Of the leading political figures of the age, Ronald Reagan was perhaps the most sharply defined. He stood without ambiguity…
When two-and-a-half years ago Ronald Reagan was elected to the Presidency, almost everyone expected that there would be a marked change in the direction of American foreign policy. Nor was there much disagreement over the nature of this anticipated change. How could there have been? Of the leading political figures of the age, Ronald Reagan was perhaps the most sharply defined. He stood without ambiguity for the view that the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was the central issue of our time; that it could be defined as a struggle between good and evil; that in this struggle the United States had been falling behind while an expansionist Soviet Union was forging ahead; and that unless we made every effort to restore and assert our power, the future would belong to the forces of totalitarian Communism.
Obviously, by itself this view did not yield a blueprint for day-to-day action in international affairs. But just as obviously it suggested motion in a certain direction: a significant increase in defense spending so as to restore the deteriorating military balance, and a new determination to resist the expansion of Soviet imperial control and influence. No one who voted for Reagan could have had any doubt that this was what he would aim for, and it was therefore reasonable to suppose that the decisive majority by which he was elected signified the crystallization of a new consensus in American public opinion on the seriousness of the Soviet threat and the need to take action against it.
It is very important to recognize, however, that Reagan did not create this new consensus. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that it created him; or, to be still more precise, that its prior existence made his election possible. As evidence of this proposition, we can point to the dramatic rise in alarm over the Soviet threat after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. We can also point to the growth of support for increases in defense spending charted throughout the 1970’s by all the public-opinion polls. And we can, finally, point to a palpable intensification of nationalist sentiment in the country, beginning with the surprising outburst of patriotism that accompanied the bicentennial celebrations of 1976 and culminating in the pro-American demonstrations provoked by the humiliating seizure of the hostages in Iran three years later.
But even more striking than any of this was the radical alteration in both the tone and substance of the Carter administration’s foreign policy in its fourth and—as it would turn out—final year in office. Jimmy Carter, who throughout his campaign for the Presidency in 1976 had promised to cut defense spending by at least $5 billion and also never to lie to the American people, could now be discovered boasting that he had broken both of these promises by raising defense spending in his first three years as President. Carter, who had begun by congratulating the nation on having overcome its “inordinate fear of Communism,” and who had spoken of the obsolescence of military power as a factor in international conflict, now not only grew alarmed over the prospect of a Soviet takeover of the Persian Gulf, but enunciated a new presidential doctrine committing the United States to the use of force in order to prevent it. Carter, who had begun by stigmatizing the American effort to save South Vietnam from Communism as a symptom of “intellectual and moral poverty,” and who had cooperated in administering the coup de grâce to the Somoza government in Nicaragua, now cut off American aid to the Communist-dominated Sandinista regime which had replaced Somoza, and in addition sent money and military advisers to El Salvador to help prevent a Communist-dominated guerrilla force from taking power there.
Without denying that these highly dramatic reversals represented a conscientious effort by a sitting President of the United States to discharge his constitutional responsibilities as the guardian of the national security, I would nevertheless maintain that Carter the President would not have done such things without the permission (or even, perhaps, the urging) of Carter the politician. For the politician in Carter could see all too clearly that a shift in the climate of opinion was robbing his policies as President of the popularity they had briefly seemed to enjoy and thereby jeopardizing his chances for reelection to a second term.
In the end, Carter lost to a much more plausible and, to all appearances much more reliable, exponent of the policies to which Carter himself had so recently become a convert. The new consensus on the Soviet threat which had already waxed strong enough to force a change of direction on Jimmy Carter was by now too strong to settle for him when in Ronald Reagan it could get the real thing.
Yet no sooner had it swept Reagan into office than questions began to be raised about the precise meaning and limits of the new consensus. Those who opposed Reagan, and some who supported him, were quick to deny that his election had provided him with a clear “mandate” in foreign policy. No one went so far as to deny that Carter had been badly hurt by the national humiliation over Iran and his inability to do anything about it, but many denied that the Iranian episode was much more than a freakish accident. Reagan had won, they said, mainly because of economic factors, or because so many different groups had come to dislike Carter for a great variety of reasons forming no coherent political pattern. In any case, if Reagan should make a serious attempt to put his “simplistic” view of the world into practice, he would soon find himself frustrated by “reality” (by which his opponents meant their own view of the world).
At first not much consolation could be derived by Reagan’s opponents from this prediction. In his early months in office, he seemed bent on doing almost exactly What the critics were so sure he would be unable to do. Within days of moving into the White House, he spoke of Communism as a bizarre historical phenomenon destined to disappear in the foreseeable future, and he gave every indication of wishing to hurry the process along. In his economic program, the only area of government spending to be increased rather than cut was defense. The emphasis on arms control, which had been so marked in the past three administrations, was to be muted in favor of an arms build-up aimed at restoring the strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. Through his Secretary of State, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., he served unambiguous notice that he regarded the guerrilla movement in El Salvador as an effort by the Soviet Union, acting through Cuba and Nicaragua, to extend its imperial reach in Central America, and he expressed his determination to prevent this.
Not surprisingly, there were cries of alarm, especially over the language in which these intentions were described. But anyone looking more closely than it suited the critics to do could see that they had less to worry about than they imagined. First of all, the Reagan administration implicitly agreed with its opponents in interpreting the election not so much as a mandate for changing the foreign policy of the nation as for reforming the economy. Most of the energy during Reagan’s early months in office went into his economic program, while foreign policy was treated almost as a distraction. Thus the heavy emphasis placed on holding the line in Central America, and especially for the moment in El Salvador, was soon softened, evidently because the White House feared that the controversy Haig had provoked both in the Congress and in the media would undercut support for the President’s economic progam.
Nor was this the only sign that wherever the interests of Reagan’s economic program conflicted with the interests of his foreign policy, the former would be favored over the latter. For example, he revoked the grain embargo instituted by Carter against the Soviets in response to the invasion of Afghanistan, even though he was supposedly against doing anything to help or strengthen them. No matter that this move was rationalized with the argument that embargoes were ineffective and that we were doing more harm to ourselves than to the Soviets. The fact was that on this issue, Reagan showed that his was an administration which—in George Will’s devastating characterization—“loved commerce more than it loathed Communism,” a characterization that would later be richly confirmed by the decision to go on subsidizing the Polish economy even after the Soviet-ordered institution of martial law by the Quisling Jaruzelski regime.
To be sure, there were two major exceptions to this subordination of foreign policy to economic considerations. One was the President’s brave and stubborn determination to hold out for a significant increase in defense spending even when the pressure to back down became nearly intolerable. Yet the very erosion of the support Reagan had originally enjoyed on this issue could be blamed in some measure on his own decision to give priority to the economy over foreign policy. For if reducing government spending was our most important order of business, there was no way that the defense budget could be spared from the ax, and there would always be enough evidence of “waste” in the Pentagon to reassure deficit-minded Republicans that in opposing the President on this issue they were not endangering the national security. (Most Democrats were already reassured.) Here indeed was a “reality” to frustrate Reagan’s ideas, but in this case it was a Coleridgean reality that he himself was at least half helping to create.
The other great exception to the favoring of commerce over anti-Communism was Reagan’s staunch opposition to the construction of a pipeline that would carry natural gas from the Soviet Union to Western Europe. Here too, however, his ideas were undermined by a reality he himself had helped to create. As apologists for the pipeline kept saying, by selling American grain to the Soviets, Reagan had not exactly put himself in the best position to demand that the Europeans refuse to sell equipment for building the pipeline. American opponents of the pipeline countered by arguing that there were great differences between the two deals. Grain sales, they said, were a straight form of trade, whereas the subsidized pipeline deal was a form of aid; grain sales cost the Soviets hard currency, whereas the Soviets would ultimately earn hard currency through the pipeline; grain sales gave the Soviets no political leverage over the United States, whereas becoming the supplier of energy to Western Europe would enable the Soviets to threaten a cutoff as a way of exerting pressure in some future crisis.
Yet whatever the merits of these arguments, in the eyes of Reagan’s European critics and their American allies, the United States was at the very best being inconsistent and at the worst hypocritical. Either Reagan wanted to declare “economic warfare” on the Soviet Union or he did not. But if he did, he could not ask the Europeans to shoulder the burden while decreeing a special exemption for the American farmer.
The net result of this assignment to economic policy of a higher priority than foreign policy was the creation of a vacuum into which the opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat was able to move. Discredited by Iran and Afghanistan and demoralized by Reagan’s landslide victory, the opposition (which included Republicans as well as Democrats) was now handed a chance to regroup much sooner than it had expected. Even its severest critics would have to grant that it went on to make the most of this happy windfall.
The opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat was, and is, heavily influenced by two closely related though distinguishable elements: pacifism and isolationism. I am well aware that most members of the opposition would indignantly deny that their ideas can be identified either with pacifism or with isolationism. But as I hope to show, my use of these terms is fully warranted by the historical pedigree of what the opposition says and the logical consequences of the policies it advocates.
Of the two major elements whose influence has shaped the opposition to the 1980 consensus, pacifism is at once the more elusive and the more pervasive. It is elusive because there are in the United States only a minuscule number of people frankly and openly committed to pacifism in the strict sense of the term: the belief that war is the greatest of all evils and that nothing, literally nothing, nothing whatever, is worth defending by force of arms or can justify resorting to war. Indeed, even among the few self-declared pacifists in America, there are many who make an exception for “wars of national liberation” and are even willing to defend terrorism.
But if pacifism in the strict sense can scarcely be said to exist in America, pacifism in a looser form has become more influential than it has ever been before except perhaps in England in the period between the two world wars. What made pacifism so fashionable then was the carnage of World War I—a war that no one seemed able to explain or justify and yet that had decimated an entire generation of young men who went blindly to the slaughter mouthing “mindless” and “meaningless” patriotic slogans.
This pacifist tide was fed, however, not only by memories of World War I but also by apocalyptic visions of what a second world war would be like. It was widely believed in the 30’s that there was no defense against aerial bombardment, and that the next war would therefore spell the end of the world, or at least of “civilization as we know it.” Along with being evil, then, war had become senseless and could no longer be seen in Clausewitzian terms as a continuation of policy by other means.
The same combination of disillusioned memory and apocalyptic anticipation is at work in the spread of pacifism in America today. The memory in our case is of course the memory of Vietnam whose effect on American attitudes toward war in general has been strikingly similar to the effect of World War I on the British in the 20’s and 30’s. In 1933, the notorious resolution “that this house will in no circumstances fight for its king and country” carried the day in a debate at Oxford; fifty years later, in 1983 (just after, ironically, the same resolution had been debated again at Oxford and this time defeated), a joint session of the U.S. Congress cheered when Ronald Reagan interrupted his appeal for increased aid to El Salvador with the words: “Now, before I go any further, let me say to those who invoke the memory of Vietnam: there is no thought of sending American combat troops to Central America.” The Senators and Congressmen cheered not merely because they approved of Reagan’s declaration in the case of Central America but because the “thought of sending American combat troops” anywhere, or for any purpose, has been rendered almost taboo by “the memory of Vietnam.” Even those, both in and out of Congress, who insist that there are “places where they would favor American action,” as Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post puts it, “never can seem to think of one this side of San Diego.” In America today, slogans like “No More Vietnams,” “Hell No, We Won’t Go,” and “Nothing is ever settled by force” have become the functional equivalent of the resolution never to fight for king and country.
As in the 30’s, moreover, the pacifist attitudes growing out of the country’s most recent experience of war have been reinforced by apocalyptic visions of the future. What the idea of aerial bombardment did for British pacifism in the 30’s, the idea of nuclear missiles has done for American (and of course West European) pacifism in the 80’s. But nuclear weapons have been a much greater blessing to pacifism than aerial bombardment ever was. Whereas not everyone in the 30’s agreed that there was no defense against aerial bombardment, virtually everyone in the United States today believes that there is no defense against nuclear missiles. More and more Americans have come to doubt, furthermore, that a limited nuclear war is possible. It is now almost universally assumed that any use of nuclear weapons anywhere would inevitably escalate into all-out nuclear war and the certain destruction of the entire world. This means that for the first time ever, the basic pacifist premise—that war is a greater evil than any objective for which it might be fought—has acquired plausibility in the eyes of many people otherwise not inclined to pacifism either by temperament or by philosophy. Hence the emergence of what has been called nuclear pacifism.
Nuclear pacifism expresses itself in a variety of positions. At its most forthright and logical, it calls for unilateral disarmament on the plainly sensible ground that if nuclear weapons can never and must never be used, there is no point in possessing them at all. Some unilateralists think that if the West gave up its nuclear arsenal, the Soviets would follow suit. Others admit that the Soviet Union might take advantage of such a move to compel a Western surrender. But whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about the Soviet response, all unilateralists by definition agree that the West should immediately begin getting rid of its own nuclear weapons without waiting for the Soviets to respond in kind.
Although unilateralism has become a serious political force in Western Europe, it has thus far made very little headway in the United States. Perhaps the closest any reputable American group has come to endorsing unilateralism is the pastoral letter of the Roman Catholic bishops (“The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response”). To be sure, the bishops explicitly say that they “do not advocate a policy of unilateral disarmament.” They are willing to accord “a strictly conditioned moral acceptance” to the temporary or interim possession of nuclear weapons by the West as a deterrent, provided that deterrence is “used as a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.” Yet they declare their “profound skepticism about the moral acceptability of any use of nuclear weapons.” But if it is immoral to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances (even in retaliation for a nuclear attack), they might just as well be renounced unilaterally for all the good they do even as a deterrent or a bargaining chip.
The West German bishops, whose minds have been concentrated wonderfully by the overwhelming superiority of the Soviet conventional forces poised against their country and deterred only by the NATO promise that an invasion would if necessary be met with a nuclear response, have been sensitive to the unilateralist implications contained in the casuistical formulations of their American brethren. For their part, the German bishops have come out in support of NATO’s policy on this point. So too have the French bishops.
Here, then, we have the representatives of a constituency which not long ago was among the most hawkish in America, and perhaps the most resolutely anti-Communist, throwing their moral and political weight on the side of a position verging on unilateral disarmament, and doing so in the full awareness (as the pastoral letter suggests) that this might well result in a Soviet-dominated world. What more vivid measure could there be of the great boost that nuclear weapons have given to pacifism in America?
Historically, pacifist thought, while in itself always enjoying only a limited appeal and often operating on the margins of political debate, has nevertheless exerted a great influence on the mainstream—not under its own doctrinal flag but in the bowdlerized form of illusions about and pressures for disarmament. In the period between the two world wars, these pacifist-inspired illusions and pressures gave us the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 renouncing war. They also found more concrete expression in the Washington naval armaments treaty of 1922 (limiting the number of American, British, Japanese, French, and Italian warships) and the London naval agreement of 1930 (which set limits on the size of submarines and other warships).
The best that can be said for these efforts is that if their purpose was to prevent or lessen the risk of war by reducing armaments, they obviously failed. But the worst that can be said for them—that if they had any effect at all, it was to increase rather than decrease the chances of war—is closer to the truth. Thus the naval agreement of 1922, recently cited by the historian Gaddis Smith as a successful example of a “freeze,” is seen by Barbara Tuchman (who is at least as dovish as Smith in her attitude toward nuclear weapons) to have “fueled the rising Japanese militarism that led eventually to Pearl Harbor.”
Mrs. Tuchman’s judgment is shared by most historians, as is the view taken by Eugene V. Rostow, the former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, both of the Washington “freeze” of 1922 and of the limitations later negotiated in London in 1930. “The post-World War I arms-limitation agreements . . . helped to bring on World War II, by reinforcing the blind and willful optimism of the West, thus inhibiting the possibility of military preparedness and diplomatic actions through which Britain and France could easily have deterred the war.”
Some who accept this assesssment (including Mrs. Tuchman) think that the invention of nuclear weapons has changed everything by making the prevention of war a more overriding imperative than it was in the pre-nuclear age. But as Mrs. Tuchman herself recognizes, the record thus far simply does not bear out this idea. On the contrary, negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons show almost exactly the same characteristics as the arms-control agreements of the pre-nuclear past.
First of all, negotiations over nuclear weapons have not led to real reductions in the quantity or quality of those weapons, and such limitations as they have succeeded in establishing have not notably lessened the risk of war. Take as an example even the proudest single achievement of arms control in the nuclear age—the Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Far from eliminating or even cutting down on the testing of nuclear weapons (and therefore of their further development), the treaty has been followed by an increase in the number of such tests. The only effect the treaty has had on testing has been to drive it underground. That may, as Mrs. Tuchman drily notes, be a gain for the environment but it is not a gain for disarmament.
Secondly, arms-control agreements in the nuclear age, like the disarmament agreements of the 20’s and 30’s, have resulted in cutbacks by the democratic side and increases by the totalitarian side. Under SALT I, the Soviet Union took full advantage of what was legally permitted and forged ahead to increase the quantity of its nuclear weapons while also improving their quality. This is exactly how the Japanese and later the Germans acted in the 1930’s. The United States (following the precedent set by itself and the other Western democracies in the 1930’s after the naval agreements) either stood still or cut back in the years after SALT I was ratified. The one significant advance we did make, the placing of more than one warhead on a single missile (MRV), is now regarded by almost all arms-control enthusiasts as “destabilizing.” But in view of the fact that this innovation was developed in order to conform to the provisions of SALT I (which limited the number of missiles rather than the number of warheads), it demonstrates that the process of arms control has not even been capable of achieving one of its minimal objectives, which is (in the words of the Scowcroft Report) to “help channel modernization into stabilizing rather than destabilizing paths.”1
There is nothing arbitrary or accidental about this record of failure. It stems directly from the pacifist illusion that wars are caused by arms and can therefore be prevented by reducing or eliminating arms. But wars are not caused by arms. Salvador de Madariaga, who chaired the League of Nations Disarmament Commission, came to believe that disarmament was a “mirage” because it tackled the problem of war “upside down and at the wrong end. . . . Nations don’t distrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they distrust each other. And therefore to want disarmament before a minimum of common agreement on fundamentals is as absurd as to want people to go undressed in winter.”
This simple and unanswerable observation explains why on the one hand there are no arms on the border between the United States and Canada and why on the other hand it is indeed “absurd” to expect that anything much can be done about the arms on the border between East and West Europe.
But there is a further point to be made. The “common agreement on fundamentals” that de Madariaga rightly sees as a necessary precondition of disarmament can never be reached with a nation whose ambitions are to overturn the existing international system and to replace it with a new system in which it will enjoy hegemony. Because Nazi Germany was such a nation, it was foolish of Chamberlain and other Western leaders to imagine that war with Hitler could be avoided by negotiated concessions (or “appeasement,” to use the then respectable term). And because the Soviet Union is also such a nation, it is equally foolish to imagine that a “common agreement on fundamentals” can be arrived at between Moscow and the West.
To say that the Soviet Union’s aim is to create a new international system in which it would enjoy hegemony is not to suggest (as the vulgar caricature has it) that there is a “timetable” or a “blueprint” for world conquest guiding every action the Kremlin takes. It is, however, to recognize that the strategy of the Soviet Union is to move toward a greater and greater expansion of its power and influence, at a pace and by tactical means that combine maximum prudence with maximum opportunism.
In other words, wherever a chance presents itself and the risks are not too great, the Soviets will take advantage of it. If force must be used, as in Afghanistan, it will be used, but the clear preference of the Soviet leadership is either to employ surrogates to do the fighting, or better still, to win through intimidation rather than through war.
Since their military arsenal is designed to serve this expansionist strategy, the Soviets will never voluntarily surrender an advantage in the balance of military power. Nor will they ever enter into (or honor) any agreement that prevents them from achieving military superiority. To accept anything less than superiority—even equality or parity—would be tantamount to accepting the present international system. Indeed, because their ideological or political attractiveness has diminished in recent years, and because they suffer from a great disadvantage to the West in the economic area as well, their reliance on military power has increased and will ineluctably grow in the future. For how else can they compensate for their other weaknesses in the overall “correlation of forces”?
The United States, by contrast, leads an alliance whose strategic objective is to maintain “stability,” and our military arsenal is designed to serve this defensive purpose. Far from pursuing superiority, the United States voluntarily gave it up, allowing the Soviets to achieve parity on the theory that they had surrendered their originally revolutionary aims and had now become a “status-quo power,” content with the present international arrangements. The Soviets themselves made nonsense of this theory by continuing their military buildup even after they had caught up and reached parity. In addition they sent Cuban surrogates to Africa, and then their own troops into Afghanistan (while also providing military support to Communist guerrillas in Central America). So much, then, for the idea that they had become a “status-quo power,” and so much therefore for the chances of arriving at de Madariaga’s “common agreement on fundamentals.”
The brutal truth is that with one side eager (for economic or other reasons) to cut back on its armaments and the other side eager to consolidate and enhance its advantages, disarmament negotiations offer only a fraudulent hope. In the 30’s, the Germans and the Japanese built up their armed forces (with or without cheating) because they wanted to do so, while the democracies—pushed by internal political and economic pressures to disarm—did not even fulfill their legal quotas under the various disarmament agreements. A similar pattern has developed in our own day under cover of the SALT process, during which we have either stood still or moved back while the Soviets have built and built and built, not only expanding and refining their nuclear arsenal but enlarging and improving every category of their conventional force as well. Yet so pervasive has the influence of the pacifist illusion become in the West that, even in the face of all this, hope continues to be invested in disarmament and the opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat clamors for new and ever more radical measures.
It is in the guise of these new measures that the second major influence behind the opposition to the 1980 consensus—isolationism—has been able to stage a sensational comeback in American political culture. Like pacifism (to which it has no necessary logical connection but with which it can and always has comfortably allied itself), isolationism claims very few open adherents in the United States. For like pacifism too, isolationism was so discredited by World War II that those who have continued to believe in it, or those who have rediscovered it in recent years, rarely invoke its name in talking about their position. As if this did not cause enough trouble for frank and honest discussion, the name of isolationism (or sometimes neo-isolationism) has occasionally been claimed by writers like Robert W. Tucker and William Pfaff who for better or worse are not truly entitled to it. (Almost the only political commentator with any visibility today who both claims the title and is truly entitled to it is Earl Ravenal.)
However isolationism may be defined in the abstract, historically it has mainly meant a policy of American disengagement from the affairs, and especially the wars, of Europe. This is why the two latest manifestations of the anti-nuclear movement in the United States—the proposal that we commit ourselves to “no first use” of nuclear weapons, and the proposal that we commit ourselves to a “freeze” on the building, testing, and deployment of all such weapons—can legitimately be described as forms of isolationism.
It is true that most proponents of these measures deny that their intention is to disengage the United States from Europe, or that this would be the effect. Thus McGeorge Bundy, George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith (who have now become collectively known in certain European circles as the “American gang of four”) take great pains in their famous Foreign Affairs article endorsing no-first-use to insist that they come not to destroy but to strengthen the American commitment to the defense of Western Europe. It is, they write, the “disarray that currently besets the nuclear policy and practices of the Alliance,” and specifically the divisive debate over the proposed deployment of the new intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe, that led them to back the idea of no-first-use. A no-first-use policy would, they believe, restore credibility to NATO’s deterrent and is therefore a good idea on military grounds. But in their view, “The political coherence of the Alliance, especially in times of stress, is at least as important as the military strength required to maintain credible deterrence. Indeed the political requirement has, if anything, an even higher priority.”
How does no-first-use measure up to that overriding political requirement? Perfectly, the American gang of four tells us: “. . . the value of a no-first-use policy . . . is first of all for the internal health of the Western Alliance itself.” And so far as West Germany in particular is concerned, “A policy of no-first-use would not and should not imply an abandonment” of the American guarantee but “only its redefinition.”
This complacent judgment by the American gang of four is not shared by an equally distinguished West German gang of four whose minds have been as wonderfully concentrated by the prospect of Soviet domination as have the minds of their clerical compatriots.2 According to the Germans, not only would renunciation of first use fail to contribute to the “internal health of the Western Alliance itself,” but it would have the opposite effect of increasing insecurity and fear. Nor do the Germans agree that no-first-use would mean nothing more than a “redefinition” of “the American protective guarantee” to Western Europe. As they see it, this “redefinition” would define the “present commitments of the United States” right out of existence.
In short, far from being the best means “for keeping the Alliance united and effective,” the Germans assert that “the proposed no-first-use policy would destroy the confidence of Europeans and especially of Germans in the European-American Alliance as a community of risk, and would endanger the strategic unity of the Alliance and the security of Western Europe.”
The Germans are right. NATO has relied on the threat of a nuclear response to deter not a nuclear attack on Western Europe but an invasion by conventional forces. The reason for this reliance on a nuclear response is that the conventional forces of NATO have never been large enough to repel a conventional Soviet invasion. Not being adequate to repel in actual combat, they are also inadequate to deter such an invasion. Therefore to renounce first use means renouncing deterrence of a conventional war; it is also to counsel surrender in the face of an inevitable defeat by decisively superior forces. (On this point the Germans do not diplomatically mince words: “The advice of the authors to renounce the use of nuclear weapons even in the face of pending conventional defeat of Western Europe is tantamount to suggesting that ‘rather Red than dead’ would be the only remaining option for those Europeans then still alive.”)
The only way around this trap is to create a Western conventional capability that would be a match for the conventional Soviet forces arrayed against Western Europe. With the rise of anti-nuclear sentiment in the last year or two, this solution has become more and more popular. Except for the American bishops, everyone, it seems, is now in favor of a conventional military build-up. Even critics of the “military-industrial complex” who have complained without let-up about the “bloated” military budget can nowadays be found paying their rhetorical respects to the need for larger and better conventional forces.
But the fact is that nuclear weapons are much cheaper than conventional forces; they give “more bang for a buck,” in the phrase used during the Eisenhower years to justify a greater reliance on them in our overall military posture. How many of those both in the United States and Europe agitating against nuclear and for conventional weapons would be willing to spend the enormous sums that would be needed to build the requisite number of tanks and artillery and munitions? And what about the manpower? What about the draft that would have to be instituted in the United States and extended in Western Europe also at enormous financial cost (not to mention political unrest)?
There is reason, then, to doubt the sincerity of many of the pious genuflections before the newly fashionable idol of a conventional balance of power. But it is not the sincerity of the American gang of four that comes into question when they too pay their obeisances to the conventional defense of Europe; it is, rather, their intellectual and political seriousness. “It seems clear,” they write, “that the nations of the Alliance together can provide whatever forces are needed, and within realistic budgetary constraints.” Since no evidence is adduced to support this astonishing claim, one wonders why “it seems clear.” It is not, at any rate, clear to everyone. According to one extremely optimistic assessment—a report by the European Security Study entitled “Strengthening Conventional Deterrence in Europe”—NATO conventional forces could be adequately upgraded through new technologies over a period of ten years at a cost of only an additional 1 percent above “the present NATO commitments [of an annual real growth of 3 percent in defense spending] if such commitments are sustained and extended beyond 1986.” Yet even the optimistic authors of this report “recognize that political pressures generated by the current economic situation in the NATO countries make it difficult to achieve even the present NATO commitments.”
As for the United States in particular, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig (who was once commander-in-chief of NATO) estimates that an adequate conventional defense would mean “tripling the armed forces, and putting the economy on a wartime footing.” Possibly this estimate is too pessimistic. Even so, half of the entire military appropriation requested by the Reagan administration for this year will go to the conventional defense of Europe. Is it “clear” to anyone that more could be made available?
The only way around this trap is to envisage the additional burden being shouldered by the Europeans themselves. And that is precisely the objective of several proponents of no-first-use like Irving Kristol and Herman Kahn who are generally hawkish in their ideas about defense and whose espousal of no-first-use therefore comes as a surprise. But Kristol thinks that the dependence of Europe on the United States has sapped Europeans of the will to defend themselves. Therefore an American withdrawal in the form of a policy of no-first-use (coupled with the removal of American troops who would no longer be needed as a “tripwire”) might shock the Europeans into doing whatever would be necessary to insure their own defense. Kahn, who differs from Kristol on the issue of withdrawing troops, agrees with him that no-first-use would have a salutary effect on the Europeans.
Both Kristol and Kahn admit, however, that the Europeans might well be shocked by this policy not into building an adequate defensive capability of their own but rather into collapsing before the intimidating military might of the Soviet Union. Kahn’s vision of this possibility extends only to a neutralized Germany, but he thinks “we can live with that.” Kristol foresees worse: appeasement leading to the Finlandization of Western Europe as a whole. But if this were to come about, it would in Kristol’s stern opinion prove that the Europeans were “simply unworthy” of the liberties they enjoy (and, he adds, the same harsh judgment of “political decadence” would be passed by future historians on the United States as well if we in our turn were to refuse “the burden of large, expensive, conventional military establishments, so that we can meet our responsibilities without always and immediately raising the specter of nuclear disaster”).
In any case, Kristol does not doubt that an American policy of no-first-use would put Western Europe at the mercy of the Soviet Union unless it were accompanied by a massive build-up of conventional military force. (Kahn adds the requirement of a credible strategy for fighting a limited nuclear war if the Soviets should use nuclear weapons first.) But there is little likelihood that a conventional build-up will be undertaken either by the Europeans or by the United States. If there is to be a barrier to Soviet domination of the West, it will have to continue taking the form of nuclear weapons. Kristol may be right in saying that this Western dependency on nuclear weapons should never have been allowed to develop. But it is hard to imagine democratic societies placing themselves in peacetime on the kind of permanent war footing that an adequate conventional defense would have required. It is harder still to imagine a future reversal of this situation with expensive welfare states now in place everywhere in the democratic world. To remove nuclear weapons from the picture, then, is for all practical purposes to give the Soviets a decisive edge.
If a policy of no-first-use would do this in Europe, so too would a freeze (since it would prevent deployment of the intermediate-range Pershing 2’s and cruise missiles needed to balance the Soviet SS-20’s). That much is obvious. What is perhaps less obvious is that a freeze would give the Soviet Union a decisive edge not only over the Europeans but over the United States as well.
Proponents of the freeze all deny that the Soviet Union has achieved superiority over the United States in nuclear weaponry. Although most, if not indeed all, of them think that superiority is in any case a meaningless concept as applied to nuclear weapons, they still make a great and indignant point of insisting that a “rough parity” in strategic forces now exists between the two superpowers.
The Reagan administration does not agree. Its position is that the Soviets have an edge because their missiles are now sufficiently powerful and sufficiently accurate to take out our land-based ICBM’s in a first strike, thus depriving us of the means to do anything other than attack their civilian population, after which they would still have enough left over to retaliate in kind against our cities. In our aging Minutemen we have no matching capability, and until that force of land-based ICBM’s is modernized by the deployment of MX or some substitute like the smaller single-warhead “Midgetman,” the Soviets will continue to enjoy an edge. It follows that the “window of vulnerability” is still open. A freeze would prevent us from closing it and hence would lock us into a position of strategic inferiority.3
Yet even if Reagan’s critics were right in claiming that the window of vulnerability is a myth and that the nuclear balance is about equal, a freeze (even a mutual and verifiable freeze) would still lock the United States into a position of strategic inferiority. The reason, simply, is that with a freeze, Soviet superiority in conventional arms would become and remain the decisive factor in the overall balance of military power.
Unlike no-first-use, which would leave Western Europe open to a Soviet invasion (though this in itself would probably suffice to bring about a gradual political capitulation without any troops and tanks actually moving across the borders), the freeze would not expose the United States to any such threat. But—again, unless there were a massive conventional build-up, which, again, is unlikely—a freeze would signify the acquiescence of the United States in a balance of military power clearly favorable to the Soviet Union. This, in turn, would necessitate a very severe contraction of American commitments around the world. For our own defense, we would rely on “minimum deterrence”—that is, a presumably (though at best only temporarily) invulnerable force of submarines armed with nuclear weapons capable of devastating the Soviet Union in retaliation for an attack on the United States itself. The rest of the world we would leave to deal as best it could with the unchecked might of the Soviet Union. Soon enough, however, alone in a sea of Finlandized and Vichyized regimes, we too would find what John F. Kennedy called the “red tide” lapping at our political shores and inexorably eroding our independence and our liberty.
The isolationism that is implicit in the freeze movement, then, goes even farther than the isolationism hiding behind no-first-use. But even the freeze does not go so far as the variety of isolationism that has surfaced in the debate over Central America. If, historically, isolationism has meant American disengagement from Europe, it has also meant the determination to keep the Americas free of foreign influence. The Monroe Doctrine, indeed, was promulgated as the corollary to an isolationist foreign policy. Yet there is now a school of thought in Congress and the media which denies that the United States has the right to fight against the spread of Soviet influence even in the Americas.
Of course, it can be argued that the Monroe Doctrine has already been abrogated by the transformation of Cuba into a Soviet satellite, and that it is a little late to invoke it now in connection with El Salvador and Nicaragua. But the radical new isolationism which has appeared among us on this issue does not rest content even with the de-facto repeal of the Monroe Doctrine. In what is certainly one of the most bizarre pieces of legislation in the history of American foreign policy, the Congress of the United States has in effect demanded that we not only forget about the Monroe Doctrine but that we observe the Brezhnev Doctrine in its place. Under the Brezhnev Doctrine, once a country has become “socialist” (i.e., Communist) it must remain “socialist”; all “socialist” revolutions are to be considered irreversible. Congress evidently agrees. By enacting the Boland Amendment, which forbids the U.S. government to assist in overthrowing the “socialist” Sandinista regime, Congress has virtually written the Brezhnev Doctrine into American law.
But we are not yet done with the incredible perversity of the new isolationists on this issue. Not satisfied with turning the United States into the virtual enforcer of the Brezhnev Doctrine where Nicaragua is concerned, they are also doing their best to help the guerrillas in El Salvador get into power, despite the fact that these guerrillas are openly connected to the Soviet Union through Nicaragua and Cuba. In Congress and in the media, the new isolationists work to obstruct the giving of aid; they devote all their energies to attacking the elected government of El Salvador for its abuses of human rights; they ridicule the administration’s judgment that these abuses are declining; and they loudly and persistently demand that the guerrillas be given a share of power.
Adding intellectual insult to political injury, they claim to be doing all this because they wish to prevent a Communist victory in El Salvador, and they wax righteous with anyone who suggests otherwise. Thus one Congressman who has participated in these various efforts has attacked UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick for observing that there are those in Congress “who would actually like to see the Marxist forces take power in El Salvador.” “It is,” declared the Congressman, “slander and McCarthyite nonsense to say that members of Congress want to see Marxism triumph, in El Salvador or anywhere else.” In a similar vein, Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, replying for the Democrats to the President’s appeal for increased aid to El Salvador, began his assault on Reagan’s speech by affirming his opposition to “the establishment of Marxist states in Central America.”
These loud protestations are all very well, but if we ask what political views like those of Senator Dodd logically imply, we have to conclude that Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s charge, far from being slanderous or McCarthyite, verges on the self-evident. For what outcome other than a Marxist victory in El Salvador can be expected from a policy that restricts military aid to the government while simultaneously hampering efforts to interdict the flow of arms to the guerrillas; that puts continual pressure on the government to institute wide-ranging reforms in the midst of a guerrilla war; and that insists that the government enter into some form of coalition with the Communist-dominated guerrilla forces? It is hard to think of a better recipe for a Marxist victory in El Salvador than this combination of policies.
During the Vietnam war those who advocated accommodation with the Vietcong were able to persuade themselves that the National Liberation Front was indigenous to South Vietnam rather than an instrument of the Communist regime in the north; that although it included Communists, it was not dominated by them; and that it was fighting against the oppressions and repressions of the Diem and Thieu regimes. We now know from Hanoi itself that all these claims were false and that those in the United States who believed them were deceived. Similarly with Castro’s rebellion against the Batista regime in Cuba. Though we now know from Castro’s own mouth that he was a Communist from the beginning, when at first he claimed to be a Jeffersonian Democrat almost everyone in the United States believed him.
Things are very different today. As Ambassador Kirkpatrick points out in an article in the Washington Post, “what distinguishes the current debate about military and economic aid for Central America from similar disputes about China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua is that we have fewer illusions and more information.” Hardly anyone claims any longer that the regime in Nicaragua is a coalition of different political groups whose objective is to create a pluralistic democracy there. The Sandinistas “are done with dissembling,” and have by their candor “denied their international supporters the comforts of ambiguity.” They openly proclaim, as one Sandinista leader puts it, that “We guide ourselves by the scientific doctrines of the Revolution, by Marxism-Leninism.” They make no effort to hide their close association with Cuba, which has sent thousands of teachers, managers, and military advisers to help them move more smoothly toward a fully totalitarian society and to enlarge and strengthen an army which is already the most powerful in the region.
Nor are the Sandinistas connected to the Soviet Union only indirectly, through Cuba. Recently, the Soviets began building a new port on the strategically important Pacific coast of Nicaragua, with the ostensible purpose of servicing Soviet fishing boats. More recently still, a member of the Nicaraguan junta said that his government would consider installing Soviet nuclear missiles in Nicaragua if requested by Moscow to do so. No wonder one French observer thinks “we are headed for a slow-motion replay of the Cuban missile crisis.”
In El Salvador, too, “the comforts of ambiguity” have largely disappeared. The elections of March 1982 in El Salvador, with their huge turnout despite threats of guerrilla reprisal, have made it hard to go on maintaining that the guerrillas enjoy great popular support at home, and the documentary evidence has made it more and more difficult to deny that they are (in Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s words) “directed from command-control centers in Nicaragua, armed with Soviet-bloc arms delivered through Cuba and Nicaragua, bent on establishing in El Salvador the kind of one-party dictatorship linked to the Soviet Union that already exists in Nicaragua.”
Beyond having every reason to know who the guerrillas are, those who advocate a “political solution” in the form of “power sharing” in El Salvador also have every reason to know what invariably happens to such arrangements. Nicaragua is only the most recent example of how a coalition in which Communists are included soon ceases to be a coalition and becomes a one-party regime.
Given all this, to say that the new isolationists would like to see a Marxist regime take over in El Salvador may be the only alternative to the truly slanderous charge that they are so stupid and so ignorant of history that they cannot understand the clear implication of what they say and do.
But why would anyone in Congress or anywhere else wish to see a Marxist regime take power in El Salvador? In the vast majority of instances, the answer obviously cannot be that they are Marxists themselves or that they are sympathetic to Communism. But nowadays it is not necessary to be either a Marxist or a Communist sympathizer in order to believe that Communism is the wave of the future, at least in the “Third World,” and that to range oneself against it is to be on “the losing side.” Thus Senator Dodd: “American dollars alone cannot buy military victory . . . in Central America. If we continue down that road, if we continue to ally ourselves with repression, we will not only deny our own most basic values, we will also find ourselves once again on the losing side.”
One would never guess from these words that 68 percent of the dollars we have sent to El Salvador have gone to economic rather than military aid; that what we have allied ourselves with in El Salvador is a democratically elected government; that it is trying with some success both to carry social reform forward and to cut down on the murders and other horrors that always and everywhere accompany guerrilla war; that if the guerrillas came to power they would be far more repressive than the present government in El Salvador. Despite all this, Senator Dodd declares that we are standing against “the tide of history” instead of moving with it.
Outside the halls of Congress, among columnists, editorialists, and academics, the idea that a Communist victory is the inevitable wave of the future comes out even more clearly. How, asks Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, can a government as bad as the one in El Salvador “win a war, whatever aid it gets,” against guerrilla forces “powerfully motivated by a desire to change a society long marked by brutality and exploitation?”
Again, one would never guess that the government in El Salvador has demonstrated in a free election that it enjoys vast popular support and that the grievances of the people have not led them to support the alternative represented by the guerrillas. Nor, when it comes to Nicaragua, does Lewis assume the invincibility of the powerfully motivated guerrillas fighting against a brutal and oppressive regime there. But of course, being against the Sandinistas, they must be unregenerate Somocistas (even though old leaders of the fight against Somoza are prominent among them); and being anti-Communists, they cannot be regarded as the inevitable victors in a struggle against a Communist regime.
But the most, honest of all the statements yet published on these issues is by Seweryn Bialer, who directs the Research Institute on International Change at Columbia University. After declaring that “it is simply unrealistic to expect that American support for the Salvadoran government can prevent the insurrectionist forces from making significant advances—and perhaps even winning the war—in the next two years,” Bialer goes on to conclude flatly that it is also “unrealistic for the United States to hope to defeat Communist—or potentially Communist—regimes in the region.” Bialer knows this “from talks with representatives of the Salvadoran guerrillas, Sandinista leaders, and Cuban officials,” who have assured him that they will win. He also knows from the same sources that the Nicaraguan guerrillas cannot be expected to “defeat the Sandinistas or prevent their evolution toward Communism.” But of course he really knows it from the assumption he makes that the Salvadoran guerrillas are (to revert to Senator Dodd’s telling image) moving with the tide of history while the Nicaraguan guerrillas are moving against it.
Besides believing that Communism is the wave of the future, the new isolationists evidently believe that Communist regimes are on the whole better for the people who live under them than the “corrupt” and “repressive” governments they replace. On this point, politicians are unable to speak with the same degree of candor as a columnist like Anthony Lewis or an organization like the American Friends Service Committee. Where El Salvador is concerned, although Lewis is under “no illusion that the guerrilla forces and their leaders are all noble democrats, believers in government under law,” he nevertheless tells us that what they are fighting against is “brutality and exploitation.” Now, only yesterday Lewis was railing against the brutality and exploitation of the Thieu regime in South Vietnam only to discover (if indeed he yet has) that it was a paradise compared with what the “powerfully motivated” Vietnamese Communists had in store for the people of South Vietnam. But this time he is sure it will be different. Though the Sandinistas “do indeed have human-rights violations on their record,” Lewis says, “what has happened in Nicaragua in the last few years is pretty tame stuff compared to what has happened—and is still happening—in El Salvador.” After all, only a hundred civilians have been killed in Nicaragua during the past few years as compared with more than 30,000 in El Salvador.
The Anthony Lewis who throws these figures around is the same Anthony Lewis who in writing first about the Christmas 1972 bombing of Hanoi and then about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon uncritically accepted false casualty statistics to discredit the United States in the former case and Israel in the latter. Here, at it once again, he fails to consider that the guerrillas must have been responsible for at least some portion of the 30,000 civilians killed in El Salvador. Nor does he notice that during the period in question the war in El Salvador was still raging while one phase of the war in Nicaragua was over and the next not yet really begun. Nor does it occur to him that the Sandinistas are now in the process of consolidating their power and extending their control with the ultimate objective of turning the country into a totalitarian society on the model of Cuba. Nor does he recognize that Castroism, like every other example of Communist rule the world has ever known, has brought nothing but political repression, economic misery, and cultural starvation. Nor does he take into account the fact that the young men of Cuba have been turned into the cannon fodder of Soviet imperialism in Africa. None of these things disturbs Lewis’s belief that Nicaragua will be different.
Indeed, he and many others already detect signs that it is. Conditions, Lewis assures us, are better there than in El Salvador, and according to the national coordinator of the Human Rights Program of the American Friends Service Committee: “In many aspects of Nicaraguan life—nutrition, education, health care, and land reform—there have been tremendous improvements.” Having sung this old familiar song whose strains have echoed in countless reports from Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Ho’s North Vietnam, and Castro’s Cuba, this Quaker guardian of human rights acknowledges that there have been a few violations in Nicaragua. For these, however, he mainly blames not the government but “attempts to destabilize the government.” Needless to say, he offers no such apology for the human-rights violations in El Salvador. There, he no doubt feels, the people will go on suffering until the inevitable arrival of the same blessings that the Sandinistas are now bringing to the people of Nicaragua and which would be more abundant still if not for “attempts to destabilize the government.”
But even if a Communist victory were both inevitable and morally desirable as compared with the alternative in El Salvador, would it not still be a blow to the interests of the United States?
Not necessarily, says Seweryn Bialer. Admittedly the Sandinistas, like Castro before them and (although here Bialer is less forthright) the guerrillas in El Salvador after them, are bent on creating Communist states. Admittedly nothing the United States could have done, “neither ‘carrots’ nor ‘sticks,’ . . . could have prevented the Cuban evolution into a Communist state,” and the same is true of Nicaragua and (presumably) El Salvador. However, Bialer believes, “a less bellicose policy toward Cuba might well have prevented it from becoming a satellite of the Soviet Union.” Where Cuba is concerned, it is now too late: we have “probably missed the opportunity to separate what is authentically Cuban in the Cuban revolution from the influence of the Soviet Union in Havana.” But elsewhere in Central America it is not yet too late: we still have a chance, through “a shrewder, more deft United States policy [to] prevent El Salvador and Nicaragua from moving into the Soviet orbit.”
What we should do, according to this analysis, is coopt the Communist revolution in Central America. For “the only plausible way to prevent Soviet influence in the United States’ own backyard” is to accept and even promote the spread of Communism in the United States’ own backyard. Instead of making Central America safe for such brutal dictatorships as the one in Guatemala, which is how Bialer characterizes our present policy, we should—to put it more nakedly than Bialer himself does—be working to make the region safe for national Communism.
Never mind that there is no evidence for Bialer’s assertion that Castro once was, or that the Sandinistas or the guerrillas in El Salvador now are, “interested not in Soviet goals but rather in . . . independence, social reform, and economic development.” Never mind that Castro himself has given the lie to the idea that he was driven into the arms of the Soviet Union by a “bellicose” American policy (which in any case was not at all bellicose in the immediate aftermath of Castro’s victory and only became so as he moved through his own revolutionary ardor into the Soviet camp). Never mind the simple fact that the United States not only helped in the end to topple the Somoza regime in Nicaragua after many years of supporting it, but initially welcomed the new regime in Nicaragua, sending it more economic aid in its first eighteen months in power than it had given to Somoza in the preceding twenty years. Never mind that as in the earlier case of Castro, these friendly relations with the Sandinistas turned sour as it became clear even to a sympathetic Carter administration that they were both failing to keep their democratic promises at home and also actively working with Soviet and Cuban help to promote a “revolution without frontiers” in El Salvador and elsewhere in the region. All these inconvenient truths to the contrary notwithstanding, Bialer and others can still assure us that all the Sandinista government cares about is “its own independence, social reform, and economic development.”
Both Lewis and Bialer (among many other commentators) freely concede that the United States could prevent a Communist victory in El Salvador (and could reverse the Communist revolution in Nicaragua) if it sent its own troops in to do the job. But the not-so-hidden term in their analysis is that the United States will not and cannot intervene militarily in Central America. Bialer: “It is difficult if not impossible to imagine that Congress and the American public would agree to such a course.” Lewis: “Public feeling against any dispatch of U.S. combat forces to El Salvador is so great that it is hard to see how any President could send them.”
It is here that we arrive finally at the juncture where pacifism and isolationism—the two great shapers of the opposition to the 1980 consensus—meet and merge into a single mighty wave of appeasement.
Of course, the term appeasement itself retains its pejorative ring—so much so that in what may well be the prize polemical trick of the age, one opponent of Reagan has tried to discredit him by pointing out that Neville Chamberlain, the great apostle of appeasement, was also anti-Soviet. But appeasement by any other name smells as rank, and the stench of it now pervades the American political atmosphere. It would indeed be astonishing if this were not the case, since appeasement (as the word itself reveals) is the natural offspring of pacifism and the policy most compatible with isolationism.
Those like Bialer who call for the appeasement of Communism in Central America tell us that this is “the only way to fight Soviet influence” in the region. But the spirit of appeasement does not always disguise itself as a clever tactic for opposing Soviet expansionism. More often it appears in the shape of a rush to apologize for or explain away or even justify every aggressive move the Soviet Union makes. Thus many of the same people who think that the United States has no right or is ill-advised to intervene in Central America against the spread of Communist regimes there are quick to defend (while of course piously deploring) the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan or the suppression of Solidarity in Poland on the ground that keeping friendly regimes in countries so close to its own borders is a legitimate security interest of the Soviet Union.
Similarly, many of the same people who oppose the proposed deployment in Europe of the new intermediate-range missiles are willing, nay eager, to justify the Soviet deployment of such missiles in Europe and to translate the sophistries of Moscow’s case into terms that sound very reasonable to American ears. When, for example, Irving Kristol asked why the Soviets decided to deploy the SS-20’s in Europe and arrived at the surely correct answer that they did so for the purposes of political intimidation, he was immediately countered by Raymond L. Garthoff of the Brookings Institution who came up with “a perfectly understandable Soviet military rationale for modernization, without resort to speculation on intentions for a first strike or political pressure.”
The same impulse to deny or even cover up evidence of Soviet malevolence—and again by people, especially in the media, who leap at and magnify even the faintest indication of American wrongdoing—can be sniffed out in several other areas as well. Even before the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, there was a widespread refusal to credit the abundant evidence that the Soviets had been deeply involved in international terrorism. And then, even after the attempt, journalists who had never hesitated to convict the United States of outlandish charges merely on the basis of rumor, willfully blinded themselves for many months to the increasingly obvious conclusion that the Soviets were the guilty party. A comparable degree of skepticism has been manifested, and also for an extraordinarily long time, toward the evidence that the Soviets, in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, had been using the poisonous chemicals known as “yellow rain” in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan.
While many of the skeptics have finally been forced to come around on the assassination attempt and on “yellow rain,” no such readiness to give up exonerating the Soviets has yet materialized on two other issues. One is Soviet involvement in Central America, for which an impossible standard of proof is demanded (again in contrast to how the United States is treated). The other is the issue of Soviet cheating on SALT. When President Reagan said recently that “There have been increasingly serious grounds for questioning [Soviet] compliance with the arms-control agreements that have already been signed,” he was instantly denounced for what a New York Times editorial called “loose talk about Soviet cheating.” Other commentators charged Reagan with hypocrisy: since he himself opposed ratification of SALT II, by what right did he accuse the Soviets of violating it?
In any event, said Tom Wicker of the New York Times, even though Reagan had promised “to refrain from actions which undercut SALT II so long as the Soviet Union shows equal restraint,” he himself had made proposals that “numerous experts” considered violations of the treaty. To which one of these experts, a former arms-control official in the Carter administraton named William E. Jackson, Jr., added that it would not be surprising if Moscow had “long since concluded that the unratified [SALT II] treaty is a dead letter.”
To sum up the Wicker-Jackson position: there is no conclusive proof that the Soviets actually violated SALT II, and even if there were, they would be justified in doing so by the way “the Reagan administration has trashed the very idea” of preserving SALT II and has “repeatedly denigrated the arms-control achievements of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.”
In the past apologies for Soviet behavior usually arose out of love or admiration or sympathy. But that is not what we are dealing with here. The new species of apologetics comes not from Communists or fellow-travelers but from people who are so driven by the fear of Soviet power and so mesmerized by pacifist illusions that they will go to any lengths to persuade themselves and others that safety can be found in negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Sometimes this pretense is maintained by dismissing or denying realities like the size and scope of the Soviet military build-up and the aggressive political strategy that has accompanied it in violation of the promise implicit in the Basic Principles of Détente of 1972; or by dismissing or denying the evidence that the Soviets have certainly violated the 1972 treaty prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, and have almost certainly cheated on SALT I. Yet even when denial is made impossible by an avalanche of incontrovertible evidence, the very acknowledgment of these previously suppressed realities is usually accompanied by intensified affirmations of the need to pursue and reach agreements.
The best recent illustration of how fear begets pacifist illusions which then beget appeasement is a column entitled “Sarajevo and St. Peter’s” by Flora Lewis of the New York Times. Miss Lewis here begins by quoting a British historian who had warned against pursuing the facts of the assassination attempt on the Pope because “the echo of a bullet at Sarajevo set off World War I.” Miss Lewis disagrees. The facts, she says, “should not, and probably cannot, be stifled. History and Western dignity demand the truth.” What then is the “warning” sounded by the horrible realization that “the line of responsibility leads directly to Moscow’s KGB and to the man who was then its chief and is now the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov”? Does this mean that agreements with such a man and such a nation are worthless? Not in the least, Miss Lewis tells us: “It means getting on with arms negotiations, engaging determinedly in a search for peace with an adversary too dangerous to defy or discount. The issue isn’t mutual trust, it is everybody’s survival in a world where dirty tricks are all too possible, and so is total disaster. The appropriate lesson of Sarajevo now is to face facts, and therefore plan for peace.”
One can scarcely imagine a more vivid expression of the spirit of appeasement which has been bred by the resurgence of pacifism and isolationism in the past two years.
If the opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat and the need to take action against it is shaped by these elements (traveling, to repeat, under different names), what are its prospects for the future?
In trying to answer this question, the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that despite appearances to the contrary, we are not dealing here with a struggle that divides neatly along party lines. On the two main issues we have been examining—defense and Central America—the Democratic Jimmy Carter and the Republican Ronald Reagan have been surprisingly close. As I have already pointed out, it was Carter who cut off American aid to Nicaragua and sent money and military advisers to El Salvador; and it was also Carter who endorsed the MX, agreed to deploy the Pershing 2’s and cruise missiles in Europe, and who withdrew SALT II because the votes for ratification could not be mustered in the (Democratically-controlled) Senate. Conversely, there are many Republicans in the House and Senate who are against or are lukewarm toward these same policies even when espoused by a President of their own party, and it is an open secret that many Democrats disagreed with Senator Dodd’s attack on Reagan’s speech about Central America. There are, then, Republicans in the opposition to the 1980 consensus and there are Democrats who remain part of that consensus.
Nor does the debate divide neatly along a liberal-conservative or Left-Right axis. The liberal New York Times opposes the freeze, while a conservative like former Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon calls for cuts in the defense budget. A conservative like Irving Kristol supports withdrawal of American troops from Europe, while liberals like Morton Kondracke of the New Republic and Richard Holbrooke (formerly of the Carter State Department and Foreign Policy magazine) oppose withdrawal of American support from El Salvador.
There is hope in these crisscrossings and incoherent combinations. For if it is true that the opposition to the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat was given an ideal chance to regroup and mobilize by Reagan’s decision to pay more attention to the economy than to foreign policy, then the recent change in the balance of presidential attention might serve to restore the consensus to some approximation of its former bipartisan strength and confidence. The series of speeches Reagan has made in the past few months defending his policies on defense and Central America has already had an effect. The MX has survived a major congressional challenge, and Congress has also accepted a larger increase in defense spending than the opposition had not so long ago bargained for. On Central America, too, the opposition in Congress has been forced to back down. It has not (yet) succeeded in cutting off all aid to the Nicaraguan guerrillas or in forcing the government of El Salvador to submit to the demands of the guerrillas there.
On the other hand, Reagan has been forced to back down as well. To get the MX and other elements of his rearmament program, he has had to enter into an arms-control process which he once gave every indication of understanding to be a fraud and a trap; and he has also had to move more slowly and cautiously in Central America than he presumably would have wished.
Reagan has been forced to act in these ways largely because the consensus that elected him has been frightened by the relentless pounding and the demagogic appeals of the opposition. Even so, the American people have not changed their minds about the seriousness of the Soviet threat. We know this from the fact that in all the polls large majorities say that they are very worried about it. But the influence of the opposition shows in the equally large majorities who place their hopes in arms-control negotiations and who are especially reluctant to send American troops to Central America. As a politician, Ronald Reagan, confronted by this twin reluctance, has been compelled to bend.
But those who still hold with the 1980 consensus on the Soviet threat, and who are not politicians, have no compelling need to bend. They are free to speak plainly, and they have a great responsibility to do so. They have a great responsibility to go on saying that the Soviet threat can only be successfully met by a policy of strength and resolve which will inevitably entail larger defense budgets and a continued reliance on nuclear weapons; that the hopes vested in arms control are delusory and dangerous, and serve mainly as a respectable cover for isolationism and appeasement; that we can deter a war with the Soviet Union only if we are prepared and willing if necessary to fight; that if the United States cannot prevent a Communist victory in El Salvador, it will stand revealed as a spent and impotent force; and that the United States must therefore do whatever may be required, up to and including the dispatch of American troops, to stop and then to reverse the totalitarian drift in Central America.
In short, they have a great responsibility to go on demonstrating that pacifism and isolationism in any guise and under any name can only give us a world fashioned in the image of the Soviet Union. I for one do not believe that the American people will cooperate knowingly in the emergence of such a world. And that is why I think the spirit of appeasement now hovering so heavily over the land can still be blown away by a renewed, persistent, and unembarrassed appeal to the realism, the sense of honor, and the patriotism that erupted after Iran and Afghanistan and then swept Ronald Reagan into office only two-and-a-half years ago.
1 This statement occurs in a brief summary of the non-pacifist case, such as it is, for arms-control negotiations with the-Soviet Union. What little there is to be said in favor of arms control from a non-pacifist perspective is also well put at greater length in “The Realities of Arms Control” by the Harvard Nuclear Study Group (Atlantic, June 1983).
2 The four are Karl Kaiser, who directs the leading German research institute on foreign affairs; Georg Leber, a labor leader and a former Social Democratic Defense Minister; Alois Mertes, the parliamentary foreign-policy spokesman of the Christian Democrats; and Franz-Josef Schulze, a retired general who has served in various high positions in NATO. Like their American opponents in this debate, then, the Germans are a bipartisan group with much professional experience in foreign and defense policy.
3 It is widely asserted that the Scowcroft Commission appointed by Reagan to advise on the deployment and basing of the MX has exposed the “window of vulnerability” as a myth. But the Scowcroft Report does no such thing. It clearly acknowledges that our land-based ICBM's need to be modernized. It also acknowledges that they are vulnerable. Recognizing, however, that the only way to solve the problem of vulnerability in the short term—namely, the Carter scheme of movable multiple shelters (MPS)—had to be rejected because of “local political opposition,” the Scowcroft Commission takes such comfort as it can find in the idea that the other legs of the strategic triad will temporarily compensate for this vulnerability until it is eventually cured by the substitution of smaller single-warhead missiles for the MX.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Appeasement By Any Other Name
Must-Reads from Magazine
The Iran deal haunts its sponsors.
In a rare lucid moment in January 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the Tehran regime would use some of the funds from the Iranian nuclear deal to fund terrorism.
“I think that some of [the money] will end up in the hands of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists,” he said in the interview with CNBC in Davos. “You know, to some degree, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every component of that can be prevented.” It’s worth watching footage of the interview to observe Kerry’s nonchalance as if the possibility of transferring money to some of the world’s most lethal terrorist groups bothered him not in the least.
Flash forward more than two years later, and Reuters reports:
Germany’s federal prosecutor on Wednesday remanded in custody an Iranian diplomat suspected of having been involved in a plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in France but said the suspect could still be extradited to Belgium.
Belgium is already investigating two Belgians of Iranian origin arrested earlier this month for plotting an explosive attack on the annual “Great Assembly” of Iranian opposition exiles last month on the outskirts of Paris.
In a statement, the German federal prosecutor said the Austria-based Iranian diplomat is suspected of commissioning a couple living in Antwerp to carry out the attack and providing them with a detonation device and homemade explosive TATP.
Mercifully, European security forces unraveled the plot before the attack took place. But imagine if they had failed. Imagine the blood spilled and body parts scattered outside a rubbled convention center in Paris; the smoke rising high above the densely populated urban core of the French capital. Now think back to Kerry’s arrogance and indifference to what it would mean for the U.S. and its allies to grease the wheels of Iran’s terror machine.
Say what you will about President Trump’s penchant for hyperbole, but his characterization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action–“the worst deal ever”–was spot on.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Hypocrisy is no obstacle.
In the early days of “The Resistance,” back when the movement was purportedly focused on forming broad coalitions that spanned ideological divides, it was common to hear its members lament Donald Trump’s assault on treasured American norms and conventions. The patina of legitimacy this organizing principal lent to the anti-Trump left’s more unsavory members and tactics is no longer operative. For the power-starved left, it seems that those norms and conventions are part of the problem.
Among the norms not codified in law that nevertheless buttress the power-sharing relationships that have preserved the republic’s stability for decades is the Supreme Court’s balanced number of justices, which has stood at nine for nearly 150 years. The panic that tore through liberal ranks following Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement led the left to exhume one of the Democratic Party’s worst ideas: court packing.
It’s not entirely clear what kind of strategy liberals have devised to ensure that Democrats and only Democrats would get to dilute the conservative majority’s influence, but they sure are passionate about it. And this is not a fringe movement. From far-left websites like The Outline, Paste, and Jacobin to mainstream liberal venues like the Huffington Post and the Washington Post opinion page, resurrecting the idea that contributed to the GOP’s astounding victories in the 1938 midterm elections is just what the doctor ordered.
The Court is one of three branches now dedicated to advancing the “ideology and agenda of international fascism,” Huffington Post political reporter Zach Carter insisted. Roosevelt University political science professor David Faris penned an elaborate fantasy in which Democrats regain the presidency and Congress, the “illegitimate” Justice Neil Gorsuch resigns, and both parties agree to support a constitutional amendment to end lifetime appointments to the bench. To claim that boosting the number of justices on the nation’s high court was not a controversial proposal, Vox.com’s Dylan Matthews cited precedent established in Mussolini’s Italy. Seriously. “Court-packing is a tool,” he wrote, “it can be used for authoritarian ends, or for democratic ones.” Presumably, you are supposed to trust that the people advocating court packing to achieve that which they cannot through the political process are not the authoritarians here.
It isn’t just the Supreme Court’s organization but the U.S. Constitution itself that becomes a source of liberal consternation whenever Democrats are out of power. Specifically, the U.S. Senate, which is resistant to proportionality by the Founders’ design, has also supposedly become a tool of despotism.
“I want to repeat a statistic I use in every talk,” American Enterprise Institute scholar and Atlantic editor Norm Ornstein began. “[B]y 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 [percent] will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent.” He concluded that this was, “unsettling, to say the least,” though it is telling that he felt comfortable describing the collective habits of a group that is defined by a common gender and race in negative terms without any fear of blowback. As for Ornstein’s condemnation of the Senate’s lack of proportionality, the AEI scholar is practically coy in comparison to those on the left.
Take, for example, Ian Millhiser, who recently penned a hysterical screed on the subject. Originally headlined “In U.S. Senate elections, people of color count as 3/4s of a person,” the Center for American Progress’s blog wisely ditched the racial agitation and settled on claiming that the upper chamber of Congress is “facing a legitimacy crisis.” Why? Because of the way it has been structured since the Constitution was ratified. Indeed, without making the Senate unresponsive to population shifts, it’s unlikely that the Constitution would have been ratified in the first place. The compromise that produced the nation’s bicameral legislature was a stroke of American brilliance that yielded not only the nation’s founding charter but the Bill of Rights, the subsequent amendments, and the flourishing of human rights they enabled. To Millhiser, though, the Senate is racist because minorities tend to sort into shared communities and, therefore, receive less representation in the upper chamber.
Reforming or abolishing the Senate altogether isn’t a new idea for the left, but it tends only to rise to the fore when Democrats are in the minority. They do not dwell on Article V of the Constitution, which declares “that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” Since no state is likely to consent to its disenfranchisement, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon. But of course, not all of the left’s coup fantasies are unfeasible or even unpopular.
The move to abolish the Electoral College received new momentum following Donald Trump’s unlikely presidential victory, but the campaign to transform the presidency into the product of pure democracy is an old one. As of May, 11 states and the District of Columbia have signed onto the nonbinding National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would effectively eliminate the Electoral College by compelling a state to apportion its votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. It’s no coincidence that the only states that have adopted this anti-republican measure vote reliably Democratic on the presidential level. This legally dubious campaign has the support of liberals ranging from Robert Reich to Al Gore to the New York Times editorial board (you guessed it: the Electoral College is racist). Even Hillary Clinton has managed to overcome the shame associated with advocating the abolition of the institution that cost her the presidency in order to support this proposal.
Any fair-minded observer must conclude that the left’s appeal to the sacred inviolability of America’s cherished norms was only another convenient avenue for regaining power. There is no convention or settled principle so sacred that it cannot be attacked in the name of “progress.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Podcast: The pro-and anti-Trump conservative debate.
Brit Hume argues on Twitter: “I suppose you can also be pro-tax cuts, pro-deregulation, pro-defense increases, pro-gun rights, pro-life and anti-Trump. But at some point, it begins to seem ridiculous.” John McCormack of the Weekly Standard ripostes: “I suppose you can oppose sexual assault, conspiracy theories, lying, adultery, mocking American POWs, sanitizing dictators & white supremacists, and still be pro-Trump. But at some point, it begins to seem ridiculous.” This perfect distillation of the fight on the Right is the subject of maybe the best podcast we’ve ever done. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
And it long predates Trump.
The latest NATO summit got underway in Brussels this week, and President Trump brought all of his signature rhetorical subtlety to the Belgian capital. Off the bat at a meeting Wednesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump accused Germany of being “captive” to Russia. The remark ruffled diplomatic feathers in the Western alliance and touched off a predictable freakout among reporters and pundits back home.
When Trump insults Merkel and Germany, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tweeted, “Putin wins.” Mitchell’s horror was shared across the foreign-policy establishment. Many American liberals like to think of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel as a one-woman bulwark against populism and Putinism at a time when the putative leader of the free world—Trump—is an unabashed populist and, they suspect, a crypto-Putinist.
Reality is a lot messier.
Yes, Trump’s suggestion that Germany is “captive” to Russia was a bit much. But it is true that, among the top NATO powers, Berlin has often struck a wobbly pose in response to Russian aggression and other threats to the West. With few exceptions, the country’s leaders view Germany less as a member of the Western military alliance and more as a commercial and diplomatic intermediary between East and West. Germany’s drift toward Moscow—there is no other way to describe it—began long before Trump came on the scene.
Start with the Nord Stream II pipeline, which provided the immediate context for Trump’s barb. The project—a joint venture of Gazprom, the Vladimir Putin-linked energy giant, and several European firms—would allow Russia to deliver some 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly to Germany. Running on the Baltic seabed, Nord Stream II would bypass existing land routes, which is why it has nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe up in arms.
Nord Stream II would allow the Kremlin to expand its energy dominance and isolate the likes of Poland and Ukraine, which not only lose out on transit fees but also the strategic leverage they enjoy over Moscow—i.e., the fact that they can block the westward flow of Russian gas and therefore a significant share of Putin’s energy income. The Merkel government, which backs Nord Stream II vigorously, is deaf to the ominous historical echoes of Germany and Russia dividing the region among themselves.
The Trump administration, like its predecessor, is opposed. As Richard Grenell, the American envoy to Germany, told me recently, “The U.S. shares widespread European concerns about projects like Nord Stream II that would undermine Europe’s own energy diversification efforts.” Grenell also warned that firms working on “Russian energy export pipelines are operating in an area that carries sanctions risk.”
A senior Republican congressional staffer, who has repeatedly met with the Germans on these issues in recent months, was blunter still: “Nord Stream II is Germany making money by putting Europe under Russian energy hegemony. The Trump administration has been fighting tooth and nail to stop it. So have bipartisan coalitions in Congress. But the Germans say it’s in their national interest and won’t budge.”
Then there is Germany’s less-than-serious response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Encouraged by President Obama to take the lead in talks with Moscow, Berlin softened the Western line in word and deed. In 2015, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country’s most serious newspaper, called the German position on Russia’s encroachments a “pink line.” That was after an especially brutal Russian rocket assault against eastern Ukraine that left 30 civilians dead.
Germany’s response to the attack? It was serious, said then-Foreign Minister (now-President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but not one signaling a “quantitative change in the situation.” The previous year, as some 15,000 suspected Russian troops poured into eastern Ukraine and another 40,000 amassed by the border, then-German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was quick to warn NATO that “the impression must not be given that we’re playing with military options even in theoretical terms.”
Time and again, Gabriel, Steinmeier, and other German leaders have denounced NATO exercises meant to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe as “saber rattling” and “war cries.” Their proposed alternative: dialogue and cooperation and, well, gas deals. Berlin also reportedly opposed plans to rotate NATO armored forces through Poland and the Baltic States, and German leaders weighed on the Obama administration not to arm Kiev (not that the 44th president needed much persuading to abandon embattled allies).
To be fair, all this reflects popular sentiment in Germany. Opinion polling consistently shows that the majority of Germans don’t view Russia as a military threat, don’t support economic sanctions against Moscow, and don’t want German troops defending Poland and the Balts if Putin attacked them.
The reasons for this German ambivalence are complex. Not all of it can be attributed to cowardice or greed for euros. But it would be nice if the American reporters and pundits who imagine that Merkel can do no wrong, while Trump can do no right, would brush up on history—which did not, in fact, begin in 2016.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Trading sanity for energy.
Generally speaking, the Trump era has been defined by two contrasting phenomena: Republican disunity leading to occasional episodes of tactical incompetence, and Democratic discipline and reconstruction. When it comes to judicial appointments, however, the parties trade their roles. From non-governmental organizations, to media figures, to Congress and the White House, the right has been united, strategic, and remarkably effective at nominating and confirming originalist judges to federal court appointments. Democrats, meanwhile, have been tactically maladroit, schismatic, and irrational. Owing to their lack of foresight, Democrats are now stripped of the minority privileges that would allow them to effectively oppose Donald Trump’s overqualified nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. Thus, in their impotence, they are left with one option: radicalize their voters.
Since Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced, Democrats have preached a variety of implausible doomsday scenarios. The strategy, MoveOn.org’s Washington Director Ben Wikler told the Associated Press, was to terrify Democratic voters with three messages. “The essential message is Roe,” he said. “The secondary message for most folks is ACA and health care. . . . The third messaging plank is, ‘choose your own adventure.'” Democrats have already plowed through messages one and two with an abandon that suggests these cookie-cutter attacks on any and all conservative justices were not sticking to a nominee as conventional and well-liked as Kavanaugh. And so, by breaking the glass around message three, the Democratic Party has chosen to slither through the left’s most fetid fever swamps.
The latest line of attack goes something like this: Donald Trump selected Kavanaugh not because he served for over a decade on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, has a long record of conservative jurisprudence, and is well-liked and occasionally cited by the Supreme Court’s current justices, for whom many of his former clerks now work. No, he was picked because he is most likely to shield Donald Trump from the legal consequences that might arise from Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe.
The support for this bizarre claim is found in a 2009 article Kavanaugh wrote for the Minnesota Law Review in which he said that presidents should be protected from indictments while serving in office because “a president who is concerned about an ongoing criminal investigation is almost inevitably going to do a worse job as president.” He added that the prosecution of a president could undermine the separation of powers in the Constitution. And, after all, the nation’s founding charter already provides Congress with a remedy for “dastardly” presidential behavior in the form of impeachment. His article concluded with a recommendation that Congress, not the judiciary, take measures to ensure that a sitting president is properly protected from prosecution. These sentiments comport with a 1998 article Kavanaugh wrote for the Georgetown Law Review in which he said it is “debatable” as to whether a president can be indicted, and Congress should clarify that debate in law.
This perfectly reasonable opinion is not only consistent with what the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel under Bill Clinton concluded about a sitting president’s immunity, but it also captures Kavanaugh’s belief in the limits of judicial power. But perhaps because Democrats do not share Kavanaugh’s apprehension about executing political imperatives from the bench, they have decided that his Obama-era recommendation amounts to a desire to shield Donald Trump from the law.
“Why did the president stick with Kavanaugh?” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked. “Because he’s worried that Mr. Mueller will go to the court and ask that the president be subpoenaed.” Senator Ed Markey, too, said that it is “not a coincidence” that Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court given his views on a presidential indictment. Senator Cory Booker concurred. “That should raise enormous red flags,” he wrote. The Democratic Party’s newest star, self-described Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, claimed that Kavanaugh’s views on indictment represent “an automatic disqualification” for appointment to the high court.
The activist left’s media ecosystem has taken its cue. “Kavanaugh was the right pick if Trump’s top priority was protecting himself from criminal investigation,” wrote Vox.com’s Ezra Klein. “He can, and he will, shield Trump from grand jury subpoenas, civil suits, and any/all other investigations,” the University of New Hampshire Professor Seth Abramson declared. And so on.
These addlepated expressions of anxiety don’t dwell much on the scenarios that would lead to a clash between the president and the Supreme Court over Mueller’s work because those scenarios do not satisfy the left’s conspiracy theorists. There’s an outside chance that the Court could take up an appeal from Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort if he is convicted on charges of tax and bank fraud, among other offenses. The Court might have to weigh in on whether the president can decline a subpoena or a request for a deposition by the Mueller probe, but this is not untrodden ground. Some have even dredged up a theory promulgated by the likes of Roger Stone that the Supreme Court can be goaded into ordering the dissolution of the special counsel’s office.
In reality, Kavanaugh’s writings suggest that Democratic trepidation is entirely misplaced, not that any Democrats will be delighted by the good news. George Mason University law professor and Cato Institute scholar Ilya Somin noted that Kavanaugh seems pretty clearly to be saying that “the Constitution by itself doesn’t bar” investigations into the president. “He does not say it is unconstitutional for the president to either be charged with a crime while he’s still in office,” Somin added, “or to be investigated for a civil offense.” Of course, congressional Democrats know perfectly well that Kavanaugh’s argument is an argument about policy, not law. And the number of fair-minded observers calling Democrats out on their opportunism and hypocrisy is approaching critical mass.
And so, the Democrats’ latest choose-your-own-adventure is set to lead readers into another dead-end. But the fevered fantasies that compelled Democrats along on this wild speculation are the same ones that compelled the party to filibuster Neil Gorsuch, even though everyone knew it would result in the end of the judicial filibuster and the predicament in which Democrats now find themselves. The party is cultivating a fanatical base, but it is sacrificing sanity in the process. That’s a tradeoff Democrats will one day soon regret.