July 20, 2006

A Plea for Basic Sanity: No To A Neo-Con Ressentiment

Gideon Rachman, writing in the FT (subscription required):

So what conclusion should be drawn, now that all these splendid examples of transatlantic co-operation have run into difficulties? The uninspiring truth is that foreign policy is difficult. Just because military force and US leadership have run into trouble in Iraq, does not mean that diplomacy and multilateralism are going to succeed elsewhere. Pre-September 11 2001, Mr. Bush was all too aware of this. In his first presidential election campaign, he called for a “humble” foreign policy that was realistic about America’s ability to change the world and warned against the idea that “our military is the answer to every difficult foreign policy situation”. The current array of crises may encourage Mr Bush to relearn that lesson. But there is also an alternative and powerful interpretation doing the rounds in Washington. This argues that the problems America is encountering around the world are precisely the result of the Bush administration’s renewed willingness to work with its allies. According to this thinking, weak-kneed Europeans have lured the US down the path of appeasement in Iran, North Korea and the Middle East. The result is that America’s enemies have been emboldened. William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and one of the intellectual godfathers of neo-conservatism, argued this weekend that the fighting in the Middle East was part of a broad-based attack on “liberal, democratic civilisation” and had been encouraged by western weakness: “Weakness is provocative . . . The right response is renewed strength – in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran.” He urged Mr Bush to order an immediate “military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities” and to fly from St Petersburg to Jerusalem to demonstrate solidarity with Israel.

Mr Kristol’s argument is characteristic of the neo-conservative world-view – both in the seductive ease with which it links different crises and proposes a simple solution; and in its alarmingly casual attitude to military escalation. This neo-con combination of “moral clarity”, radicalism and an appeal to military force carried the day after 9/11. After America’s experience in Iraq, it seems less likely that Mr Bush will take his advice from this quarter. But crises can shift attitudes quickly. If Mr Bush heeds even half the advice he is now getting from the radicals in Washington, the European-American divisions that were evident in St Petersburg this weekend will be just a foretaste. [emphasis added]

Three years ago, I would have poo-pooed anyone using the word "radicals" to describe the neo-cons. No more. Any group that can so brazenly (and breezily) avoid a real reckoning with the continuing crisis in Iraq--which is descending into civil war as we speak--any movement that has the gall to suggest as some panacea that we mount significant military operations in Iran and Syria and god knows where else (with Israel in Lebanon to boot), well, their credibility is at a very low ebb indeed, and they very much need to be urgently reined in. Yes, it is scary when, in the pages of respectable papers like the FT, one hears more and more the intimations there is something of a bona fide radical-wing in Washington. Could it be, you know, true? Well, we're getting there, it seems...To help stem the follies, it is time to call spades, spades. Is it not, for instance, and as George Will has pointed out, a grotesque misnomer to describe the neo-cons as resembling anything remotely conservative anymore, given that they appear blissfully unawares of the resource strains we are operating under given the hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and given how gungo-ho at the ready they are to pursue their neo-Trotskyite fantasies by moving into wars Nos. 3 and 4 in the 'region'?

It's all about "root causes" these days, in places like the pages of the Weekly Standard, and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (at least from her talk show utterances) appears to have been seducted by these simplified nostrums too. Eradicate Hezbollah! Hamas too! They are the bad guys, the "nut jobs", as David Brooks has put it in the august pages of the New York Times. But Hezbollah garnered the second largest number of electoral seats in the Lebanese parliament, having joined up with Nabih Berri's Amal Party. Hezbollah, in fact, has some 35 seats in a 128-strong parliament, second only to the 72 seats of "Future Tide", Said Hariri's anti-Syrian coalition. How do you just eradicate an entire political party, that enjoys major support from the country's Shi'a population (keeping in mind the Shi'a are the single largest religious sect in Lebanon, representing 30-40% of the population)? And does anyone seriously believe reducing rows of apartment complexes in southern Beirut to heaps of rubble, imposing an air and naval blockade on the entire country, and pummeling Shi'a towns in the south is the answer to this conundrum? Are the Shi'a of Lebanon going to wake up the day after and say, gosh darnit, Nasrallah is just an out and out sonafabitch, and thanks to the Israelis for getting rid of him? Well of course not.

This is not to say the Israelis don't have a right to self-defense, and that they shouldn't attack robustly Hezbollah militants firing rockets in the south, and select party leadership targets of import in Beirut--but by acting disproportionately (of which more in a future post), the Israelis are actually not advancing their interests, as anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon will increasingly become anti-Israeli instead--especially as the economic recovery and hope and sense of national renewal capsizes around them day by day, with over USD 2B of infrastructural damage and counting, 300 civilians dead and counting, and so on (unlike what you are hearing breathlessly reported by blushed-cheek, if well-meaning, naifs--the Lebanese government is not privately cheerleading this action by any stretch). What was needed was a more proportionate response, one that didn't jeopardize the nascent fruits of the Cedar Revolution. (Again, putting aside a justly ferocious response in terms of what needed to be meted out to Hezbollah militants operating in the south themselves, as Israel must be able to defend herself against those lobbing rockets into civilian towns like Haifa, an attempt at indiscriminate slaughter which constitutes a war crime, or those brazenly violating basic rules of game by kidnapping IDF soldiers, whether at Iran's express bidding (Iran's influence, it seems to me, being rather overstated in the likely quarters), or to show solidarity with the Gazans, or both).

In tandem with such more restrained military action, the international community might have been better positioned to stem the spread of the conflagration, get the temperature down, and move to find a solution that involved insertion of an international force in a buffer zone, in conjunction with a renewed emphasis on implementing Resolution 1559 (not least the provisions related to disarming of the Hezbollah militia). But, to stress, to disarm a militia--for the duration in a sustainable fashion--you need a strong central government (just like our problem in, you guessed it, Iraq!), and does anyone believe the major Israeli action underway is in any way strengthening the reformers, the already weak central government, the institutions of national (as opposed to sectarian) power that were beginning to crawl out from under the post-Syrian yoke? No, of course.

Meantime, don't miss this Washington Post article, which is rather eye-opening, on a related topic. We are treated to this gem of a quote from Danielle Pletka:

"It is Topic A of every single conversation," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that has had strong influence in staffing the administration and shaping its ideas. "I don't have a friend in the administration, on Capitol Hill or any part of the conservative foreign policy establishment who is not beside themselves with fury at the administration."

Washington has always been a small, somewhat provincial one-industry town--but this disconnect from reality is really getting out of hand. Look, if these assorted Friends-of-Danielle were infuriated because we were making a hash of Iraq (see honest smart critics like Frederick Kagan, Eliot Cohen, others), and were focused on salvaging the project there (say, for instance, by finally inserting enough manpower in Baghdad proper to control the capital and stem the daily horrific blood-letting), well I'd support them with eagerness. Our priority right now, to retain our credibility and try to assist the beleaguered Iraqi polity, must be to stabilize that country. But we are already over-stretched, just dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan alone, where both efforts are floundering, albeit to differing degrees. So it is just flabbergasting that Danielle's "friends", rather than focus their attentions on the Iraq situation--not least given the crisis in Lebanon--instead apparently want us to, alternately, strike Syria, or strike Iran, or read Mubarak the riot act and withold funding to him at such a precarious moment on the Arab-Israeli front, and so on. The region is already overloaded with crises, and the outrageously looney Ledeenian creative destruction approach will lead to greater carnage and chaos that will put the final nail in the coffin to U.S. foreign policy objectives there, goals that are already tottering dangerously amidst the growing chaos.

Rachman is likely right that, in the main, Bush is unlikely to imbibe again the Jacobin-like fervors emitting from NRO and the Standard given the massive train wreck that is Iraq. But Rachman is also right, of course, that in times of crisis unexpected turns and events and forks in the road can lead to cascading blunders (Guns of August, anyone?). Is it possible, even with Lebanon's Cedar Revolution now lying in ruin, even with Iraq bleeding profusely, even with Afghanistan (and portions of Pakistan) increasingly seeing a reconstituted neo-Talib and al-Qaeda presence--is it really possible that Bush would listen to an unholy alliance of unrepentant, incorrigible and increasingly reckless neo-cons (Krauthammer, Kristol's Standard, most of NRO etc.), crude Jacksonians (Bolton, Steyn) and hotted up evangelical rapturists (the legions of Hewitts)? (By the way, when will another prominent neo-con--say, for example, the brightest one of them all to have served in government, in my view Paul Wolfowitz--stand up and pull a Fukuyama, by remonstrating some of his prior tutees for their too abundant enthusiasms, so as to help calm things down a tad?) Friends, these days, given the near total dearth of quality political leadership in Washington, given a media that, in the main, can only be described as severely cretinized and moronic, given a sense of pervasive paranoia and incompetence and fear gripping swaths of the country like a national mania, of sorts, well, anything is possible. But let us fight the good fight here for a sense of judiciousness and intelligence in our foreign-policy making. It is time to stop speaking messianically of root causes willy-nilly, and absolutist solutions, and eradication of this or that writ large, and rather to confront an exceedingly complex neighborhood with more deftness and realism and sobriety and, yes, humility. Hopefully someone is listening.

UPDATE: A reader, David Weinstein, sends in a note he wrote to Charles Krauthammer responding to his latest op-ed today.

Dear Mr. Krauthammer:

In 2005, Lebanon held an election. Hizbullah and Amal formed a common voting bloc entitled the Resistance and Development Bloc. It won all 23 seats in the south, on a platform that opposed the disarmament of Hizbullah. I am not happy about this development, and am no fan of hizbullah, but there it is. I have seen no evidence (by you or otherwise) - or even seen it asserted - that the election does not accurately reflect sentiments among the Shia in southern Lebanon.

Under these circumstances, please tell me what it means to "defang" Hizbullah? What can it mean to "liberate" the south, "expel the occupier" and "give it back to the Lebanese" when 1) the local population supports the "occupier" (which is made up of local residents) and hates the proposed liberator; and 2) the proposed liberator has already sought to "liberate" the area once before, in 1982, which led to the present antagonism, and the creation of Hizbullah in the first place?

And one small little matter: How will this Hizbullah-sympathetic population react to an Israeli invasion? And what should we do about these people? Are they to be eradicated too? And if not, how do you propose to make the distinction (in Israel's air or ground campaign) between the Hizbullah "occupier" who sits in the living room with an AK-47, and his cousin in the kitchen? Do any of Israel's previous efforts at the same goal, from 1982 through 2000, give you any reason to believe this is possible?

There once was a time when foreign policy conservatives were the voice of realism, and their opponents (myself included) indulged in too much naivete. No longer. This latest piece is simply crazy. To quote George Will (in a slightly different context), it is "so untethered from reality as to defy caricature." One would think that Israel's efforts at the same goal in 1982-85, 1993, 1996, etc. would have dissuaded you about the ease of this task. But, then again, perhaps Israel did not possess sufficient "will" back then. Or, perhaps, not enough pixie dust.

Don't hold your breath for a coherent response David, as Charles has been suffering the vapors for some time now....

Posted by Gregory at July 20, 2006 05:52 AM

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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