Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Make Room for Daddy

I guess I should have known.

A year and a half ago, I wrote a couple of posts (here and here) in response to the ugly political climate in the aftermath of the passage of the health care law. Those poisoning the atmosphere with rhetoric demonizing their opponents, I argued, were “Newt’s Kids.”

Ever since, various Republican candidates for president have tried to capture the rage on the right: Bachmann, Perry, Cain. But now it has fallen to Newt, the father of them all. It was Gingrich, I argued, who wrote the Republican play book:
No cooperation. Delegitimize your political opponents. Tell the people they are losing their freedom. Smear the other side with focus-group-tested words and phrases designed to produce an emotional revulsion among the electorate.
In retrospect, it seems natural that these pretenders would have to make way for the real thing.

Consider this passage from a Gingrich speech:
This party does not need another generation of cautious, prudent, careful, bland, irrelevant, quasi-leaders who are willing as people to drift into positions because nobody else is available. What we really need are people who are tough, hard-working, energetic, willing to take risks, willing to stand up in a … slug fest and match it out with their opponent.
A recent attack on Romney? No. A speech Newt made to College Republicans.

In 1978.

Yes, 33 years ago. Give him this much: Gingrich may change positions on policy as often as Romney, but his general approach to politics is the same as it ever was.

In that speech, Gingrich reduced his critique of the GOP to its essence: “I think that one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” Ever since that day, Newt has followed his own advice, and has been consistently nasty.

Up until this point in the primary process, however, Gingrich has been selective about it. At nearly every debate, he has saved his nastiness for two targets: President Obama and the media figures asking the questions (with the notable exception of the last CNN debate, in which the questions originated with conservative folks from the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute).

What will be interesting to see from now on is whether he continues trying to be “the adult in the room” at the debates. Romney may attack him, Perry may feel the need to the same. And one thing we learned from his battles with Bill Clinton in the 1990s is that Newt can be bated. If he can avoid that temptation, and avoid reminding people why he became so disliked by the time he resigned from Congress in 1998, he may yet emerge as the Republican nominee.

In some ways, I think that would be appropriate. Newt Gingrich is more responsible than any other Republican today for the destructive politics that plagues us all. Barack Obama, beginning with his 2004 keynote address, through his 2008 campaign, and to this day in his conduct of the presidency, has said he wants to change those destructive politics.

As I wrote last spring, Gingrich is from a different generation than Obama. He wants to re-fight the battles of the 1960s, while Obama wants to move beyond them. There are worse prospects than a presidential election over whether Americans want a future marked by Gingrich's 1960s culture wars, "Only I can save Western Civilization" approach, or Obama's "let's reason together and find common sense solutions" style. I know which I prefer, and I suspect most Americans agree.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Overtly Covert

[The last in a series of events marking Wofford's hosting of last Saturday night's Republican debate was a post-mortem, held Thursday night. Below are my remarks at that forum.]

As I noted in my presentation last week, candidates often seem to forget that the whole world is listening. This was apparent, I thought, from the start of last Saturday’s debate. When asked what to do about the problem of Iran potentially getting a nuclear weapon, the several candidates (Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum) suggested that covert action against Iran was the appropriate response.

This, it seems to me, raises a fairly obvious problem: once you say publicly that you intend to use secret methods to overthrow a foreign government, or interfere with its nuclear program, it is hardly "covert" anymore. Both Cain and Romney said that they would use unspecified covert action. Those, at least, were general statements.

Gingrich, however, not to be outdone, got specific—he wants Iranian scientists "taken out," that is, assassinated. And then he said, stunningly, that what he had just suggested was "all of it deniable." Gingrich also later said that the US should be working covertly to overthrow Assad in Syria. Were Gingrich to become president, and the things he has now suggested publicly were to happen, how then would they be "deniable"?  This is the problem with publicly saying you will use covert action—it isn’t really that covert, or deniable, anymore.

There is a nice historical parallel to this situation, from 50 years ago. On Oct. 6, 1960, John F. Kennedy called Cuba "the most glaring failure of American foreign policy," much as Romney said that Iran was "President Obama’s greatest failing."

When in 1960 Eisenhower imposed on Cuba what Time magazine called "the most severe trade embargo imposed on any nation except for Red China," JFK called it "a dramatic but almost empty gesture." This is similar to the way the candidates, when asked what they would do differently, said they would put really harsh economic sanctions on Iran, when there are already significant economic sanctions on Iran. 

In criticizing the Eisenhower administration on Cuba, Kennedy went even further, much as the candidates did on Saturday: "we must attempt to strengthen the non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces in exile, and in Cuba itself, who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro. Thus far these fighters have had virtually no support from our government."

Kennedy was essentially calling for the US to covertly work for a revolution in Cuba. By the time he said that, however, the CIA plan, that would become known as the Bay of Pigs, was well along in its development. Kennedy evidently did not know this. Nixon was furious because he thought JFK did know, but in fact CIA director Allen Dulles, who had briefed Kennedy on national security issues, omitted the plan in his briefing.

What is interesting is how Nixon responded. Since he could not say that such covert activity was in fact going on, he decided to denounce Kennedy for the suggestion: "I think Sen. Kennedy’s policies and recommendations for the handling of the Castro regime are probably the most dangerously irresponsible recommendations that he’s made during the course of this campaign." Even after Kennedy backed off a bit, saying he only mean to "let the forces of freedom in Cuba" know that "the US sympathized with them," Nixon continued to hammer Kennedy, calling him "rash," "impulsive," and "shockingly reckless." "United States support for a revolution in Cuba," Nixon said, would be "a direct invitation for the Soviet Union to intervene militarily on the side of Castro." But in private, Nixon had endorsed the secret CIA plan to do just that.

Nixon was in a difficult position, knowing about covert action that he could not discuss. But thinking that Kennedy had knowingly politicized the matter, Nixon struck back, publicly taking a position that was the opposite of his private view, in order to score political points.

When I heard these calls for covert action against Iran, I could not help but wonder if we might have a similar situation today. Many people believe that the Obama administration has been covertly working to subvert the Iranian nuclear program. For example, it is possible that the Obama administration either was responsible for the Stuxnet computer worm attack on Iran's nuclear program or supported Israel in that effort.

But of course, if that IS happening, the Obama administration could hardly admit it publicly. When Rick Santorum returned to the topic of Iran later in the debate and made these comments, it seemed to me that he was suggested that is what is going on.

You can almost see Santorum trying to be careful, noting that covert activity is likely going on and that the US may well be behind it—even that he hopes it is. He seems to be trying to deal with the fact that it is possible that the US is already doing some of the things that Gingrich encouraged. There have in fact been scientists who have ended up dead, most recently this past July, and speculation that foreign intelligences services may be behind the killings.

The other aspect of this topic I’d like to discuss is the history of covert action by the US in Iran and the wisdom of publicly advocating it. As relatively few Americans know, but every Iranian knows, the US used covert action to help overthrow the government of Iran in 1953. The CIA helped engineer a coup d’etat that overthrew the Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, who was threatening to nationalize the oil industry, and installed the Shah as a dictator.  He ruled until 1979, when he was overthrown in the Iranian revolution and replaced by the current Islamic regime. The anti-American character of that regime is due, at least in part, to that previous American covert action. That, it seems to be, might suggest that undertaking more covert action in Iran is not the best approach.

Even if you could argue that covert action in Iran would be a wise policy, saying so publicly strikes me as foolish.  Mitt Romney was critical of President Obama for not being speaking more forcefully in favor of the Iranian opposition, but in the historical context of US-Iranian relations, there is a justification for that.

Romney said that Obama failed to say he was with the Iranian protesters, when Obama has denounced Iran for "gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully," and that the Iranian people should be allowed to "express their yearning for greater freedom and a more representative government."

When Obama was pressed to insert himself into the protests in Iran, he said: "The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States."

For the opposition forces to be associated with the United States could be politically toxic for them in Iran. It would be like Occupy Wall Street associating themselves publicly with Castro’s Cuba, or Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. It could ruin their credentials as Iranian nationalists. Placing the United States fully on the side of the Iranian opposition might make for a good applause line in a debate, but that does not necessarily make it good policy. It could even backfire.

Lastly, it is not even clear that a regime change would necessarily produce the results the US wants regarding the atom bomb. Are there forces inside Iran that are in favor of giving up the nuclear program, or might the idea that Iran has a right to be a nuclear power have widespread appeal beyond the current government? If so, then it is at least possible that "regime change" might not affect Iran’s nuclear program, despite the presumption at the debate that it would.

If discussing covert action is so fraught with difficulties and complications, why did it receive so much attention on Saturday? I’d argue it is because of the complexity of the problem. There are not too many people outside Iran who look favorably on the prospect of a nuclear Iran, so declaring that "unacceptable," as Romney did, has appeal. But when Scott Pelley pressed Romney on whether it would be worth going to war over, Romney focused attention again on measures short of war—because given our overstretched military, few people really want another war, and air strikes might not get the job done. 

The appeal of advocating covert operations, I suspect, is that it seems to hold out the prospect of a cost-free intervention. But as I have noted, it may not be really cost free--even if it succeeds.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tweets from the GOP Debate

[I attended tonight's Republican debate on the campus of Wofford College.  While watching, I experimented with tweeting my reactions as they happened. I'll be writing something more substantive on the debate, but here, for it's worth, are my contemporaneous reactions.]

Cain doesn't answer Iran question of what he'd do that Obama isn't.

Newt just advocated assassinating scientists.

Question for Santorum. What rebel forces?

Huntsman gave the best answer so far.

Cain in over his head on Pakistan.

Perry demagogues first on foreign aid.

Bachmann first to play Israel card. Gingrich first to play Christian card.

Newt challenging moderator works its usual magic with the crowd.

Huntsman is behind a pillar from where I sit. Is he still here?

Two civilized candidates on stage both got my applause for opposing torture.

Newt went from that applause line to laugh WAY too quickly.

Was "it's murder!" during Romney's response audible on TV?

First segment, good substance. Second, not so much.

Newt advocates CIA operation in Syria. It worked really well in Iran in 1953.

Uh oh. Romney used a big word. [Hegemon]

Graham's question was about helping him get re-elected in SC.

At a liberal arts college, Romney calls for eliminating national endowment for arts and humanities. Nice.

Bachmann: US should race China to the bottom.

Cain: I have no idea. I'll ask people who do.

Romney's answer [on Pakistan] was mature and smart.

Overall, more substantive than most of these [debates] have been. Maybe the topic and the setting helped.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Republicans are Coming! The Republicans are Coming!

[Tomorrow night, Saturday, November 12, the Republican presidential candidates come to Spartanburg, SC, to the campus of my college, Wofford, for the latest of the Republican debates. The debate will be broadcast on CBS at 8 pm eastern time. I will be attending the debate, and if possible may try to live tweet from the audience (@byrnesms).

As part of a series of events leading up to the debate, I've been invited to participate in a faculty forum this afternoon and make some comments on presidential campaigns and foreign policy.  Below are the remarks I will deliver.]

Since I am a historian first and a debate watcher second, I thought I’d spend my time this afternoon giving you some idea of what a historian looks for when he becomes a debate watcher.

This particular debate is supposed to focus on national security and foreign policy, and my primary area of interest is American diplomatic history, so I’d like to talk first about how foreign policy has figured in the presidential politics of the last century.

My first point is that the rhetoric of political campaigns has often been a poor indication of how a candidate will act once elected. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election with the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.” At the convention that re-nominated him, the keynote speaker listed the many instances in which Wilson had resisted pressure to intervene in the Great War, and led the crowd in a chant: “What did we do? What did we do? We didn’t go to war! We didn’t go to war!” Campaigning that fall, Wilson said: “I am not expecting this country to get into war.” But when Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, circumstances changed. Less than a month after being inaugurated for his second term, Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war.

A second, and related point, is that candidates for the presidency often seem to forget they are not speaking only to American voters. At least since the United States achieved superpower status, it is undeniably true that the whole world is listening. And that can have real and serious consequences.

In 1952, General Dwight Eisenhower was running as a Republican trying to end 20 years of Democratic control of the White House. The unsatisfactory state of the cold war, in particular the inherently defensive policy of containment as it was then being practiced in the Korean War, made foreign policy a tempting issue. The GOP platform repudiated the “negative, futile and immoral policy of containment which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism” and pledged to achieve “genuine independence of those captive peoples” behind the iron curtain. The New Republic warned at the time of the dangers of such rhetoric: “Promises to help enslaved peoples [either] mean nothing and risk terrible misunderstandings or they mean something and risk war.”

In 1955, in a speech broadcast by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, Eisenhower said: “If any East European nation shows a visible opposition to Soviet oppression, it can count on our help.” But when unrest arose in Hungary in 1956, the Eisenhower administration did not help. “The Russians were scared and furious,” Eisenhower explained privately, “and nothing is more dangerous than a dictatorship in that frame of mind.” In other words, the New Republic was right: aid would have meant war, and that, Ike said, “is no way to help Hungary.” But Hungarians had been led to believe otherwise. A Radio Free Europe survey of Hungarian refugees later found that 87% of those surveyed had expected American aid and more than half of that group expected military aid.

This tendency to use foreign policy issues for political gain sometimes produces a rather cavalier attitude toward those issues. In the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy hammered his opponent, vice-president Richard Nixon, for being part of an administration that had allowed the establishment in Cuba of “a Communist satellite 90 miles off the coast of the United States.” How, he asked, could Republicans stand up to Khrushchev when they “have demonstrated no ability to stand up to Mr. Castro.” Privately, Kennedy admitted that he could not say what he would have done to prevent Castro’s rise to power. “What the hell, they never told us how they would have saved China,” he said, referring to Republican use of the China issue against Democrats eight years earlier.

There are many more examples I could cite: LBJ’s 1964 criticism of Barry Goldwater as a warmonger mere months before he himself would dramatically escalate the Vietnam war; Richard Nixon’s promise of “peace with honor” in 1968 followed by four more years of war; Bill Clinton’s 1992 criticism of George H. W. Bush’s “coddling of dictators” in China, followed a mere 10 months into his presidency by a meeting with the Chinese president that led the New York Times to conclude that Clinton “seems to have embraced much of the Bush approach”; George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign promise that he would “stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions,” followed by Afghanistan and Iraq. But you get the drift.

Lest I leave you thinking that there is nothing to be learned from tomorrow’s debate, I'd like to make one final point. Over the last century, Republicans have often found themselves divided between internationalist and isolationist factions. In the 1919 debate over Wilson's League of Nations, GOP opposition split into two groups: internationalist reservationists led by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and isolationists led by Sen. William Borah of Idaho, who argued that to join the League would be to “to abandon the creed under which [the U.S.] has grown to power and accept the creed of autocracy, the creed of repression and force.”

Twenty years later, the United States was debating involvement in World War II, and once again, stark divisions arose within the Republican party. Henry Stimson, who had served as Secretary of State for Herbert Hoover, favored aid to Great Britain and joined the Roosevelt administration as Secretary of War, while Senator Robert Taft of Ohio was dead set against any involvement in the war and said in June 1941: “the forcing of freedom and democracy on a people by brute force of war is a denial of those very democratic principles which we are trying to advance.”

Eleven years later, that same Robert Taft was one of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination. That prospect motivated Eisenhower, who bluntly told reporters: “I’ll tell you why I’m running for president. I’m running because Taft is an isolationist. His election would be a disaster.”

From Eisenhower through the first president Bush, internationalism dominated Republican presidential politics. The combination of World War II and the cold war seemingly vanquished traditional isolationism.

But the end of the cold war created cracks in forty years of foreign policy unity. In 1992, Pat Buchanan launched a primary challenge to that preeminent internationalist president, George H. W. Bush. Announcing his candidacy, Buchanan said: “All the institutions of the Cold War, from vast permanent U.S. armies on foreign soil, … to billions in foreign aid, must be re-examined…. we call for a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first.”

Buchanan is enough of a student of history to know that “America First” was the name of the leading isolationist group before World War II, and that his sentiments were harkening back to that dormant Republican tradition.

Today, with America's financial resources strained, the temptation to reduce America’s role in the world is once again present. Ron Paul forthrightly says we have “a foreign policy we can't afford” and has denounced “aggressive wars … promoted by powerful special interests that benefit from war.” By contrast, Mitt Romney harkens back to World War II-era internationalism in his call for a “new American Century,” where “America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.” In the middle is Jon Huntsman, who says we "must right-size our current foreign entanglements," and that "it is time to bring our brave troops home." Huntsman says “fixing America first"—there’s that phrase again—“will be my most urgent priority…. right now we should focus on America saving America.”

So rather than focusing on catchy one-liners, I’ll be looking for signs that this old debate within the Republican party may be re-emerging in the 21st century, and I encourage you to think about where you stand on that very important question.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Revenge of the Progressives

Off-year elections are often fairly dull affairs. Sometimes there is the occasional governor's race that pundits examine for potential national trends. But usually they don't mean much.

Yesterday was a little different. In two different states, voters took the legislative process into their own hands and repealed laws recently passed by their legislatures. It was direct democracy in action.

In Ohio, voters repealed the collective bargaining law limiting union rights that the new Republican governor and former Fox News contributor John Kasich pushed through the legislature. In Maine, voters repealed a law that Republicans had passed which ended same-day voter registration. In both cases, recently elected governors had legislative successes decisively rebuked by the voters within months of their passage.

This does not happen that often. When it does, it deserves some notice.

In my last post, I examined whether the current Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street activism might lead to the equivalent of the bipartisan Progressive movement of the early 20th century. What strikes me about these two votes yesterday is that they are using precisely the tool that Progressives saw as the best hope of undermining the oligarchy's control of the political process: more democracy.

Progressives took it for granted that an essential prerequisite for real reform was more democracy. With both major parties seemingly in the thrall of the big trusts, they believed that enacting measures to directly empower voters (to enact legislation, or repeal legislation, or recall office holders) was the only way to make government responsive to the people again and break the stranglehold of business.

Once legislators understood that their work would be undone, or that they could be removed from office for failing to follow the popular will, Progressives believed, some balance could be restored to the political system. Then, and only then, could government be an effective vehicle to bring about the more systematic and substantive reforms that American society so desperately needed after the massive changes wrought by the industrial revolution.

Maybe what happened yesterday marks a similar awakening for our own times. Commentators usually make too much of off-year elections, and I don't want to make that mistake. Two voter-initiated repeal efforts do not a movement make. But maybe it is a start.

Maybe what happened yesterday was a fluke, provoked by unusually maladroit overreaching by two governors who misread their voters. After all, the union-busting bill in Wisconsin still stands, and laws restricting voting rights through the disingenuous voter ID provisions are being passed in many states.

Combined with the successful state senate recall elections this summer in Wisconsin, and the potential recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker next year, however, it could be more than that. Voters of all political stripes have been complaining that government doesn't hear them, that it is controlled by the lobbyists and the special interests. If those discontented voters can use the powers of direct democracy that the Progressives gave them a century ago, they might pave the way for another era of real reform like that the Progressives produced.