How do you feel about a foreign policy based on slogans and snark? How about one apparently developed from an entirely idiosyncratic view of how and when to express American military power that is dependent on one person’s less-than-objective view of his singular ability to bring peace on Earth and good will to all men? Perhaps you prefer one that relies completely and solely on closed fist and a sledgehammer, even when a scalpel and tweezers might be more effective?
You don't like any of them, do you? In a world of escalating threats, of both state sponsored and stateless terrorism, of barbarity on a shocking scale, car-bombs, beheadings, kidnapping, burnings, you might be wondering just what those folks we send to Washington might actually be doing on our behalf?
Not much, I’d say.
Part of this is because of a very uncomfortable truth. We don't really have a governing principle when it comes to foreign policy, except self-interest. The freedoms we enjoy are not universal. Most of the world’s population lives in dictatorship, sometimes of the right, sometimes of the left, and very often those dictatorships do not faint at the sight of blood. And neither do we, so long as we think we have a strategic interest in supporting the blood-lettor over the blood-lettee. That, we like to console ourselves with, is the burden of leadership—selective immunity to the suffering of others.
We have learned that history is unkind to those who seek to be top dog. Most of the rest of the world either opposes you outright, resents you, or thumbs their nose at you while happily letting you spill your blood and your treasure making their lives safer.
That is not a peculiarly American gripe. Great empires don’t survive as great. Sooner or later they overextend themselves—they mistake other people’s fights as their own or decide to reach for something beyond their grasp. If they are lucky, like the English, they become like grandma’s old club-chair—a little worn, a little decorous, but still comfy for an afternoon snooze. If they are unlucky, like the Romans, the Greeks, or the Turks, well, there’s plenty of sacking, looting, and pillaging ahead.
We are at a crossroads right now. 9/11 relit the match that Reagan helped put out—it gave those who desire perpetual military involvement on a global scale the excuse to advocate it for in all circumstances. But Iraq did exactly the opposite. By dragging us into an endless and pointless war under ginned up circumstances, it eroded respect for the government’s truthfulness. A significant majority of Americans think Iraq wasn’t worth it, or even justified.
This push and pull is far more difficult to resolve intellectually than the Cold War arguments, because then we were facing up against whole countries, as countries, who were determined to defeat us. Our strategy was dependent on brute force—we needed the biggest of everything to maintain the balance of power, including the certainty of mutual mass destruction. We knew the Russians and the Chinese (and their client states) were more than willing to risk lives, but we were also certain we understood they were not willing to take existential risk. So, the domestic arguments we had were over the size of the Communist threat, and how to deal with it, but the tools at our disposal—diplomacy combined with muscle, dealing principal to principal, were never in question. Rather, it was the ratio of the two that was debated, with the public preferring to err on the side of caution. This mood was beautifully tapped into in Reagan’s “Bear in the Woods” commercial during the 1984 campaign.
Move forward thirty years, and all of that seems quaint. Our attempts to fight states (Iraq and Afghanistan) have resulted in quagmires or worse. Wherever we break up the old order, brutal or not, it's as if we kicked an ant-heap, and all the sectarian anger spills out like lava, burning everything in its path. Instead of freedom, we have fostered chaos. The alphabet soup of ISIS and ISIL and the asymmetric threats of seemingly every other fringe group, every other lunatic with a gun or a bomb, are completely outside our experience. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the reasons why the neo-cons are so eager to fight the Russians in Ukraine is out of some sense of nostalgia, like former Wehrmacht soldiers getting together in beer halls singing the old tunes. They want a real live shooting war with a visible army.
Where does one find a country that presents both a danger and an opportunistic target? That would be Iran, who may (or may not) have an insatiable desire for nuclear weapons, and a regime that we think would use it—on our allies, and on us.
And how to deal with this threat? Not easy. Let me start by saying I don't know who is right here. Mr. Obama has an approach to Iran that emphasizes negotiation over military intervention. That is the way he approaches most things, and in many respects, while it lacks the frisson of a John McCain “Boots Everywhere” policy, it can be effective without excess loss of life—where the situation presents itself. I just don’t know whether the situation is actually presenting itself here, and the consequences of being wrong are potentially quite substantial. The Republicans disagree. They distrust negotiations, and prefer rapidly escalating measures that ultimately must be backed up with the threat, and even the actuality, of force.
Unfortunately, the debate over how to handle Iran, which should be analytical, contemplative, and deadly serious, has devolved into bad comic opera.
With the President having articulated a negotiations-first strategy, the Republicans have decided to counter with the heavy artillery, their Bibi-Gun. Bibi Netanyahu will make their case for a muscular approach to Iran in a speech to Congress. They expect he will do so effectively and persuasively, thoroughly rebutting the President’s approach so as to discredit it with the American people. Their mood traverses the spectrum from happy to positively gleeful.
I hate this idea. To start with, it is extraordinarily cheap politics for partisan gain. Second, and far worse, it will move the debate from the brain to a more glandular location.
The facts are not really in question. Speaker Boehner made a private invitation to Bibi to speak to a joint session. The invitation, and Bibi’s acceptance, was done without informing the White House, which is a significant breach of protocol. Both men have an agenda here, and it’s not really Iran. Bibi has elections coming up and wants to look strong—and he has a marked preference for Republicans. Boehner wants to score political points with his own caucus and hopes to embarrass Mr. Obama.
If we didn’t live in such supremely partisan times, someone with a brain in his head would have told these two, ostensibly very smart men, that what they were doing was profoundly stupid. The impact was the rough equivalent of throwing a stink-bomb into high-end garden party. A lot of very elegant guests don’t care for the bouquet. Vice President Biden will, regretfully, be unable to attend, and a lot of other Democratic electeds will suddenly find an overwhelming need to tend to constituent needs on that day. “Echo Chamber” may be more reality than either wanted. Back in Israel, Bibi is the subject of withering criticism for allowing his ego to take the place of good judgment, and a majority of Israelis think he shouldn’t speak. But, perversely, he may be saved in the election by the latest terrorist attack—a gift from extremists that makes the mind spin (and reminds you of what really we face in the region) and the perception that if Bibi doesn’t like Obama, Obama must really like Iran.
In the meantime, are we really debating the best approach to Iran—or any of the other dozens of threats that seem to emerge like buboes on a plague victim? Of course not, when we can stick it in Obama’s ear and all snigger like 12 year-old boys upon discovering Grandpa’s cache of Playboys.
Think about that for a moment. Are you really safer because of it? And then think about a line from a recent speech Marco Rubio made, "And yet there are people talking about boycotting the speech to protest, because their feelings are hurt. Because they’re upset about the way it went down. Because they don’t like the way it was scheduled, because it is disrespectful to the President."
Of course, he was directing it at Democrats, but if Senator Rubio wanted to show real leadership, Presidential leadership, he would nail it to every last door on Capitol Hill.
Someone has to be an adult about this. We all know the problem when children play with Bibi-guns. You could take an eye out.
February 17th, 2015
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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