22 December 2018

Withdrawal symptoms

President Trump's foreign policy has grown more mysterious after his decision to pull American forces out of Syria and Afghanistan drove his defense secretary to resign this week. The President has been condemned by many in his own party who see the Syrian move in particular as a capitulation to the Assad-Iran-Russia axis and a new lease on life for the self-styled Islamic State. Trump claims to be satisfied with the extent to which Daesh has been degraded, and seems to think that what's left is a regional problem rather than a threat to the U.S. He strikes a characteristic note when he complains about a lack of gratitude shown for American efforts in the region, but his tweets and other comments leave unclear who exactly was to show gratitude and what form it was supposed to take, though it most likely has something to do with buying American products, accommodating Israel and increasing oil production, in no particular order.  The U.S. presence had the additional purpose, demonstrated by some punitive air raids, of holding Assad accountable for apparent war crimes, but that may no longer concern the President so much as the Syrian civil war winds down. He may actually have the pragmatic object of getting the troops out from in the middle of whatever reckoning may be impending for the Kurds, many Americans' favorite non-israeli Middle Westerners but doomed by geography, like 18th century Poland, to be divided among larger neighbors. Trump no doubt will be accused of abandoning both the Kurds and whatever liberal opposition survives in Syria, but perhaps he shouldn't be reproached so immediately for calculating the benefits to his own country of the expenditure of American resources more carefully than recent Republican regimes. Those same Republicans may bemoan a seeming concession of regional hegemony to the same Iranian regime that Trump himself hates so much, but it should not be impossible to argue that a stable Syria, while it will still suck for dissidents there, will be in everyone else's best interest. Could it be possible also that Trump has enough cynical intelligence to think that allowing Iran to improve its position will make his actual client states, Israel and Saudi Arabia, more conscious of their dependence on American power and thus more accommodating and, indeed, more grateful by whatever standard the President sets? All I can say for certain is that when the usual neocon suspects cry bloody murder over any President's foreign policy decisions, the rest of us shouldn't be in any hurry to join them.

05 December 2018

The new liberal order

It was strange to hear an appointee of President Trump use the word "liberal" in a positive context, and for some of Trump's supporters the "new liberal order" proclaimed by Secretary of State Pompeo in Brussels must have promised the worst of both worlds: liberalism combined with the "new world order" of the late President Bush. For them, Pompeo softened the blow by emphasizing that Trump's new order would be founded on national sovereignty rather than bureaucratic multilateralism, but some still must wonder why this has to be "liberal." The best answer is that while Pompeo may have meant to throw a rhetorical bone to the neocons, he mainly was talking about "classical" liberalism, i.e. laissez-faire capitalism. He literally declared for neoliberalism, which differs from neoconservatism in focusing on global markets and an attendant civil society rather than aggressive ideology as liberating forces. Trumpian neoliberalism, to whatever extent the President actually endorses Pompeo's speech, is clearly concerned primarily with extending the global reach of American business, but its exponents  will no doubt indulge in the rhetoric of liberty when it suits them. It's an obvious play when your perceived antagonists -- Russia, China and Iran -- are all perceived as authoritarian powers. But while the Trumpists most likely see Iran as an evil empire, their main concern with Russia, and probably with China as well, is to undermine any claim  of an economic sphere of interest that might exclude American business. Trump himself might have a shot at selling this to his base by saying that the object is more and better paying American jobs. Depending on the occasion, however, almost any talk of any sort of new order may have many Americans wondering whether there was a dime's worth of difference all along between Trumpism and what came before?

01 December 2018

George Bush (1924 - 2018)

It's the son, "Dubya," who should be burdened with initials. Until he rose to power, his father was just plain George Bush. A senator's son and a New Englander turned Texan, the first President Bush was the last American chief executive to have fought in World War II, but he was somehow labeled a "wimp" in implicit comparison to that Hollywood tough guy, Ronald Reagan. During the 1980 Republican primaries he had it right when he called Reagan's notions "voodoo economics," but he made his peace with the Gipper and became his political heir. While many still give Reagan the credit for winning the Cold War that actually ended on Bush's watch -- it may be more accurate to say that Mikhail Gorbachev renounced it -- it was Bush who offered a vision of a post-Cold War world and acted on it,to the wonder of much of the world and the alarm of some. His rallying of a global consensus against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was arguably an unprecedented and irreproducible diplomatic feat, though in retrospect he may have taken too middling a course against Saddam Hussein, undermining a secular ruler but not deposing him at a time when Iraq might have proved more malleable in American hands. Instead, his caution appears vindicated by his son's overreach and its enduring consequences. On another front, we can speculate about Bush's approach to Russia in a second term, wondering whether the rise of Putin might have been less likely had Bush been less aggressive about expanding NATO. As it was, economics did him in, along with the Perot campaign. Already on the American right there were stirrings of resentment against a nebulous establishment that Bush seemed to embody, while his invocation of a new world order provoked irrational dread on both the right and the left. To some he seemed inauthentic and out of touch, but it's hard to argue that the nation benefitted from his son appearing more personable, or from a wealthier successor acting more like a common man. Bush's presidency may be deemed a failure because he wasn't reelected, but it grows more obvious with every subsequent administration that his time was a summit of U.S. power and prestige that may never be regained.