Let Me Know Just How Much I’m Missing-Face The Nation’s Interview With Defense Secretary James Mattis

Here’s a May 28th, 2017 interview with the Secretary about current American foreign policy being coordinated through the Departments of Defense and State, under the direction of the President (it still feels a little strange to write….President Trump):

My takeaways below.

  1. Regarding ISIS: ‘Accelerate’ confrontation and engage ISIS where they are, ‘clearing’ them once engaged and isolated (no longer allowing them either maintain territory, disperse and/or regroup).  Let the people on the ground pursue this strategy with a fair amount of latitude. ***As to the psychological, ideological, social, political and religious reasons individuals seem to be joining ISIS…from Molenbeek all the way to Raqqa, worry about that later, I guess.  No more territory and the legitimacy/revenue that comes with territory, seems to be the current plan regarding ISIS, which will require more resources.
  2.  Regarding Turkey’s NATO membership and internal pressures from the Kurdish PKK (Kurdish [Communist] militiamen who are Turkish citizens fighting ISIS), it seems Mattis is more committed to NATO obligations despite Erdogan’s autocratic moves.  The fact that Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish militias/leadership have been primary anti-ISIS combatants, means that Kurds should probably expect to receive some arms/logistical/tactical support during the fight against ISIS, but should probably expect to fend for themselves on any grander scale/later on.
  3. North Korea: While maintaining the DMZ, and honoring South Korean obligations, consulting Japanese leadership and leveraging Chinese influence, the goal is to try and hold the North Korean regime to some account in continuing the process of marrying ICBM technology with nuclear capability to fulfill its presumed ideological supremacy/destiny.  This will also be an attempt to reassert more of a leadership role for American hard and soft power in the region, while trying to deny the North Korean regime’s economic channels.
  4. Try and deal with Russia as it is, which is to say, Russian leadership continues a divide and conquer strategy in Georgia/Ukraine, and also continues the cold logic and vague threat of force with former Soviet satellites in the Baltics, testing the resolve of European and Western leadership and organization.  They’re not playing nice and pursuing a deeply anti-Western strategy (low birth-rates and Russian nationalism is being solidified around an assertive, kleptocratic regime heavily reliant on natural resources).
  5. NATO is not going to be abandoned, but it probably won’t hurt to have members pony-up some dough to realize the fundamental mission of security NATO offers to its members.  You may not need to change the by laws, but let’s make sure the members have reasonable skin in the game and review the membership rules from time to time.

Domestically, I suppose the plan is to maintain as much political/cultural unity in the American Republic as possible (a serious issue, indeed), while reaffirming American alliances abroad around this basic strategy.

Interestingly, Dickerson asks Mattis about Iran, and why post-1979 Iranian revolutionaries always seem to have a hand in all kinds of guns/money/terrorist activity throughout the Middle-East, so often aligning against American interests (Hizbollah in Lebanon, current uprisings in Yemen, meddling in Israel/Palestine etc.).

Mattis attributes this to the nature of their 1979 Islamic revolution, the beliefs and ideals of the people who grabbed and still maintain power in Iran (suppressing political dissent).

This reminded me that some in the West and the Middle-East will argue exactly the same about moral legitimacy since the American revolution (some with better reasons and understanding than others).  Why does America (and not so much Canada, Australia etc.) go around and keep trying to re-make the world in its image?

Isn’t it all just morally relativistic, anyways, man?

And more broadly: Do moral relativism, value pluralism and all manner of modern liberal projects run aground upon the rocks of nihilism?

Correspondence here.

Kelley Ross responds to a correspondent on Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism, while discussing John Gray as well:

‘Now, I do not regard Berlin’s value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extent that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism. I have no doubt that respecting a considerable value pluralism in society is a good thing and that a nomocratic regime that, mostly, leaves people alone is morally superior to a teleocratic regime that specifies and engineers the kinds of values that people should have. However, the project of showing that such a regime IS a good thing and IS morally superior is precisely the kind of thing that Gray decided was a failure.

Thus, I believe Gray himself sees clearly enough that a thoroughgoing “value pluralism” would mean that the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini is just as morally justified as the regime of Thomas Jefferson. Gray prefers liberalism (or its wreckage) for the very same reason that the deconstructionist philosopher Richard Rorty prefers his leftism: it is “ours” and “we” like it better. Why Gray, or Rorty, should think that they speak for the rest of “us” is a good question. ‘

and about providing a core to liberalism:

‘Why should the state need a “sufficient rational justificaton” to impose a certain set of values? The whole project of “rational justification” is what Gray, and earlier philosophers like Hume, gave up on as hopeless. All the state need do, which it has often done, is claim that its values are favored by the majority, by the General Will, by the Blood of the Volk, or by God, and it is in business.’

And that business can quickly lead to ever-greater intrusion into our lives:

‘J.S. Mill, etc., continue to be better philosophers than Berlin or Gray because they understand that there must be an absolute moral claim in the end to fundamental rights and negative liberty, however it is thought, or not thought, to be justified. Surrendering the rational case does not even mean accepting the overall “value pluralism” thesis, since Hume himself did not do so. ‘

Are libertarians the true classical liberals?  Much closer to our founding fathers?

What Henry Kissinger still has to offer:

On Burkean Conservatism:

‘The billiard table is a seductive analogy. But in real foreign policy, the billiard balls do not react only to physical impact. They are also guided by their own cultural inheritances: their histories, instincts, ideals, their characteristic national approaches to strategy, in short, their national values. A realist foreign policy needs a strong value system to guide it through the inherent ambiguities of circumstance. Even Bismarck, the supreme realist, emphasized the ultimate moral basis of realist statesmanship: “The best a statesman can do is to listen carefully to the footsteps of God, get ahold of the hem of His cloak and walk with Him a few steps of the way.’

and a partial look at ideas underlying his multipolar vision:

‘The distinction between idealism and realism rejects the experience of history. Idealists do not have a monopoly on moral values; realists must recognize that ideals are also part of reality. We will be less frequently disillusioned if we emphasize a foreign policy designed to accumulate nuance rather than triumph through apocalyptic showdowns, and our values will benefit over the longer term.’

Related On This Site: Isaiah Berlin, as a youth fled a well-integrated family of Latvian Jews to Britain (for his life), subsequently spending more time with Marx than any man should…but also Mill, is value pluralism a response…or does it just lead to the same relativism and nihilism?: A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

John Gray is criticizing many claims to progress in ethics and politics in the Western World, with a heavy Nietzschean influence (man is still capable of great barbarism & achievement) Repost-Classical Liberalism Via Friesian.Com-‘Exchange with Tomaz Castello Branco on John Gray’

Robert Kagan At Brookings: ‘The Twilight Of the Liberal World Order’

Some thoughts on Fukuyama and Leo Strauss: Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Michael Totten At The Tower: ‘Why Arming The Kurds Is Worth Angering The Turks’

Full piece here.

‘Two years ago, Eli Lake published a quickly-forgotten Bloomberg View column about a U.S. weapons airdrop in Syria supposedly intended for the Syrian Arab Coalition. The problem is, the Syrian Arab Coalition isn’t real. It’s a made-up front group that exists solely on paper so the Obama administration could say it was arming Arabs when it was really arming Kurds. An unnamed U.S. official admitted to Lake that the group is a “ploy,” and Syrian Kurds confirmed that they received weapons and ammunition.’

Hmmm…so far restoring old alliances seems high on Trump’s list, at least on the surface:

Ofra Bengio At The American Interest: The Kurds’ Proxy Trap
As previously posted

Independent Kurdistan-A Good Outcome For American Interests?

In his book Where The West Ends, Totten describes visiting Northern Iraq briefly as a tourist with a friend, and the general feeling of pro-Americanism in Kurdish Northern Iraq that generally one can only feel in Poland, parts of the former Yugoslavia etc.

Related On This Site: Adam Garfinkle At The American Interest’s Via Media: “The Rise Of Independent Kurdistan?”From Reuters: ‘Analysis: Syrian Kurds Sense Freedom, Power Struggle Awaits’

The Same Old Quote From Samuel Huntington While Watching Current Events In Syria

Perhaps now, after eight years, we’ve returned towards some semblance of what came before, but now with many changes in the American cultural/political landscape duly reflected in foreign policy.

The more liberal internationalist and humanitarian discontents (neo-neo-conservatives?) seem ok using American military force to draw clear lines against the use of chemical weapons.

Or perhaps better said: Some liberal internationalists are ok using American military force and patriotism right now for these aims if the international institutional authority to which they are predisposed isn’t forthcoming.

While Donald Trump has triggered many into foaming domestic mistrust, weirdly, he may end-up uniting many humanitarian realpolitikers and pro-military, anti-terrorist, anti-Islamist types with this strike.

Subject to change.

Syria, you’ll recall, was teetering early-on during Obama’s tenure (when Libya involvement was chosen instead), and soon devolved into the horrendous civil conflict we see today:

Many in Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are paying pretty close attention and strategizing accordingly.

In other words, we’ve gone from Peace-Activist-In-Chief back towards the center with a more pro-union, pro-military and socially liberal New York excutive-in-chief making strange bedfellows while also shaping and seeking public sentiment.

A quote from this piece over at the Atlantic: From The Atlantic: Samuel Huntington’s Death And Life’s Work

“Although the professional soldier accepts the reality of never-ending and limited conflict, “the liberal tendency,” Huntington explained, is “to absolutize and dichotomize war and peace.” Liberals will most readily support a war if they can turn it into a crusade for advancing humanistic ideals. That is why, he wrote, liberals seek to reduce the defense budget even as they periodically demand an adventurous foreign policy.”

Are we back here again or someplace like it?

My two cents, dear reader.

From Via Media-Obama’s Syria Play A Failure…Michael Totten On The Problem From Hell In Syria

Related On This Site: More Syria-From Via Media: ‘Congress on Syria: Going In On A Wing and A Prayer’From Slate: ‘In Aleppo, Syria, Mohamed Atta Thought He Could Build The Ideal Islamic City’

Michael Totten At World Affairs: ‘Syria’s Regime Not Worth Preserving’James Kirchik At The American Interest: 

Michael Totten’s piece that revisits a Robert Kaplan piece from 1993, which is prescient:  “A Writhing Ghost Of A Would-Be Nation”.  It was always a patchwork of minority tribes, remnants of the Ottoman Empire

Via Readers-Two North Korea Links

From Mick Hartley: ‘At The Mausoleum Of The Dear Leader

Take a trip to the Hermit Kingdom:


Via another reader-

Christopher Hitchens on North Korea: ‘Visit To A Small Planet

What about value pluralism…positive and negative liberty?: The classical liberal tradition…looking for classical liberals in the postmodern wilderness: Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty: A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

Classical Liberalism Via Friesian.Com-’Exchange with Tomaz Castello Branco on John Gray’

The End Of History? –Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Here Is Hard To See-A Discussion Of Foreign Policy And Some Possibilities For Trump: Eliot Cohen On ‘The Big Stick’


by no3rdw

Eliot Cohen discusses his book ‘The Big Stick‘ alongside an interesting panel at Johns Hopkins School Of International Studies.

Here are some interesting points brought up throughout the hour-long discussion:

Cohen makes the case for re-energization of the post WWII international order America has created and for which it has set the ground rules; to continue the liberal international order and fund it with our blood and treasure (by Cohen’s lights, the benefits still outweigh the costs).

America ought to keep tending to fragile alliances, working hard to maintain them, and keep preparing itself to back them up Teddy Roosevelt-style:  There’s a place for American hard-power, and will likely be to defend this liberal order as Cohen sees it.

Much American thought and institutional strategic planning hasn’t necessarily pivoted since the end of the Cold War.

American ‘big-picture’ thinking has perhaps been in decline, giving way to a lot of high-level discussions about theoretical disputes (not necessarily a good indicator of institutional strength…but you probably already knew that).  In my experience, the less there is or there appears to be, the more people tend to fight over it.

Regional disputes are more dominant right now (Russia in Ukraine and the Baltics…China in the South China sea) and unfortunately, America doesn’t necessarily have the hard power to set rules in more than one region, even if it’s just deploying military force to back up the liberal order in one region at a time.

This means we could be headed for a very bumpy ride (not just here at home).

***For what it’s worth: I’ve become annoyed at frequent emotional and establishment anti-Trumpism (which Cohen displays) for a few reasons:

I feel loyalty and sympathy for Tea-Party-esque populism, and I see it as a vital corrective against institutional decay and potential abuse of power (I think of this as a Constitutional Republic with a functioning democracy…and I often find myself sharing the local sentiment of people who sacrifice the blood and treasure for the liberal order to run…and who often get little in return).

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize Trump:  He’s opportunistic and probably not all that principled and may well be taking advantage of Tea-Party populism.  He’s a shrewd NYC real-estate developer offering many reasons to wonder if his character is fit for the office (the woman-chasing and self-promotion).

He could easily blunder us into conflict, and expose us all to serious risk.

He could well fuse a cruder, authoritarian populist nationalism {into the American political DNA} based on his experience as a NYC real-estate developer, gravitating towards what he knows: Strong unions + ruthless competition + big money + slickly navigating regulatory mazes + bravado and showmanship.

But, boy, he sure is galvanizing a lot of people who channel their own anger and righteous indignation onto him, having beaten many at their own game, highlighting just how much institutional and political decay there is in American life these days, and just how many people are willing to take advantage of it.

As Cohen points out:  Here we are.

But…enough already.  You’ve got your own thoughts.  Building-up is a lot easier than tearing-down.

Robert Kagan At Brookings: ‘The Twilight Of the Liberal World Order’

Some thoughts on Fukuyama and Leo Strauss: Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Possible Trump Foreign Policy Options, Socially Conscious Medicine & A Death-Some Links

Adam Garfinkle at the American Interest: ‘Same World, Lonely World, Cold World:

I suppose we’ll see:

Amid this storm, there are nevertheless only three possible generic outcomes for strategy: (1) same world, meaning a basic continuation of the present liberal internationalist American grand strategy and role in the world; (2) lonely world, defined as a neo-isolationist, “fortress America” attended by military unilateralism when deemed necessary, and maximum feasible economic autarky; and (3) cold world, a selectively activist pre-liberal balance-of-power realpolitik strategy.’

As a friend points out:  Many people who can be persuaded to veer neo-conservative (using the American military/hard power to potentially secure secular human rights) are not happy with the return to nationalism, and may be especially suspicious of Trump’s free-wheeling authoritarian and populist impulses.


Dr. Empathy, M.D., to the Operating Theater…:

Yes, but it is Seattle:

‘Goal:  To provide participants the opportunity to generate and rehearse a variety of responses to challenging situations related to inequity, institutional climate, and interpersonal conflicts in classroom and clinical settings.’

As recently posted: Medical Correctness:

‘Medical journals have thus gone over to political correctness—admittedly with the zeal of the late convert—comparatively recently. Such correctness, however, is now deeply entrenched. With The New England Journal of Medicine for July 16, 2016 in hand, I compared it with the first edition I came across in a pile of old editions in my slightly disordered study: that for September 13, 2007, as it happened, which is not a historical epoch ago. What started as mild has become strident and absurd.’


Tzvetan Todorov R.I.P.

As posted a few years ago:

Rescuing The Enlightement From Its Exploiters: A Review.

Tzvetan Todorov was primarily a literary theorist, but it’s often worth highlighting the following:

“Or take the current fetishisation of The Science, or as Todorov calls it, ‘scientism’.”

and

“We experience this most often, although far from exclusively, through environmentalist discourse. Here, science supplants politics. Competing visions of the good are ruled out in favour of that which the science demands, be it reduced energy consumption or a massive wind-power project. This, as Todorov sees it, involves a conflation of two types of reasoning, the moral (or the promotion of the good) and the scientific (or the discovery of truth).”

Russian Hackers, A Link On el-Sisi’s Egypt & A Little Less Mephistopheles For This Kindergarten

This blog believes fundamental conflicts within the West, fermenting within our institutions, foaming-over into our politics, invite the calculated meddling of those who think differently.

In the world of Statecraft, I’d prefer cold-eyed realism and calculated bastardry, when necessary, in the pursuit of American interests (ideally attached to decent human beings with checked, limited powers).  Overreach and hubris is easy.  Humility and good strategy is hard.

It’d be nice if Russia wasn’t being run as a kleptocracy by an ex-KGB agent, incentivizing a lot of bright hackers with little economic opportunity into the service of State propaganda and espionage…but:

C.S. Dickey:  ‘Putin Outfoxes Obama, Lies In Wait For Trump

Populist steam seems to be translating directly into policy these days.  Maybe it’s a kind of passive-aggressive placation of outrage in the service of ‘optics’.

That would be short-sighted and petty.


Link from a reader:  The Deep State in Egypt has been controlled by the military for a long time…’Egypt’s Failed Revolution.’

Many Westerners will probably go ahead and double-down on certain radical/semi-radical Western ideals just as those ideals are failing to translate into effective strategy by an exiting American administration.

Better keep James Taylor handy.

From Abu Muqawama: ‘Mubarak And Me’From Michael Totten: ‘The New Egyptian Underground’Michael Totten At The American Interest: “A Leaner, Meaner Brotherhood”

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Gore Vidal had a line that stuck with me in his review of Italo Calvino.

‘For the last year, Calvino had been looking forward to his fall and winter at Harvard. He even began to bone up on “literary theory.” He knew perfectly well what a mephitic kindergarten our English departments have become.

Well, that might be a little much.

Personally, I like to read people who don’t really think like me, especially when they satirize bureaucratic bloat and puffery as they find them.

I like folks on the outside looking in…tracing the shape of something.

Why do we have so many administrators, regulators, and overseers within our institutions?:

Incentives matter. A vigorous freedom and skeptical citizenry is hard to maintain, but vital nonetheless.

Climb aboard and hang-on, dazzled as you may be by the thrill of the thing.

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Beauty is no quality in things themselves, it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.

David Hume