The Men in White Coats.

July 23, 2006

The Men in White Coats.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, July 23, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: It seems to me that a lot of the discussion this morning was about the contradictions in the U.S. position internationally. The U.S. wants Israel to show restraint in how it’s responding to the situation with Hezbollah, but also doesn’t want to put out the call for a premature ceasefire. Having invaded Iraq, supported the formation of the new government and recognized the new government, we find the Iraqi Prime Minister condemning Israel and the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament condemning the United States role in Iraq.

Newman: Surprise, surprise.

Salit: We want the Lebanese government to take control of the situation in southern Lebanon and yet we’re allowing it to be severely weakened. It seems like the U.S. position in the Middle East is filled with these kinds of contradictions now.

Newman: True enough, true enough.

Salit: Something else that I was struck by on “The Chris Matthews Show” was when Joe Klein described the overall situation in the Middle East. He said we’re seeing “the outlines of a new balance of power in the region.” It might be interesting to talk some about that, how you see that picture and if you think that’s the case.

Newman: I presume by a new balance of power, he’s referencing amongst other things, the rise of the significance of Iran and the ineffectiveness of the so-called moderate Arab states, with the caveat that there might not be any moderate Arab states. Or, at least if there are moderate Arab states, they’re not in a position to go up against the more radical Arab states.

Salit: Are there other new dynamics?

Newman: I get the sense that there is a felt experience in the region of Israel’s essential control of everything being diminished. Despite all of Bush’s talk about unconditional support of Israel, I think there is nonetheless a felt experience in the Arab world of a diminishment of U.S. long-term strategic support for Israel.

Salit: And that encourages the creation of a new balance of power?

Newman: It could. And part of that, as Pat Buchanan pointed out, is the failure of the Bush Administration to be serious direct players in the whole thing. The U.S. lacks a direct connection to all the major players, except for Israel. That’s not a good position to be in – either for the U.S. or for Israel.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, there’s something going on over there. I agree with Joe Klein that a new framework is emerging. It’s not just another skirmish, another skirmish, another skirmish. Again, to come full circle in this commentary of mine, it does perhaps ultimately come back to Iran. In some sense, the story, from their point of view – not mine, but theirs – is that the success of Iran and the failure in Iraq creates a new balance of power.

Salit: And the Bush Administration?

Newman: I think the Bush Administration has been unbearably ineffective in this whole arena of diplomacy.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: I mean, astoundingly ineffective.

Salit: As Joe Klein also remarked, ‘This is the point in the movie when the guys in the white coats come and get the neocons and take them away.’

Newman: Well, is it? Klein’s partially making a joke. But, I fear he’s wrong.

Salit: Wrong in that…?

Newman: I don’t think the men in white coats are coming to pick up the neocons. The neocons are getting good jobs all over the place.

Salit: They are.

Newman: But it’s Bush who brought in the neocons. The neocons didn’t bring in Bush. It went the other way around.

Salit: They remain very influential.

Newman: The picture is not as extreme as the right wing conservatives are running the country. But, they’re certainly having much greater influence in the country – in all aspects of American policy – than ever before.

Salit: Well, I guess Klein’s point was ‘The guys in the white coats should be showing up right now.’ That still leaves open the question of whether they will.

Newman: Right. Not to mention who will the guys in the white coats be? And where are they going to take them? To Paraguay?

Salit: Here’s something that I don’t understand. I’m not a foreign policy expert, and I’m certainly not an expert on the situation in the Middle East. But I don’t understand what the calculus was on the part of the neocons relative to making this move in Iraq. One would have to have thought that the U.S. was going to be spectacularly successful in Iraq on all levels so as to not disrupt the balance of power with Iran.

Newman: That is what they thought.

Salit: The mission would have to succeed militarily, they’d have to succeed in uniting the country politically, in establishing a stable government, with virtually no glitches, no resistance, none of the instability that helps Iran.

Newman: In some ways, I prefer the old language to the new language, in this case. The purpose of the neocon initiative in the Middle East was pure and simple U.S. imperialism.

Salit: In what sense?

Newman: They planned on using this as a base to transform and essentially take over, for U.S. purposes, the whole of that area. It was insanity to think that it could be done in a world environment which was openly hostile to the U.S. even considering that.

Salit: Much less attempting to execute it.

Newman: But the neocons were effectively saying, ‘We’re the single superpower. We should make our play, and our play should be where it’s in our greatest national interest, both in terms of security and in terms of oil.’ In some ways, it was playing the Israeli card while it was still an available card, because I think there was a growing fear that Israel was not getting stronger, but getting weaker.

Salit: A growing fear on the part of Washington?

Newman: Yes. So, it’s a big play. And you can see that logic persists in some of the coverage of the current situation. ‘This is the moment,’ some editorialists are writing now. ‘Let’s not lose courage now, let’s take our shot, let’s go after Syria, let’s knock off Hezbollah, knock off Hamas, let’s even reconsider our so-called friends in Iraq, who aren’t our friends at all.’

Salit: But the U.S. needs to count on getting support for that kind of thing.

Newman: This is very dangerous stuff. But, I think the neocon types believe in it. Those were their assumptions. They believed that they could accomplish this. ‘There’s only one great world power – it’s the U.S. and we’ll take the whole thing over, in the name of democracy, in the name of the righteous.’ Who’s going to support that? Australia?

Salit: There’s a whole world out there.

Newman: Their thinking is unbearably parochial. ‘Well, Europe is not a real power any longer in the world.’ They really believe that. And we’re seeing the results of that. Let’s leave the moral issue aside here. We can see the diplomatic stupidity of those decisions. Not a smart play.

Salit: Josh Bolten, the White House Chief of Staff, was on “Meet the Press” and he was carving out a somewhat moderate voice in the thing. Russert asks: ‘Did Bush give Israel the green light to go get Hezbollah?’ He doesn’t answer directly. He says ‘We said repeatedly “Israel has the right to defend itself.”’

Newman: Well, he was just trying to ameliorate those contradictions that you were talking about at the beginning.

Salit: Right.

Newman: Which he can’t really do.

Salit: So, is what we’re hearing today a White House spokesperson trying to ameliorate the contradictions that everyone is pointing out about the U.S. position, or are we trying to recalibrate our position, or is our position being recalibrated for us by world events?

Newman: Well, all of those things. If you’re asking me do I see fundamental change in Bush’s political position? No, I don’t. Strategically, no.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: You know, you can make a case that no one has done more in the last 10 years for rebuilding the image of the United Nations than George Bush.

Salit: He’s certainly made the UN more popular.

Newman: The UN turns out, in some ways, to be more important than ever before as an alternative to the dreadful and extremist policymaking of Washington, D.C. That’s what’s actually giving the UN a kind of credibility that it hardly ever had before.

Salit: That’s a good point.

Newman: Israel understandably has been wanting to do something about Hezbollah controlling the southern border for a very long time.

Salit: Right.

Newman: So, the seizing of two Israeli soldiers is an immediate catalyst. But, I think Tel Aviv must be having some pretty strong reactions to Washington’s failure in Iraq.

Salit: In what way?

Newman: I think Tel Aviv was expecting that the neocons and the Bush Administration would come into the region via Iraq and start having profound and successful influence. That was supposed to help engage the problem of Hamas, the problem of Hezbollah, the problem of Iran, the problem of Syria.

Salit: But instead?

Newman: While there have been some modest successes, like with getting Syria out of Lebanon, generally speaking it’s been a pattern of failure, not a pattern of success.

Salit: And Israel, more than ever for pragmatic reasons, wants peace. But, this doesn’t look like peace to them.

Newman: Right. And even though the hawks like Netanyahu lost the election – this is now a good time for them. They’re putting pressure on internally to go to war. And it’s hard for Olmert to say something dovish in response to that.

Salit: Right, exactly.

Newman: And understandably so. I’m not saying this as a criticism. Israel is sitting there, and on the one hand, they’re very strong. They get endless amounts of aid and military hardware from Washington, but still, strategically their position is not strong. Tactically, it might be strong because of the weakness of all those surrounding countries. But strategically, in the long run, their position is not a healthy one.

Salit: You brought up earlier that the perception in the region is that Israel is in a weaker position than it has been. At the same time, the expectation of greater U.S. strength in the region via Iraq hasn’t materialized. So consequently, we’re looking at a situation where these two major players each see the other as being in a weakened position.

Newman: Yes, all as a function of many, many different things, most especially the further development of Iran as a regional power. Not in the positive sense of development. But, as a power.

Salit: At one point, Tim Russert asked Josh Bolten whether this was a “proxy war.” The “proxy war” concept had a lot of currency in the 60s, 70s and 80s as the platform on which U.S.-Soviet geo-political competition was being played out in the third world. And so a lot of the struggles that took place in Asia, Africa and Latin America were considered proxy wars. How do you feel about the notion of proxy wars?

Newman: The concept?

Salit: The concept. Is it of any value?

Newman: I don’t think so. With the degree of globalization nowadays, what’s meant by a proxy war anyhow? Proxy only makes full sense if there is a clear demarcation of sovereign states from other sovereign states, in the global economy, in global military, in global strategies. But there isn’t. The interconnections are enormously strong. So, there are no proxies, because there’s a breakdown of sovereign states in favor of the concept of globalization. Actually, I find the “proxy war” concept a silly characterization.

Salit: Changing topics to the stem cell research veto, one might say, in light of our conversation, that it’s a position that’s also fraught with contradictions for Bush. That was certainly the line that Russert was pursuing, when he asked Bolten, ‘If Bush considers it murder to use embryonic stem cells for scientific research and he wants to cut off federal funding for that research, then don’t you have a moral obligation to go after stem cell research in the private sector?’

Newman: I don’t think there’s a contradiction there. It’s a Russert-level contradiction.

Salit: Meaning?

Newman: I think a more satisfactory response for Bolten would have been, Well, you can support capital punishment for murder and also support war. Is there a contradiction between those two? Well, some would argue Yes, there is a serious contradiction.

Salit: Okay.

Newman: The state makes certain decisions about these things and that’s what this is about. It’s about the federal government making a decision about whether it will fund stem cell research or not. Russert has his own concept of what it is to detect a contradiction.

Salit: He seems to relish it, too.

Newman: But he’s actually insensitive to the fact that we’re living in a world that’s filled with contradictions. And that’s because it’s a transitional world. There is a major geopolitical, socioeconomic, whatever you want to call it – transition taking place. In that circumstance you have lots of contradictions. The church was right when they said to Galileo back in 1633, ‘This discovery of yours is inconsistent with the doctrine of the church and that’s what dominates the world.’ They were right. That was the very point. It was a transitional period.

Salit: So, we’re in a transitional period now.

Newman: Yes, and it seems to me it’s of some worldly significance. In such times, the order of the day is contradictions. Russert’s assumption is that’s not the case, but that the contradictions he personally discovers are a function of his brilliance.

Salit: And his good research department.

Newman: That’s a trivial concept of contradiction. The contradictions that we are now living through are vastly deeper than that.

Salit: Thank you.

Newman: You’re welcome.