Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Foreign Policy and Presidential Elections: Appeasement Part Deux 

How do electoral politics influence US foreign policy? Look no farther than Miami Dade County and US relations with Cuba. Cuban-Americans remain a highly mobilized electoral block in that state's largest county, and they tend to be single-issue voters, supporting the candidate who is tough on Fidel's Cuba. So, you have a history of candidates talking about the need to crack down on Castro to curry favor in the Cuban community and put Florida in play. Do a few hundred more votes in Florida really matter? Well, since 2000, making this point is like shooting fish in a barrel. Recall that Clinton signed the Libertad Act in early 1996 on his way to re-election, winning Florida.

So of all the countries that McCain could accuse Obama of "appeasing," its not surprising to see at the top of the list Iran (stoke fears of terrorism, still a Republican strong issue), closely followed by... Cuba. Yes, McCain is now saying that Obama's statements that he would consider loosening the Embargo and initiate talks with the Cuban Government constitutes appeasement. We've already been over why McCain's statement is nonsense. But, given electoral politics, is it any surprise why he'd try to bring Cuba into play?

Or, put differently, you'd have to wonder if the Republican party was already dead (and maybe they already are...)* if they didn't play the appease Cuba card.

*Really, this parenthetical is an excuse to link to the Packer article that is a very good read on the state of conservativism in America--it is worth a read and deserves its own post, but I just couldn't resist tossing in the link.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

You Can't Appease Chris Matthews 

If you haven’t heard about or seen the clip of Chris Matthews dressing down one of his guests, a conservative talk show host, you might wan to take a look. Aside from the sheer entertainment value of the thing, it might, maybe, be a turning point for the fall election.

Matthews was in his regular Hardball segment where they have a conservative and a liberal radio talk show host to spin the issue of the day. They were discussing the Foreign Policy back and forth between Bush and Obama. The conservative guest launched into Obama as soon as Matthews started the segment, talking about how Obama would be horrible for the country because he was an “appeaser.” Annoyed, Matthews asked him if he knew what appeasement meant—in particular, what did Chamberlain do that was so wrong in 1938? The guy finally had to admit he didn’t know, and Matthews schooled him on some pre-WWII history. I don’t think the liberal guest got to say any more than when you’re in a hole, stop digging. It is high political theater, or, cable news at its worst.

At the core of the discussion was the deployment of “Appeasement” to delegitimate the foreign policy of an opponent. In this case, the accusation was that Obama’s position to talk to foreign leaders with who the US has policy differences would appease them, weakening the US and emboldening America’s enemies. Appeasement, as the Lesson of Munich, has a long been one of the most important analogies used in defining, evaluating, and legitimizing foreign policy choices. Rodger’s post has an excellent discussion of the use and mis-use of the concept, and I recommend you check it out.

What Matthews did was to call the conservative on his mis-use of the term. Rather than simply allow his deployment of the appeasement trope remain unchallenged, Matthews asked: what was it that Chamberlain did that was so objectionable? Its comical to watch the guest stammer and stall, like a student who hasn’t done the readings for class, before Matthews finally gives the class the answer: Appeasement came not from talking to Hitler, but from giving him half of Czechoslovakia. Talking to the enemy is not appeasement. Giving the enemy what he or she wants with no significant concession in hope that the enemy is thus satisfied, that is appeasement.

The Matthews moment means that it may be, might be harder in the future to use such analogies so far out of context. He created an opening to challenge the deployment of such broad analogies and labels, and has forced those who want to use labels such as appeasement to augment their statements by adding the offending act. Now, this could all be for naught, if everyone lets it drop, but it could also be a subtle but important shift in the way this powerful label is used. To pass the Matthews test, anyone on his show now needs to show the dangerous concession. Matthews had defined a rhetorical space in which simply talking to another actor cannot constitute appeasement, and anyone who tries to suggest as much will look like a fool.

Now, this is by no means guaranteed. Matthews could let it drop (but I doubt it, given his tenacity on issues such as this). Moreover, MSNBC has become a much more important player in election coverage (really, its gotten quite good. Olberman is in rare form, Matthews is always fun, and its impossible to top Rachel Maddow). So, if Obama’s opponents want to deploy the appeasement label for him, they are going to have to figure out how to go on Hardball and make it stick. Otherwise, the attack loses some of its steam.

Yet another reason that MSNBC has become must-see TV.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008


With the unfolding of the humanitarian tragedy in Burma following the cyclone, people are once again (re)learning how awful that regime is (by one popular account, the 3rd worst dictatorship in the world—don’t laugh, even Drezner loves the list).

Back in The Day, when the Axis of Evil (you remember that—Iran, Iraq, North Korea) came out, I used to go through a little exercise with my students called what makes a country Evil? In particular, I would ask them why not include Burma on the list? An “evil” regime by all accounts that is certainly not friendly to the US, but it gets nary a mention by the President. In fact, he seems to have sub-contracted Burma policy to the First Lady.

The Junta is supremely isolationist, concerned with its own hold on power, but largely staying out of world affairs. As far as we know, they don’t really involve themselves in the wild world of weapons of mass destruction or international terrorism. They generally don’t bother the US, and as a result, we generally don’t bother them.

One might even ask, why not invade Burma? After all, they do have a civil society looking to engage in a democratic transition, a relatively peaceful religious community, and a leader in waiting (with a Nobel no less). They even have some natural gas that is supposed to be valuable.

Interestingly enough, given the Junta’s poor performance after the cyclone and steadfast refusal to accept the international aid offered, a French proposal emerged to force aid into the country. The idea was quickly rejected, but it was revealing in that it showed just how limited international influence can be on a stubborn regime with little connection to the rest of the world, absent the threat of military force.

From the Junta’s perspective, as many have noted, this whole situation is a danger. The poor response to the disaster threatens their legitimacy on the eve of a sham vote to legimate their hold on power. However, allowing in hundred of international aid workers and thousands of tons of international assistance is also a danger, in that it not only questions the legitimacy of the government, unable to care for its own people, it also creates a social structure outside of government control. Aid distribution networks, moving materials and information, are the very sorts of civil society that a totalitarian regime must quash to prevent opposition movements from capitalizing on these tools to further threaten the government. An interesting point of reference are the North Korean famines of the mid 1990’s. After severe weather (and poor government planning and response) wiped out crops, the country had no food. It too resisted offers of assistance, similarly threatened by the potential ‘contamination’ to its domestic society that international aid workers and distribution networks might bring. North Korea eventually did get some aid, but much of it came in the context of the nuclear negotiations and subsequent Sunshine diplomacy with the South.

In that case, two things were important. First, the US led the international response. Fully engaged in the process, the US was able to lead the international community in negotiating with the DPRK. The US is again playing a lead role in Burma, but is somewhat, shall we say, distracted by Iraq, Afghanistan, and the whole GWOT thing. Second, North Korea and the US were engaged in a larger game at the time, the nuclear negotiations, and that provided an opening for the food aid. The DPRK was already trying to extract some sort of payment from the US, and the US had several things it wanted from the DPRK. So, food aid could enter into the discussion at some point. Burma has nothing we want, really, and we have had nothing substantive to say to them in quite a while.

So, unless the US and the “international community” want to force their way into Burma to deliver a planeload of high energy biscuits, there is unfortunately very little they can do to get aid to those in need. It reaffirms the importance of the state—even a weak state such as Burma—to set its own tone for its domestic affairs when the big boys of the neighborhood (China, the US, the EU) are unwilling to play hardball.

Moral of the story: if you’re evil, we’ll go to the mattress to take care of business. If you’re just plain bad, you’re probably in the clear.

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