Tag: david brooks

Obama, American Nationalism, and the Weird Anti-Materialism of the Foreign Policy Elite

Matt Yglesias puts down the bloody shirt long enough to make the modest-on-its-face claim that “actions, not words, will clarify Obama’s foreign policy.”  I don’t think that’s quite right.

obamaIn one sense, of course, it is.  For the bean counters among us, the outcomes are the real metric: whether the United States remains the sole superpower on the planet; whether a diplomatic resolution can be reached with Iran; whether Obama can (assuming he has has any intention to) get our military out of Iraq; whether his spun-like-cotton-candy Afghanistan policy can stabilize that sorry land – these are the things we’ll be looking at.

But the more important thing in the short term for Obama is probably to slake the nearly-unquenchable thirst of the David Brookses of the world – and probably the American people – to have their identities stroked.  To take the most recent example, Brooks, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and the Foreign Policy Elite of whom they are avatars were in desperate need of a cold shower and a trip to the nearest confessional after Obama indulged them by unsheathing the Mighty and Awesome Totem of American nationalism – before a crowd of peacey Norwegians no less.   To take another example, witness the veritable panic, the hysterical and fluttering response to the imaginary Obama “apology tour” that didn’t exist and had no affect on anything in any event.

Indeed the Foreign Policy Elite is so captivated by the rhetoric, imagery, and perhaps most importantly the identity surrounding U.S. foreign policy it hardly has time to think seriously about the material realities.  There are of course examples where analysts simply misrepresent material reality – witness this ridiculous characterization of Obama’s boost in defense spending as an “assault” on the defense budget – but in general the foreign policy commentariat seems more interested in how American power makes them feel than it is on the outcomes it produces.  And witness the frenzy over the Oslo speech, the “apology tour” claptrap, or the whining about Obama’s restraint from calling on the Iranian people to start a revolution.

Charles Krauthammer, in a recent essay, went so far in the anti-materialist direction to claim that “decline is a choice.”  “Decline – or continued ascendancy – is in our hands.”   Of course, it isn’t always a choice, says Krauthammer.  The British had it coming, for example, but the crucial factors in Krauthammer’s telling weren’t imperial overextension and the relative waning of its latent power but rather “the civilizational suicide that was the two world wars, and the consequent physical and psychological exhaustion.”  Thus, nations decline in large part because of sapped will – perhaps this would be the foreign policy equivalent of the “mental recession” we heard about a year ago.  If this is right, keeping a careful eye on will-sapping things is more than a parlor game.

But of course Krauthammer’s charge that Obama is willfully precipitating American decline cannot be substantiated by reference to material factors, so it’s perhaps no coincidence that he takes aim primarily at Obama’s “demolition of the moral foundations of American dominance.”  Krauthammer’s central piece of evidence is telling:

In Strasbourg, President Obama was asked about American exceptionalism. His answer? “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Interesting response. Because if everyone is exceptional, no one is.

Reading this, I was reminded of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s observation that

Ideally those responsible for international affairs ought to be able to understand and moderate the holy nationalism of their own country and to discern, even when disguised, the operations and limits of holy nationalism in rival countries as well as in third-party countries.

Unfortunately this may be too much to hope for.  There are serious cognitive difficulties involved.  Any nationalism inherently finds it hard to understand any other nationalism or even to want to understand it.  This is particularly true of holy nationalism.  Rejection of the other is part of the holiness.

All of this is enough to make you wonder then – if Obama wanted to, could he just keep the opinion columnists – and the American people – happy with a regular genuflection at the altar of American nationalism rather than by providing them with actual wars and actual crusading?  Would he if he could?

David Brooks Is Confused about Counterinsurgency

brooks

Would you buy a state-building mission from this man?

Today David Brooks (in the role of Teddy Roosevelt) debates George Will (as Edmund Burke) on the subject of Afghanistan without citing him.  This debate marks a high point of conservative politics where neoconservative ideology appears in concrete clarity.

First, Brooks makes clear that he is not interested in merely managing the problem of terrorism, but rather in “prevailing” in the war in Afghanistan.  He argues that “only the full counterinsurgency doctrine offers a chance of success,” but then proceeds to absurdly define population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine as one in which “small groups of American men and women are outside the wire in dangerous places in remote valleys, providing security, gathering intelligence, helping to establish courts and building schools and roads.”

Either Brooks is being cute here or demonstrating his ignorance.  With one word — “small” — Brooks has utterly mischaracterized what counterinsurgency is all about.

Population-centric counterinsurgency is all about large numbers of American men and women, not small numbers.  The promoters of COIN in Afghanistan have recently taken to including the Afghan National Army in the count of counterinsurgents, but the textbook — and as a result, obviously oversimplified — number of counterinsurgents you’d want in a place with a population, dysfunctional national government, and geography like Afghanistan pushes well up to around half a million.  It is an extraordinarily resource- and labor-intensive endeavor.  If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll take David Petraeus or David Kilcullen as authorities on the matter.

Brooks pushes his argument further, declaring that we possess only two choices in Afghanistan: “surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building.”  One paragraph later, Brooks writes of the fight against terrorism that “we shouldn’t pretend we understand how this conflict will evolve.”  That Brooks does not recognize the conflict between these views is telling.  See Rory Stewart for more on the swashbuckling certainty like what Brooks is displaying.

Then Brooks borrows from Stephen Biddle the claim that we must conduct a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan not because of the war on terrorism in that country per se, but rather because:

A Taliban conquest in Afghanistan would endanger the Pakistani regime at best, create a regional crisis for certain and lead to a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda at worst.

This is really cranking it up to 11 on the hyperbole meter.  We may recall that in the 1990s when the Taliban was running Afghanistan, Pakistan was arguably more stable than it is today.

In closing, Brooks wheels out a straw man:

When you interview people who know little about Afghanistan, they describe an anarchic place that is the graveyard of empires. When you interview people who live there or are experts, they think those stereotypes are rubbish. They usually take a hardened but guardedly optimistic view. Read Clare Lockhart’s Sept. 17 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get a sense of the way many knowledgeable people view the situation.

It is curious to hear David Brooks refer to a large number of people who agree with him on policy as “people who know little about Afghanistan.”  Like Gen. PetraeusSeth JonesAnthony Cordesman.  I could go on.

Brooks then undermines his case that the Taliban would certainly be able to set up a national government if we left by admitting that “the enemy is wildly hated. Only 6 percent of Afghans want a Taliban return, while NATO is viewed with surprising favor.”  Even for thugs like the Taliban, having a 6 percent approval rating, men like Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar running around your country, and the United States poking its nose in regularly looks a lot darker than Brooks makes it out.

There’s more in the piece, but combined with Will’s piece, it’s a peek through the keyhole where you can see the warring tribes within conservatism thrashing it out.

Update: I was also interested to see the argument Brooks made on behalf of a study I had not read by political scientists Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli. But Stephen Walt observes that on this score too Brooks is misinforming his readers.

Good News: 9/11 Didn’t ‘Change Everything’

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and D.C., things are going much better than most of us dared hope in the initial aftermath of that horrible day.  We’re still a secure, prosperous, and relatively free country, and the fear-poisoned atmosphere that governed American politics for years after 9/11 has thankfully receded.

Not everyone’s thankful, however.  Boisterous cable gabber Glenn Beck laments the return to normalcy. The website for Beck’s “9/12 Project” waxes nostalgic for the day after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a time when “We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.” Beck’s purpose with the Project?  “We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.”

My God, why in the world would anyone want that?  Yes, 9/12 brought moving displays of patriotism and a comforting sense of national unity, but that hardly made up for the fear, rage and sorrow that dominated the national mood and at times clouded our vision. 

But Beck’s not alone in seeing a bright side to national tragedy.  Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.” 

One of the things that got Brooks giddy was liberals’ newfound bellicosity. That same week, liberal hawk George Packer wrote:

What I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines… ”The only thing needed,” William James wrote in ”The Moral Equivalent of War,” ”is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” I’ve lived through this state, and I like it.

There’s something perverse, if not obscene, in “dreading” the idea that Americans might someday get back to enjoying their own lives.  “Private consumption!”  “Restaurant lines!”  The horror!  The horror!

Like Brooks’s National Greatness Conservatives, a good many progressives thought 9/11’s national crisis brought with it the opportunity for a new politics of meaning, a chance to redirect American life in accordance with “the common good.”  Both camps seemed to think American life was purposeless without a warrior president who could bring us together to fulfill our national destiny. 

That’s why prominent figures on the Right and the Left condemned George W. Bush’s post-9/11 advice to “Enjoy America’s great destination spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”  As Jeremy Lott notes, “in his laugh riot of a presidential bid,” Joe Biden repeatedly condemned Bush for telling people to “fly and go to the mall!”  A little over a year ago, asked to identify “the greatest moral failure of America” John McCain referenced Bush’s comments when he answered that it was our failure sufficiently to devote ourselves “to causes greater than our self interest.”   

True, Bush’s term “destination spots” is a little redundant; but otherwise, for once, he said exactly the right thing.  And of all the many things to condemn in his post-9/11 leadership, it’s beyond bizarre to lament Bush’s failure to demand more sacrifices from Americans at home: taxes, national service, perhaps scrap-metal drives and War on Terror bond rallies?

National unity has a dark side.  What unity we enjoyed after 9/11 gave rise to unhealthy levels of trust in government, which in turn enabled a radical expansion of executive power and facilitated our entry into a disastrous, unnecessary war. 

In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama condemned those “who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” “Their memories are short,” he said, “for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

Riffing off of Obama’s remarks, Will Wilkinson wrote:

Can you recall the scale of our recent ambitions? The United States would invade Iraq, refashion it as a democracy and forever transform the Middle East. Remember when President Bush committed the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”? That is ambitious scale.

Not only have some of us forgotten “what this country has already done … when imagination is joined to a common purpose,” it’s as if some of us are trying to erase the memory of our complicity in the last eight years — to forget that in the face of a crisis we did transcend our stale differences and cut the president a blank check that paid for disaster. How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?

Oddly, even Glenn Beck seems to agree, after a fashion.  The 9/12 Project credo celebrates the fact that ”the day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States, or political parties.”  And yet Beck has called on “9/12’ers” to participate in tomorrow’s anti-Obama “tea party” in D.C. 

On the anniversary of 9/11, what’s clear is that, despite the cliche, September 11th didn’t “change everything.”  In the wake of the attacks, various pundits proclaimed “the end of the age of irony” and the dawning of a new era of national unity in the service of government crusades at home and abroad.  Eight years later, Americans go about their lives, waiting in restaurant lines, visiting our ”great destination spots,” enjoying themselves free from fear — with our patriotism undiminished for all that.  And when we turn to politics, we’re still contentious, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and increasingly skeptical toward their grand plans.   In other words,  post-9/11 America looks a lot like pre-9/11 America.  That’s something to be thankful for on the anniversary of a grim day.

The Corporate Culture at Government Motors

David Brooks comes in for his share of criticism in these parts, but he has a very astute column today about the ways that government ownership will worsen an already problematic corporate culture at a once-great company:

Fifth, G.M.’s executives and unions now have an incentive to see Washington as a prime revenue center. Already, the union has successfully lobbied to move production centers back from overseas. Already, the company has successfully sought to restrict the import of cars that might compete with G.M. brands. In the years ahead, G.M.’s management will have a strong incentive to spend time in Washington, urging the company’s owner, the federal government, to issue laws to help it against Ford and Honda.

Sixth, the new plan will create an ever-thickening set of relationships between G.M.’s new owners — in government, management and unions. These thickening bonds between public and private bureaucrats will fundamentally alter the corporate culture, and not for the better. Members of Congress are also getting more involved in the company they own, and will have their own quaint impact.

The end result is that G.M. will not become more like successful car companies. It will become less like them.

Cleveland Park Embraces Free Markets

Cleveland Park, an upscale neighborhood here in the District of Columbia, might be the last place you would expect appeals to the principles of the free market.  It is, after all, the home of what David Brooks once called ”Ward Three Morality,” an outlook that celebrates government control of the economy. But not always.

Recently an entrepreneur proposed opening a new wine store in Cleveland Park. He sought the support of the advisory neighborhood commission, a local government board, before making his case for a liquor license to DC’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board.  The most serious opposition to the entrepreneur’s plans seems to have come from an existing wine store nearby. According to its attorney, the existing wine store was “a beloved extension of the community.” More candidly he noted the new store would offer competition to the existing business. At this point, you might think: the Cleveland Park commission blocked opening of the new business while congratulating themselves on protecting the town from a ruthless “capitalist logic.”

Well, not quite. Peter Fonseca, the lawyer for the entrepreneur, reportedly “urged the commissioners to consider free-market principles when making their decision. ‘This is America.’” And they did: “Commissioner Richard Rothblum agreed, saying commissioners should not get in the way of free enterprise. ‘I don’t think we have any place telling people what their business plan should be.’” The commission then voted 8-0 to support the entrepreneur’s effort at the Alcohol Control Board. The appeal to “free market principles” seems to have carried the day in Cleveland Park!

Perhaps this is only the beginning. If the free market is desirable for fine wines, why not the auto industry and the banks?