Liberal Imperialism: Neoconservatism in a Velvet Glove
Whenever I seem to take a break from the mendacity of scholars blogging, I find that some particularly stupid piece of drivel drags me back into the fray. Walter Russell Mead is the lucky ducky to earn my ire this time, with a particularly insipid piece praising Mitt Romney’s hackneyed VMI foreign policy speech. Daniel Larison and Daniel McCarthy each have a sharp take on the speech itself, so I will confine myself to a critique of Mead’s fawning hagiography.
Polemics ahead. Reader beware.
First, let me point out what the post does correctly.
To his credit, Mead points out the overt emphasis on the Arab World and the Maghreb in Romney’s speech.
One interesting and troubling point: the subject of Asia didn’t come up. This is no doubt partly due to the political moment; the Middle East is hot in American political debate right now and Asia isn’t. But Asia is on the boil, with tensions over territorial disputes on the rise and China-Japan relations testier than they have been in many years. The Governor warned that speaking of a “pivot” came across to allies in Europe as “pivoting away” from them and he pledged to rebuild US naval strength in the Middle East — without saying anything about the implications of those moves for Asia.
An extra paragraph about Asia wouldn’t have taken long to deliver, but it would have been very welcome in a region where people watch American politics very closely.
This is a particularly striking omission given the Romney campaign’s belligerent take on trade relations with the Middle Kingdom. Of course Mead seems inclined to treat China’s rise with substantial skepticism, so the lack of Asia policy in a speech ostensibly about foreign policy doesn’t signal a deal breaker.
Rather the rhetorical flourish of the speech and the overall content pleased the good professor. He states:
It was for the most part a frank and brave speech, but it defended some unpopular points of view even as it sharpened the contrast between the two men vying to lead the country for the next four years.
What might these “unpopular points of view” be? Well Mead gets a little closer to answering that in his following paragraph where he says:
Romney was more explicit than the President that his decisions about US troop deployments in 2014 will take the recommendations of the generals and not just the calendar into account; he called for aid conditionality with Egypt, more aid to Syrian rebels, a tougher line with Russia on missile defense, warmer relations with Israel, tightened sanctions against Iran, bigger defense budgets.
Now, evidently in liberal hawk and neoconservative circles, Russophobia is still alive and well, and “warmer relations with Israel” essentially means “doing whatever Netanyahu asks for.” As none of them are particularly influenced by the war in Afghanistan, they don’t particularly mind continuing that war, and indeed Romney’s speech even included criticism of the US draw-down from Iraq! Indeed, Mead appears genuinely troubled by the fact that people regard the war in Iraq as a colossal failure, and has lamented that the failure of that war was exaggerated by the media’s hatred of George W. Bush.
Mead proceeds to wax eloquently about the post-WWII role of America in the international system, and proceeds to suggest that to remain committed in the international system is the unanswered question in American politics. In fact he goes as far as to state that:
Not all Americans think this is such a good idea, and the end of the Cold War meant that what many people saw as the chief rationale for that role (the need to fight communism) had disappeared. 9/11 reminded Americans of the importance of world affairs, but the unsatisfying consequences of American policies and military actions since then contribute to another and perhaps more powerful wave of world-weariness.
Except of course neither of the major candidates is proposing anything other than a thoroughly engaged foreign policy. This Mead acknowledges, but then proceeds to suggest that there is, nonetheless a large difference between the President and Mr. Romney.
Romney thinks the job of global leadership is harder to accomplish than Obama is letting on or perhaps understands, but the job is so vital that we have to do it anyway. The Middle East is full of people who are going to do their best to kill us and our friends, and it doesn’t help us to ignore that. Furthermore, if we don’t look engaged, with a big military, an active foreign policy and forceful presentation of our interests and our ideas, others will start to make decisions that we don’t like. You lead by leading, not by acting cool and trying to stand above the fray….
…This will be hard; as I’ve written before, spinach may be better for you than ice-cream, but very few people rush out to the curb when the spinach truck trundles through the neighborhood on a summer evening, tinkling its merry chimes. Governor Romney is driving the spinach truck in foreign policy……Governor Romney’s real job is to make Americans like spinach, or at least to remember how good it is for them. At a time when the country is tired of ‘engagement’ and ‘leadership’ he wants to renew the public’s faith in and commitment to America’s global project.
Mead’s take away from Romney’s speech is that leadership is hard, but that Romney is committed to a foreign policy of leadership in the international system. It squares politely with Mead’s take that Obama’s rhetoric hasn’t been sufficiently Manichean and that the President hasn’t done enough to tell the truth to the American people about the dangers the world faces.
And this brings me to the biggest critique I have with Mead’s piece: it’s grading on rhetoric rather than substance. Mead doesn’t challenge the belligerent tone of Romney’s Russia policy or question the utility of a substantially larger military budget (even while cutting other discretionary areas such as aid). He certainly doesn’t challenge the notion that the policies he favors (a grab-bag of neoconservative chest-thumping and war mongering) is “spinach” rather than green colored cyanide and grades the candidates foreign policy on how close they are to satisfying his rhetorical needs.
Despite Mead’s assertion that the President is “basing war on a denial of facts” Mead himself never grapples with the staggeringly obvious question of: “Just how reliable are Romney’s assertions?” Fred Kaplan has done an admirable job of fact-checking the speech (spoiler alert: Romney lies his ass off) while all Mead does is nod his head along to the pablum and malarkey. In fact because Romney’s belligerent Wilsonian gibberish is translated to Mead’s flowerese of global leadership, he swallows it whole without comment on its contents.
This from a professor of foreign affairs, a major contributor to Foreign Affairs and a former Kissinger Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The biggest problem with neoconservatives and liberal imperialists isn’t their ideology. It’s flawed, but there are kernels of reasonable policy prescriptions in there. The biggest problem with this ideological group of thinkers is that they’re simply incapable of self-reflection and facing reality. Anarchy may be what states make of it, but for liberal hawks and neocons, reality appears to be taking a back seat to the constructed world of their Wilsonian fancies.