Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fecking Up Foreign Policy

by Michael Dorf

During Tuesday's Republican Presidential Debate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denounced President Obama as a "feckless weakling." This was not the first appearance of feckless in the current campaign. In May, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham--who apparently still exists and is rumored to be running for President--called Obama feckless. And as early as February of this year, Texas Senator Ted Cruz described Obama's foreign policy as "feckless and naive." The Republican candidates may disagree with one another about many things, but they agree on one: Our current foreign policy is completely lacking in feck (from the Scots language and meaning roughly "effect" or effectiveness). With one exception, they want to increase the feck.

The exception is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, every Democrat's favorite Republican presidential candidate, but only so long as the topic is foreign policy. As Paul noted, Christie's high-feck policy of shooting down Russian planes should they violate Christie's proposed Syrian no-fly zone would be a good way to start World War III. It was not clear to the home audience whether the tepid applause for Paul from the Vegas crowd was a sign that there were a few sane people on hand or whether those people were applauding for the prospect of a civilization-ending conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

Christie's Strangelovian threat to go mano-a-mano with Vladamir Putin in the skies over Syria was only one of the three most insane ideas put forward by the Republican candidates at Tuesday's debate. Another came from Cruz, who defended his plan to "carpet bomb" ISIS against the charge that this would lead to killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians by clarifying that he didn't want to carpet-bomb Raqqa, the capital of the self-declared Islamic State, but the ISIS fighters. Said the junior Senator from the Lone Star State: "You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops."

Ted Cruz is Ted Cruz crazy but he's not stupid, and so one can only assume that this was a calculated deception. Cruz disingenuously contrasted the "15 to 30" daily U.S. airstrikes against ISIS with the the "1,100" daily airstrikes carried out during the early phase of the first Gulf War. As David Sanger noted in The NY Times, however, the U.S. used relatively precise munitions in the Gulf War. "Carpet bombing" would have been a war crime. In any event, the airstrikes in early 1991 targeted conventional troops, tanks, and infrastructure--a more or less conventional army. ISIS has some conventional forces, but fighting it is more like fighting an insurgency embedded among the civilian population. The "location of the" ISIS "troops" is a city, making Cruz's distinction meaningless. Carpet bombing "where ISIS is" means carpet bombing Raqqa.

And then there's the racist formerly known as the Donald. Responding to the once-again-eminently-sensible-on-foreign-policy Senator Paul--who correctly noted that Trump's plan to kill the families of terrorists would violate the Geneva Conventions--the execrable GOP front-runner sarcastically neighed: "So, they can kill us, but we can't kill them?"

They. Us. The quip is both sickening and revealing. Trump cannot comprehend a foundational element of international humanitarian law: that even when fighting against forces that disregard the principle of distinction forbidding the targeting of civilians, signatory nations themselves must obey that principle. The idea is incomprehensible to Trump because to him the families of ISIS terrorists are necessarily enemies--them. Give Trump this: At least he's consistent in his prejudices.

Let me be clear that this post is not meant as a defense of President Obama's foreign policy choices. He was dealt a terrible hand by his predecessor's decision to ignite the Middle East, but there undoubtedly were ways in which he could have played it better. However, everything on offer by the Republican candidates (with the exception of Senator Paul, polling at around 2%) looks orders of magnitude worse than Obama's decisions. Better feckless than reckless.


Joe said...

I was going to say something else, but it might be in bad taste.

I and others tweeted during the debate & there were various "OMG" moments. There is, if one is inclined, a sick sort of joke aspect to the whole thing. Then, you remember. Even if you grant, no gimmee, none of these people are going to win, their party controls Congress. iCarly likes dogs, btw.

Shag from Brookline said...

Kurt Vonnegut is a reminder of carpet bombing during his days as a POW in Dresden in 1944 with his SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE."

Even Gov. Kasich got into the act: Time to punch Russia in the nose.

Alas, Bush/Cheney were bad enough with their neocons. The current batch of Republicans are trying to outdo Bush/Cheney and their neocons AND EACH OTHER.

In the early post 9/11/01 days, in my semi-retirement from my law practice, I audited courses at a local university as a senior citizen. That's when I first learned of America's National Security Strategy, documented every few years by the President. There came to my attention the Strategy of Oct./Nov. 2002 by George W. that stressed that America was #1militarily, economically and politically, and that Ameriica would do everything in its power to remain #1. George W. pushed pre-emptive power. While "history" hasn't made a final decision on the Bush/Cheney wars, so far it doesn't look good. Obama has tried to bring sense to these wars which have provided the means for an ISIL. The Greater Middles East is on fire and the GOP Clown Car candidates (excepting Paul-who is a nutcase in other was) come with cans of gasoline to put out the fire.

I did not watch the entire debate. Perhaps I missed it, but was Trump questioned on his statement prior to the debates that if he had been in Paris he would have have taken out the terrorists himself? Shades of Dr. Strangelove. Speaking of strange love, I did note the side-by-side exchanges between Trump and Cruz with a warning from the latter not to dump on him regarding a statement the latter had said about Trump. Trump once said Cruz would be a good running mate for him. I thought of a Republican team of CRAZY HAIR and CRAZY CARPET for 2016, commenting at Balkinization. Imagine what the National Security Strategy would look with these clowns in charge.

Watching Christie reminded me of Rudy Giuliani's young son years ago climbing all around his dad at the podium at his inauguration. Imagine Christie's traffic jam in weighing his national security chops.

Shag from Brookline said...

Mike, I understand why you said this in your closing:

"Let me be clear that this post is not meant as a defense of President Obama's foreign policy choices. He was dealt a terrible hand by his predecessor's decision to ignite the Middle East, but there undoubtedly were ways in which he could have played it better."

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps Obama could have played it better, but there is no way of knowing if such would have actually been better. Foresight, based upon good information/intelligence/judgment, involves presidential decision making. Undoing a mess is difficult, especially a mess as bad as that left by Bush/Cheney. There are many actors - nations - involved in the coalition with varying agendas beyond ISIL and managing them may be comparable to herding cats. Now if you pointed out how Obama could have played it better, we could weigh that. America has been in almost continuous war in my 85 years. If we got over Vietnamization, it was a short cure.

Shag from Brookline said...

A good follow up to this post is James Fallows' Atlantic essay at:

titled "CNN Shares Responsibility for the Fear-Mania of the GOP Debate."

Joe said...

There are various criticisms to President Obama's foreign policy but realistically there are various things he did worthy of praise and many of the other things were influenced by the Overton Window & other factors that made things worthy of criticism to be fairly acceptable. Net, I have a hard time thinking that someone else would have done much better.