To the Editor:
In the ideological warfare of our time, there has emerged the interesting phenomenon of the “phony Center,” whereby liberals try to seize exclusive possession of the “responsible” middle ground located between the “extremes” of both Left and Right; thus—to mention just one well-known instance—Robert Hughes of Time adopted conservative arguments against multiculturalism while energetically vilifying the very conservatives from whom he derived those arguments. The motive for this tactic is obvious: to criticize the Left while avoiding any damning link with the Right. The phony centrist can thus sit back, let the Right fight the battle and take the casualties, then move in and claim credit for the Right’s ideas and accomplishments while consigning the Right to the fever swamps. It is, to put it mildly, an intellectually dishonest thing to do.
But now COMMENTARY, which itself has eloquently dissected the “phony Center” (see Carol Iannone’s “PC with a Human Face,” April 1993), seems to be making out a phony Center of its own. In “Threats to U.S. Sovereignty” [March], Jeremy Rabkin says that Patrick J. Buchanan, who has attacked the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a threat to national sovereignty, is a “demagogue” engaging in “overheated” and “hypocritical” rhetoric. But having dismissed Buchanan, Mr. Rabkin then turns around and criticizes NAFTA for the same reasons as Buchanan! It seems that when Buchanan is worried about the loss of U.S. sovereignty, that is very bad, but when a writer for COMMENTARY expresses the exact same concerns (several months after the historic anti-NAFTA battle has already been lost), well, that is very good. The “no-friends-to-the-Right” syndrome, and the resulting construction of a phony Center from which to attack both Left and Right (in this instance the Left being the globalists and the Right being the nationalists), apparently afflicts neoconservatives as much as it does liberals. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
Jeremy Rabkin makes timely warning against poorly conceived “feel-good” treaties that might slip through an inattentive Congress.
We need a procedure to reject treaties and bury them, so they cannot be brought up again without adequate debate. To illustrate: suppose a majority in Congress is alarmed by a new “Geneva Convention” that gives guerrilla/terrorists the same protections as lawful uniformed combatants, but without corresponding enforceable responsibilities. If Congress voted by a simple or two-thirds majority to reject such a treaty, then it could not be revived without (a) a similar majority vote to recall it, (b) a six-month waiting period, to ensure adequate public debate, and (c) only then, within a one-month window, a vote to ratify. Congress should have the power to reject a treaty even before it is submitted by the President.
Hugo S. Cunningham
Jeremy Rabkin writes:
Lawrence Auster complains that I have “dismissed” Patrick J. Buchanan—along with NAFTA critics on the Left—in order to position myself in the Center, while actually criticizing NAFTA “for the same reasons as Buchanan.” My piece actually linked Buchanan’s name with that of Ross Perot. But I notice that Mr. Auster does not try to defend Perot’s bluster about the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs leaving for Mexico. Perhaps I was unfair to link Buchanan with Perot, since (unlike Perot) Buchanan is a man of genuine talent and many sound and serious concerns. I am quite ready to acknowledge here that many of my fears about threats to American sovereignty overlap with those that have been ably articulated by Buchanan, both in the NAFTA debate and in other contexts.
Nonetheless, Buchanan was not content to criticize the institutional design of the NAFTA agreement or of the Clinton side-accords to NAFTA. Like Perot, Buchanan aligned himself quite directly with the protectionist attack on NAFTA. At this point, Buchanan makes no bones about his opposition to free trade. In one column not long ago, he went so far as to defend the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, which most economists see as a principal contributor to the Great Depression. I think “demagogic” is not too strong a word for some of Buchanan’s attacks on free trade, because it seems very clear to me that the U.S.—and the rest of the world—will be much worse off if we repudiate the free-trade policies of the last 50 years. At any rate, I am sure that because of Buchanan’s open and general embrace of economic protectionism in the NAFTA debate, his (valid) complaints about particular details of the trade agreement did not get the hearing they deserve. And that was the point I tried to make, by setting off Buchanan’s general scare talk with that of the Left, in the opening paragraphs of my article.
I do not wish to dispute with Mr. Auster, however, over the choicest locations on the ideological spectrum. Many champions of free trade consider themselves to be on the Right. I am certainly held by my academic colleagues to be there. If Mr. Auster wants to place me there, that will not trouble me, either. But I still want to make the case for safeguarding American sovereignty without abandoning free trade.
Hugo S. Cunningham’s letter addresses a genuine issue, though I am not sure it proposes a feasible remedy. It is not uncommon for Presidents to indicate support for an international treaty or convention without pressing the issue to an up-or-down vote in the Senate. In such cases, the treaty or convention may drift for years in legal limbo, allowing proponents to claim that a particular agreement is “morally binding,” or at least a relevant benchmark for American policy—as the SALT II agreement was given a strange artificial life without ever being submitted to a vote (because it likely would have been a negative vote) in the Senate. The Carter administration expressed support for a number of human-rights conventions in this way, without submitting them to the Senate.
But I am not sure we would always benefit by depriving Presidents of the flexibility to submit treaties to the Senate according to their own (rather than the Senate’s) preferred timetable. On the other hand, Congress has always been free to adopt nonbinding resolutions emphasizing its opposition to proposed measures, including international ones. It is unclear to me what would be gained by Mr. Cunningham’s proposal that is not already available with a “sense of the Senate” resolution. As I understand it, Mr. Cunningham’s proposal would not prevent a later Congress from reconsidering an agreement that has been formally rejected, but would merely make this more difficult. Since two-thirds of the Senate must ultimately vote to confirm a treaty, I do not see that much is gained by initially requiring a smaller proportion of the Senate to indicate its willingness to reconsider the treaty. But I agree that more thought should be given to procedures for forcing, at some point, a clarification of the status of international agreements that have been endorsed by the President but not ratified by the Senate.