Tag: Bret Stephens

Wall Street Journal: Romney Should Be a Neocon, but Hide It in Debate

Would you buy a foreign policy from this man?

Imagine a world in which the Iraq War had gone exactly as marketed. The United States invaded in March 2003. The Iraqis, with the help of Ahmed Chalabi, rapidly transitioned to become a stable, liberal democracy allied with the United States against Iran. The marvelous and smooth transformation had ripple effects throughout the region: a handful of Arab states followed suit, and the United States had drawn down to under 30,000 troops in country by September 2003, setting up a basing agreement with the new Iraqi government to stay indefinitely. Few American lives were lost, the swamp of terrorism was drained, and an oil pipeline has just been completed running from Iraq to the Israeli port city of Haifa.

Imagine, at the same time, that opponents of the war, despite having gotten every major judgment about the prudence and consequences of the war comically wrong, had been vaulted to positions of power and prestige in foreign affairs commentary. Meanwhile, the war’s proponents, despite their support for a strategy that yielded huge strategic dividends for the United States at a low cost, were banished to the wilderness, heard from sporadically on a few blogs and at a think tank or two.

It would be strange, wouldn’t it?

And yet that situation is roughly analogous to the one in which we find ourselves today, except in real life the war was an enormous disaster, just as its opponents predicted, and the proponents of the war are the ones in denial about its implications. Foremost among the salespeople for war who have yet to come to grips with the facts are the members of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

But hey, let’s let bygones be bygones: they’ve got some advice for Mitt Romney in his upcoming foreign policy debate.

First, the good news: Even the editorial board of the Journal seems to understand that speaking openly about their plans for more wars would be bad politics. Accordingly, the Journal doesn’t “expect Mr. Romney to offer an explicit defense of the Bush Doctrine” and they worry about the implications of Obama charging Romney with wanting to get the United States into a third (and fourth) Middle East war. This is in keeping with the previous assurance of Bret Stephens (pictured above) that Romney wouldn’t start any new wars. Romney should deny wanting any more wars while doing a number of things that make them inevitable.

Second, the bad news: Instead of suggesting that Romney actually trim the neocon sail a bit, the article suggests Romney continue his strategy of wheeling out a fog machine and saying “leadership” and “strength” instead of discussing details. The American people who tune in Monday night deserve to hear some specifics. Not the level of specifics that would satisfy the people who think about international politics for a living, sure, but some specifics. Instead, while suggesting that Romney “offer[] a serious critique of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy that doesn’t descend to clichés,” the article suggests clichés but not seriousness.

This blends with the ugly news: like an insular clique of Bourbon royalty, the neocons at the Journal appear to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing about strategy over the last 10 years. To the extent their suggestions do go beyond clichés, they are a reminder that Bush-era neoconservatism still lies at the center of their world view, and the world view of the Republican establishment. A few examples:

  • The war in Iraq, we are informed, had “already been won when Mr. Obama became president.” Mission accomplished? Come again?
  • Obama turned that win into a loss by failing to secure “a viable alliance with Baghdad and a bulwark against Tehran.” When you have allocated yourselves 1,608 words, you may want to show your work about how this could have happened.
  • Another Obama failure is that he allowed Israel to have a partially independent defense strategy. He should have “provide[d] Israel with reassurances that it needn’t consider its own military options” on Iran. If Israelis should just rely on the United States to defend them from the most important threats facing their country, why does Israel have such a powerful military in the first place?
  • Obama’s “policies of premature military withdrawals [in Iraq and Afghanistan] have increased rather than diminished the chances that we will be at war in the Middle East again.” How? In which countries?

One could go on. But more broadly the piece suffers from the flaw that has characterized the whole foreign-policy discussion in the election: the idea that the outside world begins at Algeria and ends at Afghanistan. The sprawling essay says exactly nothing useful when it comes to the most important foreign policy challenges facing the United States: the prospect of a European implosion, the wreckage of our war on drugs in Mexico, and preventing American entanglement in a prospective World War III in Asia.

The essay closes by invoking Robert Gates’s invocation of Ronald Reagan, who said that he had lived through many wars but none of them began because the United States was too strong. Gates and the WSJ’s editorial board probably ought to think a little harder about whether the United States blundered into any costly quagmires as a function of its overweening strength and insulation from the costs of its strategic choices. The answer is obvious.

Muslim Humor

It is with delight this week that I see social media pouring derision on mainstream media’s depiction of the world. Specifically, the withering mockery given to Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage” cover.

Gawker helped catalyze things by publishing some early Twitter send-ups of the Muslim rage concept—“Wrestling is fake? #MuslimRage”—and its own spoof: “13 Powerful Images of Muslim Rage.”

My personal favorite came from hijab-wearing ‏@LibyaLiberty, who Tweeted:

I’m having such a good hair day. No one even knows. #MuslimRage

It is not automatic to recognize the personality of souls in other cultures and countries. In a Tweet posted September 12th (now apparently taken down) outgoing Village Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega said, “Islam needs to get a [expletive] sense of humor.” I don’t know what one means by anthropomorphizing a religion, but many individual Muslims demonstrably already have one.

AP Photo

On the Wall Street Journal Professional site, Bret Stephens writes about the derision U.S. culture can pour on minority religions other than Islam without eliciting much stir at all, official or otherwise. The unfairness is notable, and it’s worth talking about whether government-issued statements about the bizarre “Innocence of Muslims” video were called for and whether they struck the right notes.

But Stephens says something that has a quality similar to Ortega’s Tweet and Newsweek’s cover, dismissing the individuality of the one billion-plus Muslims around the world who are not rioting, attacking embassies, or doing anything of the sort.

“[T]o watch the images coming out of Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis and Sana’a,” Stephens writes, “is to witness some significant portion of a civilization being transformed into Travis Bickle.” (Travis Bickle was the misfit anti-hero in Martin Scorcese’s movie Taxi Driver, who delivered a young prostitute from New York City back to her mid-western family. Political people remember him as the inspiration for would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley.)

“Significant portion”? How many Muslims constitute a “significant portion” of the overall number? What infinitesimal percentage of a group so large is “significant”? Stephens might have said “tiny minority” and been more accurate. His implication—hopefully unintended—is that an entire culture is massing at the border of ours, preparing—oh, who knows what—our undoing.

I believe it’s received wisdom in libertarian circles to reject the collectivist mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than individuals. Any believer in individual rights, liberties, and responsibilities should suffer sharp pangs of cognitive dissonance to think of group conflict along the lines I’m reading into Stephens.

So I’m enjoying seeing Muslims express themselves as individuals, putting the lie to their caricature in the mainstream media as a raging undifferentiated mass with spittle on their beards. Especially the women.

Bret Stephens’ Sophistry

Does Bret Stephens really want us to believe that our support for Israeli expansionism has nothing to do with Muslims’ perception of the United States?

The Roots of Muslim Rage?

According to his column in today’s Wall Street Journal, he does. The basic gist is as follows:

  1. Sayyid Qutb was a crucial theorist of Islamic resistance more than half a century ago;
  2. Qutb was revolted at what he saw (then!) as sexual licentiousness and general cultural looseness among Americans;
  3. Therefore, sexy American women including “Lady Gaga–or, if you prefer, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe [and] Josephine Baker” have more to do with our terrorism problem than does our unswerving support for Israeli expansionism.

You can take this sort of argument in lots of different directions. Try this one: Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps the first neoconservative, was a big racist. Lots of his support for American imperialism derived from the fact that he was a big racist. Therefore, the reason American neoconservatives like Bret Stephens support American imperialism is because they are big racists.

To be sure, there probably are neoconservatives who want to beat up on the Arabs because of racism. But it’s not fair to tar Stephens with that brush simply because he hews to an ideology that was influenced in crucial ways by big racists like TR.

Getting back to the substance of the piece, Stephens takes his argument all the way, writing that “to imagine that [Israeli] settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which there lies a universe of hatred.”  This armchair psychiatry formulation helpfully gets Stephens far away from the realm of falsifiability.

Dangerously, though, Stephens veers back toward falsifiability by writing that “the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West” is that we’re too sexed-up.  This is, of course, not accurate.  Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, after all, was not titled “Declaration of War against the Americans with their Supple Buttocks and Protuberant Breasts.”  Instead, it was called “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.”  Or you can take a look at the second fatwa, released in 1998.  The three big claims made against us in there were

  1. Our presence in Saudi Arabia and support for the Saudi government, which he hates;
  2. Our sanctions regime against Iraq and its alleged effects on Iraqi civilians; and
  3. Our support for Israel.

There’s a lot you can do with this information, up to and including supposing that bin Laden would not be satisfied even if these three conditions were somehow removed.  You can also read the actual fatwas and conclude that the Israel stuff was far from the centerpiece of the argument and seemed sort of tacked on at the end for good measure.  I actually think both these arguments are good ones.  But actually thinking about what’s in those texts should cause you to ask why, of all the grievances he could have lodged, including our reverence for Josephine Baker, did he pick those three issues? The answer that presents itself is that he is not an idiot and he thinks the three points he made will be most effective in recruiting people to the cause.

Once again, there’s a lot you can do with this, up to and including saying you don’t care what effect our policies may have on al Qaeda recruiting, continuing them is worth a lot to us so we’re going to do so.  And that’s fine.  But Stephens’ cute argumentation and burial of basic facts about these yahoos isn’t doing a service to the debate over what to do about them.

Similarly, Stephens could have looked for actual research on the topic.  For example, public opinion scholars Andrew Kohut and Richard Wike drew on six years of survey data in the Islamic world and concluded in 2008 that while “America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal,” “most of the story is opposition to American foreign policy rather than value divides or religious-based enmity.” Or look at the U.S. Defense Department’s reporting on the issue: “American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies…Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” [.pdf]  Basically everybody who’s studied this question in any detail agrees with this general argument.

Stephens has a great pulpit on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page.  He should have more respect for his readers and more deference to the truth.

Update: Andrew Exum has more.