Bile? You’re choking on it!

by Ted on April 14, 2004

John D. Negroponte is apparently expected to be appointed to the position of ambassador to Iraq after June 30 handover to whoever. (The “D.” stands for “Death squads”). Matthew Yglesias has links and commentary here, here, here, and here. I’d be surprised if Beautiful Horizons didn’t have something on it soon. Me, I’ve got to spend the morning washing my hands over and over and over again.

UPDATE: Grammar Police has more. Also, check comments on this post for an especially good one from Keith M. Ellis.



DJW 04.14.04 at 5:01 pm

Ugh. I want to see everyone from the left, center and sane right howling about this, hopefully this is a trial balloon and can be popped.


Randy Paul 04.14.04 at 5:10 pm

I’d be surprised if Beautiful Horizons didn’t have something on it soon.

Ted, you flatter me. My delay is only because I can’t post from work.

In any event, I have made mention of Negroponte and his band of recalcitrant cold warriors like Elliott Abrams and Otto Reich here and here. I predict that history will regard “Bush Diplomacy” as an oxymoron to rival jumbo shrimp.


roxanne 04.14.04 at 5:54 pm

In his speech last night, Bush said,

“Some of the debate really centers around the fact that people don’t believe Iraq can be free; that if you’re Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can’t be self-governing and free. I strongly disagree with that. I reject that, because I believe that freedom is the deepest need of every human soul, and, if given a chance, the Iraqi people will be not only self-governing, but a stable and free society.”

Now let’s think about the 1980s and our intervention in Central America.


rea 04.14.04 at 6:21 pm

Well, you can’t deny the man has proven ability to negotiate deals with Shiite fundamentalists, not to mention his considerable expertise on state-sponsored terrorism . . .


Keith M Ellis 04.14.04 at 6:22 pm

Better Negroponte than Wolfowitz. Or, maybe not…I imagine that the position might carry with it some considerable mortal risk.

As the NYT says, if Wolfowitz had been considered a leading candidate, Negroponte’s selection is significant in a variety of ways. It’s an implicit slap in the face to the neocons, especially coupled with the selection of someone favored by Powell.

I shouldn’t read too much into this, but my guess is that this and the on-schedule Iraq handover are signs of the admin’s complete retreat from neocon foreign policy. With the dreadful situation in Iraq, I imagine that Bush deeply regrets the nation-building route taken. He just wanted Hussein gone.

Bush was never a neocon, and their PNAC association notwithstanding, neither were Cheney and Rumsfeld. All three are inclined to the realpolitik school of foreign policy thought (though I fear giving Bush even that much credit for sophistication), and I think at this point the administration is tilting in that direction.

But they’re still incoherent and incompetent. This is probably because the only people in the administration who have had any foreign policy worldview relevant to the post-cold-war period have been the neocons. They’re naive and foolish, but coherent and relatively thoughtful. Condi Rice probably represents the rest of the admin’s foreign policy expertise and, as is often discussed, hers is archaic and nearly useless.


Keith M Ellis 04.14.04 at 6:37 pm

Re: the “update”. Wow, thanks Ted! I worried that someone might think I was defending either the neocons or the realpolitikos. I hasten to make clear that I am not.


harry 04.14.04 at 7:34 pm

Nope Keith, your post is absolutely clear, and terrifically helpful (to me anyway).


joe tomei 04.14.04 at 8:07 pm

I can’t tell you how depressing it is that I find myself wishing that we had more realpolitik types in power. I know Keith isn’t hailing Negroponte as the answer, (and I’m not saying it either) but as a comment on another blog said, after Wolfie, Darth Vader would have been an improvement. I agree that in the marketplace of ideas of the Bush admin (such as it is), the coherence of the Neocons is the prime selling point, but what does it say about the Neocons that Negroponte is taken as a slap in the face? It’s like the 6 year old who has to win _every_ point and throws a temper tantrum if he doesn’t get his way


msg 04.14.04 at 8:11 pm

Bush just wanted Hussein gone, whereas the “neocons” wanted Iraq destabilized.
They both got what they wanted. Though it seems the ideal outcome was a subservient Iraq pumping its oil directly into American SUV’s.
That didn’t happen.
That’s probably never going to happen without something approaching genocide.

Inasmuch as I don’t know anything about the actual working of power at the levels Negroponte and Wolfowitz et al. operate at, I wonder if there’s a kind of nucleus for what positions them, what they express, what they “work for”.
Is Bush no longer at the nucleus of that power? Was he ever there?
Is Negroponte like Kerry, a repositioned player, a new face for business-as-usual?

Someone I respect as an honest man went back to Washington years ago, and, after hobnobbing quite a bit, returned to say he’d met no one who seemd capable of arcane plotting at the degree many of us assumed pertained.
He said it was mostly just an aggregate of megalomaniacs, self-interested gladhanders nervous for their own stake in the deal-after-deal that was national politics.

I wonder what he’d find today.


Keith M Ellis 04.14.04 at 9:11 pm

I can’t tell you how depressing it is that I find myself wishing that we had more realpolitik types in power.—Joe Tomei

You and me both, Joe.

I’m not happy with either choice. I approve of the realpolitikos’ pragmatism, but do not approve of the ends to which their pragmatism aims. Conversely, I (sort of) approve of the neocons’ ends, but do not approve of their means. I guess I’m Brzezinski-esque: I think that an activist (and even militarist, as a last resort) foreign policy that is pro-democracy, pro-market, pro-human rights is ultimately in the US’s best interests; and—this is an important point—such a foreign policy needs to be relentlessly pragmatic, always evaluating its methods for effectiveness.

Given this view, I find both the admin’s camps very unsatisfactory. I’ll accept the neocons at their word and believe that they’re not primarily imperialistic but rather idealistically pro-democracy—but their view of how the world actually works is so naive and simple-minded that they have no hope in hell of achieving their goals and are, instead, likely to make things much, much worse.

I approve of the realpolitikos’ realism and pragmatism, but believe that their focus on short-term/middle-term American interests—particularly in that they are primarily focused upon protecting those interests and the status quo—is a long-term recipe for disaster. I tend to think of Iran as greatly illustrative of this.

So the choice is between well-intentioned, deluded fools and short-sighted, self-interested, scheming realists. Lovely. I suppose the reason that I prefer the latter over the former is because while both are disastrous over the long-term, at least the latter has some competency over the short-term. And right now, regarding Iraq, the predictive/effective horizon is very, very near.


msg 04.14.04 at 10:57 pm

Keith Ellis-
Are you saying Wolfowitz, Perle, et al. are acting out of pro-democratic idealism?
My assumption being they’re “neocons” as you’re using the term.
So that’s sort of “subverting democratic principles in order to establish and preserve democracy”, isn’t it?
Pretty much what got Bush and his puppetmasters into the White House in the first place

I’ll suggest that anyone trying to find a place of compromise and agreement, no matter how theoretically abstract, with the men responsible for Falujah, and the ongoing, less-dramatic, serial atrocity of Iraq, do so out of timidity and a desire to preserve their comfortable places in the staus quo, and nothing more.


Keith M Ellis 04.14.04 at 11:50 pm

I’ll suggest that anyone trying to find a place of compromise and agreement, no matter how theoretically abstract, with the men responsible for Falujah, and the ongoing, less-dramatic, serial atrocity of Iraq, do so out of timidity and a desire to preserve their comfortable places in the staus quo, and nothing more.“—MSG

A strong accusation that seems to be leveled at me. It’s not appropriate, however. I’m describing, not excusing. I sympathise with their desire for “democracy”, but don’t we all? It’s like being in favor of motherhood and happiness. One could say the pro-lifers favor motherhood, after all. The devil’s in the details.

The neocon vision, such as it is, is one where the US unilaterally uses its military might to remove dictatorial and corrupt regimes and replace them with democratic, US-friendly (natch) ones. This is in itself not that terribly objectionable (in my opinion) and is idealistic in a way that conservative foreign policy typically is not.

US foreign policy in general, and conservative foreign policy in specific, has historically been concerned with protecting US business interests above all else. It has been arguably idealistic only in its ardent anti-communism—but wasn’t that also just protecting business interests, too? Also, with the exception of business and anticommunist efforts, conservative foreign policy has traditionally been isolationist.

In this sense, then, the neocon vision of foreign policy is somewhat radical and definitely idealistic. They were a fringe group within the Republican Party until recently; and, now that some powerful folks have gotten their use of them, they are again becoming marginalized. They were very keen on nation building because, to them, that is the whole point. That is to say, an exemplary middle-eastern democracy was their goal. Getting rid of Hussein was just the first step. Ultimately, they are culturally and not militaristically imperialistic. Their aim is to convert, not dictate. Force is a means to an end. Essentially, they are utopians. They are democratic, capitalist, messianic expansionists.

One could argue that a portion, at least, of the medieval crusaders were idealistic, as well. So you see that my arguing this about the neocons is certainly not a defense of them. A great deal of evil has been perpetrated by foolish idealists.

A neocon foreign policy was doomed to be a disaster, I think. But the Iraq occupation and Bush foreign policy has been especially disastrous because it’s not been neocon, nor even realpolitik; but, instead, Rovian. It’s utilized anti-terrorism and neocon rationales for attempted short-term domestic political gain. It has never thought more than 90-days ahead. It wrongly believes that reality can always be subordinated to political spin. This point of view is the ultimate source of evil from within this administration—it’s used the various idealists, and the ignorant, as dupes…as is often the case.

What’s interesting to me is that even in this, the Bush administration is amazingly incompetent. I can tell you why Bush is obstinately sticking with the handover timetable. It’s because the primary political consideration is to get the hell out without the appearance of defeat, and the handover seems to be an important part of this. However, it completely ignores the reality that we can’t, in fact, just get the hell out of Iraq; and attempting to disengage now will only make things worse. In midsummer, Americans may think we’re going to be able to extract ourselves from the Iraq quagmire. By election season, it will be obvious that we can’t and it will be clearly a clusterfuck. This strategy, as a domestic political strategy, is idiotic. Every one of these people, in every way—with the possible exception of Dick Cheney in his quest for personal influence and wealth—is mind-bogglingly incompetent.


Matt Weiner 04.15.04 at 1:23 am

I’m not sure that the neocons are exclusively interested in nation-building; if they were, they should have been raising holy hell over Afghanistan.
What the neocons are interested in is nation-building as a means to remaking the whole Middle East. A goal that, I agree, is more idealistic than GOP foreign policy usually is, and is laudable in that I’d like to see it happen, if my fairy godmother were granting wishes (sarcasm directed at neocons, not at KME).
The problem is that this means that nation-building is only useful to the neocons if it can be done on the cheap, because they’ve got lots of nations to knock down and rebuild. (Remember when Syria and Iran were the next stops on the tour?) The patient, unglamorous, hard hard hard work of rebuilding nations one by one is not for them. They would like to do it lightning quick and on to the next one, until they’ve attained the utopia KME talks about.
And so they act like the bridge player who’s bid a grand slam and has to hope that the cards lie just right in order to pull it off. That’s what would make them so dangerous even if they weren’t incompetent–on the other hand, it’s part of what makes them incompetent.


msg 04.15.04 at 4:37 am

Keith Ellis-
Thanks for the lesson in erudition and control.
And the detailed exposition on neocon intentions.
I know a lot less about the nuts and bolts of geopolitical mechanisms than I should, to speak so loudly about them. But I’m reluctant to surrender the debate to a minority of credentialed commentators and just sit back and hope for the best.

This all seems to have a direction, purposeful or not. It seems to get darker by the hour.
Ultimately the philosphies don’t seem as pertinent as the levels of ego-driven self-interest and sociopathic rationality, divorced from what I personally consider to the nobler forms of human purpose.
There’s a lot at stake, and a lot of deceit and complacency. Thus my over-reaction.
Thanks again.


Keith M Ellis 04.15.04 at 5:19 am

Nicely put, Matt. My view of the neocons regarding nation-building seems a little bit contradictory, but I think it makes sense if one looks under the surface. You’re absolutely correct that the neocons thought they could nation-build on the cheap and this assumption is key to the viability of their whole enterprise. This assumption is part-and-parcel with the naive neocon worldview: why wouldn’t it be easy, quick and cheap since the US is obviously the agent of Truth, Justice, and Freedom? (Cue: children with flowers.) However, I do think that the neocons are also naive in the sense that faced with contrary evidence, they will rationalize it away. That is to say, were they the ones making the decisions, they’d take failure as an opportunity to double-down because they’re sure that they’ll triumph in the end. If it turns out to be a lot of work to nation-build, then, well, their timetable just has to be extended. Again, the best way to understand them is as a variety of utopians.

Afghanistan isn’t discomfirming of this view because, I think, it wasn’t a neocon war. Sure, all things being equal they would have applied their worldview to Afghanistan—but all things weren’t equal. The Gulf is their primary interest and they long ago fixated upon Iraq as the lynchpin. Afghanistan just got in the way.

I was trying to explain this view of neocons to someone last week. To him, “neocon” was a contemporary form of Kissingerian realpolitik, but nakedly expansionist and bluntly Machiavellian. In his view, my claim that Cheney and Rumsfeld are not actually neocons was in some sense a defense of them, wittingly or unwittingly. When I tried to explain that my view of Cheney and Rumsfeld is closer to his view of neocons, he was unpersuaded.

And then I mentioned Saudi Arabia.

The neocons have long been outspokenly critical of the Saudis as an example of a corrupt, antidemocratic regime. That it has traditionally been (relatively) pro-American is a virtue, but not a saving virtue (particularly in that they argue that the Saudis really haven’t been pro-American). In contrast, an essential realpolitik characteristic is a friendliness to tractable, nominally pro-American regimes regarldess of whether or not they are corrupt and antidemocratic. Indeed, dictatorial regimes are preferred because they are more predictable and easier to deal with than democracies. And, these days absent the context of the Cold War, the American interests that are primary to a realpolitik worldview are economic.

And I asked this fellow: who won that argument (Saudi Arabia)? The neocons or the realpolitikos? Who wields the true power in this administration?

He was suddenly convinced.


Keith M Ellis 04.15.04 at 5:31 am

I should say where I think Bush fits into this. He’s something of a mystery, I admit, and I’m only guessing.

But my guess is that he’s so ignorant and shallow-minded about foreign policy (as he is with nearly everything) that it’s probably not at all apparent to him that there is a distinction between the neocon and realpolitik views. It all makes a certain sort of sense to him; and both camps probably confuse him by appropriating the arguments of the other when it’s useful. Bush is, in a sense, very much the American Everyman he’s presented as being. That is to say, he’s nominally idealistic and well-intentioned but his worldview is so simple-minded and uninformed that he can’t really differentiate between his ideals and his own self-interests. He’s not reflective and he doesn’t think about his mostives much because, he’s sure, he’s the good guy and he’s right. This makes him an almost ideal dupe, with the caveat that he’s often stubborn and willful. He’s just like the average American.

This isn’t a defense of him because, I think, this sort of moral hubris and willful ignorance is the essential grease in the machinery of human suffering.


Ray 04.15.04 at 6:58 am

It is a longstanding expression of American idealism that we don’t believe there is a contradiction between the pursuit of our interests, and the promotion of our ideals. If espousal of this belief is “ignorant and shallowminded,” then the President is in good company indeed.


wbb 04.15.04 at 2:21 pm

So are the neocons the useful idiots of the realists? The neocon narrative that the war was really about helping the world become like the USA was a far easier sell – once the WMD lie had worn old – than the perennial naked self-interest line.

The realists have got a foothold back in Iraq and its oil industry ahead of the Chinese et al. Sure it’s costng a lot but that’s short-term cost. Over the next 50 years, until it’s all run dry, and we’re otherwise energised, the investment willl prove to be very sound.

By that time talk of neocons will only ring bells with specialist historians.


Matt Weiner 04.15.04 at 11:14 pm

he can’t really differentiate between his ideals and his own self-interests. He’s not reflective and he doesn’t think about his mostives much because, he’s sure, he’s the good guy and he’s right. This makes him an almost ideal dupe, with the caveat that he’s often stubborn and willful.
Bang on, I think. This is the only way I’ve ever been able to explain l’affaire Plame; it comes from people who think, because they’re so good, attacking their opponents is by definition righteous–and that doesn’t distinguish between real opponents and political opponents. (And I think Bush has a particularly bad case of this.)
I also note that we gravitate toward different card games. :-)

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