Simplistic Is as Simplistic Does: Ralph Peters Edition
Ralph Peters writing in the USA Today has penned a less than stellar op-ed for your perusal.
He begins with an analysis of all Democratic presidents since LBJ–namely that they are too interested in domestic affairs and therefore fail in foreign policy. Arguably that’s far too one sided and a little too kind to the Republicans: Nixon bombed Laos/Cambodia (see how that turned out) and was in office during the assassination of Allende and the imposition of the bloody dictatorship of Pinochet; Reagan funded right wing militias (aka death squads) that roamed through the countrysides of Central America murdering as they went; Eisenhower’s presidency brought us the coup to bring a despot to power in Iran; George HW Bush let the Shia and the Kurds get massacred in Iraq after telling them to rise up; and another president named Bush, what about him?
“and the jury of history (if not that of the news media) remains out on George W. Bush’s foreign endeavors.”
Ah yes the jury of history. Right….forgot about that one. Ugh. Double ugh.
Now that’s not to excuse the failings of Democratic presidents (LBJ rightly is castigated for his failure in Vietnam, Clinton has Rwanda to answer for, etc.), just to point out that the Republicans have their own issues to answer for.
Still, on the whole I would say Peters’ larger point is valid: generally speaking Republican presidents from Eisenhower to Bush I were stronger on foreign policy than their Democratic counterparts. Except it’s right in a way that undercuts the rest of his argument. It’s right in a different way than Peters thinks it is.
The basic scenario (prior to Bush II basically) was that Democrats got us into wars and Republicans out. Truman into Korea; Eisenhower out. Kennedy and LBJ into Vietnam, Nixon out.
Peters elides the difference between failed interventionist Democratic policies–like LBJ in Vietnam–and what he sees as Democratic cowardice post-Vietnam, especially Carter’s failure in Peters’ eyes. Never mind that Carter started the process of funding the Afghan resistance or that Clinton I think actually handled the Bosnia and Kosovo situations decently well. Not without flaws, like the inability to decide on Ossetia for example, but still Bill C. deserves more credit than Peters is willing to give him on that one.
He’s also eliding the difference between the earlier form of largely Realist Republican foreign policy and and the more recent neoconservative interventionism. This distinction between realism/idealism that Peters fails to make matters hugely. George W was just about the biggest idealist in US foreign policy ever. He was not realistic nor particularly practical. He did not think about the consequences and the limitations of his policy. At least not until about six years into his presidency it all came crashing down and he had to become a kind of back door realist (e.g. see Bush’s reaction to the Russian-Georgian War versus say John McCain’s).
I mean does this sound like it applies to George W. Bush?
The advantage shared by Republican presidents is simply that they never expected the world to behave. Even Reagan, an imperturbable idealist, grasped that effective idealism demands a realist’s willingness to see the world as it is, rather than as one wishes it to be.
So I imagine by now you know where this is going vis a vis the current president. About here:
As predicted by his vice president, Obama has been challenged by foreign actors within his first six months in office. And the array is daunting: Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Russia, Israel-Palestine, the machinations of Hugo Chavez, crises in Mexico and Honduras, China’s strategic pranks and, not least, a global economic crisis. Thus far, Obama has appeared to stray to the wrong side of the line dividing idealism from naivety. He has counted on his personal powers of persuasion to find harmony with those, such as the Iranians or North Koreans, who view statecraft as a zero-sum game; he has looked for promises from others, such as the Palestinians or Russians, who have routinely broken them; and he has imagined that a forthcoming spirit would seduce those, such as Chavez or the Castro brothers, whose lives are dedicated to exclusive ideologies. Whether speaking of his counterparts in Beijing, Tehran or Islamabad, Obama has committed the common beginner’s error of declining to see the world through the other man’s skeptical eyes.
Um, last time I checked Obama ran on and still continues to say he will not accept an Iranian bomb and that he is going to put the screws to them sanctions-wise. Unless of course they decide to stop their program, then they can get some goodies (called negotiation).
Can someone explain to me exactly what in the wide wide world of sports does Obama trying to use his powers of persuasion to find harmony with North Korea mean? Um, earth to Ralph Peters, North Korea’s gotz ‘dem nukulears. And if the US say I don’t know, tried to bomb them or invade them, they would you know use them to retaliate. The North Koreans have deterrence. Deal with it. Winston Churchill himself were he to be reborn could not do anything about the North Korean issue.
Next? The Russians breaking promises? How about some perspective here? How about some acknowledgment of broken promises to the Russians by the West. Like we promised them we wouldn’t expand NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. We did. Bush II reneged unilaterally on the SALT Treaty and then threatened (and here Obama is just as bad) to insanely put a missile defense offense system pointed straight at the Russians (cough cough, I mean the Iranians).
Oh yes and the Castro brothers. I mean that embargo policy sure has worked wonders in ending their regime right. Good grief. Maybe Obama simply knows that he knows that they know that they are going capitalist and the question is just simply when. Obama probably also knows that the Castros won’t go for normalization if they feel that it threatens their hold on power (gee, whoda thunk it?), so maybe he offers them a plan that seeks to do that–trusting that once that process is unleashed it will take its own course and overrun them. And if they say no, then they continue to become de-legitimzed in the eyes of their own populace and America does not appear to fit the stereotypes that a Castro or Chavez needs in order to keep pressure off their illiberal ideological regimes domestically.
China? Maybe you know if we offered China anything of an actual buy-in in terms of real power in the world instead of just barking orders at them, then criticizing them for not doing them, all the while still proclaiming America the Hegemon o’ Earth, maybe they would be a little more helpful. It’s a thought.
Now before I get accused of being all “Blame America first” I’m not naive as to think peace, love, and mutual understanding will flow like the waters if only Obama would do such things. A number of those countries (say China) also in a way like that they haven’t been offered any real actual power on the world stage, so they don’t have to be responsible. And I’m not without criticism of Obama’s foreign policy–such as it is. But I really don’t think the issue is that Obama is too naive about other countries in the world or doesn’t have a good grasp of the feeling on the street in a lot of places. Only someone as neocon as Peters would think the problem with Obama is that he’s not hawkish enough. Good Lord, the guy has plenty of hawk in him.
And lastly, here’s a wacky idea. Maybe Democratic presidents have had to be extra-focused on domestic issues because every Republican President since Nixon leaves the country in worse economic, fiscal, and domestic shape than when they came to office. Maybe, just maybe–I know this is a radical thought but bear with me for a second–we ought to consider whether the Democratic emphasis on domestic policy might be an appropriate and necessary response/counterweight to Republican domestic failures.
On a broader note, the root of the problem with this kind of thinking Peters displays is that it doesn’t take into any account: A) the actual fighting of wars in the 21st century, B) the economic reality of the globe, and/or C)the lack of a counter-ideology economically (a huge one btw). In Peters’ world everything is determined by these abstract notions like not being naive, being tough, looking through the skeptical eyes of your opponent. What the f@#! is that?
Contra Peters and those in his camp, the core issue continues to be that the US has no grand strategy in the post Cold War world. All this stuff from the neocons about not being tough enough or too naive about our enemies is so disconnected from anything as to be essentially useless. It’s so dumb, it’s not even wrong.