Tom Cotton's war on reality: The GOP will recognize no limits

The extreme right will risk global conflict to preserve the fading dream of America's eternal hegemony

Published March 12, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

  (AP/Danny Johnston)
(AP/Danny Johnston)

That letter Republican senators, 47 of the 54 now seated, sent to Iran this week to sabotage the Obama administration’s nuclear talks is preposterous in numerous dimensions. Apart from the protocol breach and the naked politics of the piece, we are now on notice that the extreme right in our great country will risk global conflict, possibly nuclear, to preserve the fading dream of America’s eternal hegemony.

When a constituency of any kind is willing to put war and peace on the table to advance an agenda in the service of narrow interests, you are advised that it recognizes no limits. This is the subtext of the GOP’s screed, ridiculous and frightening all at once. Read it here. It is a classic case of the syndrome John Mearsheimer identified in “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” his 2001 book. When emerging powers challenge great powers, desperation arises.

Those who elected these people have a lot to answer for now. In this case, they subvert not only a highly promising foreign policy innovation but the constitutional arrangements that give this nation what governing structure survives its multiple corruptions. I rank the letter with the election the Supreme Court -- along with Jeb Bush, James Baker and Katherine Harris—ripped off in 2000.

Two autumns ago, when Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s reformist president, appeared at the U.N. to open the diplomatic door, I argued in this space that the danger of failure lay not in Iran’s “hard-liners” but in America’s. And here we are. This nation’s cult belief in the sanctity of violence as a religious and ideological instrument could now go operational once again.

Anyone who does not yet understand that we live amid a very hot war between past and future cannot be fully alert. And if we look at it this way, Iran is but one theater in America’s global conflict with reality.

I see another across the Pacific, where Washington simply cannot accept China’s historically inevitable emergence, and where it deludes itself into thinking India is always just about to abdicate the independence of mind it has honored since Nehru to make itself another neoliberal clone, “just like us.”

In spades, I see another in the dangerous face-off with Russia, which Washington has assiduously provoked for the whole of the post-Soviet period. It is all in the documents and the books of the better historians (of which but a few). This is an open-and-shut instance, evident now in every day’s newspapers.

At the moment, this nation’s quarrel with the world as it is becoming is most critical and dramatic in Europe. This may surprise. There is no threat of war. And no, I do not suggest that in its nostalgia and irrationality Washington will sunder the Atlantic alliance itself. That will hold, for better or worse.

But it is between American and Europe that the seismic rumbles are deepest. It is across the Atlantic that the long-term reality facing America is clearest: This is the reality of creeping isolation—in every case by way of America’s own doing. When you have to worry about your oldest friends as well as all the enemies you have made, the rot in Denmark is pretty far advanced.

Within the bounds of the Western alliance, it is now unmistakable that the Europeans are in pursuit of two things: redefinition and distance. In plain English, they have had it with America’s war-mongering in its heightened, post-Sept. 11 phase.

There is immense promise in this, in my view, and for this reason I favor the drift newly evident in trans-Atlantic ties. Europe now appears to entertain an ambition to stand against Washington as a counterbalancing power. Make this a reality and Europeans will also stand in de facto alliance with none other than Russia, China and other emerging powers implicitly or explicitly challenging American primacy.

The promise is simply stated: It consists in the prospect of a more stable, less chaotic and less inflamed world community. Let’s look at this possibility while we can—before, that is, Washington sets the Middle East on a course of all-out nuclearization or it arms Ukraine.

At the start of the year this column predicted that one of two relationships would suffer a fissure in 2015. Either Europe’s ties with Russia or Washington’s with Europe were in for a rupture of one magnitude or another, Ukraine the catalyst in either case.

The better of these two—European impatience with American unruliness—is now in motion.

Two weeks ago, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, announced the completion of a yearlong project he called “Review 2014—Foreign Policy Thinking Ahead” when he took office in late 2013. Good enough to start with Steinmeier’s pithiest observation when he unveiled the result in a speech to the Bundestag: “The world has changed, and the Federal Foreign Office must change with it.”

I gloat when I read that sentence. In a few words Steinmeier, a Social Democrat in Chancellor Merkel’s two-striped coalition, confirms what is possible when leadership in the industrial democracies decides to face 21st century realities.

Then the gloating gives way to lament: We Americans are not permitted such leaders. The only changes we are encouraged to contemplate are those ostensibly justifying more weaponry in more places and more surveillance everywhere. To take Steinmeier’s position in Washington today would be tantamount to betraying the cause of “the indispensable nation.”

Steinmemeir’s report, titled “Crisis—Rules—Europe,” does a lot of things. It commits Germany to policy principles that have long been its under-the-surface preference, but submerged in deference to Berlin’s especially strong commitment to the Atlantic alliance. “I believe that foreign policy is about more than just two extremes: either just talking or shooting, either futile diplomacy or Bundeswehr deployments abroad,” Steinmeier told the German legislature.

German policy is now to rest on three core principles, as reflected in the title:

* Crises are a reality in our era are to be anticipated by way of intelligent, holistic analysis; military intervention is a very last resort. Causality is to be understood once crises erupt—this a huge transgression in the land of “decontextualization”—and they are to be ameliorated in the post-crisis phase by way of all available resources: intellectual, economic, social. Political solutions are to be paramount.

* International law and trans-national regulation—just as they are, no need for a lot more—are to be enforced more rigorously. This applies to adversaries and allies alike, and if you ask me it is aimed more at the latter than the former, one ally in particular.

* German policy is to be thoroughly embedded in the European context. Steinmeier was perfectly clear as to the Foreign Office’s intent in this respect: “to give Europe more influence in world affairs.”

One other feature of Berlin’s exercise in self-examination has to stand out for any paying-attention American. Steinmeier’s ministry put special emphasis on transparency and public input. The report was prepared after a year’s consultation across the board: with unionists, civil society groups, scholars, and ordinary citizens by way of town hall meetings in places large and small across Germany.

The whole exercise impresses me, the transparency aspect especially. By a long tradition, foreign policy in the Western democracies, not least in America, has been the purview of sequestered elites. Recognizing this as another kind of crisis in the context of globalism, Steinmeier’s thought is to make policy reflective of popular preferences. Take a minute to consider the difference this would make in America’s behavior abroad if the policy cliques answered to those who pay their salaries.

I take the Germans very seriously for several reasons.

First, the Steinmeier report is an implicit claim to European leadership, and if this is to hold Berlin must articulate convictions, ideas and intentions shared across the Continent. “Crisis—Rules—Europe” does this. I also read in the document a declaration that Europe intends to turn diffidently stated preferences into policies it advances with more determination than it has to date.

Second, there is a long history behind this moment. The Europeans were reluctant partners in the Cold War crusade for most of its duration, a point Americans do not much like talking about. The critique of America’s aggressions grew more evident as the years went by, and the European Union is vastly more integrated than it was when the Berlin Wall came down.

Going back further, Europeans first took note of America the restive giant as far back as the 1840s, when this nation’s expansionist impulses first became evident—the Manifest Destiny days. Next time you are in a conversation about containment, remember: The notion is very old, it was Europe’s before it was George Kennan’s, and uneasy Europeans applied it to unruly America.

Finally, Europeans are now in a state of provocation that is not much reported in America media except in terms so mild as to mislead. It has been clear for months that Washington has overplayed its hand across the Atlantic over the past year or so. Those Germans, courteous to a fault, are too polite to say so, but in my read the Steinmeier report is a more or less direct response to Obama’s variant of the standard American presumptions.

Note, for instance, the E.U.’s increasingly evident departure from American policy in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. (And as of Sweden’s formal recognition last October, we will call it Palestine.)

Note in days ahead what happens if Republicans and the Israel lobby sink an agreement with Iran. Germany, France and Britain—negotiating partners along with Russia and China—have invested big in the past year’s negotiations. Recall,

Washington scuttled a deal the Europeans struck with Iran 11 years ago, and it was much better than anything likely to emerge now. I see barely restrained fury if the current project fails due to American reactionaries.

Ukraine, of course, lies at the root of Europe’s alienation. I have been dead certain of this since Chancellor Merkel and François Hollande, the French president, raced to Kiev and Moscow after Washington let it be known via the New York Times—the American leadership’s official bulletin board—that it was thinking of arming Ukraine.

The second Minsk cease-fire followed, no Americans invited to the talks in Minsk. Since then it is back to the cat-and-mouse: Merkel and the rest of Europe defending the ceasefire, frayed at the edges as it is, and generals and spooks in Washington taking turns to assert that the only solution lies in guns. The lineup reported in the Times Tuesday includes Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs; Defense Secretary Carter, And James Clapper, the intelligence director.

Here is what we watch now: Europe will accept a federal Ukraine, a structure that reflects the nation’s great divides—political, economic, social, historical, linguistic. It knows what is plain to anyone ungiven to ideology: Moscow wants stability at its doorstep as much as Europe does, and a negotiated solution is within reach. Flip side: Washington cares little about stability and even less about what is best for Ukrainians. A federal Ukraine is not Washington’s point; a full-dress military challenge and a neoliberal economy on Russia’s border is its point.

There have been a couple of interesting developments in this connection over the past week or so.

One was a broadside attack on Philip Breedlove, the ever-exaggerating American commander of NATO’s forces, carried in Der Spiegel English. It is here. Excellent piece, not to be missed.

Breedlove is a slightly wild-eyed paranoiac in the Al Haig mold, straight out of a Terry Southern satire. It turns out that the Europeans have for months been alarmed by his inventions—troop counts far above any produced by European intelligence, columns of nonexistent Russian troops and artillery, phantom buildups at the borders. Steinmeier, Berlin’s foreign minister, recently took the matter to Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s general secretary, to register Germany’s complaint.

Talk about overplaying the hand. “Berlin sources also say that it has become conspicuous that Breedlove's controversial statements are often made just as a step forward has been made in the difficult negotiations aimed at a political resolution,” Spiegel reports. An hour’s study confirms the pattern.

It is striking how clutzy American propaganda campaigns often turn out to be. And lest there be confusion as to who pulls Breedlove’s strings, Spiegel’s Washington bureau has this: “Sources in Washington say that Breedlove's bellicose comments are first cleared with the White House and the Pentagon. The general, they say, has the role of the ‘super hawk,’ increasing the pressure on America's more reserved trans-Atlantic partners.”

Now that is hands across the water, teamwork and unity of the kind Secretary of State Kerry bangs on about at every chance, all of it reproduced faithfully and without qualification or opposing sources in the newspaper of [the official] record.

No, nobody in any American media’s Brussels bureau thought you would take an interest in an uproar across Europe over America’s misrepresentations of the Ukraine crisis. Nor does any Washington bureau think it worth reporting that the infamous Victoria Nuland, the neoliberal hyperhawk at State, remains intimately involved in conducting the American propaganda program for Ukraine. The Spiegel report has it.

Nor this, out earlier this week from the BBC’s Moscow bureau:

Roosiya-1, a Moscow television channel, just released a trailer for a documentary to be released imminently. In the trailer as in the film, President Putin reveals for the first time that the Kremlin developed a “secret plan” to annex Crimea long before the March 16 referendum that demonstrated near-unanimous support among Crimeans.

The timing is fascinating. Russia's President Putin convened a meeting of defense and intelligence advisers on Feb. 22 last year to determine how to rescue Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted as president that day. The meeting lasted all night.

“We finished about 7 in the morning,” Putin says in the film clip. “When we were parting, I told all my colleagues, ‘We are forced to begin the work to bring Crimea back into Russia.’”

Until now the Russian leader has said only that the decision was taken after secretly conducted opinion polls indicated support for reunification among Crimeans was at 80 percent or higher. What is the take, you may ask. Caught lying once again?

That is not my read, or not my primary read, as white lies do not interest me. My primary read is that we have in this film confirmation that the Crimea annexation was in direct response to the sudden threat, with the Kiev coup, of a NATO and/or American takeover of Russia’s Black Sea naval facilities. The word you are looking for is "causality," and once again it comes clear: Moscow was provoked by reckless American ambition.

Europeans understand this word well and take an interest in it because they are serious about serious, workable solutions to international conflicts. And it goes without saying that they have understood from the first the dynamic from which the Ukraine crisis springs.

Consider this same question in the Iran case. The talk in the administration now is all about how much harder the GOP has made it for Washington to blame Tehran if the nuclear talks fail. Translation: We must avoid responsibility if we are responsible.

I have been caught out before with an overly optimistic view of Europe as evolving away from the Cold War paradigm to speak in a voice authentically their own. This I confess. I see more propitious circumstances this time.

Equally, I hold to the thought that American fundamentalists, not Iranian fundamentalists, are the principal danger to an accord of historical magnitude.

These are the theaters in which the past battles the present. Washington will not win this war. The net outcome will be the mounting isolation mentioned above, little more.

As to the rest of us, we must count ourselves fortunate that most of the world’s people, at least in my experience, are generous enough to distinguish between American leadership and American citizens.

It follows, then: Americans stand a chance to begin winning when Washington finally begins losing.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

MORE FROM Patrick L. Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Foreign Policy Iran Iran Letter John Kerry Republicans Tom Cotton Ukraine