The conservative columnist Michael Gerson concluded a piece in today’s Washington Post with “Is it possible, and morally permissible, for economic and foreign policy conservatives, and for Republicans motivated by their faith, to share a coalition with the advocates of an increasingly raw and repugnant nativism?”
It is a very good question, particularly as Gerson is applying it to the confounding rise of Donald Trump among Republican primary voters, but it might be better applied to the general electorate. How does anyone, conservative, moderate, or liberal, make common cause with the advocates of an increasingly raw and repugnant nativism in the Age of Terror?
Before we talk about internals, we have to talk about externals, and the obvious. Terrorism isn’t going to go away—better stated, murderous extremism that places little value on human life isn’t going away. It might be interdicted at times, or to use President Obama’s remarkably ill-timed pronouncement, it might be “contained” but it is not going to be eradicated. We in America may have an easier time of it than our European friends, primarily because of geography, but it will happen here, and it will happen more than once.
That is a horrible fact to contemplate—but it is reality. It will be true, regardless of whoever occupies the White House and who runs Congress. No ideology, no political party, and no person, is capable of affording us complete security. Pure nativism—keep everyone out—is a false promise of that. We could turn ourselves into the near-police state that Trump and a number of other Republicans desperately competing for attention seem to be advocating for—no emigrants, watch lists, surveillance of mosques, even internment, and we still will not be completely safe. Even eliminating every Constitutional safeguard would be no guarantee.
To an extent we are the victims of our own poor judgments on policy—bipartisan mistakes. Some of the Mujahedeen we armed in Afghanistan to fight the Russians are now Taliban. Our intervention in the Balkans and Somalia, even as we thought of it as largely humanitarian, placed us in the middle of sectarian wars that had been going on for generations. Putting the best face on our invasion of Iraq and our involvement in Syria, Algeria, and even Egypt still leaves us with destabilized nations in chaos—chaos in part caused by the elimination of detestable strongmen who did a fairly good job controlling their own countries through violence. The abscess of hatred has ruptured.
How do we deal with it? More years ago than I care to admit, a very smart man who wanted to encourage me to go into academia gave me a copy of Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 (1957). He told me if I wanted to really understand contemporary history, I had to begin by understanding how great nations interacted with each other, how they created problems and how they then resolved them through the application of power and negotiation at the highest level. I could start by learning about the Congress of Vienna, and watching how plenipotentiaries reassembled then world that Napoleon had so skillfully blown apart. The result of these negotiations might not necessarily be particularly fair, to the parties or even the citizens (in the ultimate settlement, roughly two dozen cities and regions were swapped among the great powers) but it would be seen as legitimate. A place, and a peace, restored.
That world of balance of power negotiations, with actors who can bind countries to a course of action, who can choose confrontation or compromise, is still here, and still needed. But it is no longer the one tool that can resolve most disputes. The terrorist who walks into a concert and sprays gunfire, or the group who takes over a hotel, isn’t sending a delegation in frock coats to a 17th Century salon. Combating terrorism, combating those who Kissinger would identify as revolutionary chieftains, is going to require a skillful combination of convincing the major world powers to apply whatever leverage they can to cut off sanctuaries and funding for terrorists, and the application of serious amounts of force, both covertly and overtly.
Those discussions between nations have to take place, and strategies must be carefully mapped out and implemented, because no one can go it alone. But they are long-term approaches in a short attention-span era--they don't give the sugar high of immediate results. And, in the United States, they have to take place against a backdrop not only of a Presidential election, but a period of intense partisanship. One of the enormous risks we have right now is that our elected leaders will make the wrong choice because of a fear of accountability. Metternich could do what he wanted—in a largely feudal society, if he satisfied the people of influence—that would be sufficient. But here and now, in the cycle of the continuous election campaign, the smallest failures grow hyperbolic. You could break up 50 terrorist plots—if the 51st succeeded, within minutes there would be a cacophony from the ambitious and irresponsible. The same applies to any policy that lets in refugees—it only takes one bad actor to set off 24/7 outrage.
If we had leaders of courage and vision, they would acknowledge the risks of imperfect policies and best choices, up front, and explain the reasons they were taking that road. To take Gerson’s arguments head on, they would ratchet down the rhetoric, regardless of whether it gave them a bump in the polls, and explain that demonizing everyone who doesn’t look and think exactly the same way is a terrible strategy for longer-term security. Just as importantly, they would openly draw back from the temptation to emulate the Eurpoeans—lockdowns, emergency powers, near martial-law. Americans should never seek a police state.
What should we be looking for? We live in a diverse and disorderly society. It is messy and imperfect, but fosters creativity and growth. I don’t mind a little disorder, and I am certainly not demanding perfection. What I want is almost a Burkean conservative—someone smart, dispassionate, adaptable, reluctant to engage in systemic changes unless circumstances demand—but willing to do so, in moderate doses, when existing rubrics seem inadequate. Above all, someone who is not reactive, and particularly, someone who is not so politically opportunistic that he ends up causing more harm than good. We need those willing to take responsibility.
Do we have these people? Gerson is not alone in his doubts. Fellow Bush alumni Steve Schmidt, who was also a top adviser to John McCain, was recently quoted in the Washington Post “There’s not one person — no one, not in the administration, not on the debate stage — that shows coherence as to what we should do. That person doesn’t exist…. (T)he Republicans who criticize the administration — appropriately — for not having a strategy also don’t have a strategy.”
And yet, I think Schmidt might be a little too pessimistic. There are smart people with good ideas and enough knowledge to put forward the outlines of a viable strategy. It just takes a willingness to take some risks and show a thick skin. If they emerge, then we don’t have to answer Gerson’s question. People of good faith will have the opportunity to put aside the purely ideological and pick a path of “messy order” that protects our persons, and our liberties, without turning to darkness.
November 24th, 2015
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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