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Saturday, February 12, 2011

America's "Foreign Entanglements"

When Congressman Ron Paul stated earlier this week that "people don't like us propping up dictators," he was echoing sentiments similar to those made in George Washington's Farewell Address of 17 September 1796. The emphasis on Realism -- of Machiavelli and Hobbes -- is not particularly organic to American policy.

American elections at the national level are generally neither won nor lost on the subtle intricacies of foreign policy. When foreign policy rears it's head in a national race, it usually hinges on blunt matters of war and peace. Remember the Ron Susskind NYTimes magazine piece that played a role in the final days of the Bush-Kerry race of 2004 on how Kerry might prosecute the War on Terror? Bush coasted the last few days of that race paroodying Kerry's idea fleshed out in that article about prosecuting the War on terror through international institutions. Kerry, Bush seemed to be saying, was still a Massachusetts Attorney General, not yet ready for prime time.

How many Americans vote for a Presidential candidate based on their position, say, vis-a-vis his or her policy towards Russia? Towards Pakistan? Not many (perhaps, unfortunately). Americans are generally more concerned about jobs and pocketbook issues, particularly in times of economic distress -- but even in times of prosperity. We don't sweat the big international questions, we leave that up to shadowy unelected appointees.

Those sentiments uttered against foreign entanglements by Ron Paul also happen to highlight President Obama's greatest weakness -- his implicit trust of the American Establishment. He is a true believer and a product of the American establishment's largess. Obama is a patient man, a dazzlingly intelligent man, he is capable of rhetorical brilliance, personally virtuous ("no drama, Obama"), and he is, with all of these gifts, also possessed of an even temperament. But the speed of his rise, the lack of turbulence in his ascent has left Barack Obama with an almost Spaniel-like fidelity to the financial and foreign policy Establishment that has rewarded him at every stage of his life. Obama personally has never had any reason to seriously doubt its fundamentals -- it's been so good to him! -- unlike many, many Americans now struggling during the course of this Great and Terrible economic crisis. That is why he appears to be to so many bloodless (A charge also levelled against another Democratic Man, Kerry).

The President saved Wall Street, he extended the Bush tax cuts into 2012 -- turning his back on his "Change" mandate -- and he ignored the wise inflation-busting former Fed Chairman Paul Volker, favoring instead Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, two politicians utterly loathed by the Progressive left. From Newsweek:

One big proposal the White House hadn’t adopted was Paul Volcker’s idea of barring commercial banks from indulging in heavy risk taking and “proprietary” trading. In Volcker’s view, America’s major banks, which enjoy federal guarantees on their deposits, had to stop putting taxpayer money at risk by acting like hedge funds. This had become a grand passion for Volcker, a living legend renowned for crushing inflation 30 years before as Fed chairman. He had long been skeptical of financial deregulation. Beyond the ATM, Volcker asked, what new banking products had really added to economic growth? Exhibit one for this argument was derivatives, trillions of dollars in “side bets” placed by Wall Street traders. “I wish somebody would give me some shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy,” he barked at one conference.

Yet for most of that first year, Obama and his economic team had largely ignored Volcker, a sometime adviser.
Further, in the wake of his 2010 election "shellacking," the President still had to prostrate himself before the Chamber of Commerce. Then there is the matter of the foreign policy Establishment and their unofficial ideology of "Realism," an idea that seeks to promote stability so that international business can go on unmolested. Strongmen get propped up; African dictator chic is all the rage. Mining of Nicaraguan harbors is right in the name of "democracy." The problem is that for America -- an idealistic nation -- to go down that eldritch path, it has to disentangle itself from the spiderwebs of contradiction. Are such etical grays a function bi-polar competitions (Cold War; Waqr on Terror)? Of Empire? From The New York Times:

If the United States is, as so many presidents have said in so many speeches, the world’s pre-eminent champion of democracy, then why does the drama unfolding in Cairo seem so familiar?
A Washington-friendly dictator, propped up for decades by lavish American aid as he oversees a regime noted for brutality, corruption and stagnation, finally faces the wrath of his people. An American administration struggles over what to say, what to do and what to expect if the strongman is toppled.

The agony of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt raises again the question of whether such a pattern can ever be broken. More than mere misjudgment or duplicity is behind it; the embrace of dictators has been so frequent over the last half-century that it obviously results from hard-headed calculation.
I am an internationalist, always have been and always will be. So this is not entirely an isolationist argument. That having been said, we can be a bit skeptical about the degree to which we engage, with our tax revenues, around the world with sketchy autocrats -- all in the name of "our national interest" -- at a time when the economy is in very weak condition. Who could argue with that?

Mubarak was an example of something that has to change. We cannot be supporting people like Mubarak for three decades while keeping our soul -- and, in a more materialist vein, our "soft power" -- intact. I am here in this country precisely because an autocrat -- Uganda's Idi Amin -- made it physically dangerous for my family to stay.

Now is not a time for America to disengage with the world stage -- the international arena needs us more than ever -- but become more careful about whom we get into bed with. This is the soft power argument. Democracy is on the rise in the Arab world and in Northern Africa. Southern Sudan, Tunisia and Egypt have all recently disentangled themselves from the strangleholds of their rulers.

We should too.

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