The Closet Moderate: This Week In Stupid

Thursday, August 06, 2009

This Week In Stupid

Michael Gerson, "Death of a Doctrine," The Washington Post

In the linked article, Michael Gerson, a G. W. Bush speechwriter, opens with a shameless generalization about a new generation of Americans and proceeds to misunderstand diplomacy, foreign policy, and history.


...[T]he administration does have a doctrine. The defining principle of President Obama's foreign policy is engagement with America's adversaries.
This argument is just crap, and should be identified as such. The idea that "talking to adversaries" is a foreign policy doctrine is roughly equivalent to arguing that "employing soldiers" and "having guns" are national security doctrines. Only after 8 years of vapid "tell [nation] to knock that [expletive] off" foreign policy and profound intellectual laxity on the part of the Washington Post could such an argument stake a claim to editorial page real estate.

The problem is not engagement itself -- which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration.
Let's just let that claim sink in for a little while. It's takes serious chutzpah to imply anything resembling an equivalence between the "various forms" of GWB's engagement (hectoring, invasion, etc.) and Obama's foreign policy.

There are a few larger points here that needs to be addressed, though. In the two paragraphs that precede the excepted quote, Gerson lists the various supposed failures of Obama's foreign policy to date, including a statement by North Korea that he takes at face value. Embedded in those paragraphs are a couple of classic GOP ruses:

First of all, the right loves to scare people by assuming that the statements of dictators are a) sincere and truthful communications and b) going to be acted on tomorrow. Nothing the DPRK says should be taken as writ. Yes, they threatened us with a "storm of nuclear retaliation." If you go back a couple of entries, they mocked the Secretary of State for wearing frumpy clothes because she called them out on their adolescent antics. When we accept statements made by the DPRK without reflection, we're doing ourselves a disservice and inflating their sense of importance. In Iran--according to most GOP leaders, a nation of mad mullahs who can't be reasoned with--we've just witnessed the unfolding of some non-insane political drama. Khamenei is, contrary to what we'd expect, making a rational (if brutal) attempt to manipulate events and institutions in order to stay in power.

Gerson also attempts to lay every unfortunate event in recent months on Obama's doorstep, as if they were a-historical occurrences. In truth, the current state of affairs with North Korea and Iran owes a lot to the early Bush attempts to roll back Clinton-era engagement. And, it turns out, people don't just magically forget the past. As Gerson justly points out in later paragraphs, the regimes have come to rely on anti-American sentiment as a prop. Notably, he fails to explore how that state of affairs came to be.

The final and most tendentious claim is that any diplomatic overture that fails to produce immediate and outrageously positive outcomes for the United States is a failure. Citing a P.J. Crowley statement, he argues:

"Hard-liners on both sides have dominated that relationship and made it very difficult for the United States and Iran to come together and have a serious conversation." But can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran -- or with North Korea -- now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama's diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched.

The reason for the truculence of these regimes, according to Gerson, is that they care only for the maintenance of their own corrupt prerogatives and have no regard for their external image or interests. On a far less extreme level, that's correct. States take actions in service to their national interest, which is defined in part by powerful domestic constituencies. But even Iran and the DPRK have a stake in the international system. The DPRK needs to have powerful states listen when it throws a nuclear tantrum, and Iran depends on revenues from its oil exports. Those are potential leverage points around which we could craft a policy. The central problem lies not with the nature of the regimes (although that is a problem), but in getting other powerful international actors (China, Russia) to go along with our policy.

Seven months is not enough time to undo 8 years of incompetence. So, yes, it can be blamed on the previous administration.

But again, the larger question is--aside from the frustrating and incremental progress of diplomacy--what are our options? Should we just get in there and fuck them up, Conan-style? Well, we tried that, Conan is a movie, and Thulsa Doom didn't have nuclear weapons (Kim Jong Il can totally turn into a snake, though). It didn't work.

In the end, the United States is on the right side of a savage imbalance in wealth and power, and any foreign policy that doesn't lead to us hemorrhaging money and lives is certainly an improvement. Regardless of what Gerson thinks.

This Week in Stupid Archives:

Eliott Abrams
Leon Wieseltier
Max Boot

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