May 16, 2008

Barrack, Brooks, and the Bushes

I was rather surprised by David Brooks?s column this morning, which included a scatter shot of the kinds of crude, hallow neoconish phrases one would expect from the likes of Kevin James: ?intractable enemies? who could never be ?pacified with diplomacy?; ?If Obama believes all this, he?s not just a Jimmy Carter-style liberal. He?s off in Noam Chomskyland.? Much of it had the quality of hastily assembled lines offered in response to the editor’s request [Insert appeasement reference here]. I thought Brooks was supposed to be an actual neocon, not one of their talk-radio dupes who let the Frums and Podhoretzes do their thinking while they happily mouth ?Islamofascism.?

This aside, Brooks actually did some reporting, speaking directly with the potential appeaser himself, and it?s here that his column actually gets interesting.

?This is not an argument between Democrats and Republicans,? [Obama] concluded. ?It?s an argument between ideology and foreign policy realism. I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush. I don?t have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm. I don?t have a lot of complaints with their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall.?

In the early 1990s, the Democrats and the first Bush administration had a series of arguments?about humanitarian interventions, whether to get involved in the former Yugoslavia, and so on. In his heart, Obama talks like the Democrats of that era, viewing foreign policy from the ground up. But in his head, he aligns himself with the realist dealmaking of the first Bush. Apparently, he?s part Harry Hopkins and part James Baker.

I?d first note that the idea that Obama might resemble Bush the elder and James Baker sounds pretty good to me right now. But there?s more to it than this. For Brooks?s linking of Obama with Baker and the architect of the New Deal reveals that what’s he’s actually saying is much more complicated and ambivalent than it might first appear. 

After Obama became the frontrunner, the neocons have assured us that they fear his dangerous political messiahnism, his hope to save the world and chat about world peace with Hugo and Mahmoud, and have struck a pose of being level-headed, prudent realists. Such gamesmanship obscures the fact that the neocons made noise on the right in the early ‘90s with their contemptuous words for George H. W. Bush and Baker, whom the they opposed precisely because the pair resisted America’s world-transforming mission and focused on stability and international consensus. Bush and Baker were the ones Frum and Pearle attacked for propping up the collapsing Soviet Union and failing to rush in and democratically transform post-Saddam Iraq in ?91. Bush and Baker were two of the central villains in Michael Ledeen’s narrative of ?freedom betrayed,? when America ?walked away? from her duty to fight for a ?global democratic revolution.? (All of this was, in many ways, a replay of the neocons? antipathy towards Henry Kissinger in the ?70s over his d?tente policy with the Soviets and opening towards China (again the “appeasement of dictators” meme.)) It’s safe to say that Brooks has internalized this literature. 

It’s also important to remember that Harry Hopkins, FDR?s chief advisor for the Works Progress Administration as well as foreign policies like Lend-Lease, is in Brooks’s mind far from some terrible precussor to Hillary but, to the contrary,is the kind of state-builder of a ?modern democracy? whose legacy Brooks wants to preserve. (See his essay for the collection Why I turned Right, p. 80.) 

Read closely with all this in mind, it becomes clear that the passage quoted above has just about the opposite meaning of the one most will take away at first read. Obama might be like Hopkins not because he?s a weak-kneed liberal but because he speaks the language of America?s democratic mission (which Brooks unequivocally endorses). Obama might be like James Baker not because he’s a cynical dealmaker but because he might not be up for enough foreign adventures in the near future. The prospect that Obama might side with an older version of the GOP over the interventionism of Albright, Clinton, and The New Republic is, for Brooks, deeply vexing.       


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