Tag Archives: foreign policy

Remember Knowledgable Republicans?

I’m getting used to having my students express surprise when they discover that I used to be a Republican–that I even ran for Congress as a Republican.

I try to explain to them that the radical fringe that constitutes today’s GOP is nothing like the party I worked for over a period of 35 years. I tell them that although both parties have always included zealots and know-nothings of various sorts, I remember a time when serious people who cared about America’s prospects and were even willing to work across the political aisle could be found in both parties.

A recent media release from the Lugar Center is evidence not just of the accuracy of that recollection, but the distance between then and now.

Washington–Former Sen. Richard G. Lugar said today many of President Trump’s stated foreign policy goals are “simplistic, prosaic and reactive,” and are characteristic of “a selfish, inward looking nation that is being motivated by fear, not a great superpower with capacity to shape global affairs.”

In remarks prepared for a Washington event hosted by the Foreign Policy Association, Lugar, a former chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that if Trump fully followed through on his current policies for trade, immigration and international alliances, “the net effect…would be an economic and geopolitical disaster.”

Lugar, a Republican from Indiana who served 36 years in the Senate, said the president is relying too much on beefing up the military while “squandering America’s international leverage.”

“We cannot bomb our way to security,” Lugar said.

Always the diplomat, Lugar attributed the “missteps” of the Trump Administration to a period in which it was “finding its footing.” (Those of us who are far less diplomatic might suggest that in order to find one’s footing, it is helpful to know what a floor is…But I digress.) He did, however, address several of the issues that he clearly considers troubling, if not disastrous.

What worries him Lugar said,

are Trump’s “campaign-driven foreign policy themes that are fundamentally contradicted by centuries of world history.”  For instance, Trump’s protectionist trade agenda ignores the powerful impact of technology on job displacement, Lugar said, and “attempting to isolate a nation from trade competition is a self-defeating strategy that will hurt those at the bottom of the economic ladder before anyone else.”

“On immigration, we are mired in a debate of distraction,” Lugar said. “In a world where dampening the rise of new terrorists is as important as dealing with existing ones, the ban on entrants from Muslim countries represents the most obvious recruitment tool against the United States since Abu Ghraib…The ban has been a steep net loss to U.S. national security.”

Lugar, a strong supporter of NATO throughout his Senate career, also expressed concern about Trump’s willingness to question U.S. commitment to our allies as he seeks to wring more contributions from them. “Such ambiguity is not clever,” Lugar said. “It is dangerous and can lead to deadly miscalculation.”

A couple of things about these public remarks struck me: first–and most obvious–is the monumental distance between statesmen like Richard Lugar and the Keystone Kops party of Trump, Pence, Ryan, McConnell and “Freedom Caucus” ideologues who now are both the face and the substance of a once-responsible GOP. Where we once had thoughtful, intellectually-honest elected officials who understood the complexities of government and world affairs, we now have posturing fools who don’t know what they don’t know.

The second thing that struck me was how unlike Dick Lugar it is to voice these concerns publicly. Lugar has always been a good “soldier,” unwilling to go public with criticisms of others in his party (and muted in his critiques of Democrats, for that matter). Even out of office, he has been collegial to a fault.

He must be really, really worried.

 

 

Birds of a Feather

Unfortunately, they’re cuckoo birds.

New York Magazine has a story titled: “The Scariest Thing About Trump: Michael Flynn’s Team of Nutters.” After reading it, I understand their characterization, although I find it very difficult to single out any one of Trump’s demented choices and activities as “scariest.” (I’ve been in a perpetually  terrified state since November 8.)

That said, the article makes a pretty persuasive argument that Flynn is certifiable. And when you consider that Presidents have far more authority over foreign policy than over domestic matters, it’s pretty chilling.

The opening paragraphs of the article by Jonathan Chait capture the threat posed by a President who lacks not only experience, but judgment, intellect and any interest in educating himself.

The most frightening aspect of the looming Donald Trump presidency is not so much the likely outcomes, many of which are horrifying, as the unlikely ones. Running the federal government of the world’s most powerful country is hard, and many things can go wrong. Full control of government is about to pass into the hands of a party that, when it last had it, left the economy and the world in a shambles. These disasters occurred because the party’s ideological extremism made it unequipped to make pragmatic choices, and because its chief executive was a mental lightweight. Sixteen years after it last came to power, the party has grown far more ideologically extreme, and its head of state is much less competent. Many of the risks of an extremist party led by an unqualified president are difficult to foresee in advance. But one is especially glaring: the appointment of Michael Flynn to be national security adviser.

National security adviser is a crucial position for any president. It is especially so for a uniquely inexperienced one. (Donald Trump being the only president in American history lacking any public experience in either a civilian or military role.) And it is all the more crucial given Trump’s flamboyant lack of interest in getting up to speed (he confounded his aides by eschewing briefing books throughout the campaign, and has turned down most of his intelligence briefings since the election.) Flynn’s appointment is the one that contains the sum of all fears of Trumpian government.

Chait says that Flynn exhibits the worst qualities of Dick Cheney, “but in exaggerated form.” Like Trump, Flynn is a sucker for conspiracy theories. He believes, for example, that Islamists have infiltrated the Mexican border, guided along the way by Arabic-language signs he says he’s seen. (The Mexicans–and even the Texans– might find that belief a bit…bizarre.) Flynn also believes that Democrats have imposed “Sharia law” in parts of Florida. He once suggested Hillary Clinton could have been involved in child sex trafficking.

Chait says that Flynn’s subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency gave these frequent theories a name. “Flynn facts,” are code for the opposite of factual.

As the article documents, Flynn has surrounded himself with equally delusional staff. Perhaps the scariest paragraph in the entire article is this one:

Compounding Flynn’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories is his professed hostility to any information that undercuts his preconceived notions. According to a former subordinate speaking to the New York Times, in a meeting with his staff “Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his.”

This is the man–and the philosophy–that will guide a President Trump in his dealings with the rest of the world–a man chosen largely because his delusions, self-regard and self-righteous certainty mirror the qualities of our incoming Commander-in-Chief. As the old saying goes, birds of a feather flock together.

If the fact that these two cuckoo birds will have control of American foreign policy (not to mention the nuclear codes) doesn’t keep you up at night, you must have nerves of steel.

The Trump Doctrine

So, The Donald won Indiana’s primary, and is positioned to win the GOP nomination. Should he (God forbid!) win in November, he’ll have possession of the nation’s nuclear codes, among other unthinkable things.

So how much does he understand about foreign affairs (other than the sexual kind)?

Fact free and incoherent….That evaluation, from one actual foreign policy expert, was one of the nicer reactions to Trump’s ballyhooed “Presidential” foreign policy speech. The Guardian listed ten glaring contradictions within the speech–some within just a couple of minutes of each other.

At the Brookings Institution, trying for a more measured analysis, Thomas Wright noted that there was nothing new (or very specific) in the speech, but identified five “take-aways”from the speech. Those “take-aways” should terrify anyone who has even the slightest understanding of the world and the nature of our relations with other countries: Trump would simply end current U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia (make them all pay for their own defense); he would pursue an isolationist strategy (“He opposes democracy promotion, multilateralism, security guarantees, and, implicitly, keeping the global commons open for use by all nations”); he would “make a deal” with China and Russia (no details–just an assertion by the bloviating, self-proclaimed “dealmaker”). As Wright noted, the speech was intended for the GOP establishment–not the party’s foreign policy experts; and –surprise!–he views policy in this area, as in all others, as all about The Donald.

Trump spent quite a lot of time talking about how important it is that other leaders respect the American president. He complained about foreign leaders not meeting President Obama when he stepped off Air Force One. He spent a couple of minutes on Obama’s unsuccessful effort to win the Olympics for Chicago. This gave us a window into the temperament of a President Trump—he would read a lot into what others said about him and on his personal rapporteur with other leaders. He would likely to be drawn to men like him.

As I copied and pasted that quote, cold shivers went down my spine…..

At Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton also analyzed the speech, albeit a bit less dispassionately.

But even though it was a pre-written talk that has taken weeks and weeks to prepare, it was little more than a slogan: “America first.” ….

Boy, that’s original. Guess who used it first? Pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh, who created the America First Committee to defend Hitler’s aggression and criticize Jews who were advocating that America get involved in WW2.

You expected more from a guy who retweets sentiments from Mussolini, and accuses a political rival’s father of complicity in JFK’s assassination?

Why did I come away from this “important” speech with a distinct impression that The Donald couldn’t locate–or spell– most countries with which we have strategic interests if asked to point to them on a map–let alone identify America’s long-term global interests?

Wishful Thinking Isn’t Foreign Policy

A post-debate column from the Brookings Institution focused on a criticism of Administration foreign policy that is dangerously disconnected from reality in its naivete.

The Republican presidential candidates last night disagreed on many important issues, but on foreign policy, they showed a remarkable unanimity. Together, they presented what boils down to a consensus Republican foreign policy manifesto: “Obama is weak; I am strong.”

As the author notes, the message is simple: favoring diplomacy over force is weakness.

The problem with this very simplistic worldview is front and center in the current debate about the Iran nuclear agreement. Opponents–not all of whom are Republicans, and several of whom should know better (yes, Senator Schumer, I’m looking at you)–routinely fault the agreement as “not good enough,” but fall curiously silent when they are asked to propose alternatives. To date, I have not heard any of them offer a single specific suggestion; when pressed, they say something like “I’d get a better deal,” without explaining what “better” would look like or how they would achieve it.

None of those who are opposed to any deal at all with Iran have said what they would do instead. Implicitly, of course, they are counseling war.

All of the Republican candidates seem intent on ignoring the changes in the world that limit America’s capacity to achieve such dramatic outcomes. America’s military power is second to none, but it has been shown in both the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies to have severe limits in achieving foreign policy outcomes. Overall, particularly since the global financial crisis, power has diffused; strong, new competitors have emerged, and even America’s allies have grown more independent and willful as they have grown in relative power. No presidential act of will can change those stark realities.

Indeed, this was a realization not originally of President Obama, but of President Bush, whose second-term foreign policy looks much more like that of Obama than that articulated by the Republican candidates at the debate. It was George W. Bush after all, humbled by American difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, who started the process of withdrawal from Iraq, began the search for an Iran deal, and chose to respond to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia with sanctions and negotiation. The ideas of preemptive war and unilateral American action were essentially abandoned by the end of the Bush presidency, in fact if not entirely in rhetoric.

The Iran deal is a case in point. It is all well and good to counsel abandoning it on the first day. But, after scrapping the deal, the United States does not have the capacity to reconstruct the international coalition that kept Iran in its box the last 13 years. All of its allies have accepted this deal, and without them there can be no effective effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.

There’s a reason thoughtful and knowledgable people–from Dick Lugar and Madelyn Albright to nuclear weapons experts–have strongly endorsed the Iran agreement.

Wishful thinking is not strategy; posturing and self-delusion are not foreign policy. It took an unnecessary and costly war to teach George W. Bush that lesson; we don’t need a repeat performance.

 

The Scariest Thing About Mitt Romney

This morning’s New York Times asked an important question: is there a “Romney Doctrine”?

The article detailed the multiple ways in which Romney has ignored the advice of seasoned members of his foreign policy team, and rejected the more nuanced positions that Bush junior came to embrace in his second term (after learning lessons the hard way). Instead, Romney–who has zero foreign policy experience–has repeatedly engaged in hard-line, uninformed saber rattling.

Of all the things we are learning about the man who could very well become the most powerful person on the planet, this lack of appreciation for the complexities of the world America inhabits is the most worrisome.

Given Romney’s approach to campaigning–a full-throated pander to the most retrograde elements of the GOP base–it is certainly possible that his foreign policy positions are simply as self-serving as his domestic ones. This is, after all, a man whose only obviously genuine belief is in his own entitlement to be President. But unlike uninformed, simplistic statements about domestic issues, a presidential candidate’s foreign policy pronouncements are news around the globe.  They become part of the intricate diplomatic calculus that the United States must engage in every day. When those statements are unreflective or contrary to current U.S. policies and interests, they complicate and disrupt ongoing international discussions.

If Romney the candidate is unaware of the effect of his bellicose statements, what evidence do we have that he would be more thoughtful as President? Thus far, we have seen no signs of self-reflection or intellectual curiosity–and certainly, no hint of recognition that there might be deficits in his understanding of a complex world.

The more we learn about Mitt Romney, the more convinced I become that he would be a disaster as President. Not because he is an evil man, but because he is an empty one.