NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE
June 14, 2014 3:00 AM
Obama’s PR Foreign Policy
Talking points should conform to our national interest, not the other way round.
By Jonah Goldberg
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (including those of you with a sense of entitlement when it comes to these parenthetical gags),
The big news of the day doesn’t lend itself to excessive jocularity. Nor should it lend itself to partisan gloating. This is awful, awful, stuff.
I supported the Iraq war. But for at least the last half decade or so, I’ve said it looks like it was a mistake. I’ve said “looks like” not to weasel out of anything, but to simply acknowledge that things change. If after a wobbly start Iraq got its act together and turned into a stabilizing, democratizing force in the region, then it wouldn’t be a mistake. If it continued to slide into Iran’s orbit, possibly breaking apart en route, then the war would have been for naught. Sometimes you can’t get to a good place without going through a bad place first. That’s true in our own lives and it’s true of nations.
I truly believe that the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Revolution were aftershocks of the Iraq war and that we could have advanced the cause of liberty if we’d taken advantage of those opportunities. I’m not saying it would have been easy or that more chaos wouldn’t have come with such efforts; I am saying that it was worth trying.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, believed the Iraq war was a mistake from day one and that conviction informed every foreign-policy decision he has made since. He has said, insinuated, implied, hinted, and shouted as much almost every day of his presidency. So invested in the Iraq war being a mistake — and so invested in received opinion celebrating his foresight — he has not merely acted on the reasonable view it was a mistake, he appears to have done everything he can to make sure it is remembered as a mistake for all time. The Left wanted the Iraq war to be Vietnam, and Barack Obama has given them what they wanted. All that’s missing now are the images of Americans clinging to helicopters.
Let’s Get the Spin Right and Everything Else Will Follow
The president deliberately let negotiations over the status of American forces in Iraq deteriorate until there was nothing to do but lament that we couldn’t work things out. Indeed (as I wrote in my column yesterday), his entire Iraq policy — his entire foreign policy — has been driven by a need to make it conform to his political talking points, rather than the other way around. There’s nothing wrong with presidents keeping their promises, but presidents have an obligation to do so with the stipulation that the national interest might diverge from what Jen Psaki can vomit up on Crossfire.
Consider the White House’s claim of “decimating” “core al-Qaeada.”
This is a metric designed to conform to talking points, it’s not an actual foreign-policy objective. Whenever someone points out that al-Qaeda has “metastasized” and controls more territory than ever, the White House falls back on the claim that we’ve taken the fight to those who actually attacked us on 9/11. That’s great, or at least it sounds great. But how is that a strategic objective? What does that do to further America’s interests?
If the U.S. had wiped out most of the Japanese generals who plotted the Pearl Harbor attacks, but Japan was still at war with us, would anyone say “Well, we can wrap things up now”?
As for the word “decimated,” I often wondered if they’re hiding behind the popular meaning of decimated — i.e. “crushed” or “destroyed” — while keeping its traditional and literal meaning — kill 1 out of 10 — in their back pocket in case they need it to defend against the fact-checkers. Something like:
Carney: We’ve decimated core al-Qaeda.
Reporter: Jay, we’ve checked and most of the original al-Qaeda members are still alive.
Carney: I refer you to Webster’s dictionary. “Decimated” means to kill every tenth member of an army. We are well ahead of that standard. Frankly I think you should salute our rhetorical restraint.
We Change the Past
There’s a staple of physics — and life — that the present can’t change the past. What’s done is done. Don’t cry over spilt milk. The horse has left the barn. We already emailed the pictures of you with the hooker. Etc. Given the riot of unknowns that is physics today, I’m not sure that will always be true. And, in a very real sense, I’m not sure it’s true about life either.
No, you cannot change the facts of the past. But you can change the significance of those facts. I’m not talking about Orwellian lying or Soviet airbrushing or the shoving of innocents down the memory hole. When new events take us by surprise the events that led up to it suddenly take on greater meaning.
From an old-school G-File:
In 2002, Adam Garfinkle, then of The National Interest, wrote a wonderful essay about Saudi Arabia. He quoted R. G. Collingwood’s observation that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way,” and proceeded to argue that at least part of what Collingwood meant by this “is that what interests us about the past is at least partly a function of what bothers us or makes us curious in the present.”
For example, for the French and British, when war broke out in 1939, the years 1918-19 became less significant and the years 1870-1871 loomed large. Or, when the Berlin Wall fell, 1917 — the year of the Russian Revolution — suddenly became much less interesting, but 1914 — the dawn of imperial implosion and nationalist explosion — became much more important. This is all a lesson in the obvious for my beloved bride, who studied U.S.-Soviet relations in graduate school. By the time the ink was dry on her diploma, there was no Soviet Union.
The point of all this for Garfinkle was that, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a whole new narrative of the 20th century was written. While on September 10, the years 1914, 1945, and 1989 seemed of paramount importance to historians, on September 12, the year 1924 suddenly leapt onto the stage — that was the year the House of Saud emerged as the dominant power on the Arabian continent. Before that, 1924 was the answer to a few trivia questions and little more (e.g., In what year was the People’s Republic of Mongolia established? When was Frank Lautenberg born?).
Right now, the most important thing about 2011, according to conventional wisdom, is that Barack Obama authorized the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was certainly a good day, and a glorious one for the White House communications team which immediately turned it into a Caesarian argument for his domestic political authority. But what if ISIS succeeds in holding onto Mosul and Nineveh? Or even goes on to grab Baghdad? What if Iran is fully drawn into the conflict, rendering vast swaths of the Middle East a literal battleground — and not just a figurative one — for a bloody Sunni–Shia civil war? Suddenly, the most momentous thing about 2011 wouldn’t be the killing of one aging terrorist hermited away with his “Girls Gone Wild” DVDs. It would be the White House’s passive-aggressive acquiescence to the abandonment of Iraq. Again, as it stands, the Iraq war was a mistake. What we’re seeing now are the fruits of a policy aimed at making sure it stays that way.
I’m already exhausted by all of the commentary about Eric Cantor’s defeat by David Brat. I would have said three days ago that its significance can’t be exaggerated. But I would have been wrong. The Democrats’ glee is certainly overblown. I heard Nancy Pelosi say yesterday “I can’t close my eyes! I can’t close my eyes! Can someone get me some eye drops!?”
Just kidding. I just always expect her to say such things given that she has the eyes of a Moloid caught off-guard by a camera flash. She said yesterday that Cantor’s defeat means the midterms are “a whole new ballgame.” She continued:
“Eric Cantor has long been the face of House Republicans’ extreme policies, debilitating dysfunction and manufactured crises. Tonight is a major victory for the Tea Party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right,” she said in a statement.
Bless her heart.
The thinking seems to be that the GOP will be pulled further to the right in future primaries, or something. Meh. There aren’t that many primaries left, never mind ones in districts where Democrats could win. Regardless of whether it made sense to fire Eric Cantor — the guy had an ACU rating of 95 — and putting aside any questions about David Brat, I think his victory is a positive sign for the midterms. Base elections are about intensity and turnout. Can anyone dispute that the results in VA-7 demonstrate that the GOP base is energized?
Anyway, I’m exhausted by all the winners and losers talk.
Frank Meyer and Fusionism
But I’m never too tired to talk fusionism!
Brian Doherty has a very good post on the limits of libertarianism during this so-called “libertarian moment.” Doherty observes that Brat is very libertarian on many issues dear to libertarian hearts, but he is not a Reason magazine libertarian. That’s right. He’s a mainstream conservative, at least in his ordering of principles (though he may be more intense about those principles than your average conservative). He’s for limited government, traditional morality, individual liberty, and free markets. In short, he’s a fusionist.
Just in case you didn’t know, the unofficial official philosophical position of National Review is fusionism (except on Cinco de Mayo when it’s “Two for One All You Can Drink Margaritas!”). It’s also worth noting that the unofficial official position of modern conservatism itself is fusionism. Ronald Reagan all but declared it so in his famous speech to CPAC in 1981, delivered shortly after his inauguration:
It was Frank Meyer who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace.
Frank Meyer was the long-time literary editor of National Review. The basic idea of fusionism is really easy to understand. A virtuous society must be a free society because virtue not freely chosen isn’t virtuous (if I hold a gun to your head and say “Mend that bird’s broken wing,” you don’t get a lot of credit for being kind to animals). Of course, the fuller idea is more complicated. As Daniel McCarthy notes, fusionism is often described as a political rationalization for constructing a coalition of libertarians and traditionalists. McCarthy even gently — and largely correctly — criticizes me for using the term that way from time to time. More on that in a moment, first I have to clean his blood and viscera from my halberd.
I’m kidding, I’m kidding. McCarthy is absolutely right that Meyer’s argument was more sophisticated than the shorthand. Fusionism was a metaphysical argument, not merely an organizing principle. Meyer believed that the tradition of Western Civilization is liberty and that our cultural institutions are valuable and glorious and worth preserving precisely for the role they play in protecting liberty. For Meyer, “the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man” was what conservatives were trying to conserve and that the best way to do that was for the libertarians and the traditionalists to embrace the fact that the core idea of Western Civilization was the glory of “reason operating within tradition.” And reason pointed to the glory and necessity of individualism.
Abstract principles were everything for Meyer (this mindset might explain his early betrothal to Communism) and the highest principle was “the freedom of the person.” This sometimes led him into some ridiculous ideological cul-de-sacs. Writing about the need to stop the spread of Communism, even if it meant using nuclear weapons, Meyer wrote:
[E]ven granted the most horrendous estimates of the effects of their use, the preservation of human life as a biological phenomenon is an end far lower than the defense of freedom and right and truth. These the victory of Communism would destroy. These it is our duty to defend at all costs.
Now I am a pretty proud anti-Communist, but this is where I say, “Uh, maybe you should sit out the next couple plays and think this over.” The preservation of the “biological phenomena” called “human life” strikes me as pretty high priority, not least because without it, only the cockroaches’ definition of freedom, right, and truth will prevail. Life is hope. Without it there’s no one to do the hoping.
So where was I? Oh right, fusionism. I think one of the reasons why the definition of fusionism has drifted from a philosophical approach to an organizational one is that, philosophically, fusionism doesn’t work that well. Oh, I certainly believe that the fusionist goals of a free society, limited government, and individual liberty are sound and coherent approaches. But the actual case that Meyer laid out for fusionism is simply too dismissive of the importance of community, tradition, order etc. Not every moral choice should be made from a bill of fare that contains every conceivable immoral choice. A healthy society takes some things — pedophilia and incest come to mind — off the menu, even if that means denying individuals the added virtue of voluntarily refusing such options. In a world where everything is permitted, virtue has a very hard time poking up from the weeds. The challenge for conservatives is how to balance the cherished principle of individual liberty with other cherished principles that are just as essential to the preservation of the Western tradition Meyer holds so dear.
But, as an organizing principle, as the locomotion that keeps the bicycle of conservatism from falling over, fusionism is extremely useful and very, very widely held. The vast majority of libertarians in this country don’t call themselves libertarians, they call themselves conservatives, and rightly so. Because they — we! — are fusionists.
Professor Brat, Fusionist
And that goes for Dr. Brat. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote in 2011, which grapples with the tradeoffs between order and liberty:
Let me add one more definition to the picture to heighten this tension. In economics and political science, it is common to define the government as the entity that holds a monopoly on violence. This definition goes back to Max Weber, but it is used by recent Nobel laureates in economics as well. It does not mean that the State alone uses violence, but it does mean that when push comes to shove, the State will win in a battle of wills. If you refuse to pay your taxes, you will lose. You will go to jail, and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military. Do we trust institutions of the government to ensure justice? Is that what history teaches us about the State? Or do we live in particularly lucky and fortunate times where the State can be trusted to do minimal justice? The State’s budget is currently about $3 trillion a year. Do you trust that power to the political Right? Do you trust it to the Left? If you answered “no” to either question, you may have a major problem in the future. See Plato on the regime that follows democracy.
So now, I hope you are feeling even a bit more ill-at-ease. The logic above is inescapable for a Christian. If we Christians vote for what we consider to be good policies, we are ultimately voting to ensure that our will is carried out by the most powerful force on earth, aside from God. The U.S. government has a monopoly on violence, and that force underlies the law of the land.
Do we have the right to coerce our fellow citizens to act in ways that follow our Christian ethical beliefs?
He goes on to discuss usury — the topic of his essay — but that there is how a fusionist wrestles with trade-offs.
A Monopoly on Ignorance
I bring this up because the other day I caught Rich Lowry (Praise be upon him) and Alan Colmes discussing the Brat victory on Fox. Colmes tried to make the case that Brat is going to be an embarrassment because of his allegedly crazy statements. Exhibit A was that Brat thinks that Hitler’s rise could happen again. Now I think Brat’s not quite right about this, but it’s hardly like he’s endorsing the return of Hitler. Rather he’s repeating an utterly commonplace, bipartisan, and healthy concern that is usually summed up in the phrase “never again.”
Then there was exhibit B. Colmes noted that Brat had written that the State has a “monopoly on violence” as if this is crazy talk. Rich quickly noted as the conversation was being cut off that this is pretty much the standard definition of the function of the state. Charles Cooke goes on quite a tear defending Brat on this point. They’re both right. My only complaint is that — as Brat notes in the original essay but Charlie doesn’t — “monopoly on violence” isn’t even Brat’s phrase, it’s Max Weber’s. His claim of Gewaltmonopol des Staates is nearly a century old.
All of these people getting bent out of shape about Brat saying such a thing are betraying their own ignorance of a really uncontroversial — even boring — staple of political philosophy and political science. Charlie is right that Brat’s claim is a neutral and non-partisan one. But the irony here is that liberals want the most expansive definition of Gewaltmonopol des Staates. Under Weber, the State isn’t the only entity that can employ violence, but it is the only entity that can regulate it. The State, and the State alone, determines which violence is legitimate and which isn’t. In effect it licenses individuals to commit or threaten violence in very specific circumstances.
Liberals want the state to cancel many of those licenses. That’s what gun control is largely about, the rescinding of permission or ability to use violence (or effective violence. You’ll always be free to slap and scratch your robber, assassin, or rapist). Almost everyday someone on MSNBC wets himself over the fact a free citizen somewhere is carrying a gun. Their proposed solution: the State should better enforce its monopoly on violence.