April 23rd, 2013

Why Does the New York Times Still Employ Maureen Dowd?

It is a mystery. Anyway, in the aftermath of the gun control defeat and Dowd’s hilariously bad column on the same, here is Megan McArdle trying desperately to explain Politcs 101 to a hopelessly confused student in Dowd:

… The American President and The West Wing are not searing portrayals of effective political management. They’re drama. The first question a dramatist asks is not “Is this how it really works?” but “Is it entertaining?” And the second is “Can the audience understand this in less than thirty seconds?” Veracity is way, way down the list. If you want a clue to how realistic it all is, consider that Aaron Sorkin awarded Jed Bartlett the Nobel Prize in Economics. Then go interview some Nobel Prizewinning Economists and ask yourself whether a single one of them would have the desire, or the ability, to run for president.

Jed Bartlett doesn’t win policy debates because of his amazing tactical skills, his overpowering arguments, or the sheer persuasiveness of his granite-faced brand of urbane folksomeness. He wins them because Aaron Sorkin is a liberal and he wants Republicans to lose on the major issues. Unfortunately for liberals, Tom Coburn and John Boehner don’t have their lines faxed over from Hollywood every morning.

And Megan McArdle points us to Walter Russell Mead, whose scorn for Dowd is magnificent to behold:

Column writing is dangerous work and long success in the game can lead to the stifling of that Editor Within who keeps you from looking too stupid in print. A rich self esteem, fortifed by decades of op-ed tenure and dinner party table talk dominance, has apparently given Ms. Dowd the confidence to believe that she is a maestro of political infighting, a Clausewitz of strategic insight and a Machiavelli of political cunning rolled up into one stylish and elegant piece of work. From the heights of insight on which she dwells, it is easy to see what that poor schmuck Barry Obama can’t: those 60 votes on gun control were his for the taking, if he was only as shrewd a politician as Maureen Dowd

The President needs to get his hands dirty, our genteel and accomplished op-ed writer advises the ex-community organizer and Chicago pol. He needs to get real, get down in the dirt, muck around with the senators and exercise raw power. Don’t make empty gestures and don’t give up, she advises him: fight! fight! fight!


If only Lyndon Johnson had understood the art of political pressure as well as Maureen Dowd. “You work with us, we’ll work with you.” It’s… brilliant! Reminding her about her six year term… if that doesn’t swing her around, nothing will. “You’re a mother…” This is a set of brass knuckles no one could resist. The NRA must be thanking its lucky stars that a bumbling amateur like Barack Obama is in the White House instead of the arch-politician Maureen Dowd; Heidi Heitkamp would have been putty in her elegantly manicured hands.

It goes on like that for quite a while, so be sure not to miss the entire blog post. I’d like to think that McArdle’s patient and desperate attempt to explain the facts on the ground—added to Mead’s entirely justified contempt for Dowd’s political instincts—would alert the New York Times to the fact that its columnist is simply not on the ball. But I have my doubts that the Times will take note. It seems content to have Dowd perpetually on its payroll, perpetually writing as though she is fourteen years old.

Nota Bene: To be fair to Dowd, she does seem to get the usual gaggle of suckers to approve of her drivel. I suppose she deserves some form of congratulations for that.

February 2nd, 2013

Once Upon a Time, Stephen Walt Was a Rigorous Scholar

I know this because I took college and graduate school courses with him—and with John Mearsheimer—before Walt decamped for Harvard. Of course, this was back before both Walt and Mearsheimer decided to go crazy, so a lot has changed since then, but back in the day, I admired their scholarship and their intellectual seriousness regarding foreign policy, national security and international relations issues.

I don’t know what has happened in the interim, but Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s reasoning skills have become remarkably slipshod. The latest example can be found here; Walt believes that because there were a lot of mentions of both Israel and the threat Iran may pose to Israel during the Hagel confirmation hearings, his and Mearsheimer’s theories regarding the Israel lobby have been borne out.

It may be that the references to Israel during the Hagel hearings were due to the Israel lobby’s alleged “almost unchallenged hold on Congress,” its supposed ability to stifle “[o]pen debate about U.S. policy toward Israel,” or the possibility that “[i]f public discourse about Israel can be shaped so that most American have generally positive impressions of the Jewish state, then politicians will have even more reason to follow the lobby’s lead.” Or, it may be that the references were due to the fact that Chuck Hagel said some pretty controversial things about Israel, and that got the attention of the senators on the Armed Services Committee. If Hagel hadn’t said controversial things about Israel, there may well not have been all that many references to Israel during the hearings. Likewise, if Hagel hadn’t said some controversial things regarding Iran, there may not have been all that many references to Iran during the confirmation hearings. In short, I am putting forth the fairly unremarkable contention that controversy regarding a particular subject matter serves to drive discussion regarding that particular subject matter. There is nothing magical about Israel that causes any kind of monomaniacal focus on the country or on our relationship with it.

To be sure, there is no way to determine how the confirmation hearings would have gone in some alternative universe in which Hagel did not make controversial comments regarding Israel or Iran. But I would not be surprised in the least that if he didn’t make such comments, there would have been few references to Israel or to Iran’s relationship with Israel. John Kerry, who is now our secretary of state, did not make Hagelian comments regarding Israel or Iran. I have searched in vain for a transcript of his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but I would be shocked if Israel or Iran’s relationship with Israel came up all that much during those hearings. I would be similarly shocked if they would have come up all that much if Kerry were nominated to be the secretary of defense and all else remained equal when he went before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation hearings. As we know, Susan Rice is infamous not for any comments that she has made regarding Israel or Iran’s relationship with Israel, but rather for her comments regarding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi. I am willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that if she were nominated to be secretary of state, there would have been at least 166 references to the attacks during her confirmation hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Similarly, if either Hagel, Kerry or Rice said something controversial about Afghanistan, China, or Venezuela, and then got nominated for some major cabinet post, there likely would have been well over a hundred references to Afghanistan, China or Venezuela during their confirmation hearings. 

My theories may be wrong, but I think that they are plausible and defensible, and they are certainly worth considering as alternatives to Walt’s flat declaration that the tone and tenor of the Hagel hearings prove that Walt and Mearsheimer were right all along about the Israel lobby. Just as I am willing to concede that Walt may have been right in what he wrote before putting out an alternative theory (even though I don’t believe he is right), Walt should have conceded that factors other than the ones that he and Mearsheimer identified might have helped shape the Hagel hearings into what they became. The old Stephen Walt would have considered alternative theories and ideas, even if they undercut the ones that he believed. Too bad the new Stephen Walt is too busy being a hater to show the kind of open-mindedness he used to be known and respected for.

Oh, and of course, Walt makes no reference to the fact that Hagel was terrible during his confirmation hearings. You’d expect a serious scholar—especially one who supports Hagel’s nomination as Walt does—to at least grapple with the fact that Hagel bombed before the committee, but again, Walt appears to have long ago given up the role of being a serious scholar. Speaking of scholarship, it is worth noting that the paper authored by Walt and Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby—which their now-infamous book is based on—is the product of incredibly bad social science. See also Benny Morris, who makes clear that Walt and Mearsheimer are as bad at history as they are at social science. Walt and Mearsheimer "relied heavily" on Morris’s historical scholarship in putting together their paper on the Israel lobby; thus, Morris’s evisceration of their work is especially devastating.

I should point out that the lack of rigor regarding Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s work regarding Israel and the Israel lobby does not denote a lack of rigor regarding realism as an explainer of past and present nation-state behavior, and/or as a predictor of future nation-state behavior. I classify myself as a classical realist irrespective of what Walt and Mearsheimer—who still claim to be realists themselves—say or do, and there is no reason why realism as a theory ought to be indicted along with Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s poor scholarship regarding Israel and the Israel lobby. Indeed, as I have argued before, the degree of attention that Walt and Mearsheimer pay to the Israel lobby and its alleged ability to shape foreign policy indicates a significant departure on their parts from the tenets of realism; while realists do pay attention to the nature of the political systems of nation-states, and while they concede that domestic factors can influence nation-state behavior somewhat, they believe that nation-state interests are largely independent of domestic factors and considerations, and it is those interests that drive nation-state behavior. Walt and Mearsheimer clearly believe that when it comes to Israel and the Middle East in general, the Israel lobby is the main driver behind the formulation and implementation of American policy. Regarding this issue, at least, it is impossible to call them realists anymore. Maybe if they stuck to realism, their theories and arguments regarding American policy towards Israel and the Middle East would make more sense and would be more defensible.

January 1st, 2013

Summing Up the Obama Administration’s Cuba Policy

It sells out American interests and values, and for all of the appeasement, achieves nothing.

Is this the supposedly adept foreign policy administration we heard so much about during the 2012 presidential election?

Incidentally, here are two questions to which I expect the answers will be “no”:

  1. Will John Kerry be asked about his relationship with Fulton Armstrong, and what he thinks of Armstrong’s views on Cuban-American relations when Kerry undergoes Senate confirmation hearings?
  2. Will Stephen Walt be motivated to write even one blog post denouncing the pernicious influence of the Cuban-American lobby on American foreign policy?
December 20th, 2012

Is Chuck Hagel Smart Enough to Run the Pentagon?

As I see it, the next secretary of defense will be faced with—among other things—the following big-think policy challenges:

  • Figuring out the long term size and scope of the defense budget in light of the fiscal situation at home and the nature of American military commitments abroad—especially in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Figuring out the configuration of American force structure.
  • Figuring out the configuration of American force doctrine. Are we going to go small? Are we going to go small but continue to augment our counterinsurgency capabilities in the process? Are we going to go bigger?
  • Figuring out how the military will play with intelligence agencies like the CIA, the DIA and the NSA, as well as what the size and scope of the Pentagon’s intelligence structure is going to be.
  • Figuring out what steps it wants to take when it comes to the issue of defense transformation.
  • Figuring out what its long term doctrine is going to be regarding the use of drones in warfare.
  • Figuring out how best to run military tribunals, how best to administer indefinite detention, and what to finally do about the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.
  • Trying to convince regional powers that are allies of the United States to take a greater role in their own defense.

I am sure that I am missing various other agenda items, but I figure that ticking off eight big ones will suffice for the moment. To state the incredibly obvious, most—if not all—of these agenda items cannot be kicked down the road by the next defense secretary. They are going to have to be addressed quickly and comprehensively. And all of this means that the next defense secretary has to be very smart, and very intellectually steeped in defense/national security policy. We need a deep thinker with excellent management skills to run the Pentagon.

I write the above as a prelude to linking to this column, in which David Ignatius rightly wonders whether Chuck Hagel really is all that and a bag of chips:

The harder puzzle for the White House is whether Hagel would be the best manager during an important inflection point in Pentagon history. The U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will be ending, and the services will be fighting over how to divide a shrinking budget.

Hagel brings some obvious pluses on both counts: As a Republican and a genuine military hero when he served as an enlisted man in Vietnam, he can give President Obama cover as he executes the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Hagel is angry about what he sees as the misconceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as perhaps only a combat veteran can be. If he had his way, the troops probably would have come home yesterday. But this impatience is also slightly worrying. The withdrawal will succeed only if our military leaves an Afghanistan that can hold together.

Hagel’s military record is surely one big reason why the president wants him. He’s a guy who, as Reed says, knows how to talk to the troops and has walked in their boots. He’s blunt, direct and impatient with pettifogging. In these traits, he’s similar to the current secretary, Leon Panetta, and his predecessor, Bob Gates. And like both of them, Hagel has a temper.

Gates was the most successful defense secretary in modern times, for reasons worth considering now. He understood how to manage the Pentagon and did it not by getting down in the weeds but by staying above them. He delegated the busywork to Pentagon bureaucrats and made the big decisions himself. He was effective partly because people were scared of him. They knew that if they crossed the secretary, they would get fired. This brought a rare accountability.

Hagel could do the tough, no-nonsense-boss part of the job. But Gates had another essential talent that will be harder to match. He was a genuine national-security intellectual, who had studied how to manage and motivate huge institutions when he was director of the CIA and at the National Security Council. He knew the big strategic things about defense policy, but he also knew the little technical things. Gates was such a sawed-off shotgun of a guy that it was easy to miss that he was also a subtle thinker.

Nobody who knows Hagel would describe him as a defense intellectual. He’s more blunt than nuanced. How would he steer Pentagon procurement decisions in this age of new technologies and strategic matrices? I’m not sure. How would he manage the chiefs in their knife fights over the budget? Again, I’m not sure.

Well, we need to be sure. And needless to say, demanding serious and detailed answers of Hagel regarding these issues is not some neocon/Greater Israel/Jewish lobby/AIPAC machination designed to serve the interests of people Andrew Sullivan and Stephen Walt hate with a Gollumesque passion. If Hagel can give serious and detailed answers regarding these and other issues, I will be favorably impressed and I will write as much. If not, he has no business whatsoever being the next secretary of defense.

December 14th, 2012

Because There’s No Revenge Like Petty Revenge

My onetime international relations professor Stephen Walt has a well-earned reputation for disliking Israel in particular and possibly disliking Jewish people in general. Like Walt, I identify as a realist when it comes to foreign policy. Unlike Walt, I am a classical realist while he is a defensive structural realist (or defensive neorealist), and also, I don’t viscerally hate Israel or cause people to suspect that I viscerally hate my fellow Jews.

I should be used to Walt’s fixation on Israel and nothing he writes about the subject ought to shock me anymore. And yet, while endorsing the idea of making Chuck Hagel the next secretary of defense, Walt still caused me to find a way to be smacked with gob. Consider the following:

Having lost out on Susan Rice, Obama is unlikely to put forward a nominee he’s not willing to fight for or whom he thinks he might lose. So if Hagel is his pick to run the Pentagon, you can bet Obama will go to the mattresses for him. And what better way for Obama to pay back Benjamin Netanyahu for all the “cooperation” Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi’s transparent attempt to tip the scale for Romney last fall?

(Emphasis mine.) So now, apparently we are picking a secretary of defense based on how much the Israeli prime minister might dislike said secretary of defense. How very interesting. Of course, this raises a couple of questions:

  • Obamaphiles are fond of telling us that far from being a hater of Israel (like, say, Stephen Walt), the president is a stalwart ally of the country. Are we saying that there is no better way for him to prove his bona fides as a supporter of Israel than to make the president’s animus for Benjamin Netanyahu a factor in choosing the next secretary of defense?
  • If personal animus does indeed become a factor in choosing the next secretary of defense, doesn’t that mean the president isn’t and never was all that much of a supporter of Israel?
  • Do self-styled “realists” like Walt who counsel the president to pick a secretary of defense based in no small measure on personal animus for the Israeli prime minister really qualify as realists? I know that Walt calls himself a realist but his alleged ability to engage in a cold-eyed analysis of the workings of the international system in general and American interests in particular tends to take a backseat to his absolute hatred of Israel. Do genuine realists allow their judgment to be so clouded? I know I try not to let that happen but then again, I don’t happen to believe that the realist explanation for the workings of the international system and the behavior of nation-states somehow is consistently eclipsed by the workings and machinations of the nasty hobbitses Israel lobby.
  • Back in 2004, when there was talk about how much other world leaders wanted George W. Bush to lose to John Kerry, did Stephen Walt lose his … er … stuff, given the “transparent attempt” of various world leaders to “tip the scale” for Kerry 8 years ago? Because I strongly doubt it.

Oh, incidentally, Walt tells us that if Hagel is nominated, the president “can again demonstrate a genuine commitment to bipartisanship.” Yeah, sure; because Chuck Hagel is such a rock-ribbed Republican:

On November 1, just five days before this fall’s election, Hagel flew to Omaha, Neb., where he endorsed Democrat Bob Kerrey over Republican Deb Fischer in their narrowing Senate race. “There are a number of Hagel loyalists for whom that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Sam Fischer, a Nebraska Republican operative (Sam is Deb Fischer’s nephew).

“He doesn’t do much or have much connection with Nebraska anymore,” says another prominent Republican operativein the state. In fact, Hagel, now a Virginia resident and a professor at Georgetown University, is no longer registered to vote in his home state. Nebraska Republican party chairman Mark Fahleson says he considers Hagel’s endorsement “an attempt to curry favor with the Obama administration.” He points out that Hagel, on the morning he flew to Omaha to throw his weight behind Kerrey, had a phone conversation with Vice President Joe Biden. “We have no idea what they talked about,” Fahleson says suggestively.

And Fahleson is not alone. Republican Nebraska senator Mike Johanns has labeled the Kerrey endorsement part of a campaign for a cabinet position. “[Hagel’s] been clear he’d love to be in the administration,” Johannes said last month. And, though Johanns called Hagel “one of my closest friends in politics,” he told the Associated Press that the endorsement was “a step in [Hagel’s] path to try to build those bona fides that he is truly an Obama person and deserves a place in his cabinet.” Responding to this comment during a press conference on the day of the endorsement, Hagel said that Johanns “doesn’t know anything about who I am.”

In 2010, Hagel further rankled Republicans by endorsing Democrat Joe Sestak in his Senate race against Republican Pat Toomey. According to the Washington Post, which claimed Hagel was “auditioning for a cabinet position,” the move was as personal as it was ideological: “The more he can show a willingness to put party aside to do what he believes is the right thing, the more attractive he will be to President Obama and his inner circle.”

Whatever the motives, Hagel’s Fischer endorsement in particular marked his increasing coziness with the Obama administration, which can be traced to the 2008 campaign. After blasting the Iraq surge as “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam,” Hagel joined then-senator Obama on a trip to Iraq. Though he has said his relationship with Arizona senator John McCain is “pretty deep,” he refused to give an official endorsement. Throughout the campaign, he didn’t do the McCain campaign any favors. “I’m very upset with John and some of the things he’s been saying,” Hagel said in May 2008. The following month, he indicated he would consider accepting a vice-presidential offer from Senator Obama. “Why wouldn’t you?” he said.

Or, you know, not.


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