Monday, May 23, 2016

Please don't feed the neocons

This is a thing you can do in Ethiopia, feeding hyenas. Via Lipstick Alley.
The neoconservative eminence Robert Kagan endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in February, in the second-last sentence of a lengthy denunciation of the Trump that doesn't otherwise mention her at all, and taking the distressed tone of a father suggesting that the family will have to sell little Clara into slavery, regrettable as that option might be, if everybody is to survive:
For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton. The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be.
This week Kagan came up with a still more furious condemnation of the Trump, "This is How Fascism Comes to America", in which I notice that he doesn't mention Clinton at all, and Corey Robin noticed another thing, which is that Kagan's argument against Trump takes the mirror image of a familiar form:
According to Kagan:
What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.
This, remember, is what makes Trump not a normal political candidate. It’s what makes him a candidate whose appeal and program “has transcended the party that produced him.”
What’s interesting about that claim is that it describes, almost to a tee, the sensibility of the extended circle of intellectuals, academics, think tankers, government officials, and journalists, radiating out of the inner circle of Robert Kagan and William Kristol, who not only pushed for the Iraq War and the War on Terror but who pushed for these violent adventures with arguments that he, Kagan, claims are peculiar to Donald Trump.
The fascist mentality of which Kagan accuses Trump—its privileging of nationalist emotion over policy logic, the sexualized hyping of a picture of America's, and the Leader's, overmastering dominance over all challengers—is indistinguishable from the neoconservative posture as a passionate nationalist alternative to the cold "realism" that used to dominate conservative thinking on foreign policy; from the posture that has long been Kagan's own.

Which in a way is really not "interesting" at all; it's standard operating procedure for conservatives to project their internal violence on their perception of their enemies, as Robin of all people must understand very well. But more interesting to me than the sound and fury of Kagan's "ideas" about Trump, a banal and obvious set of talking points that could have originated anywhere, is the political intention of what he's saying.

There's an annoying subtext in this discussion, which is the issue of whether Hillary Clinton is a "neoconservative" herself, allied with Kagan in the quest to maintain US hegemony over the entire world, etc., etc. Kagan's been repositioning himself to a large extent from diehard Republican to something more flexible, since around 2014, when he took to avoiding the neocon label himself, preferring "liberal interventionist", and singled out Hillary Clinton as the sort of politician with whom he had something in common:
“I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy,” Mr. Kagan said, adding that the next step after Mr. Obama’s more realist approach “could theoretically be whatever Hillary brings to the table” if elected president. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue,” he added, “it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”
(Also—I see the bright spark there in the back row with his hand in the air struggling to get this out—he's married to Victoria Nuland, who was Clinton's spokesperson in the State Department.)

The fact is that Kagan isn't simply stating his opinions here, for the admiration of the gallery, but trying to achieve something, and it isn't obvious what it is. Because last time he was inveighing against a Republican presidential candidate it was fairly complicated.

That was 16 years ago, and the language, as Robin reminds us, was very much the opposite of what Kagan and Kristol are directing against Trump today; they were accusing George W. Bush of not being fascistic enough:
During the 2000 election, Kagan heaped criticism on the GOP frontrunner and eventual presidential candidate. He complained that George W. Bush’s support for the Kosovo War was “hedged, careful.” Once Bush was elected, he and Kristol complained that Bush ”campaigned more as an Eisenhower than as a Reagan. Believing Americans did not want radical changes, either at home or abroad, he proposed none.” Bush was too solicitous of the “soccer moms,” whom he didn’t want to “unnerve.”
Lest we think this was a temporary blast at the virtues of prudence and restraint (or women) that Kagan now claims to champion against the adventurer Donald Trump, Kagan would repeat the same charges against Colin Powell, once he was installed as Bush’s Secretary of State. Powell liked “diplomatic pressure” and “coalition building.” That was his fatal flaw, a theme Kagan returned to ten days later, when he teamed up with Kristol to urge Bush not to listen to his secretary of state. Because Powell ”was preoccupied with coalitions,” they claimed, he sought to avoid war with Saddam in 1991 and then refused to march to Baghdad to finish the job. It was his obsession with “compromises” that got the US into trouble then and would get the country into trouble now. Best to ignore his “timidity disguised as prudence.”
Was Kagan campaigning for Al Gore in 2000? And even after the election, into 2001? Clearly not. He was campaigning for himself, and for his influence, and using this peculiarly aggressive and insulting method to get Bush's attention.

There are some pretty remarkable parallels between Bush and Trump, when you come to think about it. Both are children of extreme 1% privilege attempting to pass themselves off as men of the people; both sell themselves as outsiders and successful businessmen, not politicians (Bush hardly bothered to try to tout his rather passive résumé as Texas governor, when the only thing that really engaged engaged him was signing death warrants), following a transition from the real economy (oil, real estate) into the branding/entertainment economy (baseball, reality TV). Both are noteworthy for being much more interested in, and capable at, campaigning than policy, alert and sure-footed in the election but unable to master the details of governing, and especially incurious about foreign affairs, content to limit themselves to a few set phrases. Their "ideas" about foreign policy, in this way, are less significant as indicators of what they might do as president than as aspects of the campaign itself.

Bush's stated "moderate" foreign policy views in 2000 were securely in the hands of minders from his father's crowd, "sensible" and callous old realists, but his personal allegiance was an object of internal competition between those guys and the more bloody-minded sub-mob of Cheney and Rumsfeld, and that, in the end, was what mattered. I think the role of Kagan and Kristol at that early period was to draw him through a kind of oppositional psychology into the neoconservative camp, playing on his personal insecurities and Oedipal issues with taunts over his masculinity. And of course they succeeded (thanks, perhaps, to the unexpected trauma of 9/11, without which things might have panned out differently).

Trump's views on foreign policy aren't in much of anybody's hands and burst out of him without a lot of coherence, but they don't seem neoconservative in the dictionary sense. Sometimes he's an America-First isolationist, threatening the dissolution of NATO, sometimes, as Bush did, he likes to emphasize his ability to solve problems through deal-making. He says (falsely) he was against the Iraq invasion of 2003, but he wants to go back to prosecuting it, better than before, not with the neoconservative fantasy aim of making the Middle East a paradise for the untrammeled Market Gods but just to "bomb the shit" out of them for his own personal id-satisfaction. He's famous for his outbursts against the entire Muslim ummah, and yet his close relationships with certain Arab leaders, especially in the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, are well known.

It's very remarkable, though, how little Kagan has to say about Trump's foreign policy views in the two op-eds, that being Kagan's own area of expertise; there's practically nothing other than this, in the first one, on the response of certain Republicans (Trump implicitly included) to Obama:
Has the president done a poor job in many respects? Have his foreign policies, in particular, contributed to the fraying of the liberal world order that the United States created after World War II? Yes, and for these failures he has deserved criticism and principled opposition. But Republican and conservative criticism has taken an unusually dark and paranoid form. Instead of recommending plausible alternative strategies for the crisis in the Middle East, many Republicans have fallen back on mindless Islamophobia, with suspicious intimations about the president’s personal allegiances.
And there, I think, is the anwwer. I don't think Kagan is playing with Trump the kind of game he was playing with Bush 16 years ago. I think he's playing the game with Clinton, using a different sort of move. It's not even about Trump, it's about Obama.

Hillary Clinton is really not a neoconservative or, as I've argued before, a "hawk" (and Jacob Heilbrunn agrees with me, it turns out). The differences between her views and the anti–Stupid Shit Obama doctrine are subtle, not categorical.

But as their old Republican friends collapse in this year's election disaster and the party is taken over by utter ignoramuses like Trump and Cruz, the neoconservatives are looking for new homes. Just as that reprobate Democrat Henry Kissinger started advertising his availability to Republicans in 1968, so Kagan, an early adapter, has been liberalwashing himself for years, in fact. He found a respectable non-wingnut berth at the Brookings Institution in 2010 and visiting rights at the State Department in 2011, when Clinton started up a bipartisan Foreign Affairs Policy Board, and now, as Obama's on his way out, he'd like a proper seat at the table, and that's what these op-eds are really about. He'd like to build a wall between Clinton and Obama and make us all pay for it, if you know what I mean.

It's something we'll all have to watch out for, as the smell of Republican failure grows over the next few months. Opportunists and timeservers, hedge fund liberals and keyboard kommandos (like Kagan) will be swarming around the kill site, looking to be thrown scraps of meat. Don't give them anything, Hillary!

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