Friday, May 11, 2007

Pay Attention to What Sarkozy Says (and Cameron too)

Reading through some of the comments on Sarkozy's election, you'd get the impression that France has elected an AEI fellow to office. Yes, Nicolas Sarkozy is pro-American--but in a European context.

This is the man who after all said "This does not mean that I seek to wipe the table clean: On many points, Jacques Chirac’s record in the area was exemplary."

And this is what he said about the alliance with the United States:

"The friendship between Europe and the United States is a cornerstone of world stability, period. It is deep, sincere and unshakeable. But friendship means being with your friends when they need you and also being able to tell them the truth when they are wrong. Friendship means respect, understanding and affection . . . but not submission. Friendship is only real when it is honest and independent. I want an independent France and an independent Europe, and I call for our American friends to let us be free; free to be their friends."

Not exactly a blank check.

And John Hulsman's analysis (in today's National Interest online and expanded further in a future issue of TNI) shows why any British leader who follows Tony Blair will have a different approach:

"it is hard to imagine a greater casualty of the Iraq War than the comfortable British model of how to deal with what novelist John le Carré has somewhat ambiguously termed "the cousins." The prime minister, in boldly strategically supporting President Bush in Iraq, not just diplomatically but also in terms of actual boots on the ground, was the only major ally to significantly join America in participating in the Iraq War. Tony Blair, the most gifted British politician of his age, has been destroyed over his following standard British practices in dealing with the Americans. His demise will be a cautionary tale for all British politicians for the foreseeable future; in fact, today one can scarcely meet any of them without the topic coming up in hushed tones."

Neocons are going to be disappointed by Sarkozy just as they were by Merkel.
[I]t is hard to imagine a greater casualty of the Iraq War than the comfortable British model of how to deal with what novelist John le Carré has somewhat ambiguously termed "the cousins."

Am I reading too much into this? Le Carré uses the term "Cousins" not to refer to America generally, or even the American government generally, but to the CIA, cousin to MI6, specifically. Is Hulsman aware of this? When he says, "The Americans are crazy", if he means "the CIA is crazy" the implication is that the U.S. intelligence community is a secret government that sets the agenda for U.S. foreign policy.

In an entertaining lecture last year -- displaying a rare candour, for which I as a Brit am grateful -- the State Department's Kendall Myers pointed out that there 'never really has been a special relationship or at least not one we've noticed.' He went on to explain: 'We typically ignore them and take no notice. We say, "There are the Brits coming to tell us how to run our empire. Let's park them".'

Another quote from Le Carré may help explain why so many in the British political élite seem to have had such difficulty grasping the one-sided nature of the 'special relationship'. His drink-sodden ex-spook Connie Sachs tells George Smiley: 'Poor loves. Trained to empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.' Doubtless it was understandable that the old Etonian Macmillan, brought up in the Edwardian heyday of imperialism, should need to console himself with fantasies of the British playing Athens to America's Rome. (And of course, like Churchill, Macmillan had an American mother.)

But the Macmillan/Kennedy exchange took place the better part of half a century ago. That such delusions should remain resistant to the rather obvious facts listed in the Myers lecture, at a time when nobody in the current British political elite was 'trained to empire' -- and when rather few of its members come from the social groups which could be said to have been so 'trained' -- is baffling.

What makes it all the more baffling is that the justifications for British claims to some special wisdom about international affairs now look quite threadbare. Some quotes from Le Carré's predecessor Graham Greene may point up how far this particular ex-emperor has no clothes. The cynical old British journalist Fowler tells the the 'quiet American' Alden Pyle, in Greene's novel, that the 'old colonial peoples' had 'learnt a bit of reality' -- 'not to play with matches.' And Fowler points out to Pyle that General Thé, on whom the 'quiet American' has pinned his hopes for a 'Third Force', is 'only a bandit with a few thousand men' -- not a 'national democracy.'

Whether or not this was fair comment or sour grapes then one could perhaps debate: after all, the year after 'The Quiet American' was published, the British played with matches over Suez and ended up having to be restrained by Eisenhower. Be that as it may, anyone continuing to believe in the superior wisdom of sometime imperialists today must be living in fantasyland. It has become quite clear from Iraq that Tony Blair and his entourage are quite as happy playing with matches as George Bush and his entourage. And if the British were not perhaps quite as gullible in accepting disinformation put out by the modern Iraqi equivalents of General Thé as the Americans, they were gullible enough. In the press, you had Judy Miller -- we had Con Coughlin of the Telegraph (and, alas, still have him!)

Meanwhile, the British have been quite as willing as the Americans to swallow the fantasy that the kleptocrats Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky -- real 'bandits' both -- are the latter-day equivalents of Andrew Carnegie. A good example comes from the way that in covering the Litvinenko mystery not only British newspapers, but also the BBC, have been quite happy to point the finger at Putin on the basis of disinformation produced by the oligarchs' propaganda machines.

As to the American side of the comparison. As I have never lived in the United States, my feel for these matters is uncertain. But for what it is worth, it seems to me that, insofar as lack of expertise and wisdom in managing foreign affairs has and does characterise the American polity, the problems have far less to do with the availability of knowledge and insight as with the difficulties of bringing it to bear in decision-making.

Among the reasons for this is the simple fact that American political system was shaped in conditions of immunity from political threat. Accordingly, when the events of the Thirties and Forties pushed the United States into heavy geopolitical involvements, the mobilisation of support for foreign entanglements and expenditures on security came to be a particularly salient concern of American foreign policymakers.

One can see this very clearly if one goes back to the years in which American Cold War strategy was formed, and looks at the arguments over the key NSC 68 paper of April 1950 between Paul Nitze, who masterminded it, and the State Department's leading Soviet expert, Charles Bohlen. These arguments are of particular interest today, in that NSC 68 was provoked by the first instance of nuclear weapons proliferating to a hostile power -- the discovery in September 1949 of the first Soviet atomic test.

What Bohlen thought -- and, unlike Nitze, he had vast knowledge of and long experience in dealing with the Soviets -- was that in responding to a real problem, Nitze and his colleagues had ended up letting propaganda contaminate analysis, so that the actual nature of the problem they were responding was obscured. When exasperation finally caused him to abandon his characteristic suavity, Bohlen put the point bluntly. 'Designed merely to justify the need for military buildup,' he told Dean Acheson in October 1951, NSC 68 'strays in a rather superficial and unnecessary manner away from incontestable truths which afford ample justification for military buildup.'

(An overdue reevaluation of Bohlen, both a far more important figure in shaping American strategy than widely realised, and also a much better analyst and more admirable human being than the greatly overestimated Kennan, is given in the seminal study Undermining the Kremlin by Gregory Mitrovich, published in 2000.)

The argument Bohlen was making, however, also raises the question of how far, given the constraints of the American political system, a contamination of propaganda by analysis was actually very difficult to avoid. The tragic effect was that Nitze, who at the start of the Fifties really was wrestling with very real and enormously difficult problems, ended up turning into a kind of latter day equivalent of Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane, flying in terror from the Headless Horseman.

Carried forward through the writings of figures like Albert Wohlstetter and Richard Pipes, this tradition produced the apocalyptic fear-mongering of the 'Team B' exercise -- and, carried further forward, in particular by Wohlstetter's disciples Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, it has decisively shaped the foreign policy of the Bush Administration. There were always far more sober and empirically-based assessments of Soviet power in the American bureaucracy, in the style of Bohlen: notably among CIA analysts, and, in the latter days of the Cold War, in the Soviet Army Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth. But the votaries of the NSC 68 approach seem in general to have been far better at making their voices heard -- perhaps unsurprisingly, given that their whole approach to the Cold War led to such a heavy stress on opinion manipulation.

The end result of all this is that the very real problems associated with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War world have once again been handled in the spirit of Ichabod Crane! The nemesis of this whole tradition is found in the shambles in Iraq and a choice between a range of extremely unappealing options in dealing with the Iranian nuclear programme. The difficulties of having people whose prime expertise is in the manipulation of opinion shaping policy, to which Bohlen pointed back in 1951, have been amply demonstrated.

Returning to Britain: for rather different reasons, people whose primary expertise is in manipulating opinion have ended up in control of the British Labour Party. It was, Kendall Myers said, unfortunate that Blair's background was as 'an actor not an historian.' Certainly Blair is ignorant of history. But perhaps the larger problem is that the skills demanded in order to purge the Labour Party of its delusions so as make it electable in the late twentieth century were, inevitably, those of rhetoric and manipulation: precisely as were those required to make the people of the United States accept the burdens of a global role after 1945.

A point to which this leads, I think, is that the real issues and points of difference today are in many ways not between nations, but within them. Certainly, both in the United States and in Britain, a crucial struggle is against those who, in making foreign policy, spin webs of words to draw others into doing what they want, and end up becoming hopeless entangled within them. What we need is rather more of the blunt contact with reality provided in the lecture by Kendall Myers -- and in Bohlen's assessment of NSC 68.

And this brings me, in concluding this over-extended and perhaps ill-tempered diatribe, to a remark of John Hulsman's which I find somewhat puzzling. Presenting Macmillan's remarks from almost half a century ago in London, Hulsman says, 'never fails to lead to involuntary nods'. This may because those who he talks to in London are in general either politicians and civilian servants, or journalists and policy wonks of one kind or another. As someone not frequenting such circles, all I can say is that I cannot think of anybody I know in whom the anecdote would produce an 'involuntary nod'. And among many of my acquaintance the anecdote would I think produce the response it produces in me: acute embarrassment. Those suffering from uncontrollable imperialist nostalgia really do need to be sent off to somewhere where they can cry into their gin, like Le Carré's Connie Sachs, without their inability to cope with the present having dreadful consequences for other people!
David Habakkuk,

"The difficulties of having people whose prime expertise is in the manipulation of opinion shaping policy, to which Bohlen pointed back in 1951, have been amply demonstrated."

In a democracy, all policy requires some ability to convince voters, but foreign policies also express substantive perceptions of international order. Voters will abandon policies if the perceptions on which they rest are sufficiently at variance from reality, no matter what defenders of the policy do to persuade them otherwise.

"A point to which this leads, I think, is that the real issues and points of difference today are in many ways not between nations, but within them."

In the UK, the farther left and farther right have tended to be suspicious of close ties to the United States; and in the US, the farther left and farther right have carried on the isolationism of the pre-WWII era. But people on the farther ends of the spectrum have not had much influence and the question you ask of what accounts for main lines of policy is a good one.

The pendulum may be shifting now in the UK in favor of more selective support for the United States. However, the question is what the alternatives are, such as merging with Europe or going it alone. Unless you address the alternatives, the American tie doesn't have the context needed to assess properly the real British interests that it does or does not serve.

In early 2009, a new US president will take office under conditions not unlike what Nixon faced in 1969, heading a nation wanting to disengage from ground commitments abroad without leaving a vacuum. The Nixonian policy that could result will no doubt prompt charges of cynicism from those who want no change or want prompt withdrawal, as it did then. But if there is to be a real debate in 2008, there needs to be a clear assessment of the consequences of an alternative policy.
So, David Billington, are you seeing that debate taking place yet?
Anonymous 2:56,

No, but it's not 2008 yet. If the current strategy does not succeed in improving security by the fall, and/or if the Iraqi government has made no effort to meet the benchmarks we have asked them to meet, I would expect the alternatives to come into clearer focus. Once the two major party nominees for US President emerge, there should also be more intense cross-examination.
Reading over at Steve Clemons' Washington Note how Ron Paul is being excluded from the Republican debate because of his views on foreign policy doesn't fill me with confidence, David, that the debate is going to happen. Perhaps it might in late 2007 when second tier candidates say like Richardson realize they have nothing to lose by being more blunt, but if the campaign consultants get their way it will all be sanitized.
David Billington: --

Certainly, a highly crucial question in Britain is what the alternatives to the traditional reliance on the United States are. A concern of mine is that the British political class will end up not facing up seriously to the constraints on our choices. Again, the remarks of Kendall Myers are to the point. "What I fear is, and what I think is," he said, "that the British will draw back from the US without moving closer to Europe. In that sense, London's bridge is falling down."

As to what the British should do, this is a particularly difficult one, partly because one simply cannot predict how the American system is going to react to the catastrophe created by the invasion of Iraq.

On this point, the views of Ahmad Chalabi, as expressed in a recent interview with Patrick Cockburn, are of interest. Essentially, it seems, Chalabi sees the US and Britain as having unwittingly committed a revolutionary act in the Middle East by overthrowing Saddam Hussein. "The US found that it had dismantled the cornerstone of the Arab security order."

The US and Britain have been trying ever since to fill the vacuum left by the fall of the Baath party, Chalabi explains. They wanted "to prevent Shia control and limit Iranian influence in Iraq and in this they have not succeeded." And that is why, in his view, they will leave.

The argument is put more tersely by William Lind, in his description of American troops in Iraq as being, 'in effect, the Shiites' unpaid Hessians.' And of course, one could also suggest they were the Iranians' 'unpaid Hessians', particularly as in addition to fighting the Sunnis, the Americans are implacably hostile to al-Sadr, the most 'nationalist', and least tied to Iran, of the Shia leaders.

There is a lot of reason to believe that when Chalabi sold the Bush Administration the pleasing fantasy that toppling Saddam would lead to the flowering of pro-American and pro-Israeli democracy in the Middle East, he was fully aware that the outcome would be essentially that which we have seen. And certainly there are strong reasons to believe that he was operating in cahoots with Iranian intelligence from way back. How far the United States and Britain have been the gullible victims of a cunning strategy of deception practised by the Iranians is an extremely interesting question. An illuminating discussion of the subject has gone on at Colonel Lang's Sic Semper Tyrannis blog.

A further beauty of this (at least from the point of view of the Iranians) is that the Karl Rove smear machine is in effect working in Iranian interests. Because the Democrats are terrified of being tarred with the brush of 'cutting and running', they are not going to propose any radical alternative to existing policies.

Accordingly, U.S. troops will go on fighting a war which they cannot win, and where in any case 'victory' would benefit the Iranians rather than the U.S. In the process, the United States may well end up with a broken army. Meanwhile, the 'World Without the West' to which Nicholas Gvosdev refers in a more recent posting will continue to develop apace, not least because of the way that, as long as the war continues, confidence in American leadership will be impossible to restore.

At some point, the bitterness caused by all this will, I suspect, explode. But how it explodes, and in what directions American policy develops thereafter, seems to me completely unpredictable. I would not count on the outcome being simply a kind of moderate Nixsonian realignment of American policy.

I certainly very much agree with you, however, that there needs to be a clear assessment of alterantives, in the United States as in Britain. As of the present, however, it is not clear to me that there are any more signs of this happening in your country than in mine.
Anonymous 8:31,

I certainly hope nobody is excluded from future debates on policy grounds, but I haven't heard that Ron Paul will in fact be excluded.

I agree that as the primaries approach differences will sharpen within each party. I would expect debate to sharpen even more between the two major parties once the nominees are clear by the spring. If matters in Iraq have not changed by the fall, it is hard for me to see successful candidates continuing to endorse more of the same.
David Habakkuk,

Regarding Kendall Myers, my understanding is that he spoke before a campus audience at SAIS, where he is an adjunct professor. He is only a consultant to the State Department, and his views should not have been represented as reflective of official thinking on Anglo-American relations. I once had a course with him at SAIS that was very stimulating because he saw things with a broad sweep. But I believe he was giving his own opinion when he spoke.

I agree that in taking out Saddam Hussein we knocked a cornerstone out of the Arab world's security order. But I don't think it speaks well of the durability of that order if it really depended on such a regime. Even if Iraq was still under Baathist control today, Iran would be moving closer to a nuclear weapon, and I think that is the deeper change undermining security in the Middle East.

Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons will compel Saudi Arabia and Turkey to do the same, and if Egypt follows, there could be a nuclear arms race across North Africa. A nuclear Iran could try to assert its dominance in the region before its neighbors get weapons of their own.

The proximate question is whether the United States will intervene if war breaks out between Saudi Arabia and a nuclear Iran. A clash involving naval and air forces would be easier for the US to fight conventionally. But if Iran uses nuclear weapons, we could find ourselves compelled to retaliate in kind, with untold repercussions on the wider Islamic world. Even if the war stayed conventional, the need for US forces to defend Saudi Arabia could strengthen al-Qaida in the country afterwards. And any action we take to disarm Iran's nuclear capacity will probably be short-lived.

The larger question is whether the US and also the UK are going to lurch from one crisis to the next, reacting to events instead of anticipating them. It is also unclear that Britain will continue to latch itself to the American ship if that ship keeps running aground. More selective support of US policy need not call the NATO alliance into question, but if America perceives its European allies to be less than fully supportive, or if isolationism becomes stronger in America after repeated setbacks in the Middle East, the alliance could end and the NATO partners in Europe would have to make a regional alliance without America work.
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