The neocons are back. Indeed, they never really went away: instead, they just went to ground temporarily until the smoke cleared over Iraq, and now they’re right out front pushing war with Iran, "regime change" in Syria, and hailing Obama’s (and Mitt Romney’s) favorite foreign policy book as the Received Wisdom of the Moment. Sen. Joseph Lieberman may be on his way out of American public life – thank the gods! – but Sen. Marco Rubio is in the wings waiting to fill his shoes. In Lieberman’s introduction to Rubio’s foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution, the tireless warmonger hailed the junior Senator from Florida as heir to the tradition of Reagan and Truman: he left out Scoop Jackson, but Rubio, in his opening remarks, was quick to fill the gap:
"In my brief time in the Senate, I’ve had the chance to get to know Joe, and learn from him. He represents a view of America’s role in the world in the tradition of Democratic leaders from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman through John F. Kennedy and Scoop Jackson."
Jackson, of course, was the cold war era Democratic Senator from
Washington state famous for his belligerence, whose underlings populated the
national security apparatus of the Reagan administration and authored the infamous
fantasy-based "Team B"
assessment of Soviet military capabilities. These folks later came to be known
as the neoconservatives,
a right-wing sect that originated
on the far left and gave us the Iraq war under Bush II’s tutelage.
In any case, Rubio looks to be an energetic stand-in for Lieberman, who never fails to mobilize every cliché at hand to defend America’s role as the world’s policeman. In his opening, the Florida Senator and prospective Vice Presidential pick did not disappoint:
"I am always cautious about generalizations but until very recently,
the general perception was that American conservatism believed in a robust and
muscular foreign policy. That was certainly the hallmark of the foreign policy
of President Reagan, and both President Bush’s. But when I arrived in the Senate
last year I found that some of the traditional sides in the foreign policy debate
"On the one hand, I found liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and staying out of Libya. On the other hand I found myself partnering with Democrats like Bob Menendez and Bob Casey on a more forceful foreign policy. In fact, resolutions that I co-authored with Senator Casey condemning Assad and with Senator Menendez condemning fraudulent elections in Nicaragua were held up by Republicans. I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left."
That’s a real knee-slapper, isn’t it? While Rubio won’t ever be known for his sense of humor, he may have a shot a becoming famous for his fatuity. For the idea that interventionism is "muscular," rather than a debilitating drain on our limited resources is yet another cliché rapidly wearing thin. How "muscular" can a bankrupt empire be?
Furthermore, Rubio makes it clear he knows nothing about the history of conservatism, which has only recently become a sounding board for the Teddy Roosevelt types and the "cakewalk" crowd who assured us the Iraq war would be a triumphant march to glory No doubt he’s never heard of Sen. Robert A. Taft, and is entirely ignorant of the pre-World War II history of the conservative movement – but why comment on a subject about which one knows nothing, especially in front of an auditorium full of policy wonks?
As for whether it’s our business to cavil over allegedly "fraudulent elections" in Nicaragua, one has to wonder why he isn’t more concerned about election fraud right in his home state of Florida. After Broward county, who are we to lecture the Nicaraguans?
Having concluded that "if you go far enough to the right, you wind up
on the left," a reasonably intelligent person might be expected to challenge
the veracity of these categories – but not Sen. Rubio, who goes on to complain
that even his constituents are challenging the wisdom of empire:
"And I found this sentiment not just in the Senate, but back at home as well. For example, many loyal supporters back home were highly critical of my decision to call for a more active US role in Libya."
Rubio’s constituents, who live in a state with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation, and are suffering horribly from the economic and social consequences of the Great Recession, are part of "another trend in our body politic," says the Senator, "one that increasingly says it is time to focus less on the world and more on ourselves."
How dare his constituents and loyal supporters care more about their foreclosed and way-underwater homes, their lost jobs, their crime-ridden streets and crumbling infrastructure, than about installing a "pro-American" Islamist government in Libya! Rubio is here to tell them what Harry Truman and Joe Lieberman would tell them, which is: Read Bob Kagan’s book! It’s all in there!
Ah yes, that book: the one our President has favorably referred to:
the author, Robert Kagan, is one
of Romney’s foreign policy gurus. Washington is bipartisan in its reading
habits as well as its foreign policy. The Kagan clan, which has made a family
business out of advancing the neoconservative policy agenda, is well-connected
in the Imperial City: their policy recommendations have never failed to argue
in favor of the most "muscular" expression of American "strength,"
which is invariably defined as military strength. In Bob Kagan’s latest infusion
of Kaganite wisdom, we are told we can continue to borrow money from the Chinese
conquer pacify Afghanistan (and the rest of the world) because
everyone else is just as broke as we are, and there’s no one else to protect
and defend the "world order."
Kagan’s book is so popular in Washington elite circles because it flatters its audience. He’s telling them what they want to hear: without their pretensions to global suzerainty to sustain it, the world "order" would lapse into chaos. Republican and Democrat, "liberal" and "conservative," this is the shared assumption when it comes to American foreign policy. Any challenge to this orchestrated consensus is met with panicked outrage, and is considered so dangerous that it cannot be allowed to go unanswered. Which is why Rubio explicitly deferred his expressed "disagreement with this administration on foreign policy" in favor of the far more important task of attacking his constituents and loyal supporters who question his full-throated support for the President’s Libyan adventurism and the current enthusiasm for a repeat in Syria. Forget Obama and the election: as far as Rubio is concerned it’s time to go after those in his own party who share his constituents’ skepticism. Rubio tells us he is intent on
"Reminding people of how good a strong and engaged America has been for the world. In making that argument, I have recently begun to rely heavily on Brookings fellow, Bob Kagan’s timely book, The World America Made. Bob begins his book with a useful exercise: asking readers to imagine what kind of world order might have existed from the end of World War II until the present absent American leadership. Could we say with certainty that it would look anything like America’s vision of an increasingly freer and more open international system, where catastrophic conflicts between great powers were avoided, democracy and free market capitalism flourished, where prosperity spread wider and wider and billions of people emerged from poverty? Would it have occurred if, after the war, we had minded our own business, and left the world to sort out its affairs without our leadership?"
Rubio is young: he doesn’t remember the cold war except through the lens of some neocon revisionist historian. Without American "leadership," we wouldn’t have spent ourselves into bankruptcy fighting an international "threat" that withered away all on its own, and would have with or without the existence of NATO, the Berlin airlift, or such bloody exercises in criminal futility as the Vietnam war. As the libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises proved, in theory, in 1920, communism was doomed to fail on account of its own internal contradictions. In practice, it took so long for the monster to die of its deformities due mostly to Western support, including vital lend-lease aid during World War II. Having been handed the eastern half of Europe, the Soviet empire was having enough trouble digesting that enormous meal – and eventually choked to death on it. The Communist anaconda could hardly assimilate what had already been fed to it by FDR at Yalta, and was uninterested in making a serious attempt to absorb the western half.
Unlike the Trotskyists, who insisted on the hopped-up immediate goal of "world revolution," Stalin repudiated the orthodox Leninist "internationalist" doctrine in favor of building "socialism in one country." This, and not world conquest, was the avowed goal of the Soviet regime.
For a time, the Communists gained traction in the Third World, as we used to call it then, due to America’s insistence on allying with "anti-Communist" tyrants, notably in South and Central America – a textbook case being Cuba, where US support for the corrupt thug Fulgencio Batista provoked a nationalist backlash that catapulted Fidel Castro into power. We repeated our mistake in Vietnam, at the insistence of Scoop Jackson, apparently Rubio’s role model.
Yet for all the billions spent on the military, the huge apparatus of the national security state and the machinations of the CIA worldwide, in the end it was the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism, and not US government action, that brought down the hollowed-out Soviet colossus.
What if we had stayed home and minded out own business at the end of World War II – having saved the world from the Axis, and – one would think – earned the right to take a break from the job as world policeman?
While the construction of alternate histories is an inexact science, let’s just take the numbers – the billions in value that were sunk into "defending" the "free world" against a threat that never existed. The arsenals bristling with weapons, the armies ranged around the world, the international network of bases and airfields, the covert operations that spread their tentacles to every corner of the globe – the costs are so enormous as to be incalculable.
Now let us imagine an alternative timeline in which fear of a worldwide psychopathogical cult never attained much influence, and instead of pouring a huge proportion of our wealth into "fighting communism" we had instead diverted it to more productive uses – say, finding alternatives to fossil fuels, or a cure for cancer. Imagine all that capital injected into the private economy, instead of the centrally-planned semi-socialist economy of the military-industrial complex. I wonder if, in that happy world, Florida would be known as the foreclosure capital of the country.
Rubio hails the "world order" as maintained by the US because it supposedly reflects our values as a nation: yet key components of that order, such as protecting and advancing the interests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the emirates of the Persian Gulf, are not exactly bastions of liberal democracy. According to the Senator, our mission in defense of this American-enforced "world order" is to
"Face down its challengers, assist other peoples in attaining their liberty, keep its trade routes open, and support the expansion of free market capitalism that accelerated the growth of the global economy."
Aside from the irony of hearing about "keeping trade routes open" from the same people who want to impose draconian trade sanctions on Iran, someone ought to tell the Senator that what is expanding isn’t "free market capitalism" but crony capitalism, i.e. mercantilism, not only internationally but also in these United States. From Washington to China it’s all the rage. There never was any such thing as "free market capitalism" except as a theory: perhaps one day it will actually be tried, but until that day comes it’s clear Rubio is just saying things off the top of his head.
What I find very odd is that Rubio spends endless Reaganesque paragraphs hailing the unprecedented wealth and productive energy of the markets – at a time when the world is teetering on the edge of economic implosion, and markets are living in constant fear that the Big One is about to go off. Yet ideology always trumps reality for the neocons, and in this Rubio is certainly playing his role as their unofficial Senate spokesman to the hilt.
America made the world: that is the premise of these hubris-stricken ideologues. Has there ever been a conceit more overblown, more self-regarding, than this one? Such pretension invites ridicule, but the implications ought to frighten us, because if we made it – even if we really didn’t — then that means we’re going to fight to keep it. Rubio and the rising generation of neocons look forward to leading that fight.
Rubio neatly sums up the essence of the neocon creed in a single paragraph:
"What happens all over the world is our business. Every aspect of lives is directly impacted by global events. The security of our cities is connected to the security of small hamlets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Our cost of living, the safety of our food , and the value of the things we invent, make and sell are just a few examples of everyday aspects of our lives that are directly related to events abroad and make it impossible for us to focus only on our issues here are home."
If we don’t maintain a global empire, we’ll have unsafe food and there will be no value to the things we invent, make or sell. This statement is entirely nonsensical, and since Rubio makes no attempt to justify it we can pass it by as we would ignore a burp or a bout of stuttering. He goes on to inform us that if we don’t stick our noses into every single small hamlet in the Middle East – well, then what? I can think of more than a few Afghan children who might still be alive today. Aside from that, however, how credible is this "it takes a village" "we are all One" nonsense coming out of the mouth of a supposedly hardnosed conservative Republican?
If the security of our cities is entirely dependent on how well we patrol the hamlets and caves of Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan, then we might as well give up living in cities and revert back to the caves ourselves, because in that case we are doomed. The 9/11 hijackers, I would remind you, operated within our borders for years undetected: if we couldn’t ferret them out here, what makes anyone think we can achieve that goal in the mountains of Pakistan’s tribal territories?
The rest of Rubio’s peroration is focused on compiling a new and much longer enemies list, including not only the usual suspects like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and China, but also Nicaragua (you saw that coming), Venezuela (no surprise there), and two new additions, Bolivia, and Ecuador, who are accused of vague crimes.
Rubio never did get around to criticizing Obama’s foreign policy in his speech, at least explicitly: he was too busy attacking critics of interventionism in his own party, who went unnamed – but I’ll bet at least two of them have the last name of Paul.
Many have noted the lack of the word "Iraq" in Rubio’s speech: there isn’t a single reference to that signature neoconservative project. No need to wonder why. Iraq, in its many dimensions of utter failure, shows us virtually all the ways in which an interventionist foreign policy is bad for us and bad for those we presume to "liberate." The neocons don’t want to remember it, or even mention it: but the American people haven’t forgotten.
Rubio is a politician, and he will have to adapt himself to the war weariness – really, the imperialism-weariness – of the American people at this juncture in their history. Either that, or else he and his fellow Bushian Republicans are doomed to political irrelevance – and they’ll drag the rest of the GOP down to defeat with them.
Their unapologetic arrogance is epitomized by the way Rubio closed his speech, asking:
"Why does it have to start with us, some say. Why do we have to do
"We find our answer in the words of a non-American. In an address to Congress in 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said:
"’I know it’s hard on America. And in some small corner of this vast country, out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I’ve never been to but always wanted to go – I know out there, there’s a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, ‘Why me, and why us, and why America?’ And the only answer is because destiny put you in this place in history in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do."
Is that cool Boca Raton condo you bought at the height of the boom being foreclosed by the bank, and have your food stamps run out again? Has your job gone part-time and have local tax assessments gone up in response to the lack of federal aid? Are you wondering where your next meal is coming from? Well, it’s Destiny, my friend. Destiny put you in this place in history at this moment in time, and the task is yours to do – without complaining, and without focusing on your own selfish desires rather than arming the Syrian rebels and saving the world.
It’s your destiny to be a poor schmuck who has to foot the bill in order to solve the world’s problems when you are overwhelmed on every side by problems of your own. Which means you have no choice in the matter: so just resign yourself to your fate and shut the hell up.
Good luck to Rubio in selling that to the voters.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I’ve been utilizing twitter at lot lately, so if you want my off-the-cuff remarks and observations in as few words as possible, check it out.