Sunday, June 13, 2004
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Impressions from the Council on Foreign Relations national meeting
CFR meetings operate by Chatham House Rules, so I'm forbidden to attribute any statements made over the past few days to anyone in particular. [Forbidden? C'mon, what could they do?--ed. I lose my privileged position within the vast global conspiracy, and without my steady hand at the tiller, I don't want to speculate on where world copper prices would be headed.]
However, a few impressions came through loud and clear from the flotsam and jetsam of corridor conversations:
1) There is a broad bipartisan coalition of people pissed off at the administration. This is not limited to those involved in this petition (some of whom were at the conference). Those on the liberal side are upset about Bush going into Iraq in the first place -- as well as Abu Ghraib. Those in the center are upset with the breakdown of the policy process -- as well as Abu Ghraib. Those on the right are upset with Bush for appearing to back down in confronting Sunni insurgents in Fallujah and Sadr's militia in Najaf -- as well as Abu Ghraib. Across the board, there is dissatisfaction at the way the Bush team has dealt with the allies. At least two people I talked to who helped advise the Bush campaign in 2000 were positively delighted at the political difficulties faced by administration-based neoconservatives [Yeah, but this is just the liberal Eastern Establishment, right?--ed. No, the national members consist of people outside of the DC-NYC axis, and Republicans were fairly represented.]
2) The love for Kerry ain't exactly palpable either. As much fury as was being directed against Bush, many members -- including a lot of Democrats -- were still having difficulty getting enthusiastic about Kerry. To them, the Senator from Massachusetts was just a replica of Al Gore in 2000. Kerry's foreign policy team is essentially Clinton's old team, and even the Democrats there acknowledged that the Clinton foreign policy team was lucky rather than good on most matters outside economics.
Part of the frustration was about Kerry's "Benedict Arnold" rhetoric with regard to trade. However, I heard from several sources that Kerry's economic advisors read him the riot act after one of his more populist speeches. One high-ranking advisor told me in no uncertain terms that Kerry wouldn't be using that kind of language any more. Another said that after the "silly season" of the campaign, Kerry would revert to his internationalist bent.
3) It's good to have a blog. Many of the members who attended were a bit hazy on the whole weblog thing. On the other hand, the ultra-competent CFR research assistants -- representing the next generation of America's foreign policy cognoscenti -- all expressed their enthusiasm for danieldrezner.com. For which, many thanks.posted by Dan on 06.13.04 at 05:10 PM
FYI: The Washington Post has a relevant article on the lack of Democratic enthusiasm for Kerry.posted by: Robert Tagorda on 06.14.04 at 03:42 AM [permalink]
Seems like an excellent election strategy; piss off everyone so they stop focusing on you and instead search for a replacement. Though, once you look around and the two alternatives are Ralph Nader and John Kerry President Bush isn't looking so bad. Holbrooke, Rubin, Albright and Perry may give Kerry the look of President Clinton, but many thought that Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell and Wolfowitz would give President Bush the look of Reagan or the elder Bush.
Where are the new faces to foreign affairs?posted by: Brennan Stout on 06.14.04 at 09:36 AM [permalink]
The Clinton years were just four years ago and lasted eight years. Wouldn't it make sense that most of Kerry's foreign policy team would be left-overs of the Clinton era? Has there been that many new foreign policy stars on the Dem's side?posted by: ponnyj on 06.14.04 at 09:37 AM [permalink]
So, the chief product generated by the CFR is ... whining?
How much of this, do you think, comes from the fact that Bush Administration isn't listening very attentively to people who have poured their entire lives into thinking about this stuff?
I'm sorry to be flip, but it's kind of hard to get into a storyline that appears to be "Things suck and they won't get better."
I know that's oversimplifying. It's what I do.posted by: Steve in Houston on 06.14.04 at 09:52 AM [permalink]
Would the "stuff" Bush admin officials have "not spent their whole lives thinking about" include, say, how to run the government of the world's only superpower, or how to win the peace in Iraq (at least they didn't wholly f**k up the war part)?
Word here in Washington these past four years is that appointees in this administration across the board are know-little ideologues. Which makes them different from past appointees how? Not at all. The difference lays in their continued refusal to LEARN how to run the institutions under their control, or cede power to those who do. We need to see more guys like Tenet make for the door. If that happens, Kerry will have a hard time; if it does not, he will probably win.
Just a bit of insight from inside the beltway, which I will be leaving in just over a week for the bluer skies of Chicago.posted by: Kelli on 06.14.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]
During the Cold War, Americans took the world seriously and people wanting to be president or be a high public official knew something. Now they don't. The Democrats have no real ideas about foreign policy because they don't really like it and the Republicans (or at least the ones that won the election) substitute ideology for analysis. Of course, there is no real pay off for developing a rational and nuanced foreign policy because the American public doesn't care either--they just want cheap gasoline.
I agree with kelli-absolutely no effort by this Administration to deal with foreign policy institutions. One problem is the constant bashing over four or five decades of the State Department by both parties. No one likes the State Department so why assume they are competent?
Kerry seems like a pretty weak candidate, but at least I think he would proceed with less arrogance than the current clowns.posted by: MWS on 06.14.04 at 11:23 AM [permalink]
MWS left me hanging as I hoped one of the great unexplained questions of the late 20th century was about to be answered. Why assume the State Department is competent? Kelli?posted by: Richard A. Heddleson on 06.14.04 at 11:46 AM [permalink]
"One high-ranking advisor told me in no uncertain terms that Kerry wouldn't be using that kind of language any more."
Does this mean Bob Schrum has fallen out of favor? One can only hope.posted by: russ on 06.14.04 at 12:12 PM [permalink]
I am coming to beleive that the worst thing about the Bush Adminstration is that they operate without any awareness of consequences. This stems from their total control of their party and that party's control of both houses of Congress.
Kerry could not help but be a better President only because structurally he will be forced to work with people from the other party.
I might fear total Democratic control as much as total Republican control, but since we have not seen that in over a decade it is hard to say that confidently. But what is completely clear is that we need some change in the Executive Branch, and fast.posted by: Rich on 06.14.04 at 12:45 PM [permalink]
One high-ranking advisor told me in no uncertain terms that Kerry wouldn't be using that kind of language any more.
Right, he'll get his running mate to do that for him (Gephardt and/or Edwards seem to be the most widely predicted choices at this juncture).posted by: P.B. Almeida on 06.14.04 at 12:57 PM [permalink]
Just a slightly off-topic question: what is it with populist campaigns for the presidency? I mean, If William Jennings Bryan couldn't make it work in 1896, why does anyone seriously think it would work today?
I actually am serious regarding the question, BTW.posted by: Mike on 06.14.04 at 01:10 PM [permalink]
If people at the Council on Foreign Relations are sniping at Bush from both right and left, that suggests that the current administration is steering a middle course. Which in turn suggests that a Kerry administration would steer about the same course.
IIRC, in Korea after a year, there were those who thought that American boys shouldn't be dying in Asia at all, and those who thought we should be laying down a nuclear curtain along the North Korean border. The Truman administration steered a course between these extremes, and the Eisenhower administration didn't make major changes in the conduct of the war.
Eisenhower, of course, was able to capitalize on popular discontent with the war in order to get elected, and to do so without making much in the way of specific policy proposals. But he was a five-star general, so he had a lot of military credibility. I'm not sure Kerry will be able to do the same.posted by: wsm on 06.14.04 at 01:34 PM [permalink]
I lose my privileged position within the vast global conspiracy, and without my steady hand at the till, I don't want to speculate on where world copper prices would be headed.
Dan, you're mixing your metaphors again.
Since I doubt that you're a self-admitted embezzler, I'll assume you meant tiller.
uh_clem: thanks for the catch -- I've mended the metaphor.posted by: Dan Drezner on 06.14.04 at 02:35 PM [permalink]
the Clinton foreign policy team was lucky rather than good on most matters outside economics.
Yeah, no luck involved in the timing of the technology-driven economic boom. Ha.
Interesting question, MWS and Richard. Indeed, why assume competency at State? I couldn't say for sure whether it is competent all in all. Individuals go on doing there jobs competently, sometimes even with vigor and spirit. So what that many of the actual duties they perform have not been revisited or updated in many, many decades. I hear that in the past few years they have finally been able to retire the Wangs (no joke!). Still, the level of technological competence would make many a South Asian high school student die laughing. Oh well.
Pity the poor State Department functionary, for she/he is in a unique double-bind. Foreigners distrust, even occasionally try to kill, you because of the government you represent. Your fellow Americans distrust you because you are comfortable living overseas (albeit never beyond the reach of American consumables--Oreos, Pampers, Skippy peanut butter, you name it) and MAY even speak a language other than English.
Really, is it any wonder State is starved of affection and resources, shunned and ignored by policy wonks and wonkettes? Core competency is really the least of its worries. Irrelevence is more to the point.posted by: Kelli on 06.14.04 at 03:44 PM [permalink]
The United States and a few shakey allies are attempting something unprecendented in all of human history. There is no such thing a democratic or economically successful self-ruled Arab society in the world today, and aside from a few city-states, there never has been. The Bush administration is attempting to create one from scratch in the face of the massive violence on the scene and the hostility and ill wishes of not only most of the European, Arab and Moslem worlds but of its own native elites as well.
The fact that the CFR folks are unhappy bothers me little. It is inconcievable that any large scale human endevour can be conducted in a way that would not invite scorn or be worthy of withering critisism upon close scrutiny. The details and particulars of those critisisms matters greatly, but so does keeping the larger picture in sight.
As a group the CFR crowd are overwhelmingly disposed to maintaining the status quo, whatever that may be. (How could they not be? People disposed to action don't go into academics or foriegn relations usually).
So they can easily say what is wrong today and what should have been done a year or a month ago.
What of the way ahead? Other than a Kerrey-esque 'bring in the French/UN' I've heard and read very little from the CFR crowd that tells me they have any other ideas for the way forward.posted by: Jos Bleau on 06.14.04 at 04:32 PM [permalink]
In RE: Jos' posting:
As such, I think less carping and more constructive ideas are in order, for if there is a truly monumental attack on US soil the US President, no matter who, would face a monumental push from the people to "get Old Testament". I really don't like thinking about that, but it is something that has to be remembered.posted by: Mike on 06.14.04 at 04:59 PM [permalink]
Jos, I like your logic in the questioning of the CFR's motives. It is important to analyze what they might gain from maintaining the status quo. But isn't it also important to ask whether something this monumental in scale wasn't attempted because the experts didn't think it would work in the first place?posted by: Ambrose on 06.14.04 at 05:36 PM [permalink]
It seems like I am starting to hear Conservatives rail against the "status-quo."
Does this make them liberals? What is the response to having that dirty word smeared on you? What about being called soft-headed idealists?
Seems like the world of dreams has a few more residents these days since the logic of the war in Iraq disappeared.posted by: Rich on 06.14.04 at 05:49 PM [permalink]
Mike: I think it needs to be repeated that the USA is trying to win the war on Islamic terrorism the nice way.
Even if you sincerely believe this, are you at least aware of the fact that most people in the Middle East would find this statement somewhere between utterly bizarre and deeply infuriating?
if there is a truly monumental attack on US soil the US President, no matter who, would face a monumental push from the people to "get Old Testament".
I assume with your reference to the Bible you are alluding to "an eye for an eye". And what you really mean is that the US might retaliate using nuclear weapons. (Retaliate against whom, though? Some more Saudi Arabian terrorists attack us, and we'll randomly pick another Arab capital - outside of Saudi Arabia, of course - and nuke it?)
It's quite interesting that a biblical verse that was meant to prevent people from disproportional retaliations could be used to justify a nuclear attack...
A lot of people in the Middle East would probably use similar arguments to make the case for terrorism - they are, after all, quite a bit behind based on the "an eye for eye" measurement.
And don't you call me an apologist for the terrorists now - that would be you and your own logic which I strongly disagree with.
"But isn't it also important to ask whether something this monumental in scale wasn't attempted because the experts didn't think it would work in the first place?"
That was a good question to ask 18 months ago, but not now. Go see James Fallow's "51st State" in the Atlantic Monthly, whose precis states:
An excellent piece that sums up the views of many foreign service experts and has a lots of prophetic advice that was comeletely ignored by the Bush administration.
Now its just a historical document. It has no solutions for our current situation.
My complaint is that no one has anything to offer BUT complaints, which any too-cool-for-school 13 year old could easily produce in abundance.
Complaints aren't solutions, and if the CFR folks are to have value to me as a citizen, that's what it needs to be producing. And I just don't see them doing that.
Dan was reporting on the tone of hallway conversations at this CFR conference. I don't think it is fair to leap from that to a conclusion that all that CFR members have to offer is complaints.
That may in fact be all some CFR members have to offer. But I must say two of the things that have always bothered me about the Bush administration's senior appointees are their limited history within the institutions they run now and their lack of an obvious future either in those institutions or in public life generally. Such people, lacking loyalty to the departments they serve and concern for the professional consequences of any mistakes they may make are more than usually prone to feel they must achieve everything they can, right away, or they will never achieve anything at all. Real trouble can result from this kind of mindset, and has in several areas.
I have the same criticism of CFR conventional wisdom on some points as other people, and understand the need to "think outside the box" from time to time. But the box is there for a reason.
Incidentally, "more lucky than good" is the best short summary of Clinton-era foreign policy and the people who made it. Republicans contemplating President Bush political dominance of the GOP should keep that phrase in mind also. If foreign affairs had been a major concern with voters in 2000 they would have paid much more attention to criticism of a "feckless, photo-op foreign policy" from someone who knew what he was talking about and less attention to a raw neophyte like Bush. You can't count on luck trumping skill but it does happen sometimes.posted by: Zathras on 06.14.04 at 06:38 PM [permalink]
Nice to hear the hallway chatter. It makes sense, as referenced by Paul O'Neill - he of the "blind man in a room full of deaf people" quote. For an organization such as CFR, which is dedicated to policy, it doesn't make sense to expect much happiness from an administration where policy seems completely subsumed to politics.
I'm wondering - how much of the "unhappiness" with Kerry extends to his personal style, or perceived lack of charisma?
As Molly Ivins (feisty and funny liberal, to the core) said about John Kerry, when speaking, "he could drain the excitement out of a soccer riot".
Now, this doesn't necessarily speak to his POLICY decisions (you could be delivering the most brilliant workable policies, but have the charisma of a stump - the brilliance of policy, perhaps SHOULD make you the best possible president, but it doesn't work that way, of course), but I'm wondering where the unhappiness with Kerry came from. Partisan? Polciy? Emotional?posted by: JC on 06.14.04 at 07:08 PM [permalink]
JC: As Molly Ivins (feisty and funny liberal, to the core) said about John Kerry, when speaking, "he could drain the excitement out of a soccer riot".
I haven't heard him speak that much, but what I have heard during the primaries certainly didn't fall into that category.
Also note that these days Democrats who are less modest about their views and opinions quickly get shot down and painted as over-the-top aggressive - like Howard Dean or the new Al Gore who "rants" and is certifiably "insane", both according to the New York Post.
I'm wondering where the unhappiness with Kerry came from. Partisan? Polciy? Emotional?
I'm thinking that at least a contributing factor is the increasing cynicism among many intellectuals. They tend to prefer an "above the fray" point of view from which they can look down on and find faults with both sides. They also tend to take pride in saying something like "I'm voting for the lesser of two evils".
Anybody who deviates from that line and dares to point out Bush's failings, distortions and lies without at least allowing that Kerry is boring and uninspiring (whether or not this impression is based on more than media reports that keep reaffirming this image) is quickly denounced as shrill and partisan.
> There is a broad bipartisan coalition of people pissed off at the administration.
I'm surprised, in your list of reasons, you don't mention the breakdown of the rule of law and the undermining of the separation of powers. Unless that's what you meant by "breakdown of the policy process?"posted by: Josh Yelon on 06.15.04 at 03:55 AM [permalink]
“One high-ranking advisor told me in no uncertain terms that Kerry wouldn't be using that kind of language any more. Another said that after the "silly season" of the campaign, Kerry would revert to his internationalist bent.”
This is not going to occur for it would enrage the Democrat left wing. Howard Dean’s supporters are barely staying on board as it is. Have we also forgotten Ralph Nader. Lastly, folks like Terry McAuliffe are reminded of Lousiana’s two major races which the Democrats won due to scaring the crap out of voters worried about free trade. No, Kerry cannot afford to clearly advocate policies of an “internationalist bent.” He will continue to be a mealy mouther.posted by: David Thomson on 06.15.04 at 07:36 AM [permalink]
“At least two people I talked to who helped advise the Bush campaign in 2000 were positively delighted at the political difficulties faced by administration-based neoconservatives [Yeah, but this is just the liberal Eastern Establishment, right?--ed. No, the national members consist of people outside of the DC-NYC axis, and Republicans were fairly represented.]”
I’m glad that I was not speaking to these two people. It would have been very difficult for me to refrain from spitting into their faces. They are truly contemptible human beings. The Iraq invasion was mandatory if you understand anything concerning the Middle East. Things have recently improved greatly. I dare say that eventually, perhaps even in the very near future, Iraq will be considered one of the greatest achievements of the Bush administration. Daniel Drezner is obligated not to name these slime balls. Nonetheless, he retains the moral right to remember them when most Americans agree with my assessment. I’m fairly confident that they will try to share in the future glory. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.posted by: David Thomson on 06.15.04 at 07:49 AM [permalink]
gw: I realize that what we are doing is infuriating - but compared to Tokyo circa 1945 or The Ruhr circa 1943-45, the amount of destruction unleashed by the US is minimal. That's what I meant by "the nice way."
By "Old Testament" I wasn't thinking "eye for an eye", I was thinking more of Sodom and Gommorah. No, I would not want my country responding to a nuclear attack by having a submarine launch a missle or two. That would be horrifying beyond my vocabulary's ability to express. Of course, who would you target would be the question. The answer, I think, is to pick the most likely suspect and let 'em have it. This isn't a courthouse and the standard of proof is not going to be beyond the shadow of a doubt or even the preponderance of the evidence*. It is going to be, out of the few nations that would have a nuke and sell one or support a group that had a nuke, who would be the most likely?
“That was a good question to ask 18 months ago, but not now. Go see James Fallow's "51st State" in the Atlantic Monthly..”
I strongly recommend the reading of James Fallows’ splendid article. And yes, I read and thought about it before we invaded Iraq. My answer to Fallows’ probing question is that the invasion of Iraq is well worth the price tag. The culture of the Arab world must be changed. This is the first domino. The others will soon start to fall. What is the viable alternative? How can we allow the Arabs to continue wallowing in self pity and scapegoating which only leads to further rage and bitterness? No, these people must be encouraged to join the 21st Century and to abandon the 15th. Oh by the way, what ever happened to the feminists? One would think that they would totally agree. Why so much silence from them?
“Our opponents are acting rationally, if you consider a misssion from God rational, and if it is His commandment to destroy the unbeliever what better way than the scourge of heaven's fire?”
I hope you are not indirectly referring to the Iraqi situation. Invading this country and encouraging the Muslim world to enter into the 21st Century has little to do with fostering religious fundamentalism. On the contrary, the neoconservative agenda is almost purely secular. It is best that the Arabs place lesser importance on the theological aspects of their individual lives.posted by: David Thomson on 06.15.04 at 08:37 AM [permalink]
Mr. Thomson: I am referring to the public statements of radical Islamist terrorist leaders. "Death to the Infidel" is a common refrain and when a man says that he intends to kill me I tend to take him seriously, no matter how medieval his language, how obsolete his technology, or seriously whacked I consider his world-view. I agree that a healthy dose of public secularism would help the Arab and Islamic world, and coincidentally, us.posted by: Mike on 06.15.04 at 01:02 PM [permalink]
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