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5 September 2008 Charles J. Brown
05:30 pm

Obama, McCain, Palin, and Analogies


Assume for a moment that John McCain is a transitional figure, and that he will serve only one term if he actually does manage to get elected.  If that is true, where does the Republican Party go after he leaves office?

Sarah Palin represents a dead end for the Republicans.  A Palin candidacy in 2012 will be to the Republicans what George McGovern was to the Democrats:  a transitional, highly partisan individual who appeals to the base without significantly expanding it the way Reagan did.

To make an even more forced analogy, Palin is the Republicans’ Neil Kinnock, the Labor Party leader who preceded Tony Blair.  Kinnock was an old-school traditional Labor ideologue who helped solidify the base but could never translate that into electoral success.  It may be that Republicans have to go through a similar period where they enjoy the false comfort of an ideologue in charge, one who gets trounced regularly, before moving back to a centrist, more inclusive place in American politics.

To further strain the analogy to the breaking point, the fundamental question is who will be the Republicans’ Bill Clinton/Tony Blair/Bruce Cameron — the thoughtful, charismatic, and young centrist who pulls his/her party back into the mainstream of the political discourse.

Another way to look at it is that John McCain is to Ronald Reagan as John Major was to Margaret Thatcher:  the last exhausted gasp of a once-vibrant worldview.

There really are three types of political leaders in the United States:  base mobilizers (McGovern, Mondale, Bush II, Palin), centrists (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush I, Clinton, Dole, Gore, Kerry, McCain), and game-changers (FDR, Goldwater, Reagan, and perhaps Obama).

The problem for Republicans is that they will see Palin as a game-changer when in fact she is only a base-mobilizer. And with the (disastrous) exception of Dubya, most base-mobilizers don’t win elections.

Discuss.

| posted in globalization, politics, world at home | 0 Comments

19 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
02:30 pm

State Department Watch: Fed up with Bush?


In my three years as a political appointee in the Clinton Administration, I often butted heads with foreign service officers over a variety of issues.  Let’s just say that desk officers didn’t necessarily share my Bureau’s belief that human rights should be a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy.  To be fair, they didn’t necessarily disdain such issues, they just thought other things like American economic interests should also be taken into account.

So I’m not completely uncritical of the foreign service.  There’s a lot that could be done to improve it.  But even when I disagreed with FSOs, I always felt that they were worthy of my respect.  Most Americans have no idea that our diplomats often work in harrowing conditions, risking their lives in order to advance American interests and serve their country.

In that context, I wanted to draw attention to a letter that will come out tomorrow from a group of former foreign service officers** known as Foreign Policy Professionals for Obama:

We are a diverse group of over 200 former Foreign Service officers. Each of us has had extensive experience in implementing the international affairs and national security policies of both Republican and Democratic administrations. We have first hand knowledge of the grave multiple challenges of the Cold War, a period of peril but one in which the United States wore with honor the mantle of leadership. In cooperation with other democracies, and dialog with countries that were not, our nation found solutions to problems which seemed intractable. Senator Obama can place our nation again in that position of trust, credibility and respect.

With him, we call for a return to the successful reliance on bipartisan cooperation at home and close coordination on the use of active diplomacy with our friends and allies abroad, to face the challenges posed by those who are neither. We have watched with profound regret the frequent, costly failures of the current administration to apply these fundamental principles.

We, the undersigned, are firmly convinced that new American leadership is critical at this juncture in world history. We urge Americans, regardless of party affiliation, to select as our next president Senator Barack Obama, a leader with courage, intelligence, energy, a fresh perspective and a focus on the future. We believe based on our long foreign policy experience that he has the qualities needed to restore American leadership, credibility and respect in the world, the persona to make bipartisanship a possibility once again, and the judgment and vision to set our nation on the path to a better future.

As far as I know, FSOs are not overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic (if anyone knows differently, please diabuse me).  As public servants, they understand that their job is to implement, not interpret, a given President’s foreign policy.  But if you asked most, they would tell you that they prefer Presidents who build consensus at home and abroad.  That is, after all, the nature of diplomacy.

With that in mind, take a second look at the following sentences:

[W]e call for a return to the successful reliance on bipartisan cooperation at home and close coordination on the use of active diplomacy with our friends and allies abroad, to face the challenges posed by those who are neither. We have watched with profound regret the frequent, costly failures of the current administration to apply these fundamental principles.

In the world of diplomacy, that’s about as close to a smackdown as you’re ever going to see.  To call out a current President for his foreign policy blunders is just not done.  Usually, people who want to do that resign first.

I want to emphasize again that these are former officers, so the analogy isn’t perfect.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if a large majority of current FSOs share the sentiments expressed in this letter.  Just as U.S. troops currently deployed abroad have donated more money to Obama than McCain by a 6:1 margin, I would bet good money that FSOs currently serving overseas have similar giving patterns.

If I’m right, that marks an enormous sea change in less than eight years.  Most folks have forgotten now, but when Colin Powell arrived at the State Department in 2001, he was welcomed as a hero:

When Colin L. Powell took charge in Foggy Bottom last month, the new secretary of state delivered a rousing speech to his staff, promising an ambitious and expensive agenda for modernizing a department that has long complained it is strapped for cash.  The hundreds of employees who were present applauded and cheered.

Madeleine Albright was not a popular figure at State.  Many FSOs viewed her as remote, unsympathetic to their plight, and uninterested in the nuts and bolts of Department management.  A number of security snafus during her time there — which in turn led to some draconian new security measures — didn’t help matters.  (Just to be clear, I served under Albright and did not share all of these concerns.  But then again, I wasn’t a foreign service officer)  So when Powell came on board, he inherited a building ready for and willing to change.

But in the aftermath of September 11 — and particularly after the invasion of Iraq — not much new money came State’s way.  Modernizing diplomacy took a back seat to going to war.  The near-blank check given to DOD didn’t help; neither did the money poured into the new Department of Homeland Security.  But perhaps the greatest problem was that Powell ended up outside the decisionmaking process, frozen out by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other key decisionmakers.

Few presidencies have ever demonstrated the contempt for the State Department, its employees, and its role that the Bush Administration does.  Only Nixon was worse.  Ironically, since the Eisenhower years, only two Secretaries of State have had a genuinely close working relationship with their President: Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice.

Powell (and Rice, to be fair) did devote some time to management issues, and as a result, the building has become a better place to work.  The Department has solved some of its computer issues; adjusted staffing at key posts to reflect the realities of the post-Cold War era (fewer FSOs in Germany and more in India, for example); and changed some of the outdated guidelines concerning FSO advancement.

But morale continues to sag, in large part because these largely cosmetic reforms cannot paper over Foggy Bottom’s profound unhappiness with the direction of U.S. foreign policy.  And as I have noted elsewhere, the post-Kenya/Tanzania/9-11 security-first mentality has made it far more difficult for FSOs stationed overseas to do their jobs.

The fundamental question, then, is will a President Obama (and his Secretary of State) pay enough attention (and devote the necessary resources) to fixing what ails Foggy Bottom?  Because if he doesn’t, he’s going to find it almost impossible to achieve his ambitious foreign policy goals.

Big honkin’ Tip of the Hat to Gerald Loftus at Avuncular American for pointing me to this story.  If don’t yet read his blog, check it out.

**Full disclosure:  I am not a signatory to the letter, as I’m not a former foreign service officer.  That said, I strongly agree with its sentiments and would be happy to sign it.

| posted in foreign policy, politics | 2 Comments

15 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
04:45 pm

A Reverse Nixon with a Half-Twist


When it comes to foreign policy, George W. Bush has managed to become the Bizarro Nixon.

Think about it.  As Rick Perlstein notes in Nixonland,

[Nixon] explained [his] strategic rationale:  I do not want to give the impression to the eight hundred million people of Communist China that they have no choice but to cooperate with the Soviet Union.” . . . China and Russia, as rivals, might someday compete for America’s favor by directing North Vietnam to reach a negotiated settlement.

Nixon understood that, in an era of waning American power (in the sense of a declining economy and the end of  overwhelming American military superiority), he needed to prevent a Soviet-Chinese rapprochement.  He recognized that, with U.S. troops pinned down in Vietnam, diplomatic audacity would have to replace more conventional projections of power.  Triangulation was the key:  play the Chinese off the Soviets, play the Soviets off the Chinese, and use both to secure as many American foreign policy goals as possible. He also realized that he couldn’t achieve any of this without making certain compromises — Taiwan in the case of the Chinese, the illusion of missile superiority in the case of the Soviet Union.

Contrast that with Bush, who seems determined to alienate as many countries as possible.  He damns Russia for Georgia, China for a whole bunch of things, Iran for nukes, Venezuela for Chavez, and so on.  The idealist in me appreciates his moral stances (even if it is wildly inconsistent with his Administration’s own human rights practices).  But the realist recognizes that he’s succeeding in isolating the United States to a degree almost unprecedented in our history.

So here we are, thirty-odd years later, once again in an era of waning American superiority.  American troops are pinned down, this time in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The economy is in steep decline, except this time it is China rather than Japan challenging us.  Our capacity to project American power is at best limited and at worst non-existent.

But instead of using diplomacy to protect American interests by making limited concessions to those who would like nothing better to contest our position in the world, Bush’s actions are driving other countries to unite against us.

What’s the opposite of triangulation?  Pointillism? Whatever it’s called, even Nixon would have recognized it as both foolish and profoundly dangerous.

| posted in foreign policy, globalization, politics, war & rumors of war, world at home | 0 Comments

11 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
05:30 pm

Book Report: Nixonland


I used to read a lot more than I do now — on average, a book every day or two.  Of course, that was back before I had a life — no wife, no child — or a blog.  So these days, it takes me a bit longer to get through even the most compelling of reads.

It’s my intent to share the best of what I read with you.  Not a comprehensive review, mind you, but I hope I can point you to some worthwhile books you otherwise might have missed.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been plowing through Nixonland by Rick Perlstein for quite some time now — despite the fact that I found myself staying up way too late on way too many nights, absolutely gripped by the story he has to tell.

It’s a a terrific read.  Perlstein has a gift for historical narrative, and there are parts of the story — particularly his takes on the impact of the 1968 Democratic convention and the implosion of the 1972 McGovern campaign — that are as compelling as anything I’ve ever read, fiction or non-fiction.  He brings a fresh perspective to something that I (and many others) thought too stale to benefit from a new approach.

He does this by tracing the evolution of the civil war over values that has wracked this country since the 1965 Watts riots.  At the center of this narrative is the story of the decline of the Democratic party into chaotic conflict, and of how Richard Nixon ruthlessly took advantage of the resultant divisions to build his “silent majority.”  Perlstein is right to place Nixon at the center of our cultural divide (and his narrative), and to identify it as his main legacy.

In addition, he successfully traces how each side in this conflict frames the other as evil, and how, as a result, they are unable or unwilling to see the logic or utility of the other side’s point of view.  And as he notes at the book’s end, we are still living in — suffering the consequences of — Nixonland today.

That said, I did have three reservations.

The first is Perlstein’s decision to turn an otherwise brilliant analysis of the impact on Nixon of an event early on in his life — his exclusion at Whittier College from a group called the Franklins and his subsequent establishment of a counter-group called the Orthogonians — into a frequently strained metaphor for the broader cultural conflict.  After the first few chapters, I found the analogy distracting rather than useful.  In addition, I have to say that while Perlstein’s examination of what drove Nixon is brilliantly perceptive, he sometimes descends into glib psychohistory that only distracts from an otherwise compelling analysis.

The second is the book’s ending.  Perlstein’s ends his account in November 1972, immediately after Nixon’s landslide victory over McGovern.  That certainly is his perogative, but the timing seems startlingly abrupt.  Why not to continue the story through Watergate and Nixon’s subsequent resignation?  Even though I wasn’t a fan of the Franklin-Orthogonian frame, I would have liked to have read his description of both sides’ reaction to events like Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War.

Third, given that he devotes significant time and space to Nixon’s rise, why no attempt to document what happened to him after his fall from grace?  It is almost as if Perlstein fell victim to that classic novelist’s mistake:  he confuses his story’s climax with its conclusion.  The abrupt ending also means that he devotes only a few cursory pages to a conclusion — which seems rather meager given the time and resources he has devoted to the story.

Despite these concerns, I urge you to go out and buy it today — it truly is the nerd beach read of the summer.  And I plan to pick up his book on the Goldwater revolution as soon as the vampires on Amazon and B&N stop asking $70.00 for a used copy.

| posted in politics, pop culture | 0 Comments

27 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:00 pm

Hagel Defends Obama (Vandy Prize)


Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) isn’t happy with his old friend John McCain:

Sen. Chuck Hagel took on his old friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Sen. John McCain, criticizing McCain’s new TV ad attacking Sen. Barack Obama.

In the ad, the Republican presidential candidate complains about Obama’s recent decision not to visit U.S. troop hospital in Germany, saying, “Sen. Obama made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops.”

“I do not think that ad was appropriate,” Hagel said in an appearance on CBS-TVs “Face the Nation.” Obama’s staff was advised by the Pentagon about the military’s concerns with Obama bringing his political campaign to see soldiers there, his advisers have said.

It’s been two weeks since Steve Clemons reported that Hagel was going to endorse Obama, and it hasn’t happened yet.  That may be because Hagel doesn’t plan to, or it may be because Obama wanted to wait until after their trip.  Either way, having a man who once was a top pick for VP (albeit in 2000) now criticize him publicly must be driving McCain nuts.

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| posted in foreign policy, media, politics | 1 Comment

25 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
04:08 pm

A Brush with Nixonland (I Feel Dirty)


I’m still plugging away at Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, which I’m really enjoying.  Today, I came face-to-page with events in my past.

On the evening of March 14, 1970, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew attended the annual Gridiron Club dinner in Washington.  For those who aren’t familiar with this old-boy ritual, Gridiron is is an annual white-tie event where reporters and the people they cover get together to pretend they like each other.  It used to be a bigger deal than the White House Correspondents Association dinner, but because it remains off-the-record, it has fallen off the public’s radar screen.

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| posted in media, politics | 0 Comments

21 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:00 am

August 23rd (I mean 28th)


I’m in the middle of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland — definitely the history nerd beach read of the summer.  I’ll review it once I finish it, but Perlstein just drew my attention to something, and I don’t want to wait until I finish to comment on it.

As I’m sure you know by now, Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver will take place on August 23rd 28th, the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Many have speculated that Obama will use the speech to help heal some of the still-unresolved wounds in this country involving race.

In Nixonland, Perlstein points out that August 23rd 28th also was the day in 1968 when the Democratic party imploded over the issue of Vietnam.  It was the day when the old party bosses — including Southern racists who had no intention of voting for a Democrat come November — successfully rammed Hubert Humphrey’s nomination through a divided convention.  It was the day that the Chicago police beat, tear-gassed, and arrested those demonstrating (some peacefully, some violently) against the war outside the convention.  It was the day that television viewers heard those demonstrators chanting “the whole world is watching” over and over again.  And it was the day that Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, in the course of his speech nominating George McGovern for President, accused Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of using “gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”

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