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“The Follies Of Overreach”: The Limits Of American Power; Judging Obama’s Foreign Policy

When I was young, a mantra among progressives was that America had to stop operating as global policeman. Vietnam was the signal episode of arrogant and ultimately self-defeating American overreach. But there were plenty of other cases of the U.S. government doing the bidding of oil companies and banana barons, and blithely overthrowing left-democratic governments as well as outright communists (or driving nationalist reformers into the arms of communists.)

As the late Phil Ochs tauntingly sang, “We’re the cops of the world.” Or as Randy Newman mordantly put it, “Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.

At the same time, I viewed myself as sensible left. I was the guy at the Moratorium demonstrations of the late 1960s and early 1970s (actually covering them for Pacifica) hoping to make prudent withdrawal from Vietnam a majority cause, not the guy chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh.”) I liked Norman Thomas’s line: Don’t burn the flag, wash it.

Overthrowing elected leaders like Chile’s Allende, staging coups against Mossadegh in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala, blocking the elected presidency of Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic—those were outrages. Yet the basic containment of Soviet expansionism seemed necessary and smart policy to me.

As a lapsed political scientist, I agreed with the received wisdom that global anarchy and American isolationism led to 20th century war and chaos. I thought people who preached world government were naïve. I was, if you will, on the left wing of the realist camp. Yes to benign use of American power, no to marginal Cold War adventures and corporate-led foreign policy. Pick your battles and don’t assume unlimited power; give colonies their liberty but with very limited forays into “nation building.”

I understood that much of the pent-up rage in the global South was a delayed reaction to earlier Western imperialism, both political and economic. But I did not romanticize every Third World uprising.

Later, I thought Bill Clinton got it about right with his intervention in the former Yugoslavia, warm embrace of Mandela, diplomacy in Northern Ireland, realistic anti-terrorism policies, and relative restraint generally. I applauded Clinton’s Mid-East peace efforts, but thought both parties were far too indulgent of Israeli settlement-building on the West Bank.

Today, the legacy of the Cheney-Bush regime has underscored the folly of overreach. Every place where America intervened under the Cheney doctrine, we’ve left a worse mess than the one we attempted to fix.

In a sense, the Left has gotten its wish. Events have made crystal clear that America can’t intervene everywhere. It’s not even apparent that we can constructively intervene anywhere.

Challenges to global peace and stability are hydra-headed and localized, not the work of a central conspiracy. Not even Henry Kissinger could cut a deal with non-state militias, and there’s not much to negotiate with the ISIS caliphate.

Despite the partial culpability of Western excesses during the last century, it’s hard to argue that Jihadists are therefore the good guys and Yankee imperialists the bad guys. On the contrary, radical Islam is at war against the Enlightenment, not to mention the rights of religious others, women, and basic political democracy. (So, for that matter, are ultra-orthodox Zionism and ultra-fundamentalist Christianity.)

Despite its omissions, limitations, and the central role of dead white Europeans, I’m rather fond of the Enlightenment. Its basic ideals are worth defending.

Many Jihadists would surely use nuclear weapons if they could get them, making the events of 9/11 look like a mere prologue, and requiring U.S. global vigilance.

So, Left friends, be careful what you wish for. America’s power today is humbled—and the world is more of a cauldron than ever. Even for lefties inclined to “blame America first,” as the Right likes to put it, U.S. intervention is often a lesser evil.

So if you were Czar, as the old saying went, exactly what foreign policy would you venture?

Given the limited options, is Obama getting it mostly right? Or is he pursuing the correct policies but somehow projecting weakness (as he surely does with Republicans at home)?

Where does it make sense to exit the game, even if the vacuum is filled by true crazies and sectarian wars, as in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Where must we conclude that we have little constructive role to play despite humanitarian outrages, because of limited resources and leverage, as in Syria?

Where are truly vital interests at stake (Ukraine, and China?) and what’s the possible policy? Where is robust diplomacy a substitute for brute force?

How do we deal with the true menace of nuclear proliferation, when it’s no longer feasible to police the world?

I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Warren. I hope she runs for president. However, several progressive Democrats, not unreasonably, have lately said to me: But she has no foreign policy experience. Do we have any idea of her views, or whom she’d appoint? With the world in crisis, would people vote for someone like Warren solely on pocketbook issues?

Well, Cheney and Rumsfeld had plenty of foreign policy experience, and look what it got us. Obama had none whatever, but Kerry and Biden seem to be doing about as well as anyone could, given the terrible hand that history has dealt them. Clinton, if memory serves, had been governor of Arkansas, a state without a foreign policy.

Here is one more story from my youth. At my Oberlin graduation, in 1965, the Commencement speaker was Martin Luther King, Jr. The College trustees, perhaps to balance Dr. King, were also giving an honorary degree to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, architect of the Vietnam escalation.

One faction of students wanted to boycott or picket Commencement, but that would have insulted Dr. King. Moderate lefties like me proposed a compromise. If Rusk would meet with us and listen to our proposal, we would not stage a demonstration. The meeting was duly brokered. The few far lefties groused that the student leaders had sold them out.

At the meeting, we pitched the following proposition. Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost a nationalist. His real enemy was China. South Vietnam was corrupt, non-democratic, and in any case not viable as a state. Why not allow Ho’s National Liberation Front to take power, as America should have done when Ho won his anti-colonial war with France in 1954, and guarantee Vietnam’s neutrality in exchange for Vietnam’s non-intervention elsewhere?

Rusk smiled indulgently. What did we know? We were a bunch of kids.

As events turned out, we were better realists than Rusk. Today, half a century later, the communist government in Hanoi prizes trade deals with America, practices semi-capitalism, does not threaten its neighbors, and relies on the U.S. as a counterweight to China. We might have had roughly the same outcome in 1965, with 50,000 fewer American combat deaths.

But I digress. Here are two concluding thoughts.

First, despite far-left fantasies, American can’t simply exit the world stage. There are too many menaces that require our constructive engagement. But America’s room to operate is very limited.

Secondly, better to have a thoughtful and well-read progressive leader with limited foreign policy experience than an experienced right-wing zealot like Cheney, or even a misguided experienced moderate like Rusk.

 

By: Robert Kuttner, Co-Founder and Co-Editor, The American Prospect; The Huffington Post Blog, July 27, 2014

July 30, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Middle East, U. S. Military | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“They’re Both Opportunists”: Julian Assange Loves Rand Paul’s Playtime Politics And His “Very Principled Positions”

Julian Assange, who back when he roamed the earth freely used to do things like show up on the steps of St. Paul’s to protest the wrongs of capitalism, has now apparently placed his faith in the man who is arguably the capitalists’ single biggest lickspittle in Washington, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). In and of itself, this is only mildly interesting. But Assange’s admirers on the left are so seduced by his oppositionalist posture and his desire to stick it to the man (as long as the man is the government of the United States) that they seem willing to follow him off any cliff, maybe even the cliff of voting for Paul in 2016. It’s a jejune politics, and ultimately a politics of leisure. No one whose day-to-day life is materially affected by the question of who is in office has time for such silly games, and therefore, no one who purports to be in solidarity with those people should either.

In an interview over the weekend with Campus Reform, a conservative college students’ group and website, Assange offered up a range of choice thoughts, none more interesting than this one: “In relation to Rand Paul. I’m a big admirer of Ron Paul and Rand Paul for their very principled positions in the U.S. Congress on a number of issues. They have been the strongest supporters of the fight against the U.S. attack on WikiLeaks and on me in the U.S. Congress. Similarly, they have been the strongest opponents of drone warfare and extrajudicial killing.” And then this: “The libertarian aspect of the Republican Party is presently the only useful political voice really in the U.S. Congress. It will be the driver that shifts the United States around.”

Assange also praised Matt Drudge in the interview, saying Drudge “should be applauded for breaking a lot of that censorship” of the mainstream news media. Drudge, it should be recalled, didn’t break any “censorship” at all. Conspiracy theorists of left and right have always had trouble distinguishing between censorship and editorial judgment, and it was Newsweek’s judgment (long before current ownership, I note) in January 1998 that its Monica Lewinsky story wasn’t ready for print. Drudge simply “reported” on that fact—or rather was spoon-fed it by disgruntled internal sources. The Lewinsky story was getting around, and so it’s a near certainty that Newsweek, or someone, would have published it soon. But Assange elevates Drudge to hero status.

It’s true that the Pauls do take one principled position, their anti-war stance. That’s one more than some people, I guess. But they get way too much credit for it, and for their supposed “libertarian” posture. Rand Paul is not a libertarian at all. A true libertarian supports the rights of same-sex couples to marry and the right of women to make decisions about their bodies. Paul is against same-sex marriage to such an extent that he compared it with interspecies marriage earlier this summer. And he’s not merely anti-abortion rights; he’s thrown in with the “personhood” movement, which would essentially grant the rights of personhood to fertilized eggs and represents the extreme wing of the anti-abortion rights movement.

What does Assange make of these positions? And what does the Assange of the St. Paul’s anti-banking protest make of Paul’s strident free-marketeerism to the extent of insisting that businesses have the right to discriminate against black people if they want to? We’ll never know, I suspect. If ever compelled to address these points, he’ll probably say they’re side issues dredged up by people devoted to the status quo—a standard and boring “fight the power” line.

I should say I’ve never admired Assange. His is the kind of black-and-white, moral absolutist thinking about politics one should grow out of after graduate school. He put American and other lives at risk with some of his 2010 leaks of classified military material. Into the bargain he may have sexually assaulted two women—innocent until proven otherwise on that one, but nevertheless it hangs out there and is part of the reason he’s holed up in that Ecuadoran Embassy.

He’s a bad actor. But at least once upon a time he was a somewhat consistent bad actor. Now he’s just an opportunist, as much an opportunist as Paul himself. Here’s what “the libertarian aspect” of the GOP is going to bring to America in the thankfully unlikely event it is to succeed at the ballot box. First, taxes so low on the wealthy as to be nearly nonexistent (actually, in some ways the most interesting of Assange’s weekend remarks were those equating taxation with “violence,” which puts him in the company of nutcases like Alan Keyes). Second, the end of any kind of business regulation. Severe cuts to all programs for the poor. These are the only issues, after Paul’s anti-war stance, on which his libertarianism is consistent. It is interesting indeed to learn that Assange agrees.

That’s why these seemingly left-wing anti-establishment types should never be trusted. These are just playtime politics, luxuries for the leisure class. If you want a real left-winger, I say stick with Marx. At least he understood that politics is chiefly about economic relations. Anyone who doesn’t understand that is sending you down blind alleys, knows little about politics to begin with, and should be shunned by anyone who claims to be anywhere on the broad left side of the spectrum.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, August 19, 2013

August 20, 2013 Posted by | Politics, Rand Paul | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A False Equivalency: Don’t Blame ‘Both Sides’ For Debt Impasse

Washington has many lazy habits, and one of the worst is a reflexive tendency to see equivalence where none exists. Hence the nonsense, being peddled by politicians and commentators who should know better, that “both sides” are equally at fault in the deadlocked talks over the debt ceiling.

This is patently false. The truth is that Democrats have made clear they are open to a compromise deal on budget cuts and revenue increases. Republicans have made clear they are not.

Put another way, Democrats reacted to the “grand bargain” proposed by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner by squawking, complaining and highlighting elements they didn’t like. This is known throughout the world as the way to begin a process of negotiation.

Republicans, by contrast, answered with a definitive “no” and then covered their ears. Given the looming Aug. 2 deadline for default if the debt ceiling is not raised, the proper term for this approach is blackmail.

Yet the “both sides are to blame” narrative somehow gained currency after Boehner announced Saturday that House Republicans would not support any increase in revenue, period. A false equivalence was drawn between the absolute Republican rejection of “revenue-positive” tax reform and the less-than-absolute Democratic opposition to “benefit cuts” in Medicare and Social Security.

The bogus story line is that the radical right-wing base of the GOP and the radical left-wing base of the Democratic Party are equally to blame for sinking the deal.

Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that in the Obama-Boehner proposal, there would be roughly three dollars’ worth of budget cuts for every dollar of new revenue. Don’t pause to ask whether it makes sense to slash government spending when the economy is still sputtering out of the worst recession in decades. Instead, focus narrowly on the politics of the deal.

It is true that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi howled like a blindsided politician when she learned that entitlement programs were on the table. But her objections — and those of Democrats in general — are philosophical and tactical, not absolute.

Progressives understand that Medicare and Social Security are not sustainable on their current trajectories; in the long term, both must have their revenue and costs brought into balance. Pelosi’s position is that each program should be addressed with an eye toward sustainability — not as a part of a last-minute deal for a hike in the debt ceiling that covers us for two or three years.

It’s also true that Democrats believe they can win back a passel of House seats next year by highlighting the GOP plan to convert Medicare into a voucher program. They don’t want Republicans to be able to point and say, “See, the Democrats want to cut Medicare, too.”

There’s nothing in these Democratic objections, however, that couldn’t be creatively finessed. You can claim you haven’t actually “cut” a benefit, for example, if what you’ve done is restrained the rate at which its cost will grow. You can offset spending with new revenue, and you can do so in a way that gives low-income taxpayers a break. Democrats left the door open and these options could have been explored.

The story on the Republican side is entirely different. There are ways to finesse a “no new taxes” pledge, too. Instead of raising tax rates, you close loopholes in the name of reform; you add an enhancement here, a “user fee” there, and you can manage to get the revenue you need and still claim you haven’t voted to raise taxes.

But Republicans are taking the position that not a cent of new revenue can be raised, no matter the euphemism. Some Democrats, yes, are being scratchy and cantankerous. But Republicans are refusing to negotiate at all. That’s not the same thing.

I understand why President Obama, in his news conference Monday, chided “each side” for taking a “maximalist position.” For political and practical reasons, it’s advantageous for him to be seen as an honest broker.

Meanwhile, though, the clock ticks toward Aug. 2 and the possibility of a catastrophic default becomes more real. And no one should be confused about what the president confronts: On one side, grousing and grumbling. On the other, a brick wall.

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, July 11, 2011

July 12, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideology, Immigrants, Journalists, Lawmakers, Media, Middle Class, Politics, President Obama, Press, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

KSM Decision: Place The Blame Where Blame Is Due

Many in the media, and many more of President Obama’s detractors from the left, are hitting his administration pretty hard today for this reversal. The development is obviously disappointing, but if we’re assigning blame, let’s at least direct at those responsible.

In a major reversal, the Obama administration has decided to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for his role in the attacks of Sept. 11 before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and not in a civilian courtroom.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is expected to announce on Monday afternoon that Mr. Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the attacks, and four other accused conspirators will face charges before a panel of military officers, a law enforcement official said. The Justice Department has scheduled a press conference for 2 p.m. Eastern time.

Mr. Holder, who had wanted to prosecute Mr. Mohammed before a regular civilian court in New York City, changed his mind after Congress imposed a series of restrictions barring the transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the United States, making such a trial impossible for now, the official said.

Even that last sentence is awkward — the Attorney General “changed his mind” after Congress “imposed a series of restrictions”? That’s a bit like saying I changed my mind about getting up after I was tied to my chair.

Holder told reporters this afternoon that his original decision was still the right one, but blamed Congress for “tying our hands.”

He happens to be right. Even today, Holder wants to do the right thing, and so does President Obama. And yet, Gitmo is open today, and KSM will be subjected to a military commission in the near future, not because of an administration that backed down in the face of far-right whining, but because congressional Republicans orchestrated a massive, choreographed freak-out, and scared the bejesus out of congressional Democrats. Together, they limited the White House’s options to, in effect, not having any choice at all.

There’s plenty of room for criticism of the administration, but those slamming Obama for “breaking his word” on this are blaming the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

By: Steve Benen, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, April 4, 2011

April 4, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Democrats, DOJ, GITMO, GOP, Homeland Security, Justice Department, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Media, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joe Scarborough And The Straw Man Problem

Joe Scarborough has an op-ed in Politico premised entirely on the false premise that left-wingers who once “condemned [President Bush] as an immoral beast who killed women and children to get his bloody hands on Iraqi oil” have now “meekly went along” with President Obama’s Libya intervention.

Now, there are all kinds of things wrong with this argument. For one, there are some massive differences in the two cases. Scarborough describes the Libya intervention as an “invasion,” but that’s quite a stretch given that no ground troops are involved. Libya is a multilateral response to an imminent massacre, while Iraq was neither. Third, and worst of all, those who most fervently opposed the Iraq invasion — the blood for oil folks described by Scarborough — are all opposed to the Libya intervention. Has he not been following the debate on this?

The whole failure of Scarborough’s argument points to one of my professional hobbyhorses, which is the need for opinion journalists to quote the people they’re criticizing. It’s a really simple step, but it’s absolutely vital, one that allows your readers to see if the belief you’re attacking is actually held by anybody influential. If Scarborough decided to find some examples of lefties who were wildly denouncing Bush as a wanton murderer of civilians driven by a lust to steal Iraqi oil who also supported the Libya intervention, he’d have quickly discovered that there aren’t any, and that his whole argument is based on a false premise.

Indeed, at the end of his op-ed, Scarborough does cite one real life-example — Katrina Vanden Heuvel, who he calls “one of the few liberals to take a principled stand.” But she’s not the exception. She’s just the one actual case study he bothered to look at.

Now, calling people out by name is sort of rude, and the most prestigious outlets of opinion journalism tend to shy away from it. I believe New York Times columnists are actually instructed not to argue with each other in print, which leads to these weird “Tell Joe I won’t pass the salt until he apologizes” indirect debates. It’s probably no surprise that a chummy guy like Scarborough would only want to name liberals he praises, while leaving the targets of his criticism unnamed. But this is a habit of opinion journalism that leads to terrible, straw man arguments.

By: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, March 29, 2011

March 29, 2011 Posted by | Ideologues, Iraq, Libya, Middle East, Neo-Cons, Politics, Right Wing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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