...and why it's a disaster.
In 2007, early in the improbable presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, the young first-term senator began a series of foreign-policy speeches that seemed too general to provide a guide to what he might do if elected. Aside from making it clear he was not George W. Bush and would get out of Iraq, the rest read like liberal boilerplate: “We have seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on a flawed ideology….The conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002….This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place.” In 2008, he visited Berlin and told an enraptured crowd: “Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen—a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world…the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.”
In Obama’s fifth year as president, it is increasingly clear these vague phrases were not mere rhetoric. They did, in fact, accurately reflect Obama’s thinking about America’s role in the world and foreshadow the goals of the foreign policy he has been implementing and will be pursuing for three more years. Obama’s foreign policy is strangely self-centered, focused on himself and the United States rather than on the conduct and needs of the nations the United States allies with, engages with, or must confront. It is a foreign policy structured not to influence events in Russia or China or Africa or the Middle East but to serve as a bulwark “against the habits” of American activism and global leadership. It was his purpose to change those habits, and to inculcate new habits—ones in which, in every matter of foreign policy except for the pursuit of al-Qaeda, the United States restrains itself.
In the beginning came “engagement.” In his first State of the Union speech in February 2009, Obama told us that “in words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun.” A few days later he delivered a speech about the Iraq war and said again that “we are launching a new era of engagement with the world.” There would now be “comprehensive American engagement across the region.” In his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in September 2009, he repeated the phrase: “We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect….We have sought, in word and deed, a new era of engagement with the world.”
What did the word engagement mean in this context? The message here was that people around the world hated us for our heavy-handedness and our militarism, which were the product not only of George W. Bush’s policies but long-standing patterns dating back to the beginning of the Cold War. This would now change. Our new president, the first to recognize fully the regressive quality of activist American foreign policy, would in the service of this goal be willing to meet even with Iranian leaders, indeed almost any hostile dictator. The days when we snubbed and demonized other nations were over. With Russia and other nations there would now be a “reset”—the term that, along with “engagement” and “global citizenship,” came to represent Obama’s foreign policy in his first year in office.
These terms applied to the world as a whole, but Obama added a special concern with the Muslim world. Here the Bush years had, in his view, brought near-catastrophe, and he was uniquely able to solve the problem. “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed,” he remarked, and “as a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.” In his fifth month in office, he visited Cairo not to address Egypt’s growing problems but to ignore them and address every Muslim in the world: “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect….And I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
Astonishingly, he did not say he had equal responsibility when it came to negative stereotypes of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or other world faiths, only Islam. Even more astonishing was his view that American interests were best served addressing Muslims not as Egyptians and Malaysians, or Nigerians and Omanis and Indonesians—as residents of nations with discrete interests and goals that might intersect with those of the United States and make us valuable friends and allies—but as Muslims first and foremost.
This was an innovation. There was nothing new in the notion that a president would “engage” in a different manner from the way his predecessors had. What was new was the idea that the president of the United States would engage directly with the followers of an entire faith tradition. Indeed, it would appear that in his view, this new kind of engagement—with the citizenry of the planet—was going to change everything. Obama told the UN in his first address there: “It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009—more than at any point in human history—the interests of nations and peoples are shared.” Presumably this was a reference to his preachment in Berlin in 2008: “This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands.”
This global citizenship we all share would, at first glance, seem to reflect a genuine concern with how average men and women and families are living around the world. Such a concern ought to lead to two sets of policies: one to help them overcome political oppression, and one to help them meet the daily challenges of poverty and disease. And here is the second innovative aspect of Obama’s foreign policy: the startling absence of concern on either front.
On the human-rights side, administration policy has been marked by indifference. When the people of Iran flooded the streets to protest the theft of their presidential election in June 2009, President Obama was silent for 11 days. This was an early sign that “engagement” was to be with regimes and rulers, not populations—not even, as it turned out, with Muslim populations, and not even with Muslim populations rising up in protest.
In an even earlier sign, when asked during a visit Mubarak made to Washington in March 2009 about human-rights violations by his regime, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replied: “I had a wonderful time with him this morning. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” This approach never changed: In 2011, when a military regime replaced Mubarak, Clinton visited Cairo and said, “We believe in aid to your military without any conditions, no conditionality.” In 2012, she waived congressional restrictions on aid just as the military regime was putting young American aid workers on trial for the crime of promoting democracy in Egypt.
This was typical. Asked why she was not pressing the Chinese harder on human rights, Secretary Clinton replied that “we pretty much know what they are going to say” and “our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis, and the security crisis.” While the Obama years have been a time of steadily increasing oppression in Russia, the administration has reacted with near silence. In 2009, Obama visited Moscow and told civil-society activists that they had his “commitment” and his “promise” to support their human-rights efforts. But after he met with Putin in 2013, Obama said the two leaders had “a very useful conversation” and “extensive discussions about how we can further deepen our economic and commercial relationships.” “I began by thanking him for his cooperation,” Obama said, and he spoke about “the kind of constructive, cooperative relationship that moves us out of the Cold War mind-set.”
Genuine support for human rights is, apparently, a “Cold War mind-set” that leads to confrontation rather than “engagement” with regimes. It is one of those old habits we need to break. Worse yet is the new habit of “humanitarian intervention,” with which the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations sometimes justified American activism. It is apparently a cause for sadness that 100,000 people have been killed in Syria during Obama’s tenure, in other words, but it would be dangerous as a justification for action. Given the unsettled state of the world, “humanitarian intervention” could lead to another bout of military activity—precisely the kind of foreign policy Barack Obama got himself elected to end.
So does “global citizenship” instead mean people-to-people assistance, avoiding politics and military action to aid the millions facing poverty and disease? Such an approach might well justify engagement with certain regimes we would otherwise seek to isolate, and in any event it would show deep solidarity with fellow human beings whatever their religion, nationality, or politics. But the Obama administration has shown no interest in such an approach. Its maligned predecessor developed vast programs to stop the spread of malaria and AIDS. PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) had spent $18 billion by the time George W. Bush left office, and even in the view of Bush skeptics has saved millions of lives. By contrast, Obama largely ignored Africa during this first term, leading to news stories with terms like “unmistakable sense of disappointment,” “widespread cynicism on the continent,” and “positively neglectful.” If “global citizenship” requires assisting people who are poor or sick, the key post for advancing it in Africa is that of assistant administrator for Africa at the Agency for International Development. Obama left that post vacant for more than three years. Similarly, the post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom was vacant for half of the president’s first term—another indication of his interests and priorities.
The pattern, then, is one of considerable indifference to the fate of the poor, the persecuted, and the oppressed. They are allocated their fair share of rhetoric, but their plight does not much impinge on policy. Now, such an approach can theoretically be defended—as a return to realpolitik after the excesses of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” and in the face of America’s economic and fiscal crisis. Hardhearted, perhaps, but realistic: This is the age of limits. Such would be the defense. The problem is that a realpolitik policy would build on American alliances to maintain and magnify American power. It might downplay ideological or ethical matters and marginalize human rights (wrongly, in my view), but it would do so in an effort to secure and advance the American national interest. Is that the Obama approach?
In one area the answer is unambiguously yes, and that is the fight against al-Qaeda terrorism. The Obama administration has vastly expanded the use of armed drones, and concentrated a great deal of diplomatic effort on building and maintaining alliances that share information about terrorists, provide access to get near them, and then strike against them. The president understands the political benefits, of course: He and other officials have made a great deal of political hay out of the killing of Osama bin Laden and like to say that al-Qaeda is on the run. This works as long as there is no mass-casualty attack on the United States attributable to al-Qaeda or a related group. But there is no reason to doubt the sincerity the president and his team bring to this effort. They are hard at work every day protecting Americans from international terror.
But what other aspects of Obama’s policy appear to be dedicated to maximizing American power and national-security interests? There are none.
Start with American military strength, where massive cuts have left us with a Navy of 286 ships—the smallest number since 1917. When Mitt Romney pointed this out during a presidential debate, Obama replied sarcastically: “Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets. Because the nature of the military has changed.” This retort was effective in a smart-ass way, but while the cavalry may be a historical relic, the Navy is not, and it is getting smaller. So are the Air Force, Army, and Marines, because their budgets are shrinking. This is not the result of technological improvements, as Obama’s quip suggested. Nor is it the unavoidable effect of deficits. It is a policy choice in a Washington where entitlement spending is more sacrosanct than military spending.
More telling, Obama avoided turning to defense when urging spending on “shovel-ready” projects to stimulate the economy during 2009 and 2010. Due to Iraq and Afghanistan, all the services had logistical needs that would have created tens of thousands of good jobs—building tanks and airplanes and armored personnel carriers and jeeps, and restocking the military’s larder. But that was not the stimulus the administration had in mind. Meanwhile, as conventional strength declines, the administration seeks to reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal as well, entering negotiations with Russia while ignoring persuasive reports of Russian cheating on the 1987 treaty limiting intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles. Nor is the president’s “global zero” campaign, aimed at eliminating nuclear weapons entirely when nuclear weapons represent a qualitative American advantage, likely to strike those who believe foreign policy should be about maximizing American power as a sensible program. Certainly the administration’s efforts to reduce the size of America’s nuclear arsenal send shivers down the spines of the South Koreans and Japanese who depend on American deterrence as they face a rising China.
Practitioners of realpolitik would be seeking to strengthen existing alliances, as the first Bush administration’s foreign-policy team did at the close of the Cold War. That has not been the Obama way. In 2009, the administration left allies in the Czech Republic and Poland high and dry by canceling a ballistic missile defense site in Eastern Europe in an effort to curry favor with Russia. Lech Walesa, the great anti-Communist Polish leader, and others criticized the policy reversal and worried about American efforts to tilt toward Moscow rather than Warsaw and Prague. And those East European politicians who had run risks to defend the American proposal on missile defense in 2007 and 2008 learned a painful lesson about sticking their necks out for Washington. But closer allies have faced the same lack of respect as well. The British learned that the bust of Winston Churchill was removed from the Oval Office as soon as Obama arrived. Then they learned what the new team thought of them and of the so-called special relationship. During the visit of Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, a State Department official notoriously said: “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”
These may have just been words, but when it came to the Western intervention in Libya in 2011, the British and French learned that the Obama administration’s limited view of allied solidarity posed real-world dangers. British and French leadership finally brought all of NATO (including the Americans, who were “leading from behind”) into the struggle against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, and the United States had certain military assets that the others simply did not possess. These were offered slowly and grudgingly and were then withdrawn as soon as possible. The operation therefore took longer than was predicted or was necessary: At one point the rebels appeared to have considerable momentum and were nearing the capital, Tripoli, but they did not get the backing they needed from the United States. Later, in April 2011, the U.S. withdrew its warplanes, leading to advances by the Gaddafi forces. “Your timing is exquisite,” Senator John McCain told Secretary of Defense Gates at an oversight hearing. (Gates acknowledged the timing was “unfortunate.”)
Then, in 2012, came Mali. Al-Qaeda-linked rebels based in the northern part of that West African nation threatened to take over the entire country. UN plans (supported by the United States) would have trained and positioned African troops to combat them. But that would happen so slowly, if it really happened at all, that these would-be troops would present no real obstacle to the terrorist victory. France acted, sending in troops and asking for American help in the form of refueling the planes they were using to ferry in soldiers and police the skies. The White House first balked at supplying the requested tankers, then agreed to supply a few cargo planes (and asked the French to reimburse the costs). In the end, the United States did more, because the struggle was placed in the “counter-terror, fighting al-Qaeda” category rather than that of mere allied solidarity (or worse yet, the category of helping the French keep order in Africa).
This kind of drama has been playing out in Syria as well. Here, both the strategic and humanitarian arguments for intervention are powerful. There are now well over 100,000 dead and more than a million refugees, in addition to several million internally displaced persons. The burdens on Turkey and especially Jordan to cope with the refugees are growing. The Assad regime has survived largely due to the dispatch of expeditionary forces by Iran and Hezbollah, who are leading the fight against the rebels. President Obama said more than two years ago that Assad must go and called Assad’s use of chemical weapons a “red line,” but the administration has done next to nothing to turn that threat into reality. When justifying his decision to join the fight in Libya, Obama said in 2011 that “when innocent people are being brutalized, when someone like Gaddafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region, and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives, then it’s in our national interest to act.” Well, in Syria, a bloodbath is a reality rather than a threat, and the Iranian and Hezbollah intervention truly has destabilized an entire region. But month after month, as the world watched, Obama took no action beyond nonlethal aid to the rebels. Finally the administration announced in June that it would provide some military aid, but its words were not followed by deeds for several months. Meanwhile, Sunni jihadis from around the world have been gathering in Syria to fight the regime, creating a new threat of their own—especially for the post-conflict period. Battle-trained, armed, and experienced, would these jihadis stay in Syria? Or would they leave to fight in Shia-led Iraq, against Hezbollah in Lebanon, or against Israel in the Golan Heights? Perhaps 1,000 or 1,500 of them are European-born, and might return to Amsterdam or London or Madrid and bring additional violence with them.
So there are obvious realpolitik arguments for intervention in Syria, or at the very least against the remarkable passivity of the Obama administration there. Among those arguments is the fact that the president has taken clear sides against Assad and has laid down his chemical-weapons red line. His word, and American credibility, are at stake in large measure because he chose to intervene rhetorically. The impression left with our allies—Israeli and Arab and European alike—is that American policy reflects less a careful weighing of the arguments for and against action than a simple desire, visible to them in Mali and Libya, to stay out of any military engagement that goes beyond drone strikes.
Watching the administration in Syria, what conclusion must the rulers of Iran reach about their own nuclear-weapons program? Must they really abandon it? Thus far they have plowed ahead steadily. As the Economist, a journal far closer to the realpolitik view than to neoconservative positions, stated last summer: “Iran has installed more than 9,000 new centrifuges in less than two years, more than doubling its enrichment capability….Thanks to heavy investment in nuclear capacity by the mullahs…Iran will soon be able to produce a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium in a matter of weeks.” The editors’ conclusion is that “the balance of power between Iran and the rest of the world has been shifting in Iran’s favour” due to its nuclear progress and to its presence in Syria, where they urge Western intervention: “It is not in the West’s interests that a state that sponsors terrorism and rejects Israel’s right to exist should become the regional hegemon.” But to Obama, a struggle against Iranian and Hezbollah soldiers seems like a morass to stay out of at all costs. It is more important that we avoid being a “regional hegemon” than that we prevent Iran from taking that role.
As for Israel, the administration has of course followed a twisting path since the days of Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009. On that trip he not only skipped visiting Israel but showed no real understanding of its history or sympathy with its situation. Military and intelligence cooperation has been excellent, but diplomatic confrontations were frequent, including clear evidence of Obama’s distaste for Prime Minister Netanyahu (and vice versa). The diplomatic low point came in early 2011, when then UN ambassador Susan Rice was forced by the White House to veto a resolution criticizing Israeli settlements. She did as instructed, but her explanation of her vote on behalf of the United States could not have been more hostile: “We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity [which] has corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region…violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.”
Relations were patched up when Obama visited Israel in 2013, where among other things he acknowledged the country’s biblical (rather than Holocaust) roots and reiterated in tougher terms than ever before that Iran could not be permitted to have a nuclear weapon. Whether the Israelis credit that line and whether the ayatollahs do as well remain the greatest questions facing Obama’s second-term foreign policy. After Libya and Mali and Syria, after the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is difficult to believe.
The overall impression in the Middle East is that America is pulling away. That Economist editorial ended with a plea: “When Persian power is on the rise, it is not the time to back away from the Middle East.” This is an expression of deep anxiety, politely phrased in London but spoken with less restraint in Jerusalem and nearly every Arab capital. In fact, the very same words are often heard because so many Arab states—from Jordan and Morocco to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—have, like Israel, tied their security to our willpower and ability to act. The prevailing mood is trepidation. The Middle Easterners are keen students of power, and they realize that the administration’s so-called “pivot to Asia”—the supposed refocusing of American foreign policy away from the Middle East and onto the Far East instead—is a weak excuse: They see that a diminishing of the American position in their region cannot possibly help build respect for American strength in and around China. They know that no one, from Khamenei to Assad to Putin to Chavez, has ever seemed to fear Barack Obama; no one has been deterred from crossing him. They watch carefully the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, unsurprised by the fact that the Americans are ending the wars unilaterally but studying the terms. The administration made so little effort to work out a way to keep a force in Iraq (through a status-of-forces agreement) that the fair conclusion is total withdrawal was its preferred outcome. Same for Afghanistan. In June the administration floated a new “zero option” policy for Afghanistan: Withdraw every single American soldier next year despite any previous pledges of support to the Afghan government. Ryan Crocker, who was President Obama’s ambassador to Afghanistan, described the new plan this way: “If it’s a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.” The best description of Obama policy these days seems to be “We want out.”
A former Obama administration official, Vali Nasr (now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), stated all of this most strongly in his book about the administration he served, which he entitled The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. There, Nasr described America as “dragged by Europeans into ending butchery in Libya, abandoning Afghanistan to an uncertain future, [and] resisting a leadership role in ending the massacre of civilians in Syria….Gone is the exuberant American desire to lead the world. In its place there is the image of a superpower tired of the world and in retreat.”
So the Obama administration is pursuing neither an idealistic foreign policy based on altruistic considerations of “world citizenship,” nor a realpolitik policy designed to maximize American power and influence in an age of limits through careful assertions of power and the strengthening and utilization of alliances. What foreign policy is it pursuing, then?
Nasr has a theory about Obama: “His policies’ principal aim is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion.” This is a damning indictment, and it is an unfair one. It is true that public opinion wanted the American role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to end and, no doubt with those long and costly conflicts in mind, opposes a deeper role in Syria. But public opinion does not explain the many other stances the Obama administration has taken, from the very weak human-rights policy and the effort to reduce the American nuclear arsenal to the tension with Israel and the lack of support for European allies. The argument that Obama has no real foreign-policy goals and simply bows to the wind does not explain his actions as president. What does?
There are two aspects to Obama’s policy. As I’ve said, the first is the protection of the country against an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist attack. Whether one believes this focus is motivated entirely by patriotism or is also the product of a political calculation and fear of public opinion is immaterial: The administration is working tirelessly, and employing considerable violence, to attack al-Qaeda and disrupt its plans. In pursuit of its aims it has bravely ignored the Democratic base, which dislikes drones and electronic surveillance in general. For four and a half years, this policy has been successful, and there is every reason to believe it will be carried forward with equal dedication.
The limits of this approach, however, are significant. As Thomas Donnelly has written, “Obama was construing Bush’s ‘war on terror’ in the narrowest possible sense: The war was a reaction to the attacks of 9/11, properly focused on Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership cadre, and not on the al-Qaeda network and certainly not on the overall Middle East balance of power.” Thus the initial reluctance to help the French in Mali despite the nature of the terrorist groups there, and the passivity as jihadis gathered in Syria. Thus the refusal to conduct anything like ideological warfare against Islamist extremism, substituting instead the themes of the Cairo speech. There, Obama said, “America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.” Absent in this phrase are the nonviolent Islamic extremists, who are perhaps better described as the not-yet-violent Islamic extremists. Tony Blair’s government tried the same approach and it failed, for the British found that the key division was not between the violent and the not-yet-violent extremists, but instead between extremists and those who rejected extremism and hatred and were willing to fight it. The struggle against Islamic extremism is a battle of ideas as well as a military and police activity, and it cannot be won if the only weapon employed is the drone strike. So one may fairly say that fighting terrorist attacks is part of Obama’s policy, but fighting Islamic extremism is not.
The second aspect of Obama’s foreign policy is more central and more significant. It is the president’s effort to kill those old “habits” of American leadership, what Nasr so well describes as “the exuberant American desire to lead the world.” It is not enough to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan; the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan must also be learned so that those mistakes are never repeated. And the lesson Obama has learned, and wishes to teach to others, is that the exercise of American power, with the sole exception of direct strikes on al-Qaeda terrorists, should be avoided for practical and moral reasons.
This, I believe, is what the president was really talking about when he said, in Berlin: “We are not only citizens of America or Germany. We are also citizens of the world. And our fates and fortunes are linked like never before.” He wants us to see that “exuberant desire” as outmoded at best, and dangerous, and morally wrong.
In 2008, Obama said: “One of the things I intend to do as president is restore America’s standing in the world. We are less respected now than we were eight years ago or even four years ago.” Obama is not blind; he can see that respect for us has fallen still further. He can see that engagement with dictatorial regimes such as Iran and Syria has failed. Relations with Russia were not “reset” and have grown worse. There has been no improvement with China, and absolutely nothing substantial came out of his meeting with the new Chinese premier in June of this year. As for Iran, Obama said in 2008 that “ultimately the measure of any effort is whether it leads to a change in Iranian behavior.” By that standard—with Iran closer than ever to a nuclear weapon and an Iranian expeditionary force in Syria—Obama’s Iran policy is disastrous. America’s allies, in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, see a superpower that is weaker—and that continues the policies that will make it weaker still.
Even some of Obama’s highest appointees came to see that things were not going well and demanded bolder American action. There are press reports that in the summer of 2012, Hillary Clinton, with the support of then Secretary of Defense Gates, urged a far more active (covert) effort to arm the rebels against Assad. In 2013, Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, argued in cabinet-level secret meetings for American air strikes at Assad’s airplanes and air bases, to shift the balance toward the Syrian rebels and assert American power. Clinton and Gates lost; Kerry lost; policy was unchanged; tens of thousands more Syrians died and hundreds of thousands more fled their homes; and thousands more jihadis arrived in Syria. With details like these in mind, one can say that the most committed, ideological, and intransigent official in the administration is clearly Barack Obama.
People like the Ayatollah Khamenei or Vladimir Putin are, in the Obama view, retrogressive: They see power, defined in a very old-fashioned manner, as the means to achieve their goals. For Obama, national power is an improper goal. In 2013, he returned to Berlin and this time said about people striving for freedom—he named Israelis, Palestinians, Burmese, and Afghans—that “they too, in their own way, are citizens of Berlin.” As Matthew Continetti wrote in the Washington Free Beacon: “If everyone is a citizen of Berlin, then the concept of ‘citizen,’ which implies rootedness, partiality, particularity, has no meaning. If we are citizens of everywhere, we are also citizens of nowhere.”
Just as the British were told they were not special, so we Americans must learn that we are not special, either—except perhaps that we are more dangerous because we are more powerful. Thus we require more strenuous efforts from our leaders to hold us back, as Obama is doing. American leadership is a dangerous narcotic, one that can make us feel good for a while but will in the end bring tragedy to us and to many others around the world. Obama’s task is to explain this to us and, using the powers of office, keep us away from this drug for eight years and diminish our capacity to use it when he is gone.
This also explains the treatment of American allies such as Britain, France, and Israel. For in this “global-citizen” view, what are allies except people who are likely to get you into trouble? You do not plan to intervene anywhere, so you will not need to call on them. The danger is that they will call upon you, as happened in Mali and Libya, and now Syria, and perhaps tomorrow Iran. Historically, America’s closest allies were often backward in their domestic and foreign policies, and in this view on the “wrong side of history.” What better proof of this is there, for Obama and those who see the world as he does, than those nations’ reliance on America and American power, and their role throughout the Cold War as cat’s-paws for Washington?
The Obama administration appears to view allies not as nations whose young people may someday bravely bear arms alongside ours, in the image of World War II and Korea, but as nations likely to agree to house secret CIA prisons. There are in this view just three sorts of nations: a few bad actors; many dependents who may get you into trouble, and were formerly called allies; and then of course the global citizens, who have risen above narrow nationalist goals.
Some of this is a familiar critique from the left, which rose to influence in the 1960s and came into the White House with Jimmy Carter. But to give the 39th president his due, the Carter Doctrine stated that we would never permit an outside power to gain control of the Persian Gulf. And Carter was capable of acknowledging error: In 1979, he said the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had “made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.” In the Obama administration, no action by a foreign power has elicited any such statement of a change in perspective or approach. The president appears to hold, unchanged, the views with which he arrived in office—and for that matter with which he arrived in the Senate and indeed arrived at Columbia University in 1980 (or at least with which he left Columbia upon his graduation).
Ronald Reagan said of Jimmy Carter that his administration “lives in the world of make-believe…where mistakes, even very big ones, have no consequence.” Carter came to understand (briefly, in any event) that his opinion of the Soviets had been a great mistake with whose consequences he had to deal. But is there anything that appears to Obama to be a mistake? Is the growing difficulty of exercising American power, is the waning of American influence, the product of mistake—or the goal of policy? Reagan went on in that 1980 speech to say the following:
Disasters are overtaking our nation without any real response from the White House. Who does not feel a growing sense of unease as our allies, facing repeated instances of an amateurish and confused administration, reluctantly conclude that America is unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations as leader of the free world? Who does not feel rising alarm when the question in any discussion of foreign policy is no longer “Should we do something,” but “Do we have the capacity to do anything?”
Today, China takes risky measures in Asian seas to show its neighbors who is boss in that region and builds its military power even as ours is reduced. Putin pressures nations in his orbit and brings a new age of KGB-style oppression to Russia. Iran moves steadily closer to a nuclear weapon in defiance of a hundred UN and IAEA resolutions and Obama speeches, and it is now bold enough to send troops to fight in Syria to protect its hold there on the shores of the Mediterranean and its alliance with the terrorist group Hezbollah. Our Arab allies in the Gulf see an America unwilling to act to protect its interests and theirs, and wonder if a hegemonic Iran will really displace the United States as the region’s dominant power. The wave of democratization in Latin America is now receding, and dictators rule in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Cuba violates UN sanctions to do military trade with North Korea—and North Korea makes fools of the United States by taking our aid and improving its nuclear weapons and missiles. The world’s bright spots in these last four years—yes, things seem more stable and more democratic in Burma and Senegal—throw a mocking light on the rest.
And while this is happening, from Washington come not cries of alarm but the self-satisfaction of an administration that believes we are moving closer each year to our proper place in the “international community.”
Who does not feel a growing sense of unease, then, and who does not feel rising alarm? The answer may be the president who is the author of these policies, for they are doing just what they were meant to do. If not reversed, they will produce an America that is a “citizen of the world” like all the others, shorn of the ability to lead and believing that leadership means little more than hubris and risk. For Barack Obama, this will mean his foreign-policy ideas have won the day.
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.
The Citizen of the World Presidency
Must-Reads from Magazine
Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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.
Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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.
Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.