Saturday, July 31, 2010

One Part Fatigue, Two Parts Snark

It is apparently really, really hard to be democratic, and impossible to be successful as an elected democratic leader if your last name isn't Roosevelt and the year is anything past 1932. Or at least, that's the impression I get reading Stephen M. Walt's piece "What Hath Obama Wrought?" in which the sitting president's failure is plotted from... well, I'm not sure exactly.

He starts by claiming "[Republicans] will almost certainly pick up a lot of seats in Congress come November, which is the normal mid-term pattern after a big swing the other way." Which is true, but so irrelevant to his point that it risks undermining it. Presidents almost always lose support during midterm elections, barring something tragic that is seen as entirely beyond their control. To label this a failure of Obama's is to set the bar for presidential success during the first 18 months in office at "suffer 9/11, receive benefit of public sympathy." Which is impossible for any president to replicate (Exception: conspiracy theorists, chime in now!) So that's not a loss. That is dull, tried-and-true routine.

The next paragraph hits the Poli-Sci 101 (or AP government) level truism that voters care most about the economy. This is a fact! And he follows with the Poli-Sci 201 truism that "Voters don't care about the disasters-that-might-have-been-but-weren't." Also a fact! Voters have a very, very bad sense of perspective relative to presidents, and tend to punish them for it. Voters are sometimes selfish jerks, but they have to be because otherwise they'd start caring about things like foreign policy. This is why a minority party can, should they so desire, tank efforts of the majority to go as far as they need in rebuilding an economy, and be rewarded for it.

So if the economy isn't something the president can claim credit for (and he can't! avoiding econocolypse by steering the ship of state into recession harbor means you're still not at Candy Island and everyone is tired of how boring the cruise is; at least an iceberg would have spiced things up), what can the president claim? Foreign policy is totally his arena, so let's look at a highly selective list of foreign policy choices that voters might think about. (Side Note: did you know that the US operates embassies and, therefore, foreign policies in a fuckton of nations? Neither do most voters!)

So what foreign policies do voters care about that the president, as head of state, will be judged by? Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine, and Afghanistan. Oh, goody.


Walt is perfectly right in saying that Iraq is Bush's fault, and Obama doesn't deserve to be blamed for it. But apparently the one Bush success in a steaming pile of everything gone wrong was the surge, and Walt sees that being undone. Perhaps it is! Over at the Atlantic, there's a handy checklist of things the surge has failed to do. Note that of the 4 items on the list, only one is a US action. Which is withdrawal. Which is what the voter cares about most anyway. Also, they throw in that al Qaeda in Iraq has been mostly decapitated, which is about as explicit a US success as you can claim (we needlessly arrived in a hostile environment, watched the country fight through a civil war, decided to start pulling out during a shaky peace, and all the while casually defeated the enemy whose whole existence is built around our destruction, in a nation where they had the potential for ample support? I'm declaring V-aQ-in-Iraq day TOMORROW.) Also, maybe the surge wasn't even the kind of thing that could have success.

Omar Khdhayyir over at gorilla guides says of the surge: "it fit into a series of converging and violent dynamics on the ground, coinciding expediently with a shift in the balance of power. That is what the empirical evidence shows." Maybe this has something to do with the fact that in insurgencies, as Abu Muqawama said, "actions of local actors matter more than those of external forces." Those 3 items on the Atlantic list that show the surge has failed? Those are all Iraqis being unable to reach political settlement, despite the efforts of the US to create a climate in which they can do that. So Obama, here, will get knocked for the internal politics of a foreign nation not lending themselves to compromise. Awesome.

(Sidenote: Walt is upset that we'll leave a "government that is sympathetic to Iran" in Iraq? Iran and Iraq fought the largest conventional war of the last 30 years against each other, and that conflict itself convinced Saddam to go for Kuwait. I think it's safe to say that if they can make friends, the whole stability of the region will be less in jeopardy.)


I stand by my assertion that, if the 2008 election had gone the other way, US tanks would have rolled towards Tehran during 2009's "Green Revolution." Why do I say this? Call it a fucking hunch.

Honestly, I think Obama can borrow entirely from Woodrow Wilson and campaign on a "he kept us out of the war" platform in 2012, and win.


"Two-States" talk, that perpetual project of US presidents from Nixon onwards, has suffered an awkward pause in dialogue, and this will frustrate voters at home. Probably true, but it's the most predictable of frustrations - talks have halted every single time an election has brought a hardliner into power in one of the relevant countries. This first happened when Nasser accidentally started a war in 1967 because the US and the USSR wouldn't facilitate talks, and has continued onwards as Egypt regained territory but abandoned claims to Gaza, as Begin proclaimed the idea of "Greater Israel," as Jordan lost and then relinquished its claim to the West Bank, as the Palestinian Liberation Organization moved from exiles in Algeria to an old man under house arrest in Ramallah, as Israel elected another former general, as the PLO became the Palestinian Authority, and as Hamas decided to seize power in Gaza after Abbas and Olmert's talks proved fruitless. Really, Netanyahu and the continued existence of Hamas rule in Gaza fit the pattern of slow moves toward progress falling short every other election cycle. Soon enough, after a stalemate here, Israel will elect a moderate who will probably loosen restrictions on Gaza, and Hamas will have to show itself just as capable of compromise as it is of bombastic defiance. But that's an election cycle or two from now.

Obama will get a little bit of heat for this, as the respective Israel and Palestine lobbies are long-suffering. But the staggeringly slow pace of progress here at all times means that this is just a given, and the amount of votes lost nationwide will probably be in the dozens.


Let me start by saying that the wikileaks information doesn't reveal anything beyond the names of afghans the US has worked with, and the fact that a bureaucracy at war generates paperwork. In 92,000 documents, there is enough evidence to cherry pick every single perspective that can be written on the war. So to claim that the information in it "doesn't matter" and then use it to justify your already established opinion is sheer laziness and shitty journalism.

So what is happening in Afghanistan? Lots. Like the high success rate of embedded 12-man special forces teams in facilitating dispute resolution that doesn't involve adding or using guns. But there is a lot that isn't going well. Karzai protected his office at the expense of ruining elections. This is both a) an act of local agency and b) insanely frustrating. And that's been the biggest failure of Afghanistan since Obama was elected, which is, again, something he doesn't have control over.

But if Obama's commitment to Afghanistan is problematic in the eyes of the American voter (and it is! kind of!), there is no way he could have not committed to fighting the faction that housed al Qaeda without suffering an equally negative blow to his ratings.

Remember the 1990s, when the democrats tried to play humanitarian with the military, got black hawk down, then played cautious, got Rwanda, and then didn't really know what to do in Bosnia and Kosovo so we had cluster bombs in villages missing Serbian tanks and almost risked a war with Russia? That sucked. As the first Democrat commander-in-chief since then, Obama has handled the wars he inherited fairly well. Focusing explicitly on the nation most closely identified with the actual attack on US soil wasn't something he could have chosen not to do.

Does this matter?

Walt seems to think that the cautious approach Obama has pursued in his foreign policy will turn off voters, who will see it as largely unchanged from the second Bush term. That's sheer craziness - voters haven't made a real distinction between the diplomacy of the Bush terms, and still associate him with pre-emption and two long stupid wars we didn't really need to fight. Obama's caution will be seen as distinct from that, and because it is uninteresting to be cautious, voters won't care about it. Which makes the whole article (and, um, this critique) unnecessary. Voters are thinking about other things.

They are thinking that there isn't food on the table and a British company has ruined the gulf for the next 50 years. They'll hate Obama for that.

1 comment:

Kael Tumakveh said...

So just chiming in on the Israeli- Palestinian part because that's an area of interest to me. It seems to me that the major problem there is that both sides seem to want all or nothing, no one is willing to compromise. I believe it was under past Palestinian Authorities that they said they wouldn't settle, and it I don't know where it started, but one side made a hardline move, and it climaxed with Hamas and their support of the Hezbollah attacks from Lebanon, which in turn resulted in the re election of Netanyahu. Both sides need to pull their heads out of their asses and sit down rationally.
It brings to mind the Middle Eastern joke I heard somewhere...
A frog and a scorpion were sitting on the bank of the River Jordan. "Hey frog," said the scorpion. "I need to go to the other side of the river. Would you carry me across on your back?"

"No way," said the frog. "If I let you come close to me, you'd sting me and kill me."

The scorpion said, "That would be stupid. If I stung you while we were in the river, we'd both drown."

"Hmmm, that's true," said the frog. "OK, hop on."

So the scorpion climbed on the frog's back and they headed out into the River Jordan. Halfway across the river the scorpion stung the frog.

"What did you do that for?" cried the frog, as they were both going down for the third time.

"I couldn't help it," said the scorpion. "This is the Middle East."