Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Isolationist Shift within Conservatism

What is it about conservative opposition to Obama's policy in Libya? It appears conservative critics think he has done both too little too late in Libya, and also too much. While there is agreement on the Right that whatever Obama does is bad policy, the divergent critical voices are not so much evidence of hypocrisy as the disagreement between neo-conservatism and libertarianism. As it now appears the case, the Tea Party movement, which started off as a movement focused almost exclusively on the domestic politics of bail-outs and health-care reform, has matured and developed an alliance with the isolationist segment of paleoconservatism. With this new alliance we see a rightward shift in conservative politics, and the resurgence of the isolationist strand in Republican politics which has been dormant since the Nixon Doctrine.

For all the talk of polarization in American politics, on one thing, some liberals and some conservatives have always agreed on - it is an assertive, hegemonic engagement with the world. The "neo" in neo-conservatism registers the fact that many neo-conservatives used to be old liberals disenchanted with the Democratic Party's anti-war shift after Vietnam. This is why the neo-conservatives from the Bush administration have pretty much supported Obama's intervention in Libya. As Michael Gerson writes, "President Barack Obama’s decision to participate in the air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime is a vast improvement over previous policy, a victory for human rights idealists." And this is what unites Leftists who believe in humanitarian intervention and Rightists who support the propagation of democracy around the world. Both are idealists.

Tea Party libertarians and paleoconservatives, on the other hand, believe that foreign policy should not be guided by visions of utopia. The former are all too aware that wars cost money, and the latter believe that a fortress will protect us better than an advancing army, especially one staffed by member nations of NATO and authorized by the United Nations. Both, therefore, believe that we should go to war only when we absolutely must. And so just like that, paleoconservatives are riding on the coat-tails of Tea Party libertarianism back into political salience.

This is why the Right has complained that the Obama administration has done too little and too much in Libya, with the balance of voices revealingly weighted on the latter. This is significant as a signpost of the development of American conservatism, because it reveals a reformed conservatism more ready to take on Obama in 2012 than it was a few months ago when conservatives were still fixated on the Reagan coalition and the Reagan doctrine. Reagan ordered major bombing raids against Tripoli and Benghazi in Operation El Dorado Canyon, and he ordered the invasion of Grenada. Reagan was no isolationist.

Call it restraint, or call it isolationism, but its resurgence reveals American conservatism undergoing reform and re-accreditation. Presidential hopefuls on the right should take heed, so that they do not get caught on the wrong side of this evolution. In tough economic times, when our troops are now spread out in three theaters of war, conservatism has taken on a new complexion for our time, and Barack Obama would likely be facing an opponent so far to the Right on foreign policy issues, s/he may actually come full circle and begin to sound like Dennis Kucinich.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Operation Odyssey Dawn May Become Another Protracted Odyssey

The Obama administration is having a hard time responding to critics who disagree with its decision to intervene in Libya. Some on the Left do not want another war; while some on the Right don't want a multilateral approach to war focussed on humanitarian intervention and one authorized by the UN. Both sides, of course, are using a "separation of powers" line, charging that the President failed to seek congressional approval, but the procedural objection disguises a substantive disagreement. The fact is very few politicians have ever really cared about the erosion of congressional authority (not that they shouldn't) since the last war Congress declared was 60 years ago during World War II.

And there lies the crux of the matter. It is not that the president has clearly made a blunder, whether in the timing, method, or articulation of our aims in Libya, for all are up for debate and indeed are being debated. It is just that war is not the sort of thing that we, and most democracies, can easily agree on. (And that is why kings, not presidents in our inquisitive electronic age, have been most successful in using prerogative and secrecy to wage war.)

What is worse is that our agreement on war is so rare that we have romanticized the one war where we came closest to agreeing on, which of course has added to more disagreement because we have subsequently held ourselves to such impossible standards. This is our collective cognitive illusion that all wars should be like World War II, ostensibly the last war in which America took the right moral stance, where we were both unilateral and multilateral, defensive and yet also aggressive, and on which, at least after Pearl Harbor, there was relatively little partisan disagreement. The romanticization of this unusual war has only made the conduct of foreign policy more, not less, difficult in the decades since.

Democracies are rarely in consensus about the conduct of war, which is why we should start them with abundant caution. One reason why we have had a long and less than impressive list of foreign misadventures since the middle of the last century and at least since Vietnam is that we have tried too long, and without any success, to prove to ourselves that World War II was the war to guide all future wars. As it turns out, that war was the exception, not the rule. Yet both the Obama administration and its critics share such a missionary zeal about how foreign affairs should be conducted, respectively, in their anti-totalitarian aspirations, their commitment to procedural orthodoxy, and moral leadership.

Our present disagreement about how to deal with Libya comes from uncertainty, the fact that no one holds a crystal ball. The problem with military intervention is that interveners must know which domestic party to side with, and some appreciation of what the end game should look like. But while we suspect that Muammar Qaddafi isn’t the best bet for democracy in Libya, no one can be sure that the rebel government in Benghazi would do any better. By definition, interveners guide the outcome of domestic strife, changing the timing, manner, and outcome of that which would otherwise have organically occurred. This is good, in the short run, for global order; but bad, in the long run, for democratic consolidation in the host country, and political consensus in the intervening country.

As the White House struggles to articulate a clear mission in Libya in the face of criticism from both the liberal and conservative bases, it is worth noting that ambiguous aims beget unending wars as it is worth remembering that Odysseus took 10 years to make his way home after the fall of Troy. If the Middle East’s journey toward democracy is likely to be long and protracted, Operation Odyssey Dawn may suffer from "mission creep" if the administration is not careful.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Patterns in Presidential Politics

As the race for the Republican nomination warms up, it is too early to tell who would head the party's ticket next Fall. But there is more to understanding politics than predicting the horse races, and for those ready to look, there are already patterns emerging  from the available field of potential candidates.

First, the  next Republican nominee is not likely to come from the other end of Pennsylvania avenue. With the announcement of Senator John Thune (SD) that he would not be running, there are no more sitting Senators vying for the Republican nomination. There is only one former Senator thinking of running, Rick Santorum (PA); but he is not a serious contender. There is one sitting member of the House Ron Paul (TX) and one former member, Newt Gingrich (GA), who are likely run, but neither of them are inspiring much confidence.

Second, the next nominee is likely to have spent some time in a Governor's Mansion. The buzz, if there is any, revolves almost entirely on the Governors and former Governors. Among those still in office are Haley Barbour of (MS), Mitch Daniels (IN), and Rick Perry (TX). Even more exciting are the names of former Governors Mike Huckabee (AR), John Huntsman (UT), Sarah Palin (AL), Tim Pawlenty (MN), and Mitt Romney (MA), the current frontrunner.

What do these two patterns tell us? First, the Founders' aim to separate the legislative and executive functions has succeeded, perhaps even beyond their intent. Whereas there was a time when most Senators looked into the mirror and privately hailed the impending Chief, this is no more. It is true that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama once sought the presidency from the chambers of the Senate, but they were had spent only 8 and 4 years there, not like John Kerry, who lost the race to another Governor in part because of the record of his votes. Bush was able to paint Kerry as a flip-flopper only because the latter had to explain his vote authorizing the president to use force in Iraq (a problem which had also compromised Clinton's candidacy.)

The point then, is that Americans today believe that legislators deliberate.They write prose, as was said of Clinton. But executives, we have come to believe, are deciders. And they are also expected to inspire us with poetry. This Obama was able to do in 2008, and so he was an exception to the line of former Governors -- Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush -- who had preceded him in the White House. Witness the low approval ratings of Congress as an institution, in contrast to the personal popularity of any president, even deep into his first term. In an age of impatience, we do not have time for the lethargy of Congress (or the Courts), but we wait with abated breath for the energy of the executive.

Second, that Governors' Mansions are better breeding grounds for a future president than either House of Congress tells a systemic story about America's (or at least Republican America's) increasing distrust of Washington, DC. The capital is not so much a symbol of a nation as it is a despised metropole of an empire, as distant from the people as it is the opposite of their virtue. And this is why Governors are able to speak the appealing language of the "outsider" untainted by beltway politics, and it points to why Haley Barbour, who has strong ties to former colleagues at K Street, may have less of a competitive advantage than would say, a Tim Pawlenty.

It is no wonder then, that Republican operatives are still waiting for a candidate who would be a breath of fresh from far far away in some state capital, who has not (yet) spent a lifetime in politics and without a record of having taken positions on various political issues. If you're now thinking that Republicans are basically looking for their Obama, then that too is my point, as it is my warning. For even Democrats have wondered in the last year if a rookie's inspiration was worth its price in inexperience. This is American politics writ large, bi-partisan, and uncompromising in the 21st century, for better and, though it is seldom emphasized, also for worse.