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Reader riposte: Modesty in US foreign policy

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3 November 2008 14:30

Anton Kuruc takes issue with my post of last Thursday. As you'll see in my reply below Anton's email, I disagree strongly with him: 

Obama's foreign policy modest? Please, this is the guy whose foreign policy is to 'heal the world' and get the 'water receding'. Modesty is not an adjective I would apply to any element of the Obama half billion dollar campaign.  

Modesty is not an option for US foreign policy, regardless of who wins. You might recall that in 2000 GW Bush wanted to bring the military home, slash its size and stop the US being the world's policeman. Unfortunately events intervened and that 'modest' policy was changed.  

Of the two only McCain understands nature of evil, and this is critical. The Saddleback Forum gave an interesting insight into the candidates' thinking. Obama's response was wishy washy and seemed to imply that evil often came from America, a view certainly shared by many of his friends like Wright and Ayers. McCain is not encumbered by such confusion, which means he is best placed to offer strategic clarity and hence prioritise the allocation of effort. Clarity is critical to sound strategy and is the key input to the first principle of war — the selection and maintenance of the aim. And whoever wins inherits two wars. 

Lord Palmerston got it right when he advised Queen Victoria 'That peace is always excellent, and war a great misfortune. But there are more important things than peace and many greater misfortunes than war.' One needs to understand what is evil and be prepared not only to 'confront it' as Obama offered at Saddleback, but to 'defeat it' as McCain proposed. Inevitably, no leader can secure all of his citizens unless the threat is removed. McCain understands this, Obama seems to think the USA is the threat!   

Anton is right that 'no leader can secure all of his citizens unless the threat is removed'. But it seems not to have occurred to Anton that maybe some threats just have to be endured, and that perfect security is simply not possible in this world. It's astonishing that the last seven years has not cured him even a little of the vaulting ambition that seeks to 'remove' all threats and  'defeat' all evil. Hasn't the one per cent doctrine been even slightly undermined in his eyes?

And what to say about Anton's thoughts about Obama and America as a source of evil? Is it a thought crime to argue that American foreign policy sometimes, just sometimes, has less than pure motives and less than ideal outcomes? If, as Anton seems to argue, that is McCain's view, then his presidency promises greater disaster than that of Bush. In the terms Anton expresses it, an unwillingness to be 'encumbered by...confusion' seems synonymous with an outright refusal to engage in honest introspection.

What's more, it's absurd to believe that the choice between McCain and Obama is about who better understands the nature of evil. Clarity of purpose is not a virtue if the purpose is counterproductive, as the GW Bush presidency amply demonstrates.

What this email reminds me of is just how radical and revolutionary the Bush Administration became. Of course modesty was an option for the US after 9/11. There was nothing inevitable about President Bush's response to the terrorist threat. He had choices all along the way, and he chose a maximalist military plan that completely overturned the conservatism he professed to believe in. As Jeffrey Hart argues (H/t Sullivan):

Republican President George W. Bush has not been a conservative at all, either in domestic policy or in foreign policy. He invaded Iraq on the basis of abstract theory, the very thing Burke warned against. Bush aimed to turn Iraq into a democracy, “a beacon of liberty in the Middle East,” as he explained in a radio address in April 2006.

I do not recall any “conservative” publication mentioning those now memorable words “Sunni,” “Shia,” or “Kurds.” Burke would have been appalled at the blindness to history and to social facts that characterized the writing of those so-called conservatives.

Obama did understand.

In his now famous 2002 speech, while he was still a state senator in Illinois, he said: “I know that a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, of undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without international support will fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda. I’m not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.”

Burke would have agreed entirely, and admired the cogency of so few words. And one thing I know is that both Nixon and Reagan would have agreed. Both were prudential and successful conservatives. But all the organs of the conservative movement followed Bush over the cliff — as did John McCain.

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