Foreign Policy and the 2020 Presidential Election

Beto O’Rourke campaigns during the recording of the “Political Party Live” podcast in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, March 15, 2019. (Ben Brewer/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Famous bass guitarist and skateboarder Beto O’Rourke assures us that he has identified the prime impediment to peace in the Middle East; a perpetually troubled city on the East Coast finds its mayor has discovered an innovative new form of corruption; and yet another not-all-that-popular Democrat convinces himself that the people are calling his name and begging him to run for president.

Beto O’Rourke: Bibi Netanyahu Is a Racist

Beto O’Rourke, who was in high school during the First Intifada, running an alternative weekly newspaper during the Second Intifada, and who was on the El Paso City Council when Bibi Netanyahu became Israeli Prime Minister for the second time, warns us that the U.S. — Israel relationship “must be able to transcend a prime minister who is racist.”

If you thought the relationship between Netanyahu and Barack Obama was tense, imagine how things would be between Netanyahu and O’Rourke.

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O’Rourke added, “I don’t think that Benjamin Netanyahu represents the true will of the Israeli people.” Netanyahu has won four national elections; we’ll see later this week if he can win a fifth.

As we watch the bass guitarist-skateboarder-former congressman wade into the realm of international relations, it’s worth remembering that there are two main approaches to foreign policy offered by American politicians, and neither one is guaranteed to be effective.

Think of President Trump as an example of the first approach: direct, blunt, and denounced as “bullying” among the Davos set. Trump can make charm offensives, as with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, or he can flash not-so-veiled contempt for other world leaders, like Canada’s Justin Trudeau or Germany’s Angela Merkel. This approach is often dismissed as “cowboy diplomacy” by newspaper columnists, think-tank experts, and foreign-policy officials from the preceding administration.

Let’s use former secretary of state John Kerry as the example of the second approach. Kerry held endless meetings and summits and was patient to a fault. He enjoyed reminding the public how complicated, nuanced, and delicate his negotiations could be. He spent so much time in talks in conference rooms in Geneva that he should have bought a condo there. Week after week, month after month, Kerry would engage in shuttle diplomacy, journeying from foreign capital to foreign capital, and point to incremental progress on the thorniest of issues and argue that if the same approach continued, eventually there would be a grand breakthrough.

Despite the diametrically opposed styles, these are both attempts to get a country to do something when they are not inclined to do it. In both cases, there’s a belief that getting another country to do what we want is a matter of pressing the right buttons. In the Trump approach, we have to press the buttons harder, to make clear what a priority this is to us and make clear the consequences of a lack of cooperation. The threat of a fiery denunciation on Twitter is never far away, with the president of the United States castigating a foreign leader for all the world to see. In the Kerry approach, getting another country is like safecracking, listening carefully to the internal mechanisms until we figure out the right combination to get them to do what we want, and then carefully calibrating our actions to coax them in that direction.

But countries aren’t machines. Sometimes they just are unwilling to do what we want them to do, because they are convinced that our preferred course of action is against their national interest. Maybe they perceive their national interest in a way that strikes us as irrational or excessively aggressive or unfair to others. But no amount of American strong-arming or sweet-talk is likely to get them to change their minds.

Let’s take a seemingly simple U.S. foreign-policy goal, getting Turkey to be nicer to the Kurds. The Trump administration, and quite a few Americans across the political spectrum, would like to wind down our efforts in Syria with the Islamic State now largely defeated. The Kurds have been a steady U.S. ally throughout the war on terror, and they made up a big chunk of the Syrian Democratic Forces that fought ISIS. Back in February, Trump met with Kurdish Leader Ilham Ahmed and told her, “I love the Kurds.” If the U.S. foreign-policy community isn’t united in a desire to see the Kurds as an independent nation, there’s a broad consensus that we would like to see Turkey stop seeing all Kurdish forces in Syria as “terrorists” and pledging to “crush” all of them.

But there is no foreign-policy button on Turkey that says, “Be nicer.” Turkish politics are complicated. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is authoritarian, paranoid, and ambitious. His country’s politics have always been shaped by a fear that the Kurds in the southeast would attempt to secede. There’s a genuine, longstanding, serious terrorist threat from the PKK; last month the Turks claimed they had launched a joint military operation with the Iranians against the PKK. (Iran has its own problems with Kurdish separatists.) The term “deep state” originated in Turkish politics, because they really do have portions of the government bureaucracy pursuing their own agendas in secret. Erdogan and the foreign ministry face their own internal political pressures and pressures from public opinion. As in almost every country, no leader at any level can afford to look weak or appear to be submitting to foreign influence.

Diplomatic pressure from the United States is always going to be one of several competing forces shaping the decisions made by the Turkish government; at some times it will be stronger than other times, but it rarely will be enough to get Ankara to change its behavior all by itself. They say politics is the art of the possible and diplomacy is the same. But that’s not a particularly satisfying way to look at it, particularly for politicians who are convinced that they are blessed with an unparalleled gift at persuading others. There’s a famous anecdote that “as Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’”

In 2020, we’ll hear a lot from governors, senators, and mayors about how they would transform American foreign policy and breakup longstanding diplomatic logjams by “reaching out to our allies” and “engaging in substantive dialogue” and promises of vague “innovative new approaches.” No one wants to acknowledge that maybe the trouble spots of the world are as good as they can get, and that there is no possible lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, a happy reconciliation between China and Taiwan, durable peace on the Korean peninsula, or quick end to the war in Yemen, or substantive easing of tensions over Kashmir. Maybe the status quo in Afghanistan is as good as it’s going to get.

At Least Your Mayor Hasn’t Done This!

You may have heard that Baltimore’s mayor — not the one that presided over the riots, the new one — is caught in an embarrassing scandal of writing a hideously cliched children’s book entitled Healthy Holly and collecting backdoor bribes by having a hospital network that has business with the city buy a hundred thousand copies of the self-published book.

Apparently creative forms of bribery are no more popular than the traditional kind:

The Baltimore City Council called Monday on Mayor Catherine Pugh to resign.

The 14 council members sent a two-sentence letter to Pugh on Monday morning urging her to step down and sent copies to acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Solicitor Andre Davis, Pugh’s chief of staff Bruce Williams, and Baltimore’s senators and delegates in the General Assembly.

“The entire membership of the Baltimore City Council believes that it is not in the best interest of the City of Baltimore for you to continue to serve as Mayor,” the council members wrote to Pugh. “We urge you to tender your resignation, effective immediately.”

Hey, does any publisher want to commission a parody children’s book about “Corrupt Catherine”?

Oh, Heck, Let’s Throw in the Groundhog Killer. At This Point, Why Not, Right?

Good heavens, every last Democrat is going to run, aren’t they?

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s communications director is leaving City Hall to work on his federal political action committee, the latest sign that de Blasio is leaning toward a run for president.

Mike Casca, who came to City Hall in 2017 after working on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, will leave his city job Monday, he said. Wiley Norvell, a communications aide to de Blasio since he was the public advocate, will assume the $180,000-a-year role.

De Blasio’s got a 42 percent approval rating in the city and 76 percent think he shouldn’t run. I’d say there’s light at the end of the tunnel for de Blasio, but considering the state of the New York City subway, that light is an oncoming train that is perpetually delayed.

ADDENDUM: From a good essay by Terry Newman, covering Don Quixote, moral panics, and politics:

The real world, as Cervantes knew, is not that simple. Someone can be skeptical of the existence of “non-binary” genders without being a transphobe. Someone can suggest that women might, in general, be inclined to possess different interests than men without being a misogynist. Someone can think that things in the western world have been getting progressively better on the whole for centuries without being a white supremacist. These opinions are not indicative of a moral deficiency. These opinions may be correct, or they may be incorrect. They may also be changeable, or nuanced, or based on differing life experiences. The people holding these varied opinions are not thieves or blasphemers or giants. They are your fellow townsfolk.

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