Tag: bill kristol

Free Advice from Bill Kristol

Republicans who still look to Bill Kristol for political advice will find his case that “yes” is “The Right Vote” over at The Weekly Standard today. Ignore those melting phone lines, Kristol urges congressfolk: despite what your constituents are telling you, “no” on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria is actually “the risky vote.”

If Republicans refuse authorization, Kristol argues, “the GOP can be blamed for whatever goes wrong in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, over the next months and years. And plenty will go wrong.” If they don’t want the Middle East mess hung around their necks, he says, then Republican lawmakers should vote for bombing Syria—and “consider moving an authorization for the use of force against the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” See, that’s how you minimize your political risk. With double the bombing, what could possibly go wrong?     

It’s not the most persuasive bit of political analysis I’ve ever read. But, disturbingly, Kristol’s on to something in this paragraph:

A Yes vote is in fact the easy vote. It’s actually close to risk-free. After all, it’s President Obama who is seeking the authorization to use force and who will order and preside over the use of force. It’s fundamentally his policy. Lots of Democrats voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war. When that war ran into trouble, it was President Bush and Republicans who paid the price. If the Syria effort goes badly, the public will blame President Obama…. If it goes well, Republicans can take credit for pushing him to act decisively, and for casting a tough vote supporting him when he asked for authorization to act. 

There’s genuine insight there into the way we war now, and how Congress shirks its constitutional responsibilities. Domestically, as David Schoenbrod has observed, broad delegations of power allow Congress “to kiss both sides of the apple,” taking credit for the benefits of the legislation they pass and railing against whatever costs the executive branch imposes.

Congress plays the same “shell game” abroad. Where possible, modern Congresses have preferred to punt to the president and reserve their right to criticize him should military action go badly—to be for the war before they were against it, or vice versa, depending on which way the political winds blow. That’s how it worked in Vietnam and in Iraq—and that’s the danger with the Senate’s loosely crafted Syria AUMF. The provisions that purport to limit presidential action are too weak to stick, but if we get a wider, bloodier war, they’ll allow legislators to say: “That is not what I meant at all.” It’s TARP with Tomahawks. 

Still, there’s always the risk that the marks will see through the shell game. And at this point, Congress seems unconvinced that a “yes” vote is “close to risk free.” 

Hagel’s a Good Fight

Chuck Hagel isn’t the consistent dove his opponents say he is, and he’s no civil libertarian. But his nomination as secretary of defense is still a fight worth having.

Hagel shouldn’t have much trouble in the Senate armed services committee. Among the panel’s Democrats, Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan is a Hagel booster, as is Rhode Island senator Jack Reed. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) seems supportive. Thus far the others have not commented or are noncommittal. On the other side, Roger Wicker (R-MS) has announced his opposition (via twitter), and John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) seem likely to vote no. But the incoming ranking member, Jim Inhofe (R-OK), was positively inclined a month ago. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) appear open to persuasion. With broad Democratic support likely, it will take only a couple Republicans to get the majority Hagel needs to reach the full Senate.

But there may be only a few Republican yes votes in the Senate. Senators John Coryn (R-OK), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Dan Coats (R-IN) will vote no. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) threatens a hold. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is lukewarm. A few others, including both Nebraska senators, are noncommittal. The rest are silent, so far. Most Democrats should vote yes. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) seem supportive. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) offer vague non-endorsements. At this point, who knows what will happen in a floor vote, but with 55 Democrats, 60 needed for confirmation, and an engaged White House, Hagel’s odds seem better than even.

As Chris Preble notes, one virtue of Hagel becoming secretary is that he is willing to cut the massive defense budget and is more skeptical than most Washington bigwigs about war. He has a tendency to offer sensible observations that count as apostasy in U.S. foreign policy circles. Examples include his claim that the U.S. trade embargo toward Cuba is senseless (a view shared by most people outside Miami, which brought Rubio’s hold threat), the notion that diplomatic engagement with odious regimes is generally worthwhile, doubts about the utility of coercive sanctions on Iran (which academics that study the matter mostly share), and, of course, his willingness to admit the existence of an Israeli lobby (granted, he shouldn’t have said “jewish”) and a distinction between U.S. and Israeli interests.

As Hagel’s more reasonable critics note, having never served on a defense committee, his qualifications are not ideal. Serving in Vietnam does not teach you much about how to run the Pentagon. But Hagel’s military experience does seem to have encouraged his skepticism about the wisdom of generals and admirals—a useful tendency for a Secretary of Defense, especially one that may have to overcome the brass’s resistance to ending a war and implementing a drawdown. Deputies like Ashton Carter can help with management.

Another virtue of Hagel’s nomination is that it may show that the interests that police speech on these issues are not as powerful as they seem. As nearly everyone reading this knows, the most vocal opponents of Hagel’s nomination are the familiar band of neoconservatives ever-eager for war, the editorialists that reliably agree with them, and some pro-Israel (really Likunik) lobbying groups. Also opposed to Hagel are some gay-rights advocates angered by his voting record on that issue, including his 1998 comment calling an ambassadorial nominee “openly, aggressively gay,” for which he recently apologized.

If Hagel loses in the Senate, many will say that the Israeli lobby and their neoconservative friends did it. His loss, you might say, will enhance their perceived power and quiet those tempted to challenge the ideology they enforce. But since Obama floated his name and brought attacks, not nominating him would have had the same result. So why not now have a fight?

There may be some political benefit even in losing. Neoconservative attacks on Hagel come largely on matters where the public takes Hagel’s side—the military budget, bombing Iran, the occupation of Iraq, the wisdom of intervention in Syria. If Senators like McCain, Graham, and Kelly Ayotte (of the lately anti-war New Hampshire) attack Hagel on these grounds, they may harm themselves and their cause. Floor debate might allow a senator to ask Dan Coats how being anti-war means disrespecting the military. Even on Israel, there may be virtue in exposing a wider public to the irony of the Israeli lobby intimating people by attacking someone for saying the Israeli lobby intimidates people.

If Hagel wins, it will demonstrate that his opponents aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Neoconservatives obviously lose regularly; various wars they said our security depends on never occurred, and those that did were generally smaller than they’d like. The Israel lobby, on the other hand, seems more successful. But they regularly win because there is rarely anyone strong pushing back—no Palestinian lobby, for example. Americans are so safe from Middle-Eastern trouble that, most of the time, few costs—blood, treasure, votes—come from doing whatever those most interested want. When their ambitions bring conflict with something powerful, like a lobby of similar heft, strongly anti-war sentiment, or a determined president just reelected, the other side can win.

I argued that Susan Rice was a bad choice for secretary of state because she is unfailingly pro-war, and that her ascension would show, again, that being pro-war is generally politically safer than being against it. In terms of perception, Hagel is now nearly the opposite. If he became secretary it would indicate that it’s not verboten for ambitious politicos to be realists that question the virtue of violent meddling in the Middle East and supportive of substantial military cuts. A few less people might bite their tongue for fear that someday the likes of Abe Foxman, Bill Kristol, and their PR flaks will call them anti-semites and keep them from getting an important job. One appointment may not unleash the perestroika needed to undermine the hawkish consensus that prevails on these issues, but it would help.

The Neocons’ Fight over Chuck Hagel Moves to Act Two

By nominating Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, after an excruciatingly long period of uncertainty and speculation, President Obama has demonstrated that he is disinclined to follow the advice of the neoconservatives who have been his harshest critics. Bill Kristol’s aggressive campaign to dissuade Obama from picking Hagel failed. Now the attention turns to a fight over his confirmation in the Senate. In the end, I believe he will be confirmed.

After all, such fights are rare. Presidents are generally granted wide latitude in picking members of their cabinet, and it is unlikely that many of the 55 Senators who caucus with the Democrats (including independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine) will pick a fight with a just-re-elected Democratic president. Such a fight would erode Obama’s political capital, capital that he will need to push through his—and their—domestic agenda.

The remaining unknown, therefore, is whether the neoconservatives’ grip over the Republican Party has finally been broken. Kristol and the neocons will argue that Hagel should not be confirmed. Will Republicans, aside from the predictable voices in the Senate’s interventionist caucus, listen?

It is remarkable that the party continues to consult with the same people who championed the wars that have so tarnished the GOP’s once stellar brand. But consider the case against Hagel on its merits. Hagel is not a pacifist, and certainly not the dove that his critics have claimed he is. He remains firmly within the foreign policy mainstream in Washington, and has supported past wars that I have opposed. But his general inclination, hardened after the debacle of Iraq, is to avoid foreign crusades, and to resist pressure to send U.S. troops into harm’s way in pursuit of unclear objectives that do not advance U.S. interests. That is a mindset that the neoconservatives cannot abide.

But there are broader principles at play, including traditional deference to a president’s wishes with respect to nominees, a deference that is warranted when the person only serves at the discretion of the president (unlike, for example, judges who serve for life). Even conservative commentators who have questions about some of Hagel’s views, including George Will, have signaled that Hagel should be confirmed. Other respected foreign policy hands who came out in favor of Hagel before the nomination was announced include: Brent Scowcroft and Anthony Zinni (and nine other retired senior military officers), nine former ambassadors, including Nicholas Burns, Ryan Crocker Daniel Kurtzer, and Thomas Pickering. In a separate op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Crocker reaffirmed the group’s support for the Hagel nomination, praising Hagel “as a person of integrity, courage and wisdom.” The neocons, therefore, by picking a fight over Hagel, have also taken on a distinguished roster of foreign policy experts. Republican senators wishing to put distance between the party and the neocons should be happy to confirm a nominee who shares their views on most issues, and who is supported by people who have not been so badly wrong, so often.

I don’t believe that Barack Obama chose Chuck Hagel in order to humiliate the Republican Party. I don’t think he intended to shine the light on the bitter divide between the neoconservatives and traditional foreign policy realists. I think he picked Hagel because he likes him, and trusts him. But I agree with an anonymous Obama administration official about what the Hagel fight could mean for the GOP (via BuzzFeed): “If the Republicans are going to look at Chuck Hagel, a decorated war hero and Republican who served two terms in the Senate, and vote no because he bucked the party line on Iraq, then they are so far in the wilderness that they’ll never get out.”

Why Americans Should Care about the Hagel Nomination

Chuck Hagel favors a much more ambitious American role in the world than I do. To answer one of the more ridiculous questions posed during the pre-nomination controversy (and that is saying something), he is not a pacifist. He is, however, a sensible, cautious person who has fought and bled for his country. And he is an independent thinker who is not cowed by Beltway politesse as so many in this town are.

The reason people should care about his nomination is fairly simple. Hagel successfully running the DC gauntlet could be a perestroika moment in the American foreign and defense policy debate, and possibly even loosen the neoconservative stranglehold on the GOP. That’s something worth caring about.

As to what effect Hagel would have on DOD and/or U.S. defense policy, it’s actually tough to say for sure. He has admitted that the Pentagon is bloated and deserves to be cut. So he is unlikely to strike the Situational Keynesian pose that the GOP defense policy establishment have. He has historically been a skeptic about the benefits of bombing Iran and seems to favor a more serious effort at diplomacy. But I hope the hearing will smoke out the nominee’s views a bit better on these issues.

There’s a certain sense that this whole debate is about neocons vs. people who disagree with neocons, and to be frank, there’s something to that. But it’s not about settling old scores or schadenfreude. It’s about slightly reshaping the American foreign policy establishment.

Take Bill Kristol. The “Hagel hates Jews” nonsense owes everything to Kristol. In case it still needs to be said, Hagel is not an anti-Semite. There are too many testaments to this reality to point to (including notable reality-checks from David Brooks and Bush the Younger’s Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim), and the entire effort to brand him as America’s Ahmadinejad should not have been considered even for a moment.

But this sort of nonsense is Kristol’s stock and trade, at least on foreign policy issues. On December 19, he announced in a podcast that the reason Hagel should be opposed is that he is “a bitter enemy of Israel.” In the intervening weeks, he quarterbacked a monomaniacal campaign of yellow journalism and innuendo against a candidate who, by the rules of tradition and decorum, could not answer the slurs directly.

By January 4, Kristol was patting himself on the back, praising the “substantive” campaign waged by his merry band of bloggers against Hagel, but once again deploying the nonsense about Hagel harboring an “unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews.”

Unfortunately, people like Kristol hold outsized sway over wonky, inside baseball decisions like the Hagel nomination—decisions that are influenced almost entirely by elites, without input from voters. So the neocon modus operandi isn’t to win elections with neoconservative candidates, but rather to shape the contours of the conventional wisdom in Washington such that people who don’t have passionate views about defense spending or the Middle East at least confront a severely circumscribed range of acceptable opinion from which to choose.

So I think the reason Kristol and his comrades are fighting so hard on this is to ensure that people who speak out against Kristolian policies like the war in Iraq and a prospective one on Iran cannot survive. That would serve as a powerful deterrent for the large numbers of Republicans who know in their hearts that something is wrong with the neoconservative program.

If Hagel survives this process, it will show that you can stare down the neocons and live to tell the tale. And if the Hagel nomination can demonstrate that you don’t need to fear Bill Kristol, the country and our foreign policy will be better off for it.

Grover Norquist vs. Bill Kristol on Taxes and Pentagon Spending

Grover Norquist spoke yesterday at the Center for the National Interest, and the event drew a gaggle of skeptics convinced that President Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney might spell the end of Norquist’s vaunted Taxpayer Protection Pledge. He sounded an optimistic tone, pointing to past election cycles when the pledge was prematurely declared dead on arrival.

I was most interested in what he had to say about the tiny number of Congressional Republicans who have tried – and so far failed – to build support for tax increases in order to protect the Pentagon from spending cuts. In his opening remarks, Norquist peered into his crystal ball:

With divided government, I think you get the sequester. The President said he doesn’t want to change the money for the Pentagon; Mitch McConnell has said we’re not raising taxes to ransom the Pentagon budget cuts. And, interestingly,…a lot of the focus has been on the Pentagon. The Ds are a lot more concerned about the $50 billion in domestic discretionary spending restraint every year than the Rs are on the defense budget….And you did see the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus within the Republican House, which is a majority of House members (maybe 60 percent), announce the only thing worse than sequestration would be not having the savings. So this stampede that was attempted – the problem with the stampede is that there are only two people trying to start the stampede – and it didn’t take. You didn’t get a demand that the defense budget…remain untouched, either in public opinion or in the House and the Senate.

He’s right. You don’t see a groundswell of public opinion calling for tax increases to fund a still-larger military. On the contrary, most polls actually show more support for Pentagon cuts than for cuts in other spending. This poll (.pdf, Q56) found that 52 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of Independents, are opposed to any increase in taxes in order to maintain the current advantage in military power. In this case, at least, members of Congress are accurately representing the wishes of their constituents.

I invited Norquist to expand on his comments about this failure to mobilize public support for more Pentagon spending in Washington and on Capitol Hill, and whether self-described conservatives risk undermining the GOP’s brand on taxes and spending. What does he think, for example, when Bill Kristol stumps for tax increases, opening the door for major media outlets to spin the story as ”even conservatives like Bill Kristol support tax increases to protect the Pentagon.”

Norquist replied:

Bill Kristol has been on record saying that if the conservatives didn’t want to be the war party that he’d join up with the … Democrat liberal hawks. … It was an odd sort of threat, but it was kind of an explanation that he doesn’t see himself as a mainstream Reagan Republican. Everything is hawkish foreign policy (not a Reaganite foreign policy, but a hawkish foreign policy). So that’s not surprising. That’s … what he does, but it’s not at all transferable. There isn’t a caucus in the House or the Senate that falls in that category.

He closed with a unscripted rant against the GOP’s situational Keynesianism. It’s “intellectually dishonest,” he said, to oppose Obama-Reid-Pelosi’s stimulus, but then embrace Romney’s version in the form of massive military spending. His remarks echo some of what he said a few months ago in a Cato podcast, but here are a few new gems:

I thought that the Romney people ill served the country and themselves when they ran these campaigns that if the defense budget was cut all these jobs would disappear. Now lets see, we just spent four years making fun of Obama’s multiplier that if the federal government spends x number of dollars you create jobs.

That’s like arguing that people who are involved in organ donations are creating additional kidneys. No they’re not, they’re just moving them around….the government creates jobs the way ticks create blood. No it doesn’t….You can move stuff around but you took it from somewhere and then you put it somewhere else. You take a dollar from here and kill a job and put it over there and then you hold a press conference over here….

For the Republicans to talk about how defense spending creates jobs, I think, was unfortunate. You can make an argument that you need this plane or this tank, or “The Canadians are being annoying again. Keep an eye on ‘em.” I’m all for that. We should have a strong national defense. But don’t sell it as a jobs program. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it was a shame that it was done.

Gov. Christie, Bill Kristol, and the Future of the GOP

The interest in New Jersey governor Chris Christie as a possible 2012 presidential candidate is understandable. His tough line against state spending, his willingness to take on entrenched interests in the Garden State, and his candor and blunt manner of speaking all appeal to Republicans weary of the current candidates. But while his views on domestic policy are relatively clear, Christie’s foreign-policy views aren’t. Indeed, governors have little reason to speak out on foreign-policy issues unless they run for president.

Without a track record, however, no one can know how a former governor will perform what is arguably a president’s most important job: deciding whether, where and when to deploy U.S. troops abroad. Recall George W. Bush’s plea for a humble foreign policy and his senior foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice’s assertion that the U.S. military should not be in the business of “escorting kids to kindergarten” in foreign lands. This was all forgotten by the time that Bush and Rice exited Washington eight years later. Rice essentially recanted her earlier opposition to nation building, and Bush had presided over a foreign policy that was anything but humble.

With that huge caveat in mind, can we venture a guess about Chris Christie’s foreign policy views? Not quite. But this passage from Christie’s speech at the Reagan Library hints at a measure of humility and pragmatism that is long overdue:

The United States must…become more discriminating in what we try to accomplish abroad. We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion. Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image. We need to limit ourselves overseas to what is in the national interest so that we can rebuild the foundations of American power here at home.

Such sentiments strike most Americans as eminently sensible. Numerous polls show that Americans want to stop fighting other people’s wars and building other people’s countries. Most believe it is better to husband our power and deploy our military abroad only when vital U.S. security interests are threatened. We should lead by our example, build a society that others wish to emulate, and avoid the temptation to meddle in other people’s affairs.

Not so, says William Kristol, Weekly Standard editor and Fox News commentator. In a famous essay co-authored with Robert Kagan in 1996  the two made the case for “benevolent global hegemony.” Kristol and Kagan especially took issue with those conservatives who:

succumb easily to the charming old metaphor of the United States as a “city on a hill.”

[…]

Because…the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America’s shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.

So why would Kristol be pushing Christie to run for president?

At first glance, it appears that Kristol is willing to look past Christie’s foreign-policy views in the interest of finding a candidate best able to defeat President Obama in 2012. Perhaps Kristol believes that he will be in a better position to influence Christie’s policies at a later stage. Kristol was notably lukewarm on Governor Bush in 2000 but was nonetheless able to influence President Bush’s foreign policy.

But should Republicans listen to Bill Kristol?

Kristol’s brand of foreign-policy activism has always looked more like Woodrow Wilson than Ronald Wilson Reagan. Indeed, notwithstanding Kristol’s deliberate efforts to wrap his foreign-policy views around Reagan’s legacy, Reagan was more skeptical of confrontation with the Soviet Union than the neoconservatives, as Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke expertly demonstrate in their book America Alone. And conservatives’ understandable skepticism of nation building at home has never fit with the neoconservatives’ notions of nation building abroad.

Beyond this serious philosophical disagreement, Republicans should recall the terrible effects that the neoconservatives’ foreign policies had on Republican candidates in recent elections. Kristol was a leading champion for some of the biggest foreign policy blunders in U.S. history. Those blunders denied George W. Bush a mandate for major domestic-policy reform in 2005, cost the GOP control of the Congress in 2006, and provided an opening that Barack Obama skillfully exploited on the road to the White House in 2008. Those are all reasons enough for Republicans to ignore Kristol’s advice.

It is too soon to say whether Chris Christie’s few early comments about foreign policy signal a genuine commitment to military restraint, or whether his skepticism toward foreign military adventures will be discarded as quickly and easily as George W. Bush’s humility. But there are modestly hopeful signs that Governor Christie hasn’t fully bought into the neocons’ benevolent global hegemony, and that suggests that he will be open to other points of view.

Cross Posted from The National Interest.

The Ghailani Verdict

You’ve probably heard that a jury found Al Qaeda bomber Ahmed Ghailani guilty on only one out of 286 charges associated with the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

A predictable debate followed. Glenn Greenwald cited the outcome as proof that the system works, while Liz Cheney, Debra Burlingame and Bill Kristol described the trial as a reckless experiment. Thomas Joscelyn called the trial a miscarriage of justice.

The most insightful commentary I’ve seen is over at Lawfare. Benjamin Wittes and Robert Chesney summed things up pretty well: “Trial in federal court didn’t work out the way the Obama administration wanted, but it wasn’t a disaster–and we can’t honestly say it worked out worse than the military commission alternative would likely have done.”

I’ve disagreed with Wittes on lawfare issues before, but he and Chesney are right on this case: (1) the defendant will serve a minimum of twenty years in jail, possibly life; (2) it’s not certain that the military commissions would have allowed evidence obtained by coercion (Charlie Savage also made this point in his article for the New York Times), (3) the conspiracy conviction in civilian court is solid on appeal, but not necessarily so in a military commission (conspiracy is not a traditional law of war violation, and three sitting Supreme Court justices have questioned its application in that forum); (4) the forum of conviction is less ripe for attack in courts of law and public opinion.

That’s a good outcome.