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August 14, 2012

Foreign Policy Conservatives - Just So Naive
Posted by David Shorr

465px-George_W._Bush_walks_with_Ryan_Phillips_to_Navy_One (1)You have to give the Cold War nostalgists at least some credit: what they lack in practicality, they make up for in bluster and pure tenacity. Reading conservative critiques of President Obama on national security like Henry Nau's new National Review Online piece is like going through the looking glass, where success is failure and failure is success. 

Nau's argument about the relationship between military forces and diplomatic objectives is worth dissecting --if only because it typifies all the weaknesses of conservatives' case. But I'll start with two quick points on Iran that by themselves kick the legs out from under the GOP platform. One, President Obama's policies and diplomatic efforts have put Iran under stricter sanctions and greater pressure than it's ever been. Again, the international banking and energy sanctions spearheaded by the Obama administration are more stringent than any previous sets of sanctions. 

And speaking of President Bush, would conservatives please give their assessment of his effectiveness in keeping the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs from progressing? Didn't Iran and North Korea get closer to the bomb on Bush's watch, while he was using the exact approach of getting tough, standing pat, and showing resolve that Republicans are still advocating? Wait, I've got that wrong. North Korea didn't just get closer; they actually got the bomb.

The cornerstone of Nau's argument is the same magical thinking and belief in the Resolve FairyTM we so often hear from the Right. Their theory says America can whip other nations into line through a combination of military muscle, thick-skinned disregard for others' interests or concerns, and stubborn insistence on getting our way. In Nau's case, he especially emphasizes the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, defense budget cuts (planned and supported by the military itself, mind you), and other Obama policies that somehow make it easier for Russia, China, and Iran to defy American wishes. It's a new twist on an old proverb: build a more bullheaded foreign policy and the world will beat a path to lay down and be your doormat. 

If the world really worked that way, it would certainly simplify the entire practice of foreign policy. For instance, would our conservative friends please tell us what level of military spending would intimidate China, Russia, and Iran into docile submission? $600 billion? $800 billion? 4% of GDP? And how long must US troops stay in Iraq and Afghanistan? And what would you do about Iraqi insistence on our withdrawal? Oh, and can we please get your guarantee of Russian and Chinese non-resistance in writing? Remind me again which side of the foreign policy debate is supposed to be naive.

Then there's the lack of self-awareness or sense of irony. Here's Nau's indictment of Obama over withdrawing from Iraq: 

He withdraws U.S. troops entirely from Iraq, even though a residual U.S. force in that country might have done more to draw the line on Iran’s nuclear-based foreign-policy ambitions than sanctions and negotiations can.

Hey, know what would give Iran more room for its foreign policy ambitions? Removing its major regional rival, Saddam Freaking Hussein. Besides, for anyone who paying any attention during the whole Iraq debacle there was a pretty important lesson in the difference between the changes achievable through kinetic action (e.g. overthrowing Saddam) and the greater difficulty of reaching particular political outcomes. Flinty resolve and military strength -- by the way does defense budget trimming really raise doubt about the capability of the world's sole superpower -- just don't have the magical powers the right wing believes.

Sorry for the civility lapse. It's just that we spent years watching the right wing ideology wreck American international credibility and arouse widespread suspicion, and all this BS now that progressives have worked to regain cooperation and support is hard to take. To reiterate: the most stringent set of international sanctions ever. And with Prof. Nau's broad brushstrokes of Chinese defiance, he neglects to mention that China went along with the sanctions by sharply cutting its imports of Iranian oil. In terms of hegemonic Chinese moves in the South China Seas and Korean Peninsula, Nau also fails to mention the Obama administration's diplomatic and military pushback against both.

Plus there's an essential piece of cooperation with Russia that Prof. Nau leaves out of his article: the vital supply route Russia has let NATO use for the Afghanistan operation. As Sam Charap has highlighted, the Russian route might have been critical to enable President Obama to mount the raid on Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. Given the sensitivities of and fragile relations with the Pakistanis, the lack of an alternative to the Pakistani supply route could have constrained Obama.

Ah yes, Bin Laden. Almost forgot about him (not). Here's one of Nau's critiques of Obama's AfPak policy:

Simultaneously, America’s special-forces raids and drone attacks kill Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda terrorists but weaken Pakistan.

So what is Nau saying here, that Obama shouldn't be ordering the drone attacks? Maybe this sentence represents an outbreak of Obama derangement syndrome, but it's strange to see a national security expert highlight a policy trade-off but withhold his own thinking with regard to that trade-off.

I take some consolation in how the media has started to scrutinize this thumb-our-noses-at-everyone approach to foreign policy. One good example was Chuck Todd's grilling of Ed Gillespie, pressing the former RNC chair to say what would be achieved by a more confrontational stance toward Russia. This is the national security piece of a "choice election." And just like with domestic policy, the platform and ideas on offer from the Republicans are awfully thin. 

Photo: White House, Susan Sterner

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