« Mary Cheney And The Myth Of Karl Rove | Main | What Would John Kerry Do? »

Into The Clouds

So I've been ducking out of the partisan warfare a bit and reading some more grandly theoretical works on foreign policy by Walter Russell Mead, John Lewis Gaddis, John Ikenberry, and Charles Kupchan. The first two, one might say, are objectively pro-Bush and the latter are objectively pro-Kerry, though none seem super-enthusiastic about either party or candidate. You get some interesting cross-cutting. Kerry's two big themes are that (a) we need to pay more attention to building, strengthening, and sustaining multilateral institutions, and (b) we need to focus more on old-fashioned terrorist-killing and less on messianic dreams. Bush believes the contrary. Ikenberry and Kupchan, meanwhile, heartily agree with Kerry on (a) but are both concerned that under current policy we've gone too far toward making the War on Terrorism the dominant paradigm of our grand strategy (Kupchan is more bothered than Ikenberry, but they're both bothered). Hence, it seems they wouldn't like Kerry's plank (b) at all, which proposes to bring policy practice more rather than less, in line with the dominant rhetoric about the transcendant importance of terrorism. Mead and Gaddis, meanwhile, both have things the other way 'round. They truly believe that "9-11 changed everything" and that fighting terrorism should be the dominant priority from which all else follows. But they don't like plank (a) at all, and think multilateralism is a kind of nice window dressing to put on a policy when possible, but not necessary or important.

I don't really know what to think about all this right now. The clearest conclusion I can reach is that having Ikenberry review Kupchan's book is pretty absurd in light of their habit of frequent co-authorship. Methinks all parties need to pay more attention to nuclear proliferation and the possible modalities of nuclear terrorism. And I haven't even gotten to Graham Allison's book.

In the case of George W. Bush's reelection one really doesn't need to know much about grand strategy. The procedural elements of policymaking in this administration are FUBAR and the level of accountability for mistakes is zero (or, perhaps, negative). This pretty much ensures that nothing will ever get done properly. Unlike others, I make no grand traditions about what Kerry will do in office on this score. Look at the historical record of trying to ascertain foreign policy outcomes based on campaign rhetoric or close reading of people's lists of advisors and you'll see that things are never what they seem. All presidents face unexpected crises, unexpected opportunities, and unexpected setbacks. Weird shit winds up going down. Things turn out not to be what they seem. The traditional view that the appropriate way to make ones cabinet is to appoint secretaries of state and defense who don't agree about anything is also relevant.

October 16, 2004 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Into The Clouds:


Matthew wrote:
"...the level of accountability for mistakes is zero (or, perhaps, negative)."

It sure appears that accounability is negative.

Sanchez, a general under whom Abu Ghraib was a nasty stain? He gets another star.

Maj. General Barbara Fast, also a commander under whom Abu Ghraib took place? She gets to lead intelligence training.

Seems like the best way to advance in the Bush military is to piss off, for no reason, a bunch of Muslims.

Nice way to fight a global war on terror.


Posted by: riffle | Oct 16, 2004 2:26:23 AM

They truly believe that "9-11 changed everything" and that fighting terrorism should be the dominant priority from which all else follows. But they don't like plank (a) at all, and think multilateralism is a kind of nice window dressing to put on a policy when possible, but not necessary or important.

This seems to me profoundly, catastrophically wrong -- and I'm happy Kerry agrees with me.

I wish Kerry would spend his time arguing directly the opposite. The way he talks about alliances now it just sounds -- exactly like Bush wants it to sound -- like he feels some sort of patrician New England aversion to being gruff and blunt in public, like he really thinks we ought to keep our voice down and behave properly. Like we're at dinner, and Bush has been so ruuude.

But the point is not that we want to sing Kumbaya. The point is that we fail without genuine alliances. It's got nothing to do with the candidates' "feelings" or their "values," holy and sanctified as those subjects may be in modern campaigning. It simply has to do with what works -- a cold assessment of what is feasible and what is advantageous. As Wesley Clark argued so convincingly in his book, alliances are a royal pain in the ass -- but they diffuse responsibility in such a way that no single country will be saddled with all the blowback. They diffuse costs and manpower. They are seen and treated, in many ways, like forces of nature rather than individual agents.

Right now Bush is Satan to pissed off Arabs. What if we had spent several years -- say three -- advocating and browbeating in favor of increasing pressure on Saddam. Sanctions were weakening, but we are the United States. If we'd really wanted Saddamn to be crippled economically, we could have arranged it. What if we had led a broad coalition including, say, Turkey, into Iraq?

No doubt progress would still be slow and difficult, but it would be steady. Kill a few wives and kids, and a large contingent will come out to fight you. If you simply press down with the weight of an international bureaucracy, as in Bosnia, you might have considerable difficulty, but you will never arouse such personal, passionate opposition.

Anyway, the point is that alliances save American money, lives, and credibility. I may not give much of a damn what Jacque Chirac thinks -- but I give a damn about that.

Posted by: Realish | Oct 16, 2004 2:50:23 AM

"Unlike others, I make no grand traditions about what Kerry will do in office on this score. Look at the historical record of trying to ascertain foreign policy outcomes based on campaign rhetoric or close reading of people's lists of advisors and you'll see that things are never what they seem."

Dunno about you, but I've got a lot of faith in Dick Holbrooke.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 16, 2004 4:23:36 AM

"traditions" = "predictions"?

Hm -- Yglesiasisms?

Posted by: Zizka | Oct 16, 2004 9:09:14 AM

I don't know which Mead book you read, but "Power, Terror, Peace, and War", while slightly to the right in its general perspective still would fail Bush harshly. It is true he doesn't attack Bush much, but his advocacy of a foreign policy oriented around "sticky" "sweet" "sharp" and "hegemonic" power does utterly repudiate the neo-con perspective on US foreign policy, wouldn't you say?


Posted by: Rahul Sinha | Oct 16, 2004 11:47:00 AM

I think that we can state for a certainty that there will be some totally unanticipated foreign policy event in the next 4 years. When presented in the summer of 2001 with warnings of a terrorist strike, this administration essentially ignored them. These warnings did not fit their world view.

A Kerry administration will do a much better job of anticipating and reacting to a new development. As long as they achieve mediocrity at this, they will far surpass the Bush admin capabilities.

Posted by: EdSez | Oct 16, 2004 12:46:04 PM

Please, never use the word "modalities" again when you mean "modes."

Posted by: blah | Oct 16, 2004 1:03:55 PM

So I'm not quite sure what negative accountability is, but I like riffle's interpretation.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 16, 2004 1:19:30 PM

Does anyone in this pantheon of big-domes remember how skillfully Britain used coalitions to fight her battles on the Continent for 400 years? In fact (and this will show how old I am) I even seem to remember speculation that the industrial revolution surged forward in England BECAUSE the people weren't saddled with a huge army, perpetual conscription, and the crushing costs of continual warfare.

Matt might be better off reading some history instead of these current-events confections.

Posted by: serial catowner | Oct 16, 2004 2:36:59 PM

Matt is right about one thing: Nuclear proliferation is the number one priority in avoiding catastrophic terrorist attacks. Anthrax and smallpox are bullshit. If anthrax is a WMD, then Bush allowed terrorists to kill Americans on US soil after 9/11 with WMD's. Anyone think that statement is true?

And our record in diminishing the threat of nuclear proliferation under Bush is terrible. For the money we have spent on this "war" we could have locked up most of the stray nukes left over from the USSR. Instead, while Pakistan continued to spread nukes across the world, Bush went into the one member of his axis of evil, Iraq, that had a diminishing capability to make nukes.

Of course Iraq never did have anything to do with the "war" on terror. It was always a Rovian "product" to try to get Bush re-elected. I have never heard a cogent reason for the Iraq war other than this.

Posted by: epistemology | Oct 16, 2004 3:03:26 PM

Anybody who thinks multilateral organizations are effective obviously has not studied the track record.


It is precisely *because* of diffuse responsibility that they don't work.

Posted by: righty | Oct 16, 2004 3:33:03 PM

Kerry likes to frame his main criticisms of the Iraq adventure as connected with the war being a "distraction from the war on terror." And while I think that is something he sincerely believes, for political reasons his campaign often portrays the distraction in very simplistic terms. I do not think what Kerry has in mind is simply that we need to shift resources away from Iraq only so we can use more resources on a silly chase for Osama Bin Laden in the mountains of Pakistan, or do some more “old-fashioned terrorist killing”. There is plenty of terrorist killing going on right now – although most of it is covert - and it probably doesn’t need to be increased in any substantial way. But this is sometimes the way it comes out in the campaign.

The more fundamental difference with Bush on the War on Terror is that Kerry intends to put much more effort into "public diplomacy" - an effort the Bush administration has all but given up on. Kerry wants to focus more on winning the ideological battle for Muslim hearts and minds by identifying Islamic moderates and liberals, and working to strengthen their position in the Middle East vis-à-vis militant Islamists on the one side and authoritarian regimes on the other. I gather he will be more aggressive about pushing for political reform in places Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and in working to promote, support and defend independent media and publishing in the Middle East, and reformist political parties and groups.

Bush seems comfortable with a strategy based on continuing to support repressive US clients for the time being, and winning the struggle against militant Islamists mainly by military means – it’s the old hawkish refrain "get 'em by the balls, and the hearts and minds will follow". The Bush strategy, in its more "idealistic" form is - or was - not to work the ideological front directly, but to use brute force to take over a country in the Middle East, namely Iraq, set up a pro-American liberal government there, and then hope the example spreads in a “democratic tsunami”. But in its less idealistic, more "realist" manifestation, the plan seems to be simply to grab a very valuable piece of real estate in the Middle East, and use it as a base for dominating the rest of the region.

Since there is hardly any difference between Kerry and Bush on the crucial source of Muslim resentment and anti-American hostility – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - I suspect the amount of progress made in public diplomacy, even in a Kerry administration, will be very modest. The Kerry approach toward Israel seems to be for the US to continue to allow Israeli governments to do pretty much whatever they want to do, but to blunt the blowback somewhat by making more of an effort to appear "engaged" with various talks, high-profile diplomatic trips, processes, etc.

Moving away from the Middle East, Kerry does seem to be a classic liberal internationalist, and believes generally in the virtues of patient diplomacy and slower-moving, but more durable, coordinated, cooperative approaches to global problems rather than risky unilateral ventures and a reliance on blunt military tools. Bush is willing to sacrifice many of the benefits that come from cooperation, forged by negotiation and compromise, in order to preserve maximum US autonomy and independence. Along these lines, Kerry also clearly has much more respect than Bush for the goal of promoting an international rule of law. But these are in part differences in the weight of preference given to different tactics and approaches, and don’t tell us much about the differences between the two men in ends and strategy.

A much more important difference between Bush and Kerry lies in that area: the area of overall global strategy. Kerry is *significantly* more pro-European than Bush. Bush's policy is not just unilateralist, which concerns tactics, but effectively anti-European. Bush has sought to replace the powerful European and American-centered postwar alliance, which exerts much of its influence through NATO and the UN security system, with a new American imperium. The Bush people did not just move away from the UN after it failed to support the Iraq war. They had a conscious strategy when they came in of *wrecking* the UN-based security system, substantially diminishing the influence of NATO and replacing those traditional institutions with a US-lead system based on US dictate and ad hoc coalitions of the willing. They believed that we live in a historically unique unipolar moment, and that US was now to be the world's Sheriff and hanging judge combined, and use economic and military carrots and sticks to get people to join the posse as needed. This came out very clearly when Rumsfeld began to carry out his own foreign and diplomatic policy from the Pentagon, with administration support, and usurped the role of the State Department. When NATO offered help, he said "Thanks, but no thanks. We're going to do it with coalitions of the willing from now on." And with the UN, the message was: "Resign yourself to a new role as a US presidium, rubber-stamping the Imperial dictates, or else find yourself tossed in the trash can of historical irrelevance." To my mind, the whole approach is based on an absurd and historically ill-informed overestimation of the extent of American power.

Bush's political coalition includes several reactionary and ideologically dangerous forces: Christian conservatives, including fanatical Christian Zionists, hawkish American nationalists and neoconservatives. At least two of these groups are *rabidly* and ideologically anti-European, seeing continental Europe as a center of various moral and spiritual ills: atheism, decadence, materialism, socialism anti-Semitism and a new European version of Islam. And many of the American nationalists, who are not so philosophically or ideologically motivated, nevertheless tended to see Europe as destined to go its own way, via the European Union, as a strategic competitor of the US. They fear the threat to US hegemony, including the threat to the dollar from the euro. Their aim was thus to weaken Europe by dividing it into "Old European" competitors and "New European" clients and economic supplicants - the latter paying for US patronage, in the manner of Medieval vassals, by providing posse recruits.

Kerry appears to want to strengthen and rebuild the US-Anglo-Continental security alliance, whether this ultimately means UN reform, and an expanded, redefined role for NATO or the replacement of these institutions with new ones. Kerry, one gathers, is a Europhile and heritor of the Enlightenment, who sees Europe and the US as historically intertwined sister nations in a single enlightened, modernist and fundamentally liberal Western culture, and thus believes Anglo-European ties should be preserved and strengthened. The Bush represents a fundamentalist, chauvinist, reactionary paranoid style of American exceptionalism. Just as Europe had to pass through turbulent centuries of religious fanaticism, extreme nationalism and even fascism to achieve its more settled, pacific, liberal culture, so the United States now needs to get beyond its current crisis of fundamentalist reaction and chauvinistic nationalism to reclaim its rightful place as the main exemplar of Western liberal and democratic values.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Oct 16, 2004 4:02:06 PM

Dan, that is perhaps one of the most intelligent and insightful posts/analysis that I've ever read.

Posted by: Windhorse | Oct 16, 2004 7:19:44 PM

Well, I haven't read Kupchan's book, but I read the review linked by MY, and two things jumped out at me. First, does Kupchan really purport to discuss the coming end of U.S. hegemony without talking about China? The review refers only to populist isolationism and the rise of Europe.

Second, in identifying Europe as the biggest rising threat to U.S. supremacy, does Kupchan take into account Europe's anemic economic and demographic growth rates?

I'm not suggesting Kupchan's argument is bad; it's not like I'm an expert and as I said I haven't read the book. Just sort of wondering about these two things.

Posted by: El Gringo Loco | Oct 16, 2004 8:09:52 PM

And yes, Dan Kervick should definitely find someone to pay him to write about this stuff. A thoughtful comment which pulls a lot of things together in an interesting way.

Posted by: El Gringo Loco | Oct 16, 2004 8:13:44 PM

"Since there is hardly any difference between Kerry and Bush on the crucial source of Muslim resentment and anti-American hostility – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict..."

This is just so full of shit. If you think Kerry would be a Likudnik like Bush, you really ought to pull your head out of your ass.

Your overall mis-analysis of Clinton and prospective Kerry foreign policy though the lens of Bushism is redolent of the worst Nader apologists in 2000. Get a clue, buddy.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 16, 2004 8:19:41 PM


It's not so much that i think Kerry is a Likudnik at heart. I just think he basically follows the AIPAC approach of defending the policies of whatever government Israel happens to have at the time, with occasional expressions of "concern". If the governement of Israel remains Likud, Kerry will incline in a Likud direction. If it goes Labor, Kerry will become a Laborite.

It's really hard to find a great deal of difference between Kerry's stated policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Bush's - at least no differences that are likely to make much of a difference to the public diplomacy effort.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Oct 17, 2004 12:10:38 AM

"It's really hard to find a great deal of difference between Kerry's stated policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Bush's - at least no differences that are likely to make much of a difference to the public diplomacy effort."

More bullshit from the clueless.

It's too bad you're too intellectually lazy or feeble to figure out how these things actually work in the real world. But instead, you decide Kerry's campaign policy papers don't share your outlook, so there won't be any difference in Kerry's and Bush's governance.

You're worldview is every bit as non-reality based as George Bush's is.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 17, 2004 3:50:15 AM


Why don't you just try patiently explaining where the differences lie? Instruct me.

I did describe a number of ways in which a Kerry foreign policy would be significantly differrent from Bush's policies - differences that, to my mind, make Kerry a far better choice on foreign policy grounds alone. I just don't think one of those areas is the Arab-Israeli conflict. The latter is one of those "third rail" issues that candidates, and later presidents, are afraid to touch. AIPAC has described the election as a "win-win" proposition for Israel and said Kerry has a "100% pro-Israel voting record." Based on both his statements and voting record, there does not seem to be much of a rational basis for thinking that Kerry will deviate from the default, bipartisan US foreign policy position on Israel: acceptance of the policies of Israel's governement, whatever that government happens to be.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Oct 17, 2004 11:02:14 AM


Faithful lefties such as Petey are convinced that once elected, Kerry will pull off the rubber mask of a spineless "Me, too" Republocrat and usher in a new Golden Age of progressivism.

Petey and others are of course entitled to their beliefs, but I heard everything I needed to hear in the debates when Kerry said that he "supported the Patriot Act" and still would have authorized Bush to invade Iraq even if he'd known that our intelligence about Saddam's WMDs was faulty.

There's nothing wrong with "standing by your man", but for Christ's sake, whose man is this guy?

Posted by: oodja | Oct 17, 2004 1:38:42 PM

"I just don't think one of those areas is the Arab-Israeli conflict. The latter is one of those "third rail" issues that candidates, and later presidents, are afraid to touch."

The "third rail" is quote/unquote "support for Israel". No candidate is going to oppose that. But there is a difference between "support for Likud" and "support for Israel".

If you think there would be no difference between Kerry and Bush on the peace process, or if you think there was no difference between Bush and Clinton on the peace process, then you really need to get a clue.

I'd direct you to the past week's Scowcroft comments as a place to start if you're interested in actually getting that clue.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 18, 2004 2:31:04 AM

"the default, bipartisan US foreign policy position on Israel: acceptance of the policies of Israel's governement, whatever that government happens to be."

I'd further suggest you review history to see the attitude of not only the Clinton administration toward Likud, but even of Bush the Elder's administration toward Likud. Prior to current administration, for 12 years administrations of both political parties have demonstrated overt opposition both to Likud in Israeli elections, and to the Likud settlement policies.

But I'm sure you can't be bothered by such minor details.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 18, 2004 2:52:20 AM


You have yet to point out a significant difference between the Kerry position and Bush position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The differences that do exist are exceedingly small - they are differences that are unlikely to *make* a difference. On all the big issues - settlements, Jerusalem, the right of return, the separation barrier - there is no space to be found between Bush and Kerry beyond nuances in quibbles over nuances. Your expectation of an important difference in approach under Kerry seems to be based on faith rather than actual statements by the candidate.

The settlement of the West Bank has been going on since 1967 under *both* Labor and Likud governments. Throughout the 90's, the population and size of the settlements grew at a rate of 8.5% - compared to a growth rate of 2% for Israel's overall population. The growth ocurred under governments from both parties. In fact, the most notable uptick happened under Barak.

The last US administration to declare the settlements illegal was Carter's administration. Since then, the US backed away from its earlier support of UN242, and has confined itself to condemnations of further settlement activity, rather than condemnations of the settlements themselves. The US has refrained from describing such activity as illegal, but rather used terms like "an obstacle to peace", "troubling", "harmful to the peace process" etc.

You are right about the gradual change in US policy away from what was once a fairly clear pro-Labor, anti-Likud preference. The important thing is, as your own discussion indicates, the evolution has had little to do with what US party was in power. The first Bush administration once threatened Israel with the loss of loan guarantees over the settlement issue. That tougher US stance has been credited with contributing, in part, to the downfall of the Shamir governement. Of course, Clinton then appointed Martin Indyk, a former Shamir advisor, as his top Middle East advisor.

Neither of the past two US administrations has shown itself willing to exert any significant pressure on Israel to halt the settlements. The policy has been one of passive acceptance of Israeli conquest of the West Bank by stealth. The Oslo accords only happened because negotiators left the foot-dragging US in the dark, and presented it with a fait accompli. The Clinton administration ultimately showed itself distinctly unwilling to do anything serious about Israel's violations of the accords, and passively accepted the gradual erosion of the Oslo peace process that culminated in the Camp David train wreck, an ill-advised and doomed bit of Clinton grandstanding that provided both US parties with a convenient pretext for blaming everything on Arafat and shifting toward the Israeli hard-liners.

Israelis have their own saying to describe the centrist policy toward the Palestinians - "shoot and cry". The settlement movement in the Likud coalition *unapologetically pushes* the growth of settlements. Labor governments have instead *apologetically accepted* the growth of settlements. In the end, it amounts to the same thing.

Scowcroft's statement was indeed interesting. Notably, though, Scowcroft is not a Democrat, but a representative of the realist wing of the Republican party - a wing that has lost power under Bush II. Has John Kerry endorsed Scowcroft's statement? I am not aware of such an endorsement, or even a passive signal in that regard.

I am not one of those who thinks that there is "not a dime's worth of difference" between the two parties. I have been a Democrat all my life, and I have been canvassing vigorously for Kerry over the past two weeks - even leading a get-out-the-vote effort in my town. Although the differences are *nearly* not as sharp as I would like, in the areas of education, the environment, labor policy, tax policy and civil rights they are significant enough to leave no doubt in my mind as to which party is better. And in their *general* approaches to foreign policy, there is, as I have already noted, a *very* significant difference. I just do not think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of those areas in which the difference is significant.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Oct 18, 2004 3:00:32 PM

"You have yet to point out a significant difference between the Kerry position and Bush position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

You give a shit about campaign boilerplate. I give a shit about governance.

You don't understand governance because you don't understand history.

You don't understand the difference between the Clinton and Bush policies on the peace process, so how could you understand the differences between the Kerry and Bush policies on the peace process?


Y'know, if you lived in a vacuum and read the Kerry and Bush campaign budgets, you'd assume there's no real difference between the two on long-term fiscal responsibility.

But some of us don't live in vacuums and have excellent reason to strongly expect that not to be the case. We call ourselves proud members of the reality-based community.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 18, 2004 3:43:42 PM

OK, Petey, so what is your basis for thinking there are important differences between Bush and Kerry on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? You keep saying there are important differences, so describe those differences and present the evidence for thinking they exist rather than simply repeating your charge that I don't understand reality. You continue to make your assertions, but without providing evidence to back them up.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Oct 19, 2004 12:39:17 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.