so cold-blooded in his dealings abroad.

Kaplan makes several good points, we think, but misses in his assessment on one matter.  All realists – from Machiavelli to Kissinger – have operated on the single defining premise that the actions taken by the sovereign, no matter how cold and calculating, are nevertheless justified, in that they promote the national interest.  Obama, by contrast, does not promote the national interest, but rather promotes neoliberal notions of global cooperation and global institutions, only without the neoliberal idealism.  Obama is cold and calculating, in short, but in pursuit of something other than the national interest, namely his own perception of global “justice.”

With respect to the Middle East, Obama’s cold, calculating approach is utilized in the service of righting past wrongs committed by Westerners and thereby bringing justice to those who have suffered over the many years of Western domination.  In practice, this has meant that he has been overly solicitous of the Iranians, whom he sees as the victims of American excess, and overly dismissive of the Israelis, whom he sees as both the benefactors of American prejudice and contributors to that prejudice as keystone members of Western Civilization.

We have neither the time nor, frankly, the energy to rehash last decade’s arguments over neo-conservatism, its origins, and its proponents.  It should suffice to say, however, that one of the standard criticisms of neo-conservatism, from its beginnings in the 1960s right up through today, is that it is a “Jewish” worldview, propagated by Jews, defended by Jews, and applied to foreign policy in pursuit not of American national interests, but of Israeli national interests.  From the beginning, many “paleo-conservatives” – including the likes of Pat Buchanan – have thought that both neo-conservatism and the intellectual movement from which it sprang, i.e. Straussianism, are little more than the means by which Jewish interests are advanced over “American” interests.

George W. Bush’s embrace of policies that would come to be called “neo-conservative,” brought the political Left into near perfect congruence with the political Far-Right, providing the Left with an enemy who could be demonized for promoting war, for usurping American power, and for perpetuating the unjust neocolonialism of the Western powers.

“Neoconservative” became an all-purpose pejorative to be used against the supporters of an activist, purportedly Israel-friendly foreign policy.  It also became an all-purpose explanation for the failures of said foreign policy.  Neo-conservatism was no longer just a conservative school of thought, but the source of all the world’s woes.  Suddenly, Country-Club scion George W. Bush was a neocon. Dick Cheney was a neocon.  Donald Rumsfeld was a neocon – he and Cheney despite being alumni of the Nixon administration, the least “neocon” Republican administration in the history of the nation.

In the old days, they would have been considered merely “hawks.” But that term carried with it the connotation that their opponents were “doves,” which wasn’t an especially attractive label in the post-9/11 political environment.  “Neocon” was a much better substitute.  It connoted “conspiracy,” “evil,” and, of course “Jews,” whose real loyalty, it was implied, was to Israel, not the United States.  As the inimitable Mark Steyn noted more than a decade ago, the Lefties became obsessed with then-deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and blamed him for fomenting war with Iraq for no other reason than he fit the stereotype of the Jewish war-monger they had created in the fever swamps of their imaginations.  “Wolfowitz is a demonic figure to the anti-war types,” Steyn wrote, “for little reason other than that his name begins with a big scary animal and ends Jewishly.”

In his retreat from the Bush Doctrine and the purported Bush “neo-conservatism,” Obama has made it clear that the old rules that once governed American Middle East policy no longer apply.  Anyone associated with Israel or any other American allies should consider themselves forewarned that Obama does not consider old alliance any longer to be valid.

To this end, he will do whatever he has to do to advance the national interests of a nation that represents an existential threat both to the United States and to Israel, namely Iran.  It does not matter to him than the Iranians are the largest state sponsor of terrorism on the planet and have been for decades.  It does not matter to him that the Iranian government has repeatedly promised to use nuclear weapons against Israel. It doesn’t matter to him that everyone else in the world, including the Arabs and the Europeans recognize that he is pursuing a policy that is folly and best and suicidal at worst.  It doesn’t matter to him that in order to do all of this, he must embrace both the anti-Semitism and the datedness of the “realist” fixation on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  It doesn’t matter to him that this, again, puts him at odds with nearly the entire globe.

Last week, as Obama’s negotiating partners, the Mad Mullahs of Iran, continued to expand their influence throughout the Middle East by inciting the takeover of Yemen by Shiite rebels, everyone in the region – from Jerusalem to Riyadh to Tehran – understood that the so-called “peace process” was entirely irrelevant.  The issues at present are the Iranian push for nuclear weapons, the Iranian push for regional hegemony, and the Iranian push to eliminate the influence of the one global power who has historically supported all of the nations in the region who stand in Iran’s way.  Iran is trying to neutralize the United States, and Barack Obama has been more than accommodating, given his indifference to anything that might benefit the American national interest.

In perhaps the most stunning report we have heard in the entirety of the Obama administration, NBC News’s Richard Engel reported last week that the Arab nations that had allied with one another to fight the Iranians and to retake Yemen for the Sunnis – Arab nations including traditional American allies like Egypt and especially Saudi Arabia – intentionally blindsided the American president with their military response, and not just because they find him incompetent.  To wit:

ENGEL (1:58): I know several people in the US military who were taken by surprise by this [action in Yemen].  Senior officials who would have been expected to know that there was going to be an operation in Yemen, they didn’t.  They were finding out about it almost in real time.

And they believe, and some US members of Congress believe, that the reason Saudi Arabia and other states didn’t tell the US that it was going to launch this war against Shi’ite backed, or Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, is because Saudi Arabia and other countries simply don’t trust the United States anymore, don’t trust this administration — think the administration is working to befriend Iran to try and make a deal in Switzerland, and therefore didn’t think that the intelligence frankly would be secure.

I think that is a situation that is quite troubling for US foreign policy, where traditional allies — like Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, like the United Arab Emirates — don’t know if the US is reliable at this stage to hold onto this information when it comes to Iran.

Also last week, we learned that the Obama administration recently declassified a 1987 report on Israel’s nuclear weapons, thereby undermining the Israelis’ decades-long policy of “strategic ambiguity” with respect to its nuclear capabilities.  What this means, then, is that the Obama foreign policy is, at long last, coming to a head.  All American allies – from the patently betrayed Israelis to the fearful and distrustful Saudis to the shocked and bewildered Europeans who oppose the concessions offered by Obama to Iran – have been made aware that the cold and calculating pseudo-realism of Obama is now fully functional, with traditional notions of national interest shunted aside in favor of Obamian justice.

All of this, of course, suggests that the world is in for a bumpy ride over the next nearly two years.

Unfortunately, we believe that the ride will not get any less bumpy even after Obama leaves.  To date, only one of the prospective Republican presidential nominees has articulated much of foreign policy system.  And that candidate – Senator Rand Paul – happens to share Obama’s belief that global interests are ill-served by the perpetuation of the American-Israeli alliance.  Paul has, to this end, repeatedly introduced legislation that would eliminate all American foreign aid to Israel, a proposal that is, according to Paul, in the Israelis’ best interests, whether they know it or not.

As for the more traditional conservative foreign policy minds, “realism” seems to be the most satisfactory response to the Bush and Obama catastrophes, although this “realism,” like Obama’s comes with a catch.

As you may know, last week, James Baker, the former Secretary of State, addressed the 5th Annual conference at “J Street,” a hard-Left anti-Zionist Jewish organization.  Baker, who is perhaps most famous as the architect of the Iraq surrender that President George W. Bush rejected before implementing “the surge” and as the guy who told W’s father to “F*ck the Jews,” was welcomed with open arms by the J Street crowd – for obvious reasons.  At The Daily Beast, Lloyd Green detailed the message Baker delivered:

Don’t expect James A. Baker 3d to be tapped for another stint at Foggy Bottom.  On Monday night, at J Street’s fifth annual conference, Baker lit into Benjamin Netanyahu and his newly elected, Likud-led government.  Never one to mince words, Baker told the crowd, ”Frankly, I have been disappointed with the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace — and I have been for some time . . . in the aftermath of Netanyahu’s recent election victory, the chance of a two-state solution seems even slimmer, given his reversal on the issue.”

Tart as that message might have been, the 84-year-old Baker had gone there before.  Baker, who served as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, as Ronald Reagan’s treasury secretary, and as White House chief of staff to both Presidents, had laid down a similar line in May 1989 to an earlier Likud prime minister. In a speech to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Baker told the folks in the room and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir to “lay aside once and for all the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel . . . reach out to Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights.”

Against this backdrop, Baker’s J Street Speech sounded like a stroll down memory lane, and it could have even been delivered by Denis McDonough, the Obama White House chief of staff — and indeed, it was.  Earlier on Monday, and also before J Street, McDonough warned Israel against annexing the West Bank, and similarly upbraided Netanyahu for being Netanyahu . . . .

J Street, Sunday talk shows, his own hagiography, and Jeb’s 2016 campaign are where it’s at for Baker.  He won’t be going back into government, but also don’t expect him to be ignored.  With Obama a lame duck anxious for bipartisan cover, it looks like Baker is having an unexpected encore.

Now, you will notice a few things about Baker, his speech, and the resemblances between his approach and that of others.

First, in the last paragraph, Green notes that “Jeb’s 2016 campaign” is one of the things that will occupy Baker’s time.  That’s a reference to the fact that Jim Baker is a foreign policy advisor to Jeb Bush.  This is, as far as we’re concerned, one of the principal arguments against a Jeb Bush presidency.  Sure, a guy like Jeb has dozens of advisors, but the fact that he would choose to enlist Baker’s help is nevertheless troubling.

And that’s because of the second thing you’ll notice about Baker’s speech, namely the fact that it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the current problems in the world or, more to the point, the current meltdown in the Middle East.  In addition to being an “Arabist,” which is a nice way of saying that he blames the Jews for their own problems, Baker is a dinosaur.  He believes in vital importance of issues, procedures, and “processes” that are utterly irrelevant.  He is hanging on to a worldview that was antiquated ten years ago and is completely and totally beyond ridiculous today.

It is telling, we think, that Green notes that this is not the first time that Baker has delivered a message like this to an Israeli Prime Minister.  Baker, apparently, has always resented the Jews who are looking out for the own national interest.  More to the point, Baker hasn’t bothered to change his views on the Middle East or its problems in at least 26 years – since he moment he upbraided Yitzchak Shamir.

Let us say it again in case you missed it before:  Di-no-saur.

There are only a small handful of people left in the world who believe what Jim Baker believes about the Middle East, and NONE of them are actually IN the Middle East.  There’s Baker, the paleocons, the J Streeters, and, of course, the Obama administration, which, you may have noticed, makes an appearance in the last interesting tidbit identified by Green.  Not only was Baker’s speech arrogant, trite, out-of-date, and woefully anti-Israel, it was also nearly identical to the speech given earlier in the day by Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff.  The Obama administration is on the same side of this question as Jim Baker.  And that is as unsurprising as it is disquieting.

Most professional election prognosticators still believe that Jeb Bush has the best chance of any Republican to win the nomination.  If this is true, and if he is indeed looking to Jim Baker for foreign policy advice, then the mess in the Middle East will not get any better anytime soon.  Voters’ choices in 2016 will come down to the brother of the guy who promoted democratization but who is advised by a neo-neo-realist Jew-hater on the one hand, and the official architect of the Obama foreign policy, his first Secretary of State, on the other.

None of this strikes us as especially promising.  Indeed, we’re bearish on the Middle East for the foreseeable future.  And if the combatants in that region do indeed acquire nuclear weapons, then we’ll be bearish on a great larger expanse than that.

Copyright 2015. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.