Friday, September 13, 2013

Syria, "isolationism" and Beltway Village hackery

I hate to think of Michael Tomasky as a hack.

But when it comes to foreign policy, he's certainly starting to sound that way. (Not that it will be bad for his journalistic career.)

His stinker of a column When Liberals Enable Tyrants Daily Beast 09/06/2013 was a big sign of that tendency. (I griped about that one here.)

In The Case Against Isolation Daily Beast 09/13/2013, he's less crass but more stereotypically conventional. In that piece, he's whacking the favorite straw-man of the foreign policy establishment, isolationism.

Andrew Bacevich, who is studiously ignored by the Very Serious People to whom Tomasky is conforming here, has pointed out that "isolationism" in a serious sense was never the threat to US foreign policy that it was conventionally taken to be in the Cold War and now in the Long War, an extension of the Cold one. Actual isolationists are people of the Ron "Papa Doc" Paul variety, who want to pull military bases out of all other countries, has always been a fringe position. Those advocating a less aggressive, less militarized foreign policy are with few exceptions advocating a different kind of engagement in the world, not the creation of some autarkic US island nation cut off from the rest of the world. Even the fans of Papa Doc and Rand "Baby Doc" Paul hold up economic relations as the salvation of US foreign policy.

It's true that Baby Doc has become more prominent in the Republican Party as a Senator than Papa Doc ever was. And it's also true that far right ideology is more dominant in the Republican Party today than it ever has been. And that's what gives Tomasky's stodgy take on the situation some superficial plausibility:

The foreign-policy history of the Republican Party is a history of the battle between the nativist isolationists and the bellicose internationalists. I’ve always found it interesting that the GOP should encompass both frothing extremes, while the Democrats have tended to occupy the saner (not always so sane, admittedly) middle ground. Historically, I would argue, the GOP defaults toward isolationism, because that was the natural reflex of many of the party's key constituent elements in the early 20th century (Southern and Midwestern agrarians, self-made capitalists).

It takes a cataclysmic and frightening event for the warmonger wing of the party to win the day. The Iron Curtain and the advent of the Cold War was one such effect. One can thus think of the GOP's general hard-line posture during the Cold War as a break from the norm, albeit a very long one indeed. September 11 was another. But this interregnum lasted not 40 years, but 12; so now, a dozen years and two expensive and wearying wars later, the war caucus is losing again, and the party is reverting to its original isolationist roots.
Can such a well-known political journalist as Michael Tomasky really be this clueless about the last century or so of American political history? I'll get to the two fundamental misunderstandings of what Republican "isolationism" actually is about in a minute. But first:

  • The Republican Party's "key constituent elements in the early 20th century" also included black voters, Progressives and some union voters.
  • Republican President and later Bull Moose Party progressive leader Teddy Roosevelt was anything but an isolationist; on the First World War, he was as militant a jingoist as one could find.
  • Despite the strong level of antiwar sentiment prior to Pearl Harbor, the 1940 Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Willkie was a liberal and not just relative to the Troglodytes in his Party; Willkie supported key Roosevelt interventionist policies like the Lend-Lease Act that were bitterly opposed by isolationists.
  • Republicans belligerence and paranoia about the Soviet Union long preceded the "cataclysmic and frightening" events of the Second World War, the postwar establishment of Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe and the victory of the Communists in China.
  • Tomasky's math is a bit confusing, but if we take 1949 as the start of the Cold War, he apparently thinks that in only, well, 52 of the last 64 years the Republican Party was non-isolationist, but that isolationism should be seen as the norm for Republican foreign policy.
  • Anyone checking the foreign policy positions of Republican Presidents, Presidential candidates and Members of Congress from, say, 1989 to 09/11/2001 may be surprised to see that the saber-rattling and chest-thumping rhetoric and the endless demands for more military spending and accusations that the Democrats are weak on foreign policy amount to "isolationism."

But even we assume for the sake of argument that the Papa Doc/Baby Doc/John Birch Society brand of isolationism is now the Republican Party new-old normal, there are two things about it that Tomasky seems to miss completely.

The far right brand of isolationism is based on xenophobia, extreme nationalism and militarism.

Papa Doc in one of the Presidential debates in the last cycle let it slip that even though he was opposed to foreign military bases, he wasn't necessarily opposed to having the same number of bases we currently have just, but he wanted to see them all inside the United States. The "libertarian" ideology to which such isolationism is joined at the hip is highly authoritarian and regards the military and the police as about the only legitimate public institutions. And while the ideologues like Papa Doc and Baby Doc may grip about particular wars, the generally militaristic and xenophobia attitude to which they pander and encourage is generally pretty supportive of a muscular foreign policy.

Tomasky may not have much noticed. But the Republican Party in Congress today is crassly, narrowly partisan. The fact they might criticize or oppose some military action of the Obama Administration doesn't mean they're doing so out of pacifist principle. They oppose many Obama Administration policies just because they are Obama Administration policies that they would cheerfully and self-righteously support under a Republican President.

(Tomasky does acknowledge this, but he puts is down to hypocrisy and opportunism, which he considers less morally reprehensible than wicked isolationism.)

If their candidate is running the war, it's good. If the Kenyan Muslim socialist Islamist atheist userper currently in the White House is running it, it's bad. Claire Conner's autobiography of growing up Bircher, Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America's Radical Right (2013), gives some good descriptions of how this thinking works. Although it may often be more a clinical psychological symptom than thinking. She recalls that in the 1960s, the Bircher position was that US involvement in the Vietnam War was a big Jew Commie plot. But that if their favorite George Wallace were to become President and fought the same war, it would be an anti-Communist war. Or something.

The point is that even in actual isolationism, one needs to read the lips of its advocates pretty closely.

Tomasky is also stuck on the favorite conceit of the foreign policy establishment and especially the neocons, the idea that we're always fighting "Hitler" or about to fight "Hitler": "If there had been more isolationist Republicans in Congress in 1940, we'd never have armed Britain, and there’s every chance Britain would have fallen to Hitler."

Tomasky proceeds to explain that it was too dang isolationist to not pick up the Soviets' war in Afghanistan immediately after they decided they'd had enough of it:
The last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989. Then the civil war started. The United States of course had armed the mujahedeen. But at the end of the Cold War, there was no appetite in Congress for American involvement in a remote and barren little country’s civil war. The United States left matters in the hands of the warlords, which in reality meant leaving them in the hands of Pakistan and to some extent Saudi Arabia. The U.S. withdrawal was seen as a betrayal by many Afghans. It created the vacuum into which the Taliban finally stepped in 1994. The Taliban made common cause with Al Qaeda and gave its leaders and soldiers a safe haven, and I believe you know what happened next. So our decision in the early 1990s to wash our hands of Afghanistan helped set off a series of events that brought us September 11.
Dude, are you serious? I already know the answer to that: no, he's Very Serious. And this passes for good sense among the Very Serious People. The idea that we might have though through matters a little more carefully when we were promoting a toxic new brand of Islamic jihadism back in the 1980s is not something that easily penetrates into the hermetically sealed world of our VSPs.

He does allow, "If our advisers had maintained a presence in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, we’d quite possibly have done something wrong or terrible in some other direction." The idea that we might have gone one doing something questionable or downright stupid in Afghanistan does not seem to have occurred to him.

And since the Dead Babies appeal he was previously using to promote a US war against Syria seems to have fallen flat for the moment, he's going for neo-dominoes:

That is what will happen in the Middle East if we aren't engaged. Iran will have the run of the place. Assad will butchers tens of thousands more people. Hezbollah will control Lebanon and arm itself to the teeth for the next war with Israel. Put humanitarian concerns — for example, that we should step in to stop the slaughter of innocents — completely to the side. There's a hard-headed argument against isolationism, and it’s precisely this: A world without the United States military and United Nations peacekeepers would in fact be an operatically more violent and ruthless world than the one we have, and one in which blowback would be much more likely to hit us where we live one day.
So, if we let Iran and Israel be the ones to decide to have war after war after war in the Middle East, that will make people there hate Americans more than if the United States is the one that has war after war after war in the Middle East.

And, yes, in the Beltway Village, this actually passes for Seriousness.

For additional aspiring hackery, he can check Tomasky's OK, John Kerry, You’re On Daily Beast 09/11/2013, in which he has a big sad because the Secretary of State may have fumbled starting that war with Syria that Michael Tomasky was so looking forward to: "Kerry has been rather shaky on Syria up to this point. Loose lips. Some very strange remarks, especially that one about an 'unbelievably small' attack. Yikes. I don't know what made him say those particular words ..." In the Village, avoiding an unnecessary war counts as a big disappointment.

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