Saint Ronald vs. the GOP

saint ronaldI’m not sure what it says about my mental state, but Ronald Reagan has been on my mind lately.

It’s probably because he keeps coming up as I teach my course on US foreign policy this semester. And he keeps coming up in a way that continually makes me scratch my head when I think about the contrast between his views, specifically on foreign policy, and those of today’s Republican Party standard bearers.

Now I’m at it again. In class this afternoon we’ll be discussing a case study on the history of the fraught negotiations between the US and Iran over the later’s nuclear ambitions and programs. Part of that discussion will revolve around the suspicion with which America typically views any negotiations with a hostile foreign power.

Writing in World Affairs back in 2010, Frank Logevall and Kenneth Osgood connect this to “The Ghost of Munich,” the reflexive charges of naive appeasement that are levied against any president who dares to engage diplomatically with a potentially dangerous rival:

‘Munich’ and ‘appeasement’ have been among the dirtiest words in American politics, synonymous with naivete and weakness, and signifying a craven willingness to barter away the nation’s vital interests for empty promises.

These words retain their power, they argue, because of electoral considerations:

An abiding faith in the Munich analogy became one of the few things that was truly bipartisan in postwar American politics. In the years that followed Chamberlain’s fateful trip to Bavaria, Democrats and Republicans alike displayed a common understanding of the dangers of appeasement, and a common belief in the political value of using the Munich analogy to undermine the other party.

The problem with this, they argue, is that success in foreign policy has typically come to presidents who had the courage to push back against the analogy and engage diplomatically with rivals and hostile powers, while those who bowed to its demand for unyielding strength and toughness often failed, and in spectacular, tragic ways. Like Vietnam. And Iraq.

Enter today’s GOP, and Sen. Ted Cruz’s assessment of the agreement then being negotiated with Iran:

I believe we are hearing echoes of history. I believe we are at a moment like Munich in 1938.

Or this from Jeb Bush:

This isn’t diplomacy – it is appeasement.

And from Marco Rubio:

President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession …

But what about Saint Ronald? Well, he came to see the value in negotiations, even with an adversary like the Soviet Union, whose strategic doctrine, like our own, assumed the utter annihilation of of its chief rival as the end goal:

I don’t take too seriously the statement of positions in advance of negotiations. Everyone wants to preserve their position at their highest price before negotiations, and for them to do otherwise is to give away something they might not have to give away once the negotiations start.

And:

You’re unlikely to get all you want; you’ll probably get more of what you want if you don’t issue ultimatums and leave your adversary room to maneuver; you shouldn’t back your adversary into a corner, embarrass him, or humiliate him; and sometimes, the easiest way to get things done is for the top people to do them alone and in private.

If you’d have asked me 20 years ago if I could ever see myself lauding Reagan in either the classroom or in writing, I would have called you crazy. But then I hadn’t yet encountered today’s Republicans.

Foreign policy bluster: Compare and contrast

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I keep telling myself that I’ll quit writing about the GOP presidential candidates and their positions on foreign policy until the race shakes out a bit. But then I read stuff like this:

Languishing at the bottom in polls of the Republican presidential field, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey ramped up his tough talk on foreign policy on Monday, calling President Obama a “weakling” and saying that the United States should threaten to shoot down Russian planes conducting airstrikes in Syria.

“My first phone call would be to Vladimir, and I’d say, ‘Listen, we’re enforcing this no-fly zone,’” Mr. Christie said on MSNBC. “And I mean we’re enforcing it against anyone, including you. So don’t try me. Don’t try me. Because I’ll do it.”

In a separate interview on Fox News, Christie was given a chance to walk the bellicosity back a bit. Instead he went to full bluster mode:

Asked whether he thought it was wise to engage in a military conflict with Russia if it breached such an American no-fly zone, Mr. Christie said it would be necessary.

“You take him down,” Mr. Christie said, referring to Russian warplanes.

Now seriously, at this point I probably have a better chance of getting elected president in 2016 than Chris Christie, but this sort of rhetoric really does matter. I tell my students that despite all appearances political candidates are rational actors, and the deliberate statements they make are typically chosen because of the candidate’s belief that the message will resonate with real and potential supporters.

The trouble with this is that this kind of tough talk from candidates, while it may make Republican voters feel better about themselves, makes for dangerously irresponsible policy from an actual president. Unfortunately we’ve known for a long time, all the way back to Bill Quandt’s research on the impact of electoral cycles on US foreign policy, that newly elected presidents do in fact try to follow through on the foreign policy positions they campaigned on.

And to be clear, Christie is not the only GOP candidate willing to risk war with Russia over Syria. Syria of all places. In a little-noticed interview last week with CNN’s John Harwood, Marco Rubio also rattled the sabers in Russia’s direction:

Rubio: “If you are going to have a no-fly zone, it has to be against anyone who would dare intrude on it, and I am confident that the United States Air Force can enforce that, including against the Russians… I believe the Russians would not test that. I don’t think it is in the Russians’ interest to engage in an armed conflict of the United States.

Harwood: You think Putin would back off if we had a no-fly zone?

Rubio: I don’t think he’s going to go into a safe zone, absolutely. I don’t believe he will look for a direct military conflict against the United States in order to go into a safe zone.

Harwood: What if he was?

Rubio: Well, then you’re going to have a problem, but that would be no different than any other adversary.

Harwood: Don’t you think the prospect of potential military – hot military conflict with Russia would scare the American people?

Rubio: Sure. But the consequences of not doing anything would scare them even more and that includes its ongoing crisis of the migratory crisis that we’re now facing. The continued growth, not just of ISIS, but a Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups in the region as well. At the end of the day… We cannot say, well, if Putin is going to test us, then we can’t do anything. You’ve basically at that point ceded to him as becoming the most influential geopolitical broker in the region.”

So let this sink in for a minute. Apparently Syria is so vital to American national interest, and Putin’s intervention on behalf of the Assad regime is so dangerous, that Rubio and Christie, both vying to be the one to literally call the shots, believe it is worth going to war with Russia. Not threatening to go to war; but going to war.

For contrast, have a look at this take on the long interview President Obama gave to CBS 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft on Sunday in which he characterized both Putin’s adventurism and Republican bluster as signs of weakness, not strength. It is worth quoting at length:

Kroft opened by noting how much the world had changed since their last interview, and what that meant for America’s influence overseas.

“A year ago when we did this interview, there was some saber-rattling between the United States and Russia on the Ukrainian border. Now it’s also going on in Syria. You said a year ago that the United States—America leads. We’re the indispensible nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership.”

Obama asked for clarification, and Kroft provided it. “Well, he’s moved troops into Syria, for one. He’s got people on the ground,” Kroft said. “Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II bombing the people that we are supporting.” To which Obama replied:

“So that’s leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally.”

In terms of perceptions of world events, there may be less daylight between Obama and Putin than Obama and his critics. Both world leaders see Moscow’s effective loss of two formerly close allies over the past two years: Ukraine to revolution, and Syria to civil war. Obama perceives Putin’s recent actions—the carving out of rump territories in Crimea and the Donbass and the bombing of U.S.-aligned rebels in Syria—as a desperate attempt to reverse a tide that’s shifting against Russian interests.

After interrupting one another, during which Kroft said that Obama’s critics argue the president is “projecting a weakness, not a strength,” Obama turned the examples against these unnamed critics, singling out his opponents within the Republican Party. The logic for U.S. intervention in Syria, he argued, previously led to the Iraq War, and its continued usage suggests that many haven’t learned the lessons of that conflict.

“[There are Republicans] who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East, that the only measure of strength is us sending back several hundred thousand troops, that we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and—that the fact that we might have more deaths of U.S. troops, thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spend another trillion dollars, they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that. And unless we do that, they’ll suggest we’re in retreat.”

Here Obama tries to differentiate between the reality of international relations and the perception of world events. The U.S., as Obama notes, is objectively the most powerful player in the Middle East by whatever metric one wishes to apply: diplomatic alliances, economic clout, military strength, cultural influence, and so forth. But between the spread of ISIS and a unilateral Russian intervention to save the Assad regime, it doesn’t quite feel like the U.S. is the strongest actor there anymore. For some critics, these events are an attack on U.S. “leadership,” to borrow their phraseology, and the Obama administration’s failure to respond with military force signals a lack of “strength” at best and outright “weakness” at worst.

Two issues arise. First, this thinking mirrors how Putin processes his own response to attacks on his country’s interests: A global rival’s actions threaten​ his perceived sphere of influence, and those actions must be countered with force. In Ukraine, it was the Euromaidan protests that threatened to permanently dislodge Kiev from Moscow’s orbit; in Syria, it may have been the transfer of U.S. arms to anti-Assad rebels. In response, Putin annexed Crimea last year, with disastrous implications for the Russian economy, and is now trying to save the Assad regime this year.

Second, there is also little evidence that a U.S. military intervention in Syria would succeed where interventions in Iraq and Libya failed. In both instances, intervention actually increased regional instability instead of quelling it. Since popular resistance to large-scale military interventions helped propel Obama to the presidency in 2008, it’s unsurprising he’s still skeptical of their efficacy.

“[If], in fact, the only measure is for us to send another 100,000 or 200,000 troops into Syria or back into Iraq, or perhaps into Libya, or perhaps into Yemen, and our goal somehow is that we are now going to be, not just the police, but the governors of this region, that would be a bad strategy, Steve. And I think that if we make that mistake again, then shame on us.”

When asked if the world was a safer place, Obama replied that America is a safer place.

“I think that there are places, obviously, like Syria, that are not safer than when I came into office,” he noted, before pivoting to his multilateralist approach. “But, in terms of us protecting ourselves against terrorism, in terms of us making sure that we are strengthening our alliances, in terms of our reputation around the world, absolutely we’re stronger.”

One of these two positions — that foreign policy restraint flows from American strength, not weakness; or that restraint signals weakness and thus vulnerability — will ultimately carry the day in the real world of the next president’s foreign policies. And then we’ll see who was right.

Hopefully the costs won’t be too much to bear.

Dr. Seuss: Propagandist, racist, American

seuss-japan-1

seuss 4Theodore Seuss Geisel — Dr. Seuss — published his first children’s book, the charming and whimsical And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Streetin 1937, followed a year later by the equally delightful The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. By 1940, as World War II was engulfing Europe and Asia, Dr. Seuss, as he was already  known, had turned to drawing political cartoons. By 1942 he had devoted his work to aiding the American war effort.

That work is astonishingly racist.

This always comes as a shock to my students. For them, as I suspect for nearly all of us, Dr. Seuss is a beloved children’s author and illustrator, the creator of the Lorax, and of Horton, the keen-eared elephant who hears a Who, and the Grinch, who in the end learns that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.

I show my students examples of Seuss’ wartime artwork as part of our exploration of the ideological foundations of American foreign policy. In his brilliant book Ideology and US Foreign Policy, historian Michael Hunt argues that a belief in the hierarchy of races is one of the three fundamental ideas at the core of our conduct of foreign affairs. “Inspired by the struggle of white Americans to secure and maintain their supremacy under conditions that differed from region to region,” Hunt writes it is the oldest of these ideas, deeply embedded in how Americans think about ourselves and our place in the world.

I read Hunt’s book for the first time as a graduate student, and I have assigned it to my own students ever since so that they too can wrestle with the ideas that shape our foreign policy. Race is perhaps the most powerful of those ideas.

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As Hunt writes, the 17th and 18th century folk wisdom shared by our founders, their contemporaries, and passed down to subsequent generations, a system of belief which placed those with the lightest skin atop a hierarchy of races, was reinforced in the 19th century by “scientific” investigation which purported to confirm the physical, intellectual, and moral inferiority of those with darker skins.  “Blacks above all others,” Hunt argues, “served as the anvil on which Americans forged this notion of racial hierarchy and the attendant color-conscious view of the world.”

While our treatment of Americans of African descent served as the baseline, these ideas were also manifested in the genocide of Native Americans as the infant United States expanded westward, and later as we acquired the trappings of overseas empire in the Spanish-American War that ushered in the 20th century. As we became more active and assertive in international affairs, encountered other peoples, other nations, the baggage of race was our blueprint for how to relate, how to respond.

Anglo-Saxonism, says Hunt, “the belief that Americans and the British were one people united by uncommon and common interests,” occupied the central place in our thinking about race as it related to foreign policy. Germans, as our racial cousins, like us save for their loss of the love of liberty, followed closely behind. But from there it was all downhill, from the Slavs to the “Latin” peoples of Europe (France, Italy, Spain), to the deepest, darkest depths of savage Africans, fit for nothing more than white domination.

The people of East Asia, Japan and China, enter the American consciousness in the last half of the 19th century, seen as an exotic bundle of contradictions: “subhuman yet cunning, unfeeling yet boiling inward with rage, cowardly and decadent yet capable of great conquests.” And so Americans developed two different images of “Orientals,” a positive one, Hunt writes, “appropriate to happy times when paternalism and benevolence were in season,” and a negative one, suited to those tense periods when abuse or aggrandizement became the order of the day.”

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The wartime cartoons of Dr. Seuss put these contradictions on vivid display. In the images reproduced here, Hitler is portrayed as essentially an aristocrat, his head held high in a posture of contempt of others, almost attractive and noble for all his arrogance. Not so the Japanese, shown here leering with a slant-eyed squint through thick glasses, with buck-toothed grins.  Or as inhuman monsters and insects with caricatures for faces.

The key point I am making isn’t that Dr. Seuss was a racist propagandist. He was. But he was no outlier. The attitudes on display in his wartime cartoons were the attitudes shared by his fellow Americans. They were attitudes passed down over the centuries from one generation to the next. They were attitudes that turned the war in the Pacific into the most brutal war Americans had ever fought, one which culminated in the dropping of the atomic bomb on cities populated by people we viewed as barely human. They are attitudes which we have inherited today.

Dr. Seuss was a racist, a propagandist. And American.

The American way of foreign policy

high noonI have been teaching American foreign policy for a long time now, and for as long as I can remember I have shown my students the classic Western film High Noon as a way to give them insight into the enduring beliefs about ourselves and the nature of the world around us that animate our conduct of foreign policy.

I originally wrote the comments below as background for my students to give them some context when they watch the film (I’ll be showing it in class today and Friday). But I’ve also been thinking about it in relation to the discussion of foreign policy that has emerged in the current presidential campaign.

As most of the Republicans (Rand Paul the notable exception) seeking the White House have argued over and over again, the world is a dangerous place with enemies that America must confront head-on, with force, lest everything we stand for fall to ruin. America is all that stands between global order and global chaos. We lead not because we desire power, we lead because we must, because no one else will, because no one else is capable.

Lindsay Graham, while an afterthought in the polls, is representative of this perspective, one shared with most of his GOP rivals, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton (though her rhetoric while bellicose is far less apocalyptic), and even with the much maligned (by Republicans) President Obama. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in July on the threat of ISIS and his plans to militarily intervene in Iraq and Syria to defeat extremism and stabilize the Middle East, Graham said:

This is the 1930s all over again, and this ISIL threat is something that will come our way soon if we don’t stop it over there … There is no substitute for winning this conflict. There is no substitute for America.

President Obama, speaking at West Point in 2014, while stated in more measured terms, expressed the very same sentiments about America’s role in the world:

[I]t is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for the century to come. .. The question we face … is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.

What follows are the comments I originally wrote for my students:


 

High Noon (1952) is both a product of its times, the early years of the Cold War, as well as a reflection of our enduring collective political values and beliefs. In other words, High Noon tells us much about how Americans see themselves, and how we saw (and I would argue) continue to see America’s role in the international arena. When you watch this film I think it will come as no surprise that High Noon has been screened in the White House more often than any other movie.

The metaphors in the film operate in two ways. First, the character of Will Kane (Gary Cooper) serves as a metaphor for the post-WWII United States. Kane is the archetypal Western hero evidencing the best qualities of the American character: courage, steadfastness, and devotion to justice.

Some of the background details of the film serve to underscore these embedded values. For example, in the pivotal church scene, the congregation is singing this verse from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; / He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat: / Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet! / Our God is marching on.

This implies a divine mission to set affairs aright, a mission that men of courage will meet. By failing to act, the townspeople condemn themselves in the sight of the Almighty, an idea made clear in the piece of scripture, Malachi 4:1, that the pastor reads, which evokes similar visions of both righteousness and judgment:

 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the

LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

At the same, the challenges Kane faces in the film are reflections of the challenges the United States faces in the new reality of the Cold War. Just as Kane is a metaphor for the US, Hadleyville, the town where the action takes place, can be seen as a metaphor for the post-WWII international system.

The setup for the story is that Kane, having cleaned up Hadleyville after a long struggle, is hanging up his gun and badge and retiring. This can be seen as the film’s equivalent of the American victory in World War II. After a brief time of peace and quiet, the bad guys – the Frank Miller gang – return to Hadleyville and once again threaten the peace. Here the film equates the threat of communism with the fascist tyranny of the war years.

The central question is how Kane and the townsfolk, and metaphorically the United States and the rest of the world, will respond to this new threat.