Topic: Government and Politics

Memo to the New York Times: John McCain Is a Neocon

One of the funnier press tics of this campaign is when reporters rend themselves in two, agonizing over completely contrived complexity that they imagine exists inside John McCain. Today’s NYT has the latest example, a 1,600 word thumbsucker about how McCain is buffeted between two discrete factions of his foreign policy advisers. It’s complete, unadulterated nonsense.

The narrative Elisabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter are advancing is that Senator McCain has two different factions within his foreign policy advisory: dyed-in-the-wool war-loving neocons like Max Boot and Robert Kagan on the one hand, and on the other hand, “pragmatists” who are later described in the article as “realists,” best characterized by people like Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Richard Armitage. According to Bumiller and Rohter, there are big differences between the two camps.

There are degrees of difference among these advisers, to be sure, but to imply that they represent fundamentally different camps is completely inaccurate. First off, there’s a big difference between academic realists, who overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq before it started, and most people who gallivant around the Beltway proclaiming themselves realists. (Beware, in particular, anyone who uses realist with a modifier, as in “idealistic realist.” Only accept the genuine article.) A huge majority of the Beltway foreign policy establishment–including every member except one of the “pragmatist” faction in the Times story–promoted the war and still have failed to grasp the reasons for its failure.

Bumiller and Rohter then roll out the one prominent figure within the DC foreign policy establishment who did oppose the war, Brent Scowcroft, Bush père’s national security adviser. They describe his opposition to the war and list him as a member of the realist camp within McCain’s advisory. But here’s the thing: If Bumiller and Rohter had dug around a bit, they could have discovered that McCain consigliere Randy Scheunemann, famous for his stalwart promotion of Iraqi charlatan Ahmed Chalabi (a topic that goes totally unexplored in the piece) told the New York Sun in 2006 that “I don’t think, given where John has been for the last four or five years on the Iraq war and foreign policy issues, anyone would mistake Scowcroft for a close adviser.”

Reading the Times piece, you’d believe that there are the war-crazed neocons on the one hand, and the prudent anti-war realists on the other hand. In reality, you have the war-crazed neocons on the one hand, and pro-war realists like Henry Kissinger (who is pro-war first and a realist second) on the other. They present Scowcroft, the one opponent of the war, in order to create the impression that there’s a difference of views on the question, but then fail to mention that he’s been dismissed as a peripheral figure by McCain’s closest foreign policy adviser.

I don’t know whether the Times is trying to make up for the Vicki Iseman story with this, but it makes John McCain look a lot less wedded to perpetual war than anybody who’s been paying attention could easily tell you.

Maybe the Surge Isn’t Working

Via Glenn Greenwald, a Rasmussen poll released yesterday indicates that support for withdrawing from Iraq has reached an all time high. 26% of Americans support leaving “immediately,” 39% want U.S. troops home within one year, not contingent on conditions, and 31% want to stay until “the mission is complete.” So 65% of Americans want US troops out of Iraq within–at the outer bound–one year. 31% support the McCain strategy of staying indefinitely.

Two main purposes of the Surge were, in the words of Thomas Donnelly, to “redefine the Washington narrative,” and as White House adviser Peter Feaver put things, to “develop and implement a workable strategy that could be handed over to Bush’s successor.” This can’t look too good for these folks. It speaks volumes, on the other hand, about the wisdom of the American people.

McCain the Burkean?

Jonathan Rauch has a fascinating short essay in the May edition of The Atlantic (not yet available online) labeling John McCain as a solid conservative, with his seeming anti-establishmentarian iconoclasm nothing more than another indicia of the G.O.P.’s desertion of its core values.

McCain, you see, is a true follower of Edmund Burke, who was “[t]radition-minded but (contrary to stereotype) far from reactionary,” believing in “in balancing individual rights with social order” and advocating only incremental, thoughtful reform. Modern conservatives (or at least Republicans), on the other hand, disdain “small ball” and want to blow up the government.

It’s a clever analysis, especially the contrast of conservative ideas with conservative temperament (though a candidate whose temper is often said to be an Achilles heel is hardly the best vehicle for making that distinction). Ultimately Rauch is too clever by more than half, however, torturing McCain’s policies until they confess to the writer’s thesis. For example, even if it were true that McCain’s campaign finance work ultimately “produced a reform that was mostly modest in its aims,” the Senator’s attack on free speech is a square peg that cannot be forced into a round Burkean hole. And McCain’s latent support for the extension of the Bush tax cuts can much more easily be attributed to presidential politics than to a convoluted notion that after a few years a policy “becomes well established and woven into everyday life” (and therefore must continue lest societal stability be torn asunder).

“McCain,” Rauch concludes, “is an antirevolutionary, not a counterrevolutionary.” That may be true in some sense – and McCain’s views on many issues are genuinely conservative (just as others are libertarian and yet others herald a trust-busting populism) – but it doesn’t make him Burkean.

RIP Herb Alexander

Herbert Alexander was the founder of the study of campaign finance in political science. Long before mandatory disclosure of contributions, Herb published a review of campaign fundraising and spending after each presidential election year. Those volumes remain an invaluable resource for scholars studying American political history. These books were thorough and thoughtful, genuine scholarship on a topic that generates more than a little bluster. I remember reading Herb’s work and thinking what fine work they were, especially considering the law did not mandate disclosure.

I first met Herb in the late 1980s. He had some sympathy in those days for efforts to regulate campaign finance. Later he was much more skeptical, and I like to think it was a skepticism born from experience. I remember a lunch I had with Herb a few years ago. We were discussing some aspect or the other of McCain-Feingold and suddenly Herb said, “You know, John, there’s such a thing as free speech. These people have rights!” Indeed.

Herb was a fine scholar who did his work with integrity and care. He was also a good friend to those who came to know him. I and many others will miss his scholarship and his company.

All You Ever Needed to Know About the Surge

A while back, I characterized the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq as “buy time and pray for a miracle.” Now White House politics-of-Iraq guru Peter Feaver has a piece in Commentary lifting the veil from the White House machinations of surge planning. In the piece, Feaver reveals that the planners’ objective was basically to toss the Iraqi hot potato into the lap of the next administration, dust off their hands, and declare victory:

The challenge…was to develop and implement a workable strategy that could be handed over to Bush’s successor. Although important progress could be made on that strategy during Bush’s watch, ultimately it would be carried through by the next President….

This new and different strategy, now called the “surge” but at one point called by insiders the “bridge,” emerged out of a growing recognition over 2006 that our critics were right about one thing: our Iraq policy was not working…

As a political matter, this has a pretty airtight logic to it. Rather than admitting that theirs was the first U.S. administration to start and lose a war of aggression on their watch (bad for the legacy!), this way it comes out heads-we-win-tails-you-lose. If, by the grace of God, some subsequent U.S. president can manage to extricate us from the Iraqi quagmire without a total meltdown, the Bushies will clap each other on the back, declaring themselves visionaries. If, on the other hand, Iraq flames out entirely on the watch of a subsequent administration, the Bushies can play the Dolchstoss card and explain how The Surge Was Working and would have continued working were it not for the fecklessness of the Obama/Clinton/McCain administration.

Don’t Do Something, Just Stand There

In the Washington Post Shankar Vedantam discusses “the action bias, or the desire to do something rather than nothing when you have just been through a terrible experience.” He cites evidence that both individuals and politicians often prefer to do something rather than nothing, even if “nothing” would be the wiser course.

When people suffer losses and confront the possibility of even greater reverses – it doesn’t matter if you are talking about a terrorist attack or a meltdown in retirement savings – it is psychologically difficult to do nothing, to hold course. This is true even when the action you contemplate produces an outcome that leaves you demonstrably worse than you were in the first place….

Economist Ofer Azar recently came up with a novel way to study the insidious nature of the action bias. He examined whether soccer goalies were more likely to stop penalty kicks when they dived to the left, dived to the right or stayed in the center of the goal. In a study of 286 penalty kicks faced by elite Israeli goalkeepers, Azar found that goalies had the best chance of stopping a kick when they remained in the center – partly because when they dived to one side, they left themselves with no chance of stopping a kick aimed at the other side or a kick aimed dead center. And even when they correctly guessed the direction of the kick, they still had only a 1-in-4 chance of stopping a goal.

Despite the clarity of the evidence, Azar found that goalies dived to one side or the other 93 percent of the time.

And of course it’s not just goalies. Vedantam suggests that “the Iraq war might be Exhibit A for the action bias”–noting Hillary Clinton’s statement in 2002: “In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am.”

Good point. And he might go on to discuss the current rush to regulation in the wake of the subprime crisis and the Bear Stearns collapse. Voters expect politicians to “do something!” Regulators don’t want to look unresponsive. So everybody has a plan for more money, more regulation, or some sort of action. And of course it’s a recurring problem. Enron failed, and politicians panicked right into the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, whose costs will be with us long after we’ve forgotten what Enron was.

The bias toward action is one good reason for constitutional and procedural constraints on government actions. Constitutional limits on what government can legislate, bicameral legislatures, supermajorities, the filibuster, the presidential veto–all are designed to prevent hasty action, whether from popular delusions, demagogic campaigns, or the simple desire to be seen doing something rather than prudently refraining from misguided actions.

Will They Turn Themselves In?

British prime minister Gordon Brown has announced that he supports increasing the penalties for the use of marijuana, reversing the slight liberalization of the law under his predecessor, Tony Blair.

I touched on this topic about nine months ago in my posting “Hash Brownies and Harlots in the Halls of Power.” As the Brown government began a review of the marijuana laws, it was revealed that at least eight members of Brown’s cabinet –including the Home Secretary (or attorney general), who was charged with studying the idea of increased penalties, the police minister, and the Home Office minister in charge of drugs – had themselves used marijuana. They were dubbed the “Hash Brownies,” in honor of their service in Brown’s government. I wrote at the time:

In the United States many leading politicians including Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama have admitted using drugs, while Bush and Bill Clinton tried to avoid answering the question.

In both Britain and the United States, all these politicians support drug prohibition. They support the laws that allow for the arrest and incarceration of people who use drugs. Yet they laugh off their own use as “a youthful indiscretion.”

These people should be asked: Do you think people should be arrested for using drugs? Do you think people should go to jail for using drugs? And if so, do you think you should turn yourself in? Do you think people who by the luck of the draw avoided the legal penalty for using drugs should now be serving in high office and sending off to jail other people who did what you did?

Those are still good questions. I noted at the time that they might also be asked of Sen. David Vitter, a patron of prostitutes who believes that prostitution should be illegal. And of course now they should be asked – if he were to reappear and take questions – of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who not only supported the laws he was breaking but aggressively enforced those very laws during the same period in which he was enthusastically violating them.

Hypocrisy may be the tribute that vice pays to virtue in matters of advice. But it’s entirely unbecoming when the coercive force of law is involved.