Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

 

The Water’s Edge…

“…the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades. – Letter from 47 Republican senators to Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Can’t We Just Agree on This…

Amid the persistent partisan rancor dominating Washington, D.C. you might think that the one issue that would lend itself to a modicum of bipartisanship would be an effort to prevent Iran from developing the ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

In the hands of a regime that since 1979 has proclaimed the United States as its great enemy, a nuclear weapon would represent an existential Iran-map-regionthreat not only to the U.S, but also to the continually troubled Middle East. Indeed, Iranian nuclear capability is a threat to the entire world.

In response to this very real threat, the Obama Administration has attempted to do what former President George H.W. Bush did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 – build an international coalition to confront the threat. In dealing with the Iranian nuclear menace the United States has joined forces with France, Great Britain, Germany, China and Russia, but the U.S. has clearly taken the lead in the talks.

While Republican critics of Obama’s foreign policy often criticize the president for “leading from behind,” in the case of Iran the U.S. is clearly out front pushing hard for a diplomatic agreement. That fact alone, given GOP criticism of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, might argue for Republican cooperation and encouragement that could foster true bipartisanship. In fact, and in a different political world, the circumstances of the coalition led by the U.S. to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon seems like the epitome of a foreign policy issue where Republicans and Democrats might actually cheer each other on in expectation of an outcome that would be good for the country, the Middle East and the world.

Politics is always about fighting over the details, but stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons seems like a fundamental strategic goal that every American could embrace. But not these days. Just when it seems that American politics can’t make me any more discouraged about theCotton future of the country, Arkansas sends Tom Cotton to the United States Senate. Cotton is the architect of the now infamous letter to the Iranian ayatollahs that has both undercut Obama’s international diplomacy, while revealing the depths of blind partisanship in Washington.

Senate Republicans are so dismissive of Obama’s presidency that they are willing to risk blowing up the nuclear talks with Iran and happy to completely jettison any hint of bipartisanship in foreign policy. Ironically the GOP experts also set themselves up to take the blame if the Iranian talks do come apart. At the same time, Republicans offer no alternative to the approach Obama has taken (well, John McCain once joked about his desire to “bomb, bomb Iran,” as if that were a real option).

The GOP’s approach also centers on dismantling a long tradition of bipartisanship regarding Israel and giving encouragement to the current Israeli prime minister – who happens to be fighting for his political life – to take his own unilateral action against Iran. That is a prescription for World War III, but that seems to pale in the face of the Republican compulsion to de-legitimize Obama and show the world just how small and petty our politics have become.

When Country Came Before Party…

The U.S. Senate is a place of great history and great tradition. Some of that history is worth remembering in the wake of the truly unprecedented “open letter” 47 Republican senators directed this week to the leadership of Iran. That letter, of course, has now become controversial and may well mark a new low point in failure of responsibility and leadership by the senators who signed it.

In January 1945, with the end of the Second World War in sight, Franklin Roosevelt was about to set off for an historic meeting at Yalta with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill. The critical subject at that conference was the formation of a post-war organization that might have a chance to prevent another world conflict. Then as now, many senators in both parties distrusted Roosevelt believing him too secretive in his dealings vandenbergwith other world leaders and too dismissive of Congress. An influential Republican Senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, had long been a skeptic of FDR’s approach to foreign policy, but the rapidly evolving world order – a powerful Soviet state, a diminished British Empire, a hugely powerful United States – caused the once-isolationism minded Vandenberg to reassess his thinking. (Something, need I note, that few politicians dare do these days.)

The result of that re-thinking was one of the greatest speeches in the history of the Senate. Famously declaring that, “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Vandenberg re-defined, literally in a single speech, the shape of American foreign policy in the post-war world. Pledging support to the Democratic president, the Republican Vandenberg said: “We cannot drift to victory…We must have maximum united effort on all fronts…and we must deserve, we must deserve the continued united effort of our own people…politics must stop at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg, who desired the presidency as much in his day as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul do now, nevertheless worked closely with Harry Truman to flesh out the creation of the United Nations and implement the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from the ravages of war. It was a remarkable example of bipartisan leadership from a man who, had he wanted to do so, might have created political havoc both domestically and internationally.

Vandenberg was reportedly surprised by the impact of his “water’s edge” speech, modestly saying: “I felt that things were drifting. . . Somebody had to say something, and I felt it could be more effectively said by a member of the opposition.”

Imagine a Republican senator saying such a thing today.

Arthur Vandenberg, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, knew that an American president must have the ability to deal directly and decisively with foreign leaders. The president – any president – is also entitled to a to be free of the constant undertow of partisan politics on the home front, particularly when the stakes are so very high. Vandenberg also knew that the United States Senate has a particular ability to shape the national debate about foreign policy thanks to the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate “advise and consent” on treaties and the appointment of ambassadors.

Imagine for a moment the Senate behaving differently than it does. Imagine for a moment a Senate populated by senators like Arthur Vandenberg. In such a Senate Republican leaders might go to the White House regularly for private and candid talks with the president where they might well express profound concerns about a potential agreement with Iran. They might even make speeches on the Senate floor about what kind of agreement they expect. The Foreign Relations Committee might conduct detailed, bipartisan hearings on the challenges and opportunities contained in an agreement. The Committee might invite former secretaries of state or national security advisors from both parties to testify. (By the way, at least two former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft, a Republican, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat, support the diplomatic effort underway.)

MansfieldMike_DirksenEverett4271964The once impressive Foreign Relations Committee, haunted by the ghosts of great senators like J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield, Frank Church and Howard Baker who once served there, might hear presentations from and ask questions of academics and foreign policy experts from the United States and our foreign partners. They might actually undertake a bipartisan effort to understand the nature and timing of a threat from Iran.

Instead, driven by the hyper-partisan needs and far right wing tilt of the coming presidential campaign, Republicans are making the question of “who can be tougher on Iran” their foreign policy litmus test. The inability to embrace even a hint of bipartisanship seems rooted in the stunning belief that Obama (not to mention former Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry) would literally sell out the country – and Israel – in a potential deal with Iran.

The debate over the now infamous Republican letter to Iran will no doubt continue and time will tell whether it provides Iran an out to abandon any agreement, but at least one aspect of the letter – how it came to be and who created it – deserves consideration in the context of the history of the United States Senate.

Since When Does a Rookie Get to Call This Play...

The letter was the brainchild of the Senate’s youngest member, a senator who ranks 93rd in seniority, a senator who took office less than three months ago. Freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is frequently described as a strong advocate for greater defense spending and a darling of the party’s farthest right wing.

In a different Senate operating under adult supervision the young Gentleman from Arkansas would have been told to file his letter in a recycle bin, but in the Senate we have the Cotton letter was signed by a number of Republican senators with substantial seniority that should have known better, senators like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Arizona’s McCain. After noting that McCain now says the letter “wasn’t exactly the best way to do that,” the New York Times editorialized that the Cotton missive “was an attempt to scare the Iranians from making a deal that would limit their nuclear program for at least a decade by issuing a warning that the next president could simply reverse any agreement. It was a blatant, dangerous effort to undercut the president on a grave national security issue by communicating directly with a foreign government.”

Arthur-Vandenberg---resizedAfter researching the history, the Senate historian says there is no precedent for such a letter. And Alan Hendrikson, who teaches at the prestigious Fletcher School of International Relations, agrees that the Cotton letter “undercuts” the whole idea of American foreign policy. “Neither the Senate nor the House has sought to interfere with actual conduct of negotiations by writing an open letter to the leadership of a country with which the U.S. is negotiating,” Henrikson told McClatchy News.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank joked that perhaps Cotton, who denied that his epistle was one-of-a-kind, would undercover “an open letter from American legislators written to King George III in 1783 warning him that the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams might be undone with the stroke of a quill.” But, of course, no such letter was ever written, just as Cotton’s should not have been.

Give credit to Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who did not sign the letter and may yet help his party lead rather than posture. Against all evidence about what the United States Senate has become, perhaps Corker can channel Arthur Vandenberg, a staunch Republican and a frequent critic of Democratic presidents, who could still put his country above his party.

 

Mandela and Us

NM_mandela_old_photo_110127_16x9_992Most of the world is rightly celebrating the life and lessons of Nelson Mandela. Warts and all Mandela will go down as a pivotal figure in the last decades of the 20th Century and will no doubt remain the gold standard for the difficult, seemingly impossible politics of racial reconciliation.

Still it’s fascinating to see the broad and deep bipartisan out pouring of respect for a man that the Reagan Administration contended in the 1980’s was head of a terrorist organization, a designation that was not formally changed until 2008. There is some reason to believe the CIA tipped off South Africa’s whites-only government to Mandela’s whereabouts in 1962, a tip that ultimately led to his trial and lengthy incarceration.

I’m reminded of the intense and passionate debates in the early 1980’s over whether Ronald Reagan could be pressured to impose economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. Then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted in 1985 against a resolution that called for Mandela’s release from jail and commentators from George Will to William F. Buckley defended the white South African government and condemned Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) as just a pawn of the Soviet Union.

After much debate the Congress in 1986 voted to do what the Reagan Administration wouldn’t and imposed economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. The president vetoed the legislation. Reagan, knowing he held a weak hand in the face of growing public outcry over the continued oppression of blacks in South Africa, pulled out all the stops in order to sustain his veto.

As the New York Times reported at the time, “Mr. Reagan made a major effort…to salvage his veto, and he called a number of Senators personally, arguing that he would appear weak and ineffective” in an upcoming summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev “if he were rebuffed by the Republican-controlled Senate on a major foreign policy question.”

The Senate eventually voted 78-21 to override Reagan’s veto of the sanctions legislation, but not before Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, warned that “the thrust of this legislation is to bring about violent, revolutionary change, and after that, tyranny.” Helms and Mandela are now both dead and we know who was right.

For the record, the Northwest delegation in 1986 was entirely Republican. Oregon’s senators – Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood – and Washington’s senators – Dan Evans and Slade Gorton voted for the sanctions against South Africa and to override Reagan’s veto. Idaho’s senators Steve Symms and Jim McClure voted with Jesse Helms.

The U.S. was actually quite late in adopting a policy of isolating South Africa in part because the country’s leaders spent so much of the post-war world viewing every event in every corner of the world through the narrow prism of the Cold War. The logic was simple and wrong: Soviets supplied backing to the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela was in jail for being a leader of the ANC, therefore it must logically follow that we had to oppose the ANC. But the larger lesson here is simply that time and again in the post-war world the United States misread, from Vietnam to South Africa and even on to Iraq, the nature of national struggles over self-determination.

Successive State Departments and CIA wise guys framed nearly every issue as a struggle pitting the democratic West versus the Evil Empire, when often, as Nelson Mandela showed us, the great twilight struggles of the last half of the 20th Century were typically about more basic and more enduring things – the right to vote, the right to self determination, the right to throw off colonial shackles, the right to make your own way, the right to be treated with dignity. We too often lacked the imagination that might have allowed us envision that a man imprisoned for 27 years might walk out of his prison cell, Gandhi or King-like, and embrace a type of political and racial reconciliation that would usher in a peaceful revolution the likes of which a Jesse Helms simply could not fathom.

For most of his too short life, we must recall, his own government spied on the revolutionary Dr. King, convinced he must be a Communist agent.

As the world – and almost every American politician – rushes to get right with Mandela, we would do well to remember at least two things. Mandela was not a saint, but rather a remarkably pragmatic politician and a damn good one too, and in many ways a much better politician than some of the Americans who for so long failed to understand his motivations and talents.

The second is that Mandela was a revolutionary; a revolutionary who, fortunately for his country and the world, made the transition from advocate of armed struggle to champion of constitutional democracy. For too long his movement and the man were seen in the United States through the foggy lens of what some call  American exceptionalism, the idea that our system and our approach is automatically superior to every other system or approach. This notion, that political legitimacy can only come about as the result of a fully baked western-style Jeffersonian democracy, has driven American foreign policy since at least Woodrow Wilson and has often left us blind to the real motivations of nationalist or anti-colonial movements from Vietnam to Soweto.

Part of the legacy of Mandela and us is that the United States has often been exceptionally wrong for too long about movements like the fight to end apartheid in South Africa and wrong about the people who lead those fights. So, by all means, celebrate the life of a man who now belongs to the ages and whose name fits in the same sentence with Gandhi and Dr. King, and while doing so remember that our own history as a nation traces its origins to a messy and bloody revolution and the vision and leadership of determined, political men whose real motive was freedom.

 

Return to 1940

19410200_Senator_Robert_Taft_R-OH_Against_Lend_Lease-TAFTRobert Taft, the Ohio senator and son of a GOP president, was often called “Mr. Republican” in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He was continually on everyone’s list as a presidential candidate from the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s, but Taft never received the nomination in large part because he represented the Midwestern, isolationist wing of the GOP in the intra-party fight for supremacy that was eventually won in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower and the eastern establishment, internationalist wing of the party.

The modern Republican Party is edging toward the same kind of foreign policy split – the John McCain interventionists vs. the Rand Paul isolationists – that for a generation helped kill Taft’s chances, and his party’s chances, of capturing the White House. While much of the focus in the next ten days will be on the important question of whether President Obama can stitch together the necessary votes in the House and Senate – Democrats have their own non-interventionists to contend with – to authorize military action against Syria, the other political fight is over the foreign policy heart and soul of the GOP.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens here’s some of what those in the new Taft wing of the GOP are saying:

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

“I believe the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security and, therefore, I do not support military intervention. Before taking action, the president should first come present his plan to Congress outlining the approach, cost, objectives and timeline, and get authorization from Congress for his proposal.” Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).

“When the United States is not under attack, the American people, through our elected representatives, must decide whether we go to war.” Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)

Taft’s reputation for personal integrity and senatorial probity – he served as Majority Leader for a short time before his untimely death in 1953 – has guaranteed that he is remembered as one of the Congressional greats of the 20th Century. Still, as Stephen’s writes in the Journal, Taft has also suffered the same fate at the hand of history as almost all of the last century’s isolationists have. They are condemned for what Stephens calls their almost unfailingly bad judgment about foreign affairs. Taft opposed Franklin Roosevelt on Lend-Lease in 1941. He argued against the creation of NATO, which has become an enduring feature of the post-war doctrine of collective security. Taft, always the man of principle, even opposed the Nuremberg trials that sought to bring to the bar of justice the top Nazi leadership of World War II. He considered the legal proceedings, organized and managed by the victors in the war, illegal under existing international law.

In every major showdown in his three-time quest for the presidency, Taft lost to an internationalist oriented Republican: Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and Eisenhower in 1952. When given his chance in the White House, and with the help of one-time Taft ally Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Eisenhower re-shaped the modern Republican Party for the rest of the century as the party most devoted to national security and most trusted to push back against Soviet-era Communism. That image lasted, more or less, from Ike to the second Bush, whose historic miscalculations in Iraq have helped create the kind of party soul searching for the GOP that Democrats struggled with in the post-Vietnam era.

A vote on Syria in the Congress will be a clear cut test of strength for the neo-isolationists in the modern Republican Party, many of whom have close connections to the Tea Party faction. Still the leaders of the new Taft wing, like Kentucky Sen. Paul, have demonstrated they are not one issues wonders when it comes to foreign policy. Paul filibustered over drone policy, has spoken out against NSA intelligence gathering and frets over foreign aid. And the polls show these skeptics are in sync with the many Americans who are sick of open ended commitments in the Middle East and the kind of “trust us, we’ve got this figured out” foreign policy of the second Bush Administration. I suspect the appeal of the neo-isolationists extends as well to younger voters, many of whom have not known an America that wasn’t regularly sending brave young men and women to fight and die in wars that seem not only to lack an end, but also an understandable and clearly defined purpose.

Bob Taft – Mr. Republican – fought and lost many of these same battles more than half a century ago and since the victors usually write the history Taft stands condemns along with many others in his party for being on the wrong side of the history of the 20th Century.

The great debate in the Congress over the next few days is fundamentally important for many reasons, not least that it is required by the Constitution, but it may also define for a generation how the party that once embraced and then rejected isolation thinks about foreign policy. If Sen. Paul can be cast as a latter day Bob Taft on matters of foreign policy; a questioner of the value and scope of America’s role in the world, who will be this generation’s Wendell Willkie or Dwight Eisenhower?

Any GOP pretender for the White House will need to calculate these issues with great precision. Gov. Chris Christie, who has yet to declare this position but seems more likely to fit in the internationalist wing of the party, must have his world atlas open to the Middle East, but those maps are likely sitting right next to the latest polls showing the increasing isolation of the party’s base; the people who will determine who gets the next shot at presiding in the White House Situation Room. During today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Syrian action Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another 2016 contender, voted NO reinforcing the notion that a new generation of Republicans seem willing to bring to full flower an approach to foreign policy that died about the same time as Bob Taft.

What an irony that the robust, nation building, regime change foreign policy of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, the very definition of GOP orthodoxy in the post-September 11 world, has been so quickly consigned to the dust bin of Republican policy.

Who this time will be on the right – and wrong – side of history?

[Note that Idaho Sen. James Risch joined with Paul and Rubio in voting NO on the Syrian resolution in the Foreign Relations Committee.]

 

A Failure of Politics

bigstock-syria-3770337When an American president finding himself slipping between the two stools of ill-considered military because he must “save face” or preserve “credibility,” our history shows that we’re about to make a serious, serious mistake.

From Harry Truman to George W. Bush American presidents have committed the United States military to wars based on every justification imaginable from containing Communism to changing a regime to protecting human rights. Lyndon Johnson, we now know, was afraid of being accused of being soft on Communism, so he doubled down on a failed strategy in Indochina in the 1960’s. Bush launched a war in Iraq in order to bring democracy to that made-to-British-order country and we’re still finding out – ten years on – how that mistake is playing out.

Barack Obama was elected and re-elected in no small part because he said he was determined to end America’s endless wars, but now he finds himself on the cusp of military action that could well define his presidency and jerk the violent Middle East into a wide-open regional war. As political analysts Larry Sabato says, “Syria’s in the Middle East. What could possibly go wrong?”

The President stunning mishandling of the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria has its roots once again in the president’s remarkable disdain for the grubby, critical work of politics. He’s backed himself out on a very long limb largely because he’s refused to engage the political institutions that could have both helped shape the U.S. response to a tin-horned dictator fighting for his life, while destroying his country and given the White House the cover it should have to order – or back down from – touching off the Tomahawk missiles.

First, the Administration dismissed going to the United Nations to attempt to rally world support for action against the Syrian regime with the faulty excuse that Russia’s Vladimir Putin would surely veto effective U.N. action. Of course Putin, a guy playing his own game, would continue to defend his Syrian allies, but so what. I would have liked to have seen the impressive new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., the noted human rights authority Samantha Power, make the world’s case to the Security Council. The contrast between the moral authority of Power and the United States and the bankrupt cynicism of the Russians, particularly when it would have all been broadcast on Al Jazeera, would have been powerful and important.  The U.N. like the U.S. Congress is politics writ large and Obama and his advisers simply blew this world-class moral authority photo opportunity because the politics apparently looked like a loser. The was miscalculation on an historic scale.

Second, when Obama effectively boxed himself in to eventual military action when he declared that Syrian use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would demand a response, he failed to immediately engage Congress, which just happens to be required by the Constitution, but which would also have provided a political safety valve by involving Obama’s Republican critics in a decision with mind-numbing consequences.

Imagine for a moment if Obama would have immediately had the bi-partisan Congressional leadership and the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees to the White House. Even better if he could summon them to Washington from their home state politicking during the August recess. He could have publicly insisted that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee do its job and conduct hearings on just what the appropriate U.S. response might entail and let the D.C. press know that he was working the phone to talk to guys like Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Tom Foley. He could have had Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush in for a visit. In other words, he might have engaged in politics. The failure to do so is nothing short of political malpractice.

For all of his ability to employ soaring rhetoric, Obama has a curiously tin ear when it comes to using the Oval Office as the ultimate power play stage in the world. In a crisis the photo of action can be as important as the action.

Failure to embrace the time-consuming, personal and intense political engagement, both on the world and Washington stage, now finds the increasingly isolated and shrinking Obama presidency left to go it alone. It must drive the far right crazy that the French – the French! – are one of the few countries ready to help the U.S.

The once “special relationship” between London and Washington now sits discarded on the curb of the Middle East. Congressional critics from the left and right are demanding, as they should, that Congress not merely be consulted, but actually approve military action. Obama must recognize now, having failed to engage with the politics of bringing Congress along, that he might well lose a vote on military action, as British Prime Minister David Cameron did. That is a risk he simply should have been prepared to take, and as a Constitutional scholar he must know that the law and history require him to take it.

[Update: President Obama did announced today that he will request Congressional authorization for military action against Syria.]

Assume for a moment that the president had mounted a full-court political press and still lost a vote in Congress authorizing military action. Again – so what? He could look the world – and the American public in the eye – and said, “I tried, but our political system refused to engage.” Ironically, sometimes in politics you win by losing. The president could have positioned his Republican Congressional opponents as the party unwilling to take a moral and military stand against chemical weapons. In such a case he would have driven a deep wedge between the John McCain wing of the GOP and the emerging, neo-isolationist Rand Paul wing.

So, in this summer of our discontent, Obama and the country are in a tough spot. Promising to take action against Syria and failing to do so has consequences. Limited military action, particularly when there is no realistic way to anticipate what will happen the day after the action, has consequences. Failing to bring the politics along with the policy has consequences.

The stark reality of Syria, as well as the larger Middle East, is that American military power has reached its limits. None of what ails the region will be solved by a missile strike – even a limited on – and the cost in American blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq is dismal proof of the folly of U.S. “boots on the ground” in a region where religious, sectarian and tribal fights have been a fixture since before Jesus confronted the Romans. As David Brooks wrote today in the Times, “Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.”

Barack Obama confront this history and his own presidency with his decisions. He has made it all even more difficult by his failing at politics.

 

War and Congress

Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.

The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.

Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.

Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.

At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.

We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended?  And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?

Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.

Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990’s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.

After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.

George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.

Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.