To commemorate COMMENTARY’s sixtieth anniversary, and in an effort to advance discussion of the present American position in the world, the editors addressed the following statement and questions to a group of leading thinkers:
In response to a radically changed world situation since the Islamist attacks of 9/11, the United States under George W. Bush has adopted a broad new approach to national security. The Bush Doctrine, as this policy has come to be known, emphasizes the need for preemption in order to “confront the worst threats before they emerge.” It also stresses the need to transform the cultures that breed hatred and fanaticism by—in a historically stunning move—actively promoting democracy and liberty in the Middle East and beyond. In the President’s words, “We live in a time when the defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom.”
This sweeping redirection of policy has provoked intense controversy, especially but not only over its practicality, and especially but not only over its application to Iraq. At issue as well are the precise nature of the threats faced by the United States and the West, the specific tactics adopted by the Bush administration in meeting them, American capabilities and staying power, relations with traditional allies, the larger intentions and moral bona fides of U.S. foreign policy, and much else besides. Opinion on these matters is divided not only between the Left and the Right in political and intellectual life but, quite sharply, among American conservatives themselves.
- Where have you stood, and where do you now stand, in relation to the Bush Doctrine? Do you agree with the President’s diagnosis of the threat we face and his prescription for dealing with it?
- How would you rate the progress of the Bush Doctrine so far in making the U.S. more secure and in working toward a safer world environment? What about the policy’s longer-range prospects?
- Are there particular aspects of American policy, or of the administration’s handling or explanation of it, that you would change immediately?
- Apart from your view of the way the Bush Doctrine has been defined or implemented, do you agree with its expansive vision of America’s world role and the moral responsibilities of American power?
The responses, 36 in all, appear below in alphabetical order.
This symposium is sponsored by the Edwin Morris Gale Memorial Fund.
The Bush Doctrine contains two strands of analysis that, pushing in opposite directions, have produced gigantic failures in American policy. The doctrine’s first strand affirms that the United States and the world are threatened by rogue states and some dangerous non-state actors, whose motivations are, at bottom, self-interested. These enemies ought to be brought to heel by swift military action, keeping the power of command in American hands and relying on the latest gizmos of high-tech weaponry.
The Bush Doctrine’s second strand asserts that the United States and the world are threatened by full-scale ideological movements calling for aggressive violence and random slaughter, and resembling in some ways the classic totalitarian ideologies of the past. These movements, being popular, will never be defeated by armies alone. They will be defeated, instead, by countermovements that will engage the totalitarians in argument and that will secure their triumphs only by constructing the kinds of institutions that favor liberal and rationalist ideas. The countermovements will have to build, in short, a new political culture in key regions. Military force might well be required to give the anti-totalitarians a boost—to lift them into power, in certain cases, and to help them stay there. But ultimately the victories will have to be political and ideological.
The champions of the Bush Doctrine, to my knowledge, have never laid out the principles of this second strand of thought in much detail. President Bush has delivered some intelligent speeches about totalitarianism and “ideologies of hate,” but when he has spoken off the cuff he has sometimes recast the ideological battle in terms that might seem appropriate to a rustic Christian preacher, all of which suggests a somewhat casual or non-committal attitude.
In any fight against mass movements that are animated by mad ideological beliefs, the first thing to do is to mount a campaign of ideas—a campaign to identify the totalitarian doctrines and expose their flaws. The Bush administration has never managed to mount anything of the sort, at least not on the eye-catching and ambitious scale that our current predicament would seem to require (though I’m aware that, here and there within the government, some people are doing their best). Instead, the administration has launched public-relations programs in the Muslim world, which have been laughable—reinforcing the impression that the Bush Doctrine’s second strand has been conceived as an afterthought and is valued mainly for its oratorical opportunities.
The second strand does have military implications, and these are easy to identify, even to a military non-expert like me. The main purpose of military action, from this viewpoint, ought to be to support the political development and popular strength of the anti-totalitarian movements. Toward this end, military action ought to be designed to promote liberal and rationalist goals—and therefore ought to be consistent, as much as possible, with liberal principles. There is an obvious way to go about launching military actions that deploy large numbers of troops and observe liberal principles and encourage a new political culture, and this obvious way is to make use of the elephantine mechanisms of law and multilateral institutions. The first strand of the Bush Doctrine emphasizes the military value of being sleek, agile, and indifferent to world opinion, but the second emphasizes the military value of actions that are plodding, punctilious, and popular.
President Bush has tried to meld these strands together. It can’t be done. He has described the enemy every which way, and in so doing has left most of the world, including our own part of it, fatefully confused. It is shocking to me that, four years after 9/11, the White House has generated no consensus, none at all, about the general nature of the enemies we face. We invaded Iraq on the military basis of the first strand, only to discover our urgent need for the military qualities implied in the second. And disasters have followed.
The first Bush administration, back in 1991, badly underestimated the Baathists and ended up allowing Saddam to achieve a victory, if only by allowing him to remain in power. The administration thereby betrayed the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq, who were slaughtered in droves. The second Bush administration has committed precisely the same error. Thus the United States has for the second time created a situation in which huge masses of Iraqis, our own allies, have been slaughtered by their and our enemies. This is surely one of the worst things the U.S. has ever done in modern times—something disgraceful yet somewhat understandable the first time, and beyond disgraceful the second time.
If I had my druthers, I would love to see President Bush fire every one of his top advisers, and keep on firing them, the way that Lincoln did during the Civil War, until a new Ulysses Grant, or several of them, civilian and military, somehow emerged. I would love to see the President reach out to those people within the European Left, not to mention the American Democrats, who share the values of the second strand. Okay, I’m dreaming. This administration is much too sectarian to do anything of the sort. Besides, the administration radiates an air of “what, me worry?” incompetence, which will inhibit any effort to undo the disasters of the past.
Is there something to be said, at least, for the Bush Doctrine’s expansive vision of American responsibility? In my view, it is a mistake to bang too heavily on an American drum. The administration has managed to reduce the gigantic question of resisting the totalitarian and fascist movements of our time to a simple question of American hegemony. We should be emphasizing something else—the need for liberal and democratic societies of many kinds to establish a hegemony of principles of human decency and mutual respect. We ought to rid ourselves of every single aspect of what is called the Bush Doctrine, except for those aspects that could just as well be called the Franklin Roosevelt Doctrine of the Four Freedoms. The United States with its wealth and power and military capabilities should certainly make outsized contributions to the foreign-policy programs of the future, but these programs ought to be conceived in a light of practical internationalism instead of incoherent nationalism.
I applaud the Bush Doctrine. I think it was the right response—the only possible response—to the horror of 9/11. In light of the very real prospect that millions of Americans may be killed by biological or nuclear weapons, it would be madness to sit back and rely on the law-enforcement approach that failed on 9/11. While President Bush has improved the effectiveness of homeland-security efforts, he has correctly placed the emphasis on a forward defense strategy. This means killing or detaining terrorists even before they attack; denying them sanctuary; and trying to dry up their sources of support by promoting a constructive alternative for the Muslim world—namely, liberal democracy.
This policy has been largely successful. Who would have dreamed in September 2001 that we would soon see the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baathists in Iraq, or the establishment of nascent democracies in their place; the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon; the renunciation by Libya of its WMD program; the breakup of the biggest nuclear-smuggling ring in history, run by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan; the establishment of pro-Western democracies in Ukraine and Georgia; and, perhaps most importantly of all, not a single major terrorist attack on U.S. soil? Not all of these facts can be ascribed solely or even mainly to American action; some might even be due to sheer, temporary luck. But even if we are hit again tomorrow, a four-year respite is pretty good—and more than almost everyone (myself included) expected.
That said, I think there are major problems with the way the Bush Doctrine has been implemented—or, more accurately, not implemented. After 9/11, the President vowed that “you are either with us or against us.” Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia appear not to have gotten the message.
In all three of these supposed American allies, the news media—which remain under the thumb of the state—continue to spew anti-American rhetoric of startling virulence and breathtaking falsity. Pakistan is allowing Islamist extremist groups to use its soil as a base for attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Egypt has responded to U.S. demands for democracy with sham elections in which Hosni Mubarak won a Saddam-style 88 percent of the vote. And, despite some efforts to curtail terrorist financing, Saudi Arabia continues to bankroll madrassas and mosques around the world that remain breeding grounds of fanaticism. What consequences have they suffered? None that I’m aware of.
Admittedly these are hard problems; in all three cases there is reason to fear that any alternative regime might be even worse. But what about Syria? Bashar Assad—the world’s sole remaining Baathist dictator—allows jihadist killers to use his country as a transit point into Iraq, where they murder many Americans and even more Iraqis. Syria has been warned for more than two years to shape up or face the consequences. Yet none has been forthcoming. This cannot be for fear of bringing to power a Syrian government even more inimical to U.S. interests than the current one; it is hard to imagine such a regime.
The failure better to police the Iraq-Syria border—which would probably necessitate military action in Syria itself—has been one of the biggest problems with the U.S. liberation of Iraq, but it is far from the only one. The lack of pre-invasion diplomacy, the lack of post-invasion planning, the lack of ground troops, the lack of intelligence, the lack of coordination and oversight, the lack of armor, the lack of electricity—all these errors have been noted ad nauseam. There has been some exaggeration of them by the President’s political opponents, along with an implausible attempt to dump the blame on a handful of “neocon” appointees while ignoring the culpability of senior military officers and non-neocon civilians. But in essence most of the charges are true.
There is no question that the war has been bungled in many respects. And yet, that doesn’t make the Iraq war very different from any other—including World War II, where many blunders (Anzio, Dieppe, Iwo Jima) killed more Allied troops in a single day than died during the first two years of fighting in Iraq. If we win in Iraq—and, despite everything that has gone wrong, victory is still the most likely outcome—the missteps along the way will be forgotten.
To his credit, President Bush has not made the most serious mistake of all, which would be to lose his nerve. His steely determination to stay the course, notwithstanding the baying of the press and the Democrats (forgive the redundancy), is giving Iraqis the breathing room they need to build political and security institutions that might be able to survive a drawdown (though not a total pullout) of U.S. forces.
We’re finally on the right course in Iraq, though it has taken a while to get there. I am not so sure we’re on any course at all in dealing with the looming threat of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear-weapons programs. In both cases, the administration has so far been satisfied with toothless multilateral diplomacy that has merely bought time for atomic assembly lines to ramp up. There are no easy answers here, and military action is not a terribly palatable option. But why hasn’t the U.S. done more to try to bring about peaceful regime change? The President has talked eloquently about the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity.” I wish he had done more to promote those demands in the two remaining members of the “axis of evil.”
Lest I end on a sour note, some perspective is in order. No President can achieve everything or please everyone. Even as Bush’s poll ratings go south for the winter, it helps to remember how reviled Harry Truman was when he left office in 1953. His reputation revived in subsequent years when it became clear that he had set in place the containment policies that ultimately won the cold war. So, too, I suspect George W. Bush will one day be seen as the President who set us on the long road to winning the war on Islamist terror.
William F. Buckley, Jr.
I do not count myself a supporter of the Bush Doctrine, though I count myself a supporter of Bush. The President’s “diagnosis” of the threat we faced—or were facing—or continue to face—requires more parsing than I think the editors of COMMENTARY would wish from me. The threat he singled out in 2002 focused on the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by an enemy of freedom. Here was a dictator who had succeeded, in his own country, in ending freedom, and was putatively determined to succeed beyond his shores, reaching, perhaps, to our own.
I do not think that the President, since the invasion, established retrospectively either the capability of Saddam Hussein to extend his threat or his determination to attempt to do so. I think the President acted on the intelligence at hand. But even if he acted as we’d wished he had, his actions did not bring about the termination of a prior foreign-policy doctrine for the United States or any doctrinal prescription for dealing with such threats in the future.
Bush’s success has to be weighed by—there is no other way—the success of the Iraqi venture. Something that very much needed doing, after 9/11, was a demonstration of U.S. resolve and capability. We demonstrated both in Afghanistan. The undertaking was decisive, rapid, and exemplary in other aspects as well. The ensuing campaign, against Iraq, has required for its justification a kind of empirical success we have not yet achieved. We have not defeated the insurgency or united the Iraqi nation. If we do achieve those ends, and if they bring on a step forward in the direction of Iraqi security and constitutional government, the President will rightly be acclaimed for having dared to undertake something that vastly reorders life and hope in a critical part of the world. If the venture fails, he will justly be held accountable for imprudence.
Are there aspects of our policy that I would change? This is a tough question. As the costs increase, so also should the scale of our visionary purpose. It is inappropriate for the President to abbreviate, let alone abandon, a rhetoric that underwrites a great enterprise. If the Iraq venture were merely one more great-power gymnastic exercise, he would find the ongoing costs hard to justify. As these costs mount, the purpose of expending the necessary funds and other resources cannot be undermined. As we have come this far, and done what has been done, I do not see anything of a military character to be done differently from what we are doing, and I cannot see any prospect of a substantial geostrategic modification of the thinking that brought us to where we are.
But, to address the final question, I do not believe that Bush’s expanded view of the U.S. role is wise. Our goals, as pronounced once by Woodrow Wilson and now by George Bush, remain organically commendable as free societies are themselves commendable. In the nature of things, however, rescue missions to tormented nations of the world have to be selective—a geostrategic art form.
This is so obviously the case that it is embarrassing to undertake to remake it. “What do you call dictators of countries that have nuclear bombs?” the saw began, decades ago.
We are not about to extend the President’s concern for freedom to an energetic concern for freedom in mainland China. We cannot even rev up the political energy to do anything about the genocide in Sudan. Every now and then the stars arrange themselves to give us an ideological mission we can handle, as in Grenada under Reagan—and before that, on an entirely different scale, the war against Hitler. But accompanying doctrines are to be reserved for political oratory. In days and decades ahead, the U.S. will do good for other countries and for humankind, but not, I think, as a doctrinal exercise traceable to a “Bush Doctrine.”
Eliot A. Cohen
I have never understood the supposed novelty of the Bush Doctrine. The right to preemption is inherent in the functioning of a more or less anarchical society of states. Were the French to face a probable attack from, say, Tunisia, and if they thought they could do something about it in advance, they would. So would any other state not run by cowards or fools.
Nor is it a matter of great novelty that the path to security from Islamic terror lies in some liberalization of the Middle East—the spread, not so much of democracy in the sense of plebiscites or even regular elections, but of limited government, free press, the rule of law, and a regular rotation of leaders who can be evicted from power by something other than illness, death, or coup. What are the alternatives, really? To wall off the Middle East from all contact with the developed world? To turn the rule of turbulent societies over to reliable thugs? To accept Islamic fanatics in their rise to power, with the hope that its exercise would moderate them? The first is impossible, the second and third have been tried and failed, and even in the most appeasement-prone capitals of Old Europe or Asia, you will not find anyone who seriously believes in them. Indeed, only a handful of American academics, intoxicated with theories that deny the importance of religion as a force in the life of humanity, believe that we have the option of sitting pat, and waiting for the forces of political realism to work their inexorable and presumably beneficent will.
In the short term, doctrines do not change the world: action does. The much underrated removal of al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan and the killing or arrest of most of its pre-9/11 leadership (and the scattering of the rest) did not remove the fundamental problem, but it did severely weaken an exceptionally dangerous organization. To be sure, the ideology of al Qaeda lives, and numerous cells remain dormant or have sprouted up around the world. But smashing and dispersing the core hierarchy probably prevented more mega-terrorist events; while dealing with loosely networked terrorists is difficult, counteracting a well-organized and coordinated enemy of this kind would be even more difficult.
About the long term we simply do not know. The liberation of Iraq was a good thing in and of itself; the language of freedom that accompanied it has had a salutary effect in Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world; and American military prowess, and our demonstrated will to use it, produced good results in Libya. But it is no doubt true that the war increased antipathy to the United States in the Arab world, and in the short run has stimulated the recruitment of terrorists inflamed by the lies of al Jazeera as well as a bitterly anti-American Arab, and in some cases European and Asian, intelligentsia.
Launching a war is like rolling a giant stone down a mountain slope strewn with rocks: we cannot predict where the avalanche will go. Whether Iraq is a success or a failure (and what success and failure mean is open to debate), the consequences will be prodigious, for good or for ill. This is a bold and determined administration; the war was a bold stroke, and boldness has both risks and rewards.
There are three things the administration could do, in ascending order of difficulty and descending order of likelihood, to make its doctrine effective. The first is to speak plainly about the nature of the enemy—Islamic extremism—and to do so in ways that do not misstate its argument, its appeal, or its roots. Administration spokesmen shrink from using the word “Islam,” for fear of being accused of bigotry. Anodyne formulations like “a perversion of a great religion” or “a few extremists” do not capture the power of this movement. There is a great need for a sober, detailed, and educational rhetoric about whom we are fighting. Happy talk to the Muslim world about what nice people Americans are is not only no substitute—it fools only those who utter it.
Second, the administration wrongly steered away from asking the American people to sacrifice anything in this war. Lowering taxes, it hampered its own ability to raise defense budgets. More importantly, it allowed the spirit of patriotism and resolve that flooded the country after 9/11 to dissipate over time. If you do not ask people to lend their money or their children to a fight, they will not think that they are at war. Nor was the administration willing to accept the political pain of a serious effort to undermine the grip of oil on the economy—a grip that indirectly feeds the infrastructure of terror—by imposing taxes that would reduce consumption and stimulate alternative fuels or thriftier uses of those we have. If this is war—and it is—then it demands sacrifice and an appeal for service.
Finally, the administration has suffered from its insularity, its overwhelming emphasis on loyalty to the exclusion of all other virtues, its suspicion of those with whom it could have made common cause, its refusal to admit missteps or failure, its inability to fire the incompetent (as opposed to the merely disgruntled). Huddled now in its bunker, assaulted not only for a botched war abroad but for a bumbling reaction to natural catastrophe at home, it is unlikely to open itself up; but it would be better if it could.
The expansive vision of the Bush administration seems to me broadly right, and I admire unreservedly the courage and determination with which it has pressed the fight. But how I wish that the spine of steel had found its match in an eloquence suitable to the moment; how I would have desired as great a stress on talent as on fidelity; how much better if the commitment to a vision of freedom abroad were matched with an equal and effective commitment to greatness at home; how ironic and sad that competence—the quality upon which this administration prided itself when it came to office—has, for too long, been in such short supply.
In my book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), I argued that the Bush Doctrine was less radical as a doctrine than was widely thought when it was promulgated.
The administration’s key document, the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States, argued that because “deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network or murderous dictator . . . constitute as grave a threat as can be imagined,” the President should, at his discretion, act preemptively to forestall any such threat, even if the threat was not imminent in the traditional sense of armies massing on borders. Many critics seized upon this as a dangerous new departure. Yet the idea of preemption had been asserted by more than one President during the cold war, and had been assumed by them all. The radical aspect of the Bush Doctrine was not so much the theory as the practice.
Even before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it became clear that the White House intended to use the doctrine of preemption to justify violating the national sovereignty of certain “rogue regimes” and using military means to neutralize perceived future threats, preferably by changing those regimes. In Empire: The Rise and Fall of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2003), I had expressed some doubts as to whether the United States had the economic, military, and political capabilities to make a success of what was, in all but name, an imperial undertaking. Unlike many critics of the Bush administration, I did not dismiss the project as morally wrong. On the contrary, I argued that there were a number of regimes around the world that were likely to cease sponsoring terrorism, acquiring nuclear weapons, or murdering their own people only as a result of effective foreign intervention. My qualms have all along related to the ability of the United States successfully to execute such interventions.
I have no doubt that the 2002 National Security Strategy was right in its diagnosis of the dangers posed to the United States. Nor do I doubt that a preemptive strike to avert the use of weapons of mass destruction against American targets would be legitimate. But I would add two qualifications.
First, terror networks are a proven threat even when they do not have WMD. Second, it now seems clear that Saddam Hussein did not pose even a distant threat to the United States in 2003, though it was impossible to be sure of that at the time. As I contend in Colossus, the claims made by the American and British governments in connection with Iraq’s WMD capability and links to al Qaeda lacked credibility. There were good reasons for overthrowing Saddam, but these were not among them.
Is, then, the United States more secure today than in 2000? From the point of view of U.S. military personnel, it is less secure, in the sense that they are much more likely to be killed or wounded by hostile action than during the 1990’s. How far this increased risk is outweighed by the reduced threat from a jailed Saddam is not clear.
On the other hand, we cannot know the degree to which actions taken by the Bush administration in Afghanistan, Iraq, and—perhaps more importantly—in the American homeland have reduced the ability of organizations like al Qaeda to attack the United States. My hunch is that another 9/11-type attack could happen even while this President is still in the White House; there are too many ways for terrorists to enter the country and operate undetected, and too many targets to protect. There is also good reason to think that the disruption of al Qaeda’s leadership structures has been compensated for by the formation of new cells and the recruitment of new operatives, notably in Europe. This may turn out to be one of the most important unintended consequences of the invasion of Iraq.
The longer-range prospects of the Bush Doctrine are bleak. The next President will need to come up with a national-security strategy that commands much greater legitimacy abroad. It might make more sense in the future to keep the doctrine of preemption tacit.
Are there particular aspects of American policy that I would change immediately? Secretary of State Rice has already made the single most important change that I would have recommended to the administration last year, namely, to revive the art of diplomacy. The United States came perilously close to less-than-splendid isolation in 2004, not least because the administration came to believe its own rhetoric about the viability of “acting alone” (another component of the National Security Strategy). But success in Iraq cannot be achieved with the support of Tony Blair alone. The resources needed to contain the burgeoning civil war in Iraq must come from outside as well as inside the English-speaking world.
As for what the editors call the Bush Doctrine’s “expansive vision of America’s world role and the moral responsibilities of American power,” I revert once more to the wording of the National Security Strategy. I am all for “actively work[ing] to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.” The same goes for promoting “the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property.” But a further defect of the National Security Strategy was its assumption that doing these things would necessarily enhance American national security. On the contrary: the more the United States represents itself as a messianic force spreading freedom around the world, the more resentment it will arouse; see the history of the British empire, passim.
Aaron L. Friedberg
Since 9/11, the “Bush Doctrine” label has been applied to various aspects of administration policy, from the President’s initial “with us or against us” warning to state sponsors of terrorism, to his declared willingness to act preemptively (and, if need be, unilaterally) to head off the danger of covert WMD attack, to his assertion that final victory in the global war on terror depends on the spread of liberty across the Middle East and throughout the Islamic world. I will focus on this final usage, which is likely to prove the most lasting.
Is a campaign aimed at the political transformation of the “broader Middle East” essential to the defeat of terrorism? If so, how can it be carried forward to a successful conclusion at an acceptable cost? The first of these questions is easier to answer than the second.
I believe the administration’s assessment of the Islamist threat is fundamentally correct. In al Qaeda and its affiliates, we confront an enemy who aims to inflict as much pain on us and our allies as possible, thereby dividing the West, forcing a retraction of American power, and clearing the way for the overthrow of local “apostate” regimes and their absorption into a transnational caliphate. Having concocted quasi-theological justifications for their actions, the terrorists put no limit on the numbers they are willing to kill to achieve their goals; all that stands in their way is, for the moment, an apparent lack of means.
The menace we face may not be “existential,” in the same sense as the cold-war threat from the Soviet Union. Al Qaeda cannot rain down tens of thousands of nuclear warheads on American cities. But, with a few well-placed dirty bombs or vials of anthrax, it could impose terrible human and financial costs and radically alter, perhaps for a generation or more, the character of our open society and the extent of our integration into the global economy. The passage of time since 9/11, and the absence thus far of a follow-on attack on American soil, have caused some observers to lose sight of these dangers and even to argue that they have been grossly exaggerated. I know of no one involved in the conduct of the war on terror who shares this sense of complacency.
The ideology that motivates the jihadists has now metastasized and spread, so that it finds adherents even in free societies. But it sprang to life first in the diverse despotisms of the broader Middle East, and these are the sources from which it still feeds and which continue, either deliberately or indirectly, to sustain it. Even if it were possible to wave a wand and transform these societies overnight into functioning liberal democracies, the jihadist movement would likely live on, at least for a time. But unless and until progress is made in this direction, it seems certain to survive, and to thrive. The absence of liberty fuels frustration and extremism by cutting off avenues for more moderate forms of political expression, reinforcing social and economic stagnation, and feeding a sense of collective weakness, shame, and rage.
The other key elements of U.S. strategy—stronger homeland defenses and a relentless global offensive against Islamist terror networks—are necessary to keep the enemy off balance and reduce the risk of future attack; but they will not be sufficient, in themselves, to achieve a lasting peace. Jihadism cannot be defeated on the defensive, or even by cutting back its visible offshoots. It must be pulled up by the roots.
There are alternatives to a strategy that has transformation as its ultimate goal. If pressed, most liberal critics of the Bush Doctrine would say they agree with its ends but differ over means (more “soft” power and less “hard,” more multilateralism and less unilateralism). While the differences are in some respects overstated, there is a serious debate to be had here and a consensus to be hammered out, though controversies over Iraq have made this all but impossible for the moment.
More distinct are the options offered by advocates of what can only be called a policy of appeasement, on the one hand, and the self-described “realists,” on the other. The first group asserts that by leaving Iraq, cutting support for Israel, and perhaps withdrawing altogether from the Middle East, we may be able eventually to deprive the jihadists of their base of support. Despite the evident moral and strategic bankruptcy of these arguments, they have begun to gain ground recently in academic circles, where books “bravely” questioning our ties to Israel and “proving” that suicide terrorists are motivated solely by a desire to free their homes from occupation are currently the rage. Fortunately, such ideas seem unlikely for now to exert much influence on practical policy.
It is the “realists” who most stand to gain if American policy in Iraq comes to be seen as a costly failure. Such an outcome would be taken as proof that the pursuit of liberalization in the broader Middle East is a fool’s errand and that, instead of criticizing “friendly” local regimes and pressuring them to reform, we should be content to make common cause in wiping out the jihadists. What is needed, in this view, is a more effective and if need be a more ruthless version of the policy that existed before 9/11. The fact that this approach has already proved its ineffectiveness may not lessen its appeal, at least for a while.
In the long run, and whatever happens in Iraq, some variant of the Bush Doctrine will remain an essential part of overall U.S. strategy for defeating Islamist terrorism. The questions facing this administration as it enters its final quarter are more practical than theoretical. How to tailor the right mix of pressures and inducements to move “friendly” regimes toward meaningful reforms, and how to deal with openly hostile holdouts? How to minimize the inevitable risks of transition (the “one man, one vote, one time” problem)? How to institutionalize the “forward strategy of freedom” within the U.S. government and the Western alliance? And how to ensure continuing domestic political support for a goal that is both necessary and just?
I believe that the Bush Doctrine’s central assumption—that the United States had to transform the politics of the Middle East as a means of solving the post-9/11 terrorist threat—was misguided, and that the problem was greatly compounded by extremely poor policy execution before and after the Iraq war. For the record, I made up my mind that the war was a bad idea by the fall of 2002, i.e., before the war began, when I was asked to lead part of a Pentagon study on strategy in the war on terrorism, and not in response to events as they unfolded after the war.
There is no question that the 9/11 attacks exposed a very new kind of threat, and that the usual tools of the cold war—containment and deterrence—would not work against suicide terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. The Afghan war was a fully justified exercise in prevention, where we dismantled terrorist networks that were clearly of danger to us.
The problem was that the Bush administration merged the terrorist/WMD problem with the problem of Iraq and rogue-state proliferators more generally. The latter was and continues to be a very serious issue, but it was never clear that a rogue state—which (unlike stateless terrorists) has a return address—would go to all the trouble of developing nuclear weapons only to give them to a terrorist organization.
The bigger problem lay with the diagnosis of the root causes of the terrorism, and the prescription for fixing it. Radical Islamism is in no way an assertion of traditional Muslim values or religiosity. Olivier Roy has argued persuasively in Globalized Islam that it needs to be seen as an essentially modern phenomenon driven by the deterritorialization of Islam, primarily in Western Europe, and by the forces of globalization and modernization that we otherwise celebrate. In a traditional Muslim society, your identity is fixed by the society into which you are born; only when you live in a non-Muslim environment does it occur to you to ask who you are. The profound alienation that results makes poorly assimilated second- and third-generation Muslims susceptible to a pure, universalistic ideology like that of Osama bin Laden. Mohammed Atta and the other organizers of 9/11, the Madrid and London conspirators, and Mohammed Bouyeri, murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, all fall into this category.
This means that more democracy and more modernization will not solve our near-term terrorism problem, but may well exacerbate it. I believe that both democracy and modernization are good things and should be promoted in the Middle East for their own sake. But we will continue to have a serious terrorist problem in democratic Western Europe, regardless of what happens in Egypt or Lebanon.
Even if one accepted the view that the Middle East needed to be “fixed,” it was hard to understand what made us think that we were capable of fixing it. So much of what neoconservatives have written over the past decades has concerned the unanticipated consequences of overly ambitious social engineering, and how the effort to get at root causes of social problems is a feckless task. If this has been true of efforts to combat crime or poverty in U.S. cities, why should anyone have believed we could get at the root causes of alienation and terrorism in a part of the world that we didn’t understand particularly well, and where our policy instruments were very limited?
The other constraint is very specific to the United States. We have gotten involved in nation-building efforts in many places over the years: Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War, occupation of the Philippines and the various Monroe Doctrine interventions, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and South Vietnam, and finally the humanitarian interventions of the post-cold-war era in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and other places. Of these, only Japan, Germany, and South Korea were clear successes, and these were places where U.S. occupation forces came and basically never left.
Americans have a habit of starting such projects enthusiastically and then losing interest after things go bad, usually at about the five-year mark; this is what happened with Reconstruction, in Nicaragua between 1927 and 1932, in South Vietnam, and in many other places. We sign up local allies, make a stab at giving them modern institutions, and then pull the plug. I was fearful that we would repeat this pattern in Iraq prior to the war, and nothing that has happened since then has alleviated that concern.
We need to win militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is extremely important that we resist pressures to reduce numbers of American forces prematurely. But we also need to conceive of the broader war on terrorism as a classic counterinsurgency campaign fought out on a global scale. In that campaign, winning hearts and minds is as important as neutralizing the hard-core terrorists. I strongly believe in the need for an expansive foreign policy that shapes the insides of states and not just their external behavior. But it is American soft power, not hard, that will be the primary instrument for promoting democracy and development around the world, and we need thoroughly to rethink the structure and funding of the instruments we have for doing this.
After the first four years of the Bush Doctrine, the United States has created a new terrorist haven in Iraq and a power vacuum that will destabilize regional politics for some time to come. While allies may seek to restore good relations with Washington at an elite level, at a popular level there has been a seismic shift in the way that much of the world perceives the United States. Our image, fairly or not, is no longer the Statue of Liberty but the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib. Fixing this problem is a project that will preoccupy us for many years to come.
Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.
I heartily agree with the Bush Doctrine as described by the editors and as outlined in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States.
We are once again engaged in a global conflict imposed upon us by a dangerous, totalitarian ideology that has properly come to be known as Islamo-fascism. Its adherents seek to implement their vision of a global caliphate governed by a Taliban-style repressive version of shari’a law. They will employ all available means to accomplish that goal.
In a world in which Islamofascists and their state sponsors and allies can reasonably be expected to have access to weapons of mass destruction, a proactive, offensive, and, where necessary, preemptive American strategy is indispensable. Nothing less is at stake than our survival as a free, democratic, and secular nation.
If we are to defeat the Islamofascists, however, we are going to need something more: the help of non-Islamist Muslims, who are as much at risk from this intolerant ideology as are those in the non-Muslim world. We must legitimate and empower our natural allies in this war. The President is right that one means of doing so is to help them establish governments that are representative, accountable, and conducive to economic growth—in stark contrast to the repression and privation associated with Islamist misrule.
All that said, I am happier with the Bush Doctrine conceptually than with its implementation. In defining the enemy in this war, the administration has largely refused to go beyond euphemisms like “terror” and “an evil ideology.” The unwillingness to declare Islamofascism the force that drives our foes has made problematic the devising—let alone the successful implementation—of strategies for defeating them.
This failure has had negative consequences for the war effort abroad and at home. The President’s bold assertion that “you are either with us or against us” has been undermined by the administration’s practice of certifying as “with us” the nation that is arguably most responsible for the worldwide spread of Islamofascism: Saudi Arabia. Despite the President’s admirable rhetoric about spreading freedom, two other nations demonstrably not “with us”—Iran and North Korea—have moved from being members of the “axis of evil” to being negotiating partners. At the insistence of putative friends like China and Russia and the connivance of sometime allies like France and Germany, these odious regimes are being assured of our willingness to support their continued misrule in exchange for still more fraudulent promises of non-proliferation.
The administration is also confusing elections with the establishment of institutions essential to functioning and enduring democracies. Elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza have helped to empower Islamofascists. Even in Turkey, with its well-established secular democracy, an elected Islamist regime is mounting a classic takeover of the institutions of civil society. Ignoring these realities is a formula for still greater setbacks down the road.
Unfortunately, the same disconnect between rhetoric and practice is evident in the administration’s outreach to the Muslim community here at home. While it talks of rooting out domestic support cells, charities, and front organizations that enable terrorists here and abroad, it has repeatedly embraced many who have been leaders of and sympathizers with such efforts. This has afforded Islamists access and influence and added to the incoherence of U.S. war policies, while demoralizing truly non- or anti-Islamist Muslims.
Unless promptly corrected, such practices augur ill for needed security improvements over both the short and long terms. The most urgent change, apart from clarifying the nature of the enemy, is to put the country on a war footing. Four years after the attacks of 9/11, too many Americans have come to believe that the conflict in which we are engaged is the problem of the U.S. military, the President, our allies, or somebody else. That this sentiment is widely held owes much to the fact that the public has been encouraged to think of its job in this conflict as nothing more than going shopping.
There are many ways in which the American people can be asked to assist the war effort. Here are three of the most important.
First, stopping the underwriting of terror. Unbeknownst to most American investors, significant portions of their public-pension funds, mutual funds, life insurance, and private portfolios include stocks of privately held companies that partner with state sponsors of terror. Were that money to be divested, it could have a profound effect on the ability of terror-sponsoring states to underwrite the war the Islamofascists and their friends are waging against us.
Next, enhancing energy security. The public can help deny financial succor to our enemies by reducing our dependence on foreign oil—much of which is purchased from the same nations that are supporting Islamofascism and its allies. There are various ways this can begin to be accomplished. The least painful near-term approach would be to enable domestically produced alcohol-based fuels and electricity to be used on a greatly expanded basis as means of powering the transportation sector.
Third, securing the homeland. Perhaps the most basic step in protecting against future attacks requires the American people to increase their vigilance in monitoring domestic threats. In addition, the nation needs to involve its citizens much more fully in planning for and preparing against future attacks. As Hurricane Katrina reminds us, such capabilities may prove to be of great value in future emergencies, whether natural or man-made.
As for “America’s world role and the moral responsibilities of American power,” I subscribe to an expansive presidential vision that predated and underpins the Bush Doctrine: namely, President Reagan’s conviction that America is “the last best hope of mankind.” From this flows the belief that we should be engaged in the world, not out of some sense of noblesse oblige, but rather because it is essential to our own survival in the face of enemies who wish to destroy us and everything we stand for.
Reagan’s philosophy recognized that international peace is best preserved through American strength. In practice, this requires a robust presence across the globe—one able to respond to the full spectrum of threats, ideally by nipping them in the bud, but in any event confronting them in whatever way is most efficacious before they endanger our lives and freedoms.
Reuel Marc Gerecht
Although president George W. Bush didn’t invade Iraq in order to bring democracy to the Middle East—and neoconservatives, with exceptions, didn’t advocate war with that in mind—building democracy now defines U.S. policy in the entire region. If democracy succeeds in Iraq, then America, regardless of who sits in the White House, will certainly become more active in promoting representative government. If democracy fails there, then we will become much more timid in encouraging political reform.
Despite the numerous, serious mistakes of the Bush administration in the occupation of Iraq, democracy’s chances there remain decent so long as the Shiite political center behind Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani holds. But failure in Iraq may not necessarily dim the prospects of democracy elsewhere in the Muslim world.
The fall of Saddam Hussein has already accelerated convulsive democratic debates in Arab lands and in their more combative and open expatriate media. The region’s dictators and kings may have a difficult time stuffing this discontent and dissent back into the tried-and-true shibboleths—principally anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism—that have consumed the intellectual energy of so many and offered the autocrats a safety valve for popular dissatisfaction with the regimes in place. Arab left-wing intellectuals seem today less domesticated than they were just a few years back, when they eagerly turned most of their venom toward Israel and Ariel Sharon. Muslim fundamentalists, especially in Egypt, still the lodestone among Arab nations, seem much less likely to play along, and are increasingly backing the popular push for more open political systems.
Failure in Iraq would mean a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Arabs that would allow for the rise of a Shiite strongman in Baghdad. Even so, however, this might not at all be seen by Egyptians as a sufficient reason to keep President Hosni Mubarak’s family in power. The rest of the Arab world is, like Egypt, overwhelmingly Sunni. With the exceptions of Syria, tiny Bahrain, and Lebanon, democracy in the Arab world would be an intra-Sunni squabble.
Which brings us to a series of important questions for the Bush administration and its successor. Let us suppose that, regardless of what happens in Iraq, the democratic movement among Arabs pushes forward, but, as is probable, with Muslim fundamentalists in the lead. Will the administration shy away from democracy promotion if and when it becomes clear that Muslim fundamentalists will initially do very well in most Arab lands where free elections are allowed?
I myself would argue that the political and cultural evolution of Sunni fundamentalism is central to the death of bin Ladenism, and that democratic politics are an essential part of that evolution. This means that democracy’s advance in the Middle East is likely to be a very anti-American process. (Think Latin American anti-Yanquism on speed.) To my mind, this is a painful but necessary step in the evolution of Islamic activism.
Has the Bush administration thought this through? Has it tried to explain to itself, let alone to the American people, how democracy may unfold in the Muslim Middle East? Has the President, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or Karen Hughes, the new public-diplomacy czarina, called a conclave to figure out what the administration actually believes? It would not appear so.
As for those in the administration who believe that Muslim liberals, progressives, and moderates are the real key to democracy’s future in the region—a view that I find in error, but certainly an estimable aspiration—have they troubled to explain how we are going to locate and support such individuals over the heads of the present dictators and kings? Will we endorse open elections where fundamentalists can compete with liberals and others, or will we advocate banning fundamentalists from the election process even when liberals in these countries tell us that doing so will undermine them and us? Should we treat Muslim fundamentalists as beyond the pale, or even as Nazis, as some have argued? (Given that Iran is full of fallen hard-core fundamentalists who now sincerely advocate democracy, the parallel seems strained.)
Another question is useful in considering this complex of issues: are Muslim democracies that restrict women’s social rights in practice morally superior to Muslim dictatorships that advance them in theory? I think the answer is an emphatic yes, but the administration has so far shown little desire to argue this possibility, thereby allowing the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to suggest that Saddam Hussein, who was the first Middle Eastern dictator to institute rape as an official means of mind control, was more pro-woman than the democratically sanctioned constituent assembly that drafted Iraq’s proposed constitution. Women’s rights are a hot-button issue in the United States. It would be wise for the administration to explain how it intends to handle this issue in the socially conservative Middle East.
George W. Bush is one of our most revolutionary Presidents, but regrettably his administration shows little more intellectual ferment than his father’s. That is in part because many inside the critical institutions of foreign policy—the State Department, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Pentagon—don’t really believe in expanding democracy, at least not in the Muslim Middle East. And even among those who share the President’s commitment to expanding representative government, and who understand that democracy is an essential component in the big-picture fight against Islamic extremism, there is enormous nervousness about significant change in the status quo. Truth be told, the Bush administration was not that upset when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stole his reelection.
Four years after 9/11, it is still possible to see the United States wavering in its commitment to democracy more than in its commitment to the rulers of the Middle East. It is not hard to imagine Washington’s bureaucracies trying hard, once again, to cast the fight against Islamic extremism as essentially a police and intelligence action, which would mean drawing closer to the dictators and kings who run the Middle East’s security and intelligence services. If the President isn’t vigilant, we could soon be living again in a pre-9/11 world, in which democracy seemed a premature idea for people more suited to prayer and despotism.
Victor Davis Hanson
According to opinion polls, most Americans are now critical of the President’s foreign policy. They are uncertain not merely over the daily fare of explosions in Iraq. Rather, the sustained public attack on American action abroad, emanating from both the Left and the hard Right, has led to bipartisan and broadly-shared condemnation. Even some who once were adherents of preemption have bailed out, claiming that although they supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, they are appalled by what followed. Or, translated, “In hindsight I remain in favor of my near-perfect military campaign, but not your messy reconstruction”—as if America’s past wars were not fraught with tragic lapses and muddled operations.
But for all the media hysteria and the indisputable errors of implementation, the Bush Doctrine is, in fact, moving ahead. Soon it will bear long-term advantage. Despite our inability to articulate the dangers and stakes of the war against radical Islam and our failure to muster the full military potential of the United States, and despite the fact that our own southern border remains vulnerable to terrorist infiltration, there has been enormous progress in the past four years.
We have removed both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Those efforts have cost us over 2,000 American combat deaths, a hard loss and to be mourned, but still two-thirds of the number of American civilians killed on September 11, 2001, the first day of the war. Thanks to our forward policy of hitting rogue regimes abroad and staying on to help the reconstruction, coupled with increased vigilance at home, the United States has not been struck since then.
Inside Iraq there is a constitutional government grinding ahead, and a series of elections slated for ratification and/or amendment. Much is rightly made of Sunni intransigence, yet this minority population, with no oil and with a disreputable past of support for either Saddam or the Zarqawi terrorists, or both, has been put in an untenable position. Its clerics call for Iraqi Sunnis to vote no on the constitution even as Sunni radicals like Zarqawi threaten to kill any who would vote at all.
There has also been a radical transformation in regional mentalities. The elections in Egypt, though boycotted and rigged, were an unprecedented event, and the irregularities quickly ignited popular demonstrations. Events elsewhere are no less significant, as Libya and Pakistan have renounced their nuclear commerce, Syrians are out of Lebanon, and rudimentary parliaments are forming in the Gulf. Even on the Palestinian question, the death of Arafat, Israel’s building of a protective fence and its withdrawal from Gaza, and the removal of Saddam have strengthened the hand of beleaguered reformers in the West Bank and beyond. The onus for policing their miscreants is gradually shifting to the Palestinians themselves, which is where it belongs.
There are, of course, no Swiss cantons arising in the Middle East. Rather, we see the initial tremors of massive tectonic shifts, as the old plates of Islamic radicalism or secular autocracy give way to something new and more democratic. The United States is the primary catalyst of this dangerous but long-overdue upheaval. It has taken the risk almost alone; the ultimate reward will be a more stable world for all.
Much is made of global anti-Americanism and hatred of George Bush. But under closer examination, the furor is mostly confined to Western Europe, the autocratic Middle East, and our own elites here at home. In Europe, our most vocal critics, Jacques Chirac in France and Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, have lost considerable domestic support, and are under challenge by realists worried about their own unassimilated minorities and appreciative of American consistency in the war against radical Islam. In the meantime, Eastern Europeans, Japanese, Australians, and Indians have never been closer to the United States. Russia and China have little beef with our war on terror.
Here at home, the relative lack of bipartisan support is due partly to the media culture of the Left, partly to the turmoil and resentment of an out-of-power Democratic party, partly to uncertainty as to how it will all turn out. On the far Right, some see only too much money being spent, too much proliferation of government, and too much Israel in the background.
What lies ahead? We must continue to navigate the dangerous narrows between the two unacceptable alternatives of secular dictatorship and rule by Islamic law, even as we prod recipients of American aid or military support like Mubarak, Musharraf, and the Saudi royal family to reform. At home, unless we come up with a viable policy combining increased oil production, conservation, and alternative fuels, our ability to protect ourselves from international blackmail will soon begin to erode. Most forbiddingly, nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran or any other non-democratic Middle Eastern country could destroy much if not all of what has been accomplished. What would have happened in the late 1930’s had America found itself dependent on Romanian oil or German coal, or learned that Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco was close to obtaining atomic weapons?
I continue without reserve to support our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our pressure for reform in the Middle East at large. No
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Trumpism is a disposition, not an ideology.
Since Donald Trump took the oath of office, he has vacillated between extremes. One day, he’s running a laudably conventional Republican administration. The next, he’s taking a sledgehammer to the conventions that define America’s national identity. Conservatives who opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 can expect to be regularly berated by their right-of-center compatriots—justifiably on occasion—who cannot understand why they maintain their suspicion of this conventional Republican administration. But those Trump skeptics only have to wait for the inevitable heel-turn, when Donald Trump again acts like Donald Trump and the wisdom of their skepticism is confirmed. The Trump skeptic’s purgatorial torment is without end.
The only real question is whether this dynamic will outlast Donald Trump’s days in the Oval Office. Will Republican voters gravitate toward the Trumpian version of Donald Trump or to his more ordinary persona? Some, like The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis, claim the question answers itself. The erudite and morally discerning party of Ronald Reagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and William F. Buckley is no more. It’s a cult of personality now, and that personality is uniquely unsavory and corrupting. While it is easy to succumb to despair in moments like these, I think Lewis may be wrong, in part, because he’s asking the wrong question.
In praising her moral authority, Lewis cites Kirkpatrick’s antipathy toward her former comrades in the Democratic Party who “blame America first,” an unattractive trait that the Trumpain GOP has adopted. But the 1979 COMMENTARY essay and subsequent book that propelled Kirkpatrick to the helm of the American Mission to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, “Dictators and Double Standards,” was a case against a rigidly ideological foreign policy. It was an argument in favor of a realist approach to foreign affairs based on a grand strategic commitment to principle and was, therefore, duplicable. Donald Trump, by contrast, has no ideology and his style has proven harder for his disciples to mimic.
Trump’s press conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin stood out not just because he defended Russian attacks on U.S. interests and disparaged his own Cabinet officials—it also reflected his deep obsessions. Perhaps the most notable line from that event occurred when Trump dwelled inexplicably on Hillary Clinton’s email server. “What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails?” he asked. “33,000 emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily.” Implied in these comments is the assumption that an authoritarian nation like Russia would not allow unmonitored channels of communication in the first place.
These comments aren’t pro-Putin so much as they are pro-autocrat. What’s more, they are akin to comments Trump recently made about the increasingly autocratic president of Turkey. According to Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer, Trump expressed frustration over the political process that prevented democratic NATO member states from hiking their defense budgets by decree. “‘Except for [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan over here,” Bremmer recalled Trump saying of the Turkish leader. “He does things the right way.” It’s hardly the first time Trump has heaped praise on Erdoğan even amid his regular crackdowns on Turkish dissenters, and no one has alleged that Trump has any particular affinity for Ankara. Nor has anyone established “collusion” between the Trump campaign and North Korea, but that didn’t stop Trump from praising Kim Jong-un as an “honorable” and adept leader.
What these comments reveal is an affection for illiberalism because it is pragmatic; he does not have an attachment to Putinism per se. That’s important. There is a substantial faction on the right that has convinced itself of the blinkered belief that Putin stands for all that they hold dear. They believe—erroneously, as it happens—the propagandist line that Putin is a savior of Christianity. They see him as a bulwark in defense of Western civilization, primarily or in part because of his government’s hostility toward the LGBTQ community and championing the rights of ethnic Russians.
This Buchananite wing of the GOP really believes all this earnestly, but does Trump? He’s given no indication that he has any ideological opposition to gay rights or religious freedoms. His hostility toward immigrant groups is, ultimately, a problematic proposition for Republicans interested in the long-term electoral health of the party. Authoritarianism, like extremism, is a tool to achieve certain circumspect ends, not an end in itself. The ends of Trumpism remain relatively undefined. If Trump’s primary attachment to Putin isn’t ideological but rooted solely in his affection for undemocratic systems, it is going to be hard for conventional Republicans to mirror what is essentially a disposition, not a doctrine.
And that leads us to the most compelling evidence that Trumpism’s hold over the GOP may end up being ephemeral. The secret of Donald Trump’s presidency is that it receives its highest marks when the president moves in directions preferred by establishmentarian Republicans and traditional conservatives—when Trump sticks to reading from the script, nominating Bush-era judges to the Supreme Court, or aggressively containing Russian revanchism. But when Trump reverts to a form he perfected on the campaign trail—when he’s calling equatorial nations “s***holes,” apologizing for white supremacists, attacking his critics’ physical appearance on Twitter, or blaming America for Russian attacks on U.S. interests—the bottom falls out. Republican lawmakers break ranks to criticize him and, on occasion, force Trump to walk his incitements back. Trump-skeptical Republicans continue to exercise a level of influence over the GOP disproportionate to their relative numbers. That might help explain why this routed, rump caucus of malcontents without a broad constituency haunts the imaginations of so many committed Trump Republicans.
Ultimately, all bets are off if the president wins a second term in office. Two-term presidents have a habit of remaking their parties, regardless of the odor about them when they lift off from the White House lawn in Marine One. And even if Trump’s legacy is limited to one term, it’s possible that his hostility toward free trade and comprehensive solutions to America’s illegal immigrant population may persist as the dominating views in his party. But the evidence today that the GOP has been thoroughly remade in Trump’s image is remarkably superficial. Republican lawmakers talk a game just good enough to boost the president’s ego and flatter his phalanx of defenders in the conservative press, but talk is cheap. And the wall is still unbuilt.
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The man knows his constituency.
President Trump’s joint news conference Monday with Vladimir Putin was a catastrophe. On that, all but the most servile of his apologists agree. Not even latter-day consul Publius Decius Mus, aka Michael Anton, could rouse himself to defend the president on CNN. Here was the putative leader of the free world giving voice to sophomoric nonsense better suited to a Noam Chomsky seminar.
Even before the event itself got underway, Trump went full Chomsky with a pre-conference tweet blaming Washington for the state of U.S.-Russian relations: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity. . . .”
That sent the right’s Trump-whisperers scrambling. They insisted that the “foolishness” Trump had in mind was Obama’s weak posture. But given Trump’s refusal at various points to condemn Russian meddling in elections across the West and illegal annexation of Crimea—not to mention his persistent reluctance to criticize Putin directly—the rest of us can’t be blamed for thinking that by “foolishness” Trump meant “American hawkishness.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s pithy response to Trump’s tweet cleared up any remaining doubt: “We agree.”
Chomsky should be proud. He has won legions of fans over the decades, mainly among the simple and the half-erudite who imagine the MIT professor’s jeremiads offer secret knowledge of the way the world really works. And the key to that secret knowledge is that the U.S. is just as bad, if not worse than, its most vicious adversaries among rogue and revanchist regimes.
Trump has long had a Chomskyite streak, of course. Recall his flirtations with 9/11 trutherism amid the GOP primary campaign; his claim that President Obama quite literally founded ISIS (“ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS, okay? He is the founder”); and the moral parallel he drew between the U.S. and Russia’s thugocracy in an interview with Bill O’Reilly soon after he took office.
But all that paled next to the spectacle of Trump humiliating America’s security apparatus, elevating the Kremlin’s global prestige, and crediting Putin’s incredible denials of election interference—all while standing next to the Russian strongman, who grinned Cheshire-like with a look of ironical amusement in his eyes.
Trump’s comments and the whole Helsinki affair look even worse against the backdrop of his rhetorical assaults on America’s European allies during the earlier NATO summit in Brussels. Not all of his criticisms were wide of the mark. As I wrote last week, the president was right to take Germany to task for a pipeline deal that would enhance Moscow’s energy dominance in Europe. But to describe the EU as a “foe,” as Trump did, and then to follow that comment with the grotesque moral equivalences of Helsinki marked a dismal moment in the history of the American presidency.
The best that can be said for Trump’s performance is that it doesn’t reflect his administration’s policies. The president might babble, but his babble is just that—for now. While he chums it up with Putin, Trump is arming Ukraine, blowing up Russian operatives in Syria, squeezing Moscow’s Iranian clients, and so forth. All this is an improvement over Trump’s predecessor, whose deference and pusillanimity toward the Kremlin took policy form.
But the policy defense only goes so far. For starters, we are already witnessing a rollback on the policy front. Jimmy Quinn notes at National Review that Trump may be rethinking his opposition to the Nord Stream II pipeline. Following his gabfest with Putin, Trump appeared to have changed his mind about the project, telling reporters that he now understands “where they’re all coming from,” and adding: “So I’ll just wish them luck.”
Foreign policy isn’t just about the policies a nation pursues. Statements and symbolism and personal signals matter enormously. As my colleague Noah Rothman has repeatedly argued in these pages, the danger in all this obsequy toward Moscow is that it might cause Putin to miscalculate Trump’s own parameters and trigger American tripwires, which in turn could lead to a rapid military escalation for which neither great power is prepared.
And what are the likes of Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic States, which live under the shadow of Putinist aggression, to make of all this? Whatever their qualms with the European Union and its mandarins, the citizens and leaders of these nations know the difference between the free air of the West and the stultifying, corrupt air that pervades the Kremlin sphere. They can’t afford for the American president to channel Noam Chomsky.
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When the silly get serious.
Maybe geographic “sorting,” in which like-minded people tend to herd themselves into politically homogeneous communities, is to blame. Maybe social media and the caustic, stubborn posturing it rewards is at fault. Maybe it’s always been this way. Whatever the cause, it has become an undeniable fact that getting ahead in public life demands some deference to unmitigated stupidity.
Take, for example, a couple of recent pronouncements by the Democratic Party’s newest celebrity: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her victory over her county’s Democratic Party chairman and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives in last month’s primary was no small feat, but that accomplishment has led some political observers to assign to her a level of political competence that she has not yet earned.
The 28-year-old who in all likelihood will soon serve as the representative from New York’s 14th Congressional district was recently asked by “Firing Line” host Margaret Hoover to discuss her frustrations with the state of Israel. Ocasio-Cortez described Israel’s response to violent provocations on its border with Gaza as a “massacre,” and explained that the “occupation” of Palestinian lands represents an “increasing crisis of humanitarian condition.” But where other members of the media might have moved on or finished Ocasio-Cortez’s half-baked thought for her, Hoover admirably asked the future congresswoman to elaborate.
“I think what I meant is, like, the settlements that are increasing in these areas, where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes,”Ocasio-Cortez said. Hoover asked again for more elaboration, at which point Ocasio-Cortez gave up the game. “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue,” she said with a chuckle. These are only talking points, you see. She didn’t really know what she was talking about.
Gaza is, of course, not occupied. Indeed, the land was ethnically cleansed of Jews over a decade ago. Most of the West Bank’s civilian settlements, a footprint that takes up approximately 2 percent of the land in the region, will be apportioned to Israel in any viable peace deal (as had been the case in past deals). To think critically on the matter for a few minutes would leave any rational observer to wonder why the violence in unoccupied Gaza erupted with a ferocity that was not reproduced in the supposedly occupied West Bank. But no one is doing much thinking here. These were statements of fealty to a cause, not a principle.
This isn’t the first time Ocasio-Cortez should have disappointed her indefatigable boosters. Shortly after her election victory, she appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” where she was asked if tax increases could pay for her preferred agenda items: Medicare-for-all, free post-graduate education at state institutions, expanded Social Security, and a federal employment guarantee. “Not only that,” she replied, “but also to understand that the federal government does have the ability in the similar way that we had in the New Deal to spearhead this agenda and some of that financing as well.” Pardon?
To a certain segment of the left, this non-answer is a perfectly justified dodge because the honest response to this question is politically untenable. You see, to some on the new left, we don’t have to pay for anything. The United States mints its own currency, sets its value, and can finance through loans whatever it wants—even including what experts estimate could be the $32 trillion price tag on a single-payer healthcare program. Ocasio-Cortez’s incomprehensible dissimulation was an evasive maneuver, but a necessary one. After all, according to Senator Bernie Sanders, such a program would require the country to spend “such an astronomical sum of money that, you know, we would bankrupt the nation.” But the self-described socialist from Vermont said that in 1987, back when moving up in Democratic politics meant paying obeisance to other stupid ideas.
Medicare-for-all is one of many politically and arithmetically untenable ideas so obviously unfeasible that only intelligent people could erect logical constructs elaborate enough to convince themselves of their viability. For political superstars like Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez, a little tactical stupidity is a valuable asset. After all, there is a big marketplace available to those who are willing to tell you what you already believe.
If conservatives are inclined to take heart in the fact that these liberal slogans are unlikely to manifest in policy when Democrats regain political power, a brief survey of the GOP’s attempts to realize its own stupid ideas should disabuse them of that hope. Foremost among those has to be the Trumpified Republican Party’s hostility toward the kind of global free-trade regimes the party had spent the better part of the prior twenty years establishing.
On balance, barrier-free trade creates more winners than losers, raises standards of living, reduces poverty across the board, and limits the potential for armed conflict between nations. Republicans know this implicitly, if only because they have spent so much energy in the Trump era lamenting the death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in all but name. The Trump administration’s rapidly expanding trade war with China, a project that is cheered on by even his erstwhile GOP critics, would have been advanced by that 11-nation agreement that excluded the People’s Republic. Hardly a week goes by that the Trump administration doesn’t lament unfair barriers to accessing Southeast Asian markets, Japanese protectionism, Australian competition, or Canadian dairy subsidization. All of this and more would have been resolved in America’s favor in a post-TPP world.
The president’s heedless antagonism toward both America’s allies and its strategic competitors are not without cost. If fully implemented, the increased prices of consumer goods and reduced access to foreign markets could shave as much as .3 to .4 percent off quarterly GDP growth. The economy can absorb these unnecessary blows, but there is otherwise no logic buttressing this policy. Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail to deliver a policy that would disproportionately harm all American consumers to preserve only a few thousand inefficient jobs, and he delivered. There’s a lesson there. No one should put their faith in arithmetic to save them from the socialist utopia Democrats promise today.
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