he Post-Cold-War era has seen a remarkable ideological experiment: over the last fifteen years, each of the three major American schools of foreign policy—realism, liberal internationalism, and neoconservatism—has taken its turn at running things. (A fourth school, isolationism, has a long pedigree, but has yet to recover from Pearl Harbor and probably never will; it remains a minor source of dissidence with no chance of becoming a governing ideology.) There is much to be learned from this unusual and unplanned experiment.
The era began with the senior George Bush and a classically realist approach. This was Kissingerism without Kissinger—although Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Lawrence Eagleburger filled in admirably. The very phrase the administration coined to describe its vision—the New World Order—captured the core idea: an orderly world with orderly rulers living in stable equilibrium.
The elder Bush had two enormous achievements to his credit: the peaceful reunification of Germany, still historically undervalued, and the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, which maintained the status quo in the Persian Gulf. Nonetheless, his administration suffered from the classic shortcoming of realism: a failure of imagination. Bush brilliantly managed the reconstitution of Germany and the restoration of the independence of the East European states, but he could not see far enough to the liberation of the Soviet peoples themselves. His notorious “chicken Kiev” speech of 1991, warning Ukrainians against “suicidal nationalism,” seemed to prefer Soviet stability to the risk of fifteen free and independent states.
But we must not be retrospectively too severe. Democracy in Ukraine was hard to envision even a few years ago, let alone in the early 1990’s, and Bush’s hesitancy did not stop the march of liberation in the Soviet sphere. It was the failure of imagination in Bush’s other area of triumph—Iraq—that had truly stark, even tragic, consequences.
Leaving Saddam in place, and declining to support the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings that followed the first Gulf war, begat more than a decade of Iraqi suffering, rancor among our war allies, diplomatic isolation for the U.S., and a crumbling regime of UN sanctions. All this led ultimately and inevitably to a second war that could have been fought far more easily—and with the enthusiastic support of Iraq’s Shiites, who to this day remain suspicious of our intentions—in 1991. One recalls with dismay that the first two of Osama bin Laden’s announced justifications for his declaration of war on America were the garrisoning of the holy places (i.e., Saudi Arabia) by crusader (i.e., American) soldiers and the suffering of Iraqis under sanctions. Both were a direct result of the inconclusive end to the first Gulf war.
Still, the achievements of the elder Bush far outweigh the failures. The smooth and peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire began, Saddam was stopped, and Arabia was saved. But then came the second, radically different experiment. For the balance of the 1990’s, for reasons having nothing to do with foreign policy, realism was abruptly replaced by the classic liberal internationalism of the Clinton administration.
It is hard to be charitable in assessing the record. Liberal internationalism’s one major achievement in those years—saving the Muslims in the Balkans and creating conditions for their possible peaceful integration into Europe—was achieved, ironically, in defiance of its own major principle. It lacked what liberal internationalists incessantly claim is the sine qua non of legitimacy: the approval of the UN Security Council.
Otherwise, the period between 1993 and 2001 was a waste, eight years of sleepwalking, of the absurd pursuit of one treaty more useless than the last, while the rising threat—Islamic terrorism—was treated as a problem of law enforcement. Perhaps the most symbolic moment occurred at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to France in October 2000, after Yasir Arafat had rejected Israel’s peace offer at Camp David and instead launched his bloody second intifada. In Paris for another round of talks, Arafat abruptly broke off negotiations and was leaving the residence when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright ran after him, chasing him in her heels on the cobblestone courtyard to induce him, to cajole him, into signing yet another worthless piece of paper.
Leon Trotsky is said to have remarked of the New York intellectual Dwight Macdonald, “Everyone has a right to be stupid, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.” During its seven-and-a-half year Oslo folly, the Clinton administration abused the privilege consistently.
hen came another radical change. By a fluke or a miracle, depending on your point of view, because of the confusion of a few disoriented voters in Palm Beach, Florida, this has been the decade of neoconservatism. Bismarck once said that God looks after fools, drunkards, children, and the United States of America. Given the 2000 presidential election, it is clear that He works in very mysterious ways.
In place of realism or liberal internationalism, the last four-and-a-half years have seen an unashamed assertion and deployment of American power, a resort to unilateralism when necessary, and a willingness to preempt threats before they emerge. Most importantly, the second Bush administration has explicitly declared the spread of freedom to be the central principle of American foreign policy. Bush’s second inaugural address last January was the most dramatic and expansive expression of this principle. A few weeks later, at the National Defense University, the President offered its most succinct formulation: “The defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom.”
The remarkable fact that the Bush Doctrine is, essentially, a synonym for neoconservative foreign policy marks neoconservatism’s own transition from a position of dissidence, which it occupied during the first Bush administration and the Clinton years, to governance. Neoconservative foreign policy, one might say, has reached maturity. That is not only a portentous development, requiring some rethinking of principles and practice, but a rather unexpected one.
It is unexpected because, only a year ago, neoconservative foreign policy was being consigned to the ash heap of history. In the spring and summer of 2004, in the midst of increasing difficulties in Iraq, it was very widely believed that neoconservative policies had been run to the ground, that the administration that had purveyed them would soon be thrown out of office, and that internecine recriminations were about to begin over who lost the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and indeed the reins of American foreign policy. One prominent columnist, speaking for the conventional wisdom of the moment, called the Bush project in Iraq “a childish fantasy.” And this, from a friend of neoconservatism.
As for the liberals who had come on board the project of liberating Iraq, they took its perceived foundering as an opportunity to engage in a mass jumping of ship. Some justified their abandonment of the Bush Doctrine on the grounds that it was they who had been betrayed—by an administration whose incompetence, mendacity, political opportunism, and various other crimes had ruined a policy that would already have been crowned with success if only they had been in charge of postwar Iraq, calibrating brilliantly precise troop levels, calculating to three decimal places the required degree of de-Baathification, and overseeing just about every other operational detail according to the dictates of their own tactical genius.
Other liberals donned the guise of realists, who by the summer of 2004 were back in fashion. At the height of this new vogue, just before the November election, even John Kerry’s advisers, noting that the liberal-internationalist critique of the war (namely, that it lacked international support and legitimacy) was not exactly winning converts, settled instead on a “realist” line of attack. From then on, Iraq would be known as the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” which, translated, meant that we should be chasing terrorists cave-to-cave in Afghanistan rather than pursuing an ideological crusade in the Middle East.
If you add to this mix the classical realists, from Brent Scowcroft to Dimitri Simes, who had opposed the entire project from the beginning and were now penning their I-told-you-so’s, there seemed scarcely anyone left on board the neoconservative ship. But the most interesting about-face was that of some professed neoconservatives themselves. Among these, the most prominent was Francis Fukuyama, whose lead article in the summer 2004 National Interest was a “realist” attack on the entire ideological underpinnings of the Iraq war and the liberationist idea. The article’s very title, “The Neoconservative Moment,” made the mocking suggestion, also very much in vogue, that neoconservative foreign policy was finished, that its moment had come and gone, that it had been done in by Iraq, by its own overweening arrogance, and by its blindness to the realist wisdom that failure in Iraq was, as Fukuyama put it, “predictable in advance.”
As it happens, Fukuyama had neglected to make that prediction in advance; at the time of the war and during the months of debate preceding it, he had been silent. Moreover, from the perspective of today, even his retroactive prediction in summer 2004 of inevitable and catastrophic failure in Iraq appears doubtful, to say the least. Getting a retroactive prediction wrong is quite an achievement, but it tells you much about the intellectual climate just a year ago.
oday, there is no euphoria regarding the Iraq project, but sobriety has replaced panic. Things have changed, and what changed them was four elections: two in the West, and two in the Middle East. First came the reelection in Australia of John Howard, a firm ally of the administration. This presaged the reelection of George Bush, which reaffirmed to the world America’s staying power, gave popular legitimacy to the Bush Doctrine, and established a clear mandate to continue the democratic project. The refusal of the American people last November to turn out a President who, rejecting an “exit strategy,” pledged instead to remain until Iraqi self-governance had been secured, was a seminal moment.
The other two elections took place in the areas of our exertion: first the Afghan elections, scandalously underplayed by the American media, then the Iraqi elections, impossible to underplay even by the American media. The latter were a historical hinge point. After a string of other important steps in Iraq that had been confidently dismissed as impossible and certainly impossible to do on time—the writing of an interim constitution, the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government—came the greatest impossibility of all: free elections as scheduled. The overwhelming popular turnout, in what was essentially a referendum on the insurgency and on the democratic idea, sent a clearcut message. Those who had said that the Iraqis, like Arabs in general, had no particular interest in self-government were wrong—as were those who claimed that the insurgency was a nationalist, anti-imperialist, and widely popular movement.
This is hardly to say that things have not remained difficult in Iraq. The insurgency is still raging. It has the capacity to kill, to instill fear, and perhaps ultimately to destabilize the elected government. What the election did do, however, was to confirm what was already suggested by the insurgency’s clear lack of any political program, any political wing, any ideology, indeed even any pretense of competing for hearts and minds. The election exposed the insurgency as an alliance of Baathist nihilism and atavistic jihadism, neither of which has a large constituency in Iraq.
And that is hardly all. The elections newly empowered fully 80 percent of the Iraqi population—the Kurds and the Shiites—and created an indigenous representative leadership with a life-and-death stake in defeating the insurgency. By giving that 80 percent the political and institutional means to build the necessary forces, the elections infinitely improved the chances that a stable, multiethnic, democratic Iraq can emerge, despite the current mayhem. As Fouad Ajami wrote in the Wall Street Journal on May 16, upon returning from a visit to the region:
The insurgents will do what they are good at. But no one really believes that those dispensers of death can turn back the clock. . . . By a twist of fate, the one Arab country that had seemed ever marked for brutality and sorrow now stands poised on the frontier of a new political world.
The elections’ effect on the wider Arab world was likewise both immediate and profound. Millions of Arabs watched on television as Iraqis exercised their political rights, and were moved to ask the obvious question: why are Iraqis the only Arabs voting in free elections—and doing so, moreover, under American aegis and protection? The rest is so well known as barely to merit repeating. The Beirut spring. Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Open demonstrations and the beginnings of political competition in Egypt. Women’s suffrage in Kuwait. Small but significant steps toward democratization in the Gulf. Bashar Assad’s declared intent to legalize political parties in Syria, purge the ruling Baath party, sponsor free municipal elections in 2007, and move toward a market economy.1
Ajami has called this (in the title of a recent article in Foreign Affairs) the “Autumn of the Autocrats.” Not the winter—nothing is certain, and we know of many democratizing movements in the past that were successfully put down. There are too many entrenched dictatorships and kleptocracies in the region to declare anything won. What we can declare, with certainty, is the falsity of those confident assurances before the Iraq war, during the Iraq war, and after the Iraq war that this project was inevitably doomed to failure because we do not know how to “do” democracy, and they do not know how to receive it.
In Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab world, the forces of democratic liberalization have emerged on the political stage in a way that was unimaginable just two years ago. They have been energized and emboldened by the Iraqi example and by American resolve. Until now, it was widely assumed that the only alternative to pan-Arabist autocracy, to the Nassers and the Saddams, was Islamism. We now know, from Iraq and Lebanon, that there is another possibility, and that America has given it life. As the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, hardly a noted friend of the Bush Doctrine, put it in late February in an interview with David Ignatius of the Washington Post:
It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.
The Iraqi elections vindicated the two central propositions of the Bush Doctrine. First, that the desire for freedom is indeed universal and not the private preserve of Westerners. Second, that America is genuinely committed to democracy in and of itself. Contrary to the cynics, whether Arab, European, or American, the U.S. did not go into Iraq for oil or hegemony but for liberation—a truth that on January 30 even al Jazeera had to televise. Arabs in particular had had sound historical reason to doubt American sincerity: six decades of U.S. support for Arab dictators, a cynical “realism” that began with FDR’s deal with the House of Saud and reached its apogee with the 1991 betrayal of the anti-Saddam uprising that the elder Bush had encouraged in Iraq. Today, however, they see a different Bush and a different doctrine.
he Iraqi elections had one final effect. They so acutely embarrassed foreign critics, especially in Europe, that we began to see a rash of headlines asking the rhetorical question: Was Bush Right? The answer to that is: yes, so far. The democratic project has been launched, against the critics and against the odds. That in itself is an immense historical achievement. But success will require maturation—a neoconservatism of discrimination and restraint, prepared to examine both its principles and its practice in shaping a truly governing philosophy.
In a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) last year, I tried to draw a distinction between a more expansive and a more restrictive neo-conservative foreign policy. I called the two types, respectively, democratic globalism and democratic realism.2
The chief spokesman for democratic globalism is the President himself, and his second inaugural address is its ur-text. What is most breathtaking about it is not what most people found shocking—his announced goal of abolishing tyranny throughout the world. Granted, that is rather cosmic-sounding, but it is only an expression of direction and hope for, well, the end of time. What is most expansive is the pledge that America will stand with dissidents throughout the world, wherever they are.
This sort of talk immediately opens itself up to the accusation of disingenuousness and hypocrisy. After all, the United States retains cozy relations with autocracies of various stripes, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Russia. Besides, if we place ourselves on the side of all dissidents everywhere, must we not declare our solidarity not only with democrats but with Islamist dissidents sitting in Pakistani, Egyptian, Saudi, and Russian jails?
But we do not act this way, and we need not. The question of alliances with dictators, of deals with the devil, can be approached openly, forthrightly, and without any need for defensiveness. The principle is that we cannot democratize the world overnight and, therefore, if we are sincere about the democratic project, we must proceed sequentially. Nor, out of a false equivalence, need we abandon democratic reformers in these autocracies. On the contrary, we have a duty to support them, even as we have a perfect moral right to distinguish between democrats on the one hand and totalitarians or jihadists on the other.
In the absence of omnipotence, one must deal with the lesser of two evils. That means postponing radically destabilizing actions in places where the support of the current non-democratic regime is needed against a larger existential threat to the free world. There is no need to apologize for that. In World War II we allied ourselves with Stalin against Hitler. (As Churchill said shortly after the German invasion of the USSR: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”) This was a necessary alliance, and a temporary one: when we were done with Hitler, we turned our attention to Stalin and his successors.
During the subsequent war, the cold war, we again made alliances with the devil, in the form of a variety of right-wing dictators, in order to fight the greater evil. Here, again, the partnership was necessary and temporary. Our deals with right-wing dictatorships were contingent upon their usefulness and upon the status of the ongoing struggle. Once again we were true to our word. Whenever we could, and particularly as we approached victory in the larger war, we dispensed with those alliances.
Consider two cases of useful but temporary allies against Communism: Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. We proved our bona fides in both of these cases when, as Moscow weakened and the existential threat to the free world receded, we worked to bring down both dictators. In 1986, we openly and decisively supported the Aquino revolution that deposed and exiled Marcos, and later in the 80’s we pressed very hard for free elections in Chile that Pinochet lost, paving the way for the return of democracy.
lliances with dictatorships were justified in the war against fascism and the cold war, and they are justified now in the successor existential struggle, the war against Arab/Islamic radicalism. This is not just theory. It has practical implications. For nothing is more practical than the question: after Afghanistan, after Iraq, what?
The answer is, first Lebanon, then Syria. Lebanon is next because it is so obviously ready for democracy, having practiced a form of it for 30 years after decolonization. Its sophistication and political culture make it ripe for transformation, as the massive pro-democracy demonstrations have shown.
Then comes Syria, both because of its vulnerability—the Lebanon withdrawal has gravely weakened Assad—and because of its strategic importance. A critical island of recalcitrance in a liberalizing region stretching from the Mediterranean to the Iranian border, Syria has tried to destabilize all of its neighbors: Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and now, most obviously and bloodily, the new Iraq. Serious, prolonged, ruthless pressure on the Assad regime would yield enormous geopolitical advantage in democratizing, and thus pacifying, the entire Levant.
Some conservatives (and many liberals) have proposed instead that we be true to the universalist language of the President’s second inaugural address and go after the three principal Islamic autocracies: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.3 Not so fast, and not so hard. Autocracies they are, and in many respects nasty ones. But doing this would be a mistake.
In Egypt, we certainly have liberal resources that should be supported and encouraged. But, keeping in mind the Algerian experience, we should be wary of bringing down the whole house of cards and thereby derailing any progress from authoritarianism to liberal democracy. Saudi Arabia has a Byzantine culture, and an equally Byzantine method of governance, which must be delicately reformed short of overthrow. And Pakistan, which has great potential for democracy, is simply too critical as a military ally in the war on al Qaeda to risk anything right now. Pervez Musharraf is no bastard; but even if he were, he is ours. We should be encouraging the evolution of democracy in all of these countries, but relentless and ruthless means—of the kind we employed in Afghanistan and Iraq and should, perhaps short of direct military invention, be employing in Syria—are better applied to enemies, not friends.
What is interesting is that the Bush administration, in practice, is proceeding precisely along these lines. It pushes on Mubarak, but gently. It moves even more gingerly with Saudi Arabia, fearing what may emerge in the short term if the royal kleptocracy is deposed. And, because Pakistan is so central to the war on terror, it disturbs not a hair on the head of Musharraf.
In short, the Bush administration—if you like, neoconservatism in power—has been far more inclined to pursue democratic realism and to consign democratic globalism to the realm of aspiration. This kind of prudent circumspection is, in fact, a practical necessity for governing in the real world. We should, for example, be doing everything in our power, both overtly and covertly, to encourage a democratic revolution in Iran, a deeply hostile and dangerous state, even while trying carefully to manage democratic evolution in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Indeed, the behavior of the Bush administration implies that in practice, the distinction between democratic realism and democratic globalism may collapse, because globalism is simply not sustainable.
nother important sign of the maturing of neoconservative foreign policy is that it is no longer tethered to its own ideological history and paternity. The current practitioners of neoconservative foreign policy are George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld. They have no history in the movement, and before 9/11 had little affinity to or affiliation with it.
The fathers of neoconservatism are former liberals or leftists. Today, its chief proponents, to judge by their history, are former realists. Rice, for example, was a disciple of Brent Scowcroft; Cheney served as Secretary of Defense in the first Bush administration. September 11 changed all of that. It changed the world, and changed our understanding of the world. As neoconservatism seemed to offer the most plausible explanation of the new reality and the most compelling and active response to it, many realists were brought to acknowledge the poverty of realism—not just the futility but the danger of a foreign policy centered on the illusion of stability and equilibrium. These realists, newly mugged by reality, have given weight to neoconservatism, making it more diverse and, given the newcomers’ past experience, more mature.
What neoconservatives have long been advocating is now being articulated and practiced at the highest levels of government by a war cabinet composed of individuals who, coming from a very different place, have joined and reshaped the neoconservative camp and are carrying the neoconservative idea throughout the world. As a result, the vast right-wing conspiracy has grown even more vast than liberals could imagine. And even as the tent has enlarged, the great schisms and splits in conservative foreign policy—so widely predicted just a year ago, so eagerly sought and amplified by outside analysts—have not occurred. Indeed, differences have, if anything, narrowed.
This is not party discipline. It is compromise with reality, and convergence toward the middle. Above all, it is the maturation of a governing ideology whose time has come.
2 The text of my remarks, given as the 2004 Irving Kristol Lecture and published as an AEI monograph titled “Democratic Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World,” can also be found at www.aei.org.
3 For a nuanced presentation of the case, see Victor Davis Hanson, “The Bush Doctrine’s Next Test,” in the May COMMENTARY.
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The Neoconservative Convergence
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.