Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Commentaries on Commentary: "Realists to the Rescue?"

Commentaries on Commentary: “Realists to the Rescue?”

Bret Stephens’ article in the February 2007 issue of Commentary magazine is, first and foremost, an attack on the Iraq Study Group’s set of “79 prescriptions for U.S. policy in the Middle East.” To reveal Mr. Stephens’ attitude, I don’t think I can do better than to quote this long sentence from his first paragraph. (I think this is what we might call the “topic sentence” of his essay.)

“With neoconservatism supposedly repudiated by the ‘fiasco’ of Iraq, the backing of a wise man’s council composed equally of Republicans and Democrats, and a friendly media breeze in its sails, the ISG report was heralded not just as a fresh perspective on Iraq but as offering, at last, a new and blessedly different type of foreign policy for a country tired both of foreign adventures and of the adventurist President conducting them.” (Page 27)

Let us consider for a moment this sentence. Mr. Stephens is saying that Iraq is not a “fiasco,” though it has been characterized as such by many observers. He is also saying that, therefore, neoconservatism has not been repudiated. He implies that the media is a leading force in attacks on our “adventurist President” and his policies. And, moreover, he considers that the favorable reception of the ISG report was due in large part to the bipartisan nature of the effort. If, however, the ISG report isn’t as successful as it was first represented to be, perhaps bipartisanship isn’t a valuable approach.

I could characterize this in a near-parody of criticism of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. Mr. Stephens seems – and the article makes clear that the seeming is real – to support the neoconservative enterprise which sponsored the war on and in Iraq, to support unilateralist and partisan political approaches, to place the media in the camp of the “enemy,” so that all media criticism of Mr. Bush can be attributed to partisan bias, and to feel that the war in Iraq has been to some degree successful. In other words, “We were right all along, and anyone who says we weren’t is against us for partisan political reasons.”

However, Mr. Stephens deserves better than that. He goes on to a review of the realist approach to international politics, from Hans Morgenthau, through Eisenhower and Nixon, to the present. He sees both failures and successes in that record, and his views may be summed up in this sentence: “Finally, realists have performed best when they have resisted the lure of their doctrine’s ingrained passivity, verging on defeatism.” In other words, realism is all right as long as it isn’t too realistic.

Mr. Stephens proposes five factors which are present in today’s “global affairs that challenge realism’s most basic premises.” These are:

The accelerated pace of democratization.
The reach and impact of the news media.
The intersection – one might say the blending – of humanitarian and strategic challenges.
The nature of post-9/11 terrorism.
The increasingly asymmetrical nature of global conflicts.

“The upshot,” says Mr. Stephens, “is that the United States faces a set of urgent challenges – and, to be sure, potentially fruitful opportunities – which realism never fully anticipated and to which realists have yet to adapt.” (Page 32).

This brings us back to the ISG and its weaknesses. Since the ISG is based on “bad” realist thinking, the sort of narrow, interest-based thinking that characterized the Eisenhower administration, it proposes that the U.S. hold the Iraqi administration to various standards, proposes diplomatic approaches to Syria and Iran, and ignores the perils of Hamas and Hizballah.

After saying that realism was, at its best, a call to common sense, he goes on:

“By contrast, today’s realists begin from theory and proceed to wishes: the wish that war against Islamist terror can be waged at the same relatively leisurely pace as the cold war, and perhaps need not be waged at all; the wish that one can negotiate in good faith and clear conscience with Iran and Syria; the wish that all will be resolved with the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict; the wish that one can curry favor with terrorists, and win them to our side, if only one offers the right mix of incentives; the wish that we can hold our allies’ feet to the fire, and not lose them.” (Page 34)

I would like to make four points.

First, Mr. Stephens is absolutely right that a realist approach (Thank you, Mr. Burke!) stressed prudence and a due regard to one’s limitations. Realists disliked exchanging a known, and controlled evil, for a new situation of unknown difficulty.

Second, a lot – only God knows how much – of Mr. Stephens’ critique of realism is due to the neoconservative attachment to Israel. Eisenhower’s realism was bad because it led him to stop the Suez adventure in 1956. Nixon’s realism was good because he support the Israelis in 1973. And, I suspect, the ISG is bad because it would call upon Israel to make concessions and to accept realities that are unpalatable to Israel.

Third, I think that none of Mr. Stephens’ five new factors are particularly new, nor do I think that a realist approach cannot account for them. After all, realist thinking was based on the run-up to World War I, in which terrorism, increasing democratization (from a much lower base), and asymmetrical relations all played a major part.

Fourth, I think Mr. Stephens’ gives his game away with one little phrase in the last statement quoted: “clear conscience.” Let us think about why one could not, with a clear conscience, open a discussion with any country about any subject.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Commentaries on Commentary: "Health Care in Three Acts"

Commentary is a magazine of strong, and sometimes unpalatable, views. It is, perhaps, most famous as a neoconservative magazine: Norman Podhoretz is Commentary's Editor-at-Large. Other prominent contributors in a conservative vein are Gabriel Schoenfeld, Joshua Muravchik, and Victor Hanson Davis. In addition to its political side, Commentary, provides criticism, book reviews, and a "Letters" department that prints the longest letters I have ever seen in a magazine. Even though I disagree with the contributors more often than not, I find Commentary fascinating because the articles are usually well thought out, well-written, and thought-provoking. On top of all that, Commentary provides insight into Jewish (and Israeli) culture and thought which is all terra incognita to this Gentile.

The tradition of commentaries is long and rich. I would imagine that most of my readers have read Machiavelli's Discourses on the First Ten Decades of Tito Livio. (If you haven't, run right out and get yourself a copy.) In the Discourses Machiavelli uses the stories in Livy's history of Rome since the founding of the city to generate and illustrate a variety of political and military lessons. Many of the essays of Montaigne are also based upon his reading in the classics.

I am not trying to establish the essays in Commentary as equal to Ab Urbe Condita. I am merely invoking the tradition of one author using the words of another as starting point for his own reflections. There are, of course, other sources upon which one may draw as an inspiration for one's essays. In any event, I plan to comment upon a number of articles from Commentary. Those who are interested in seeing the orginals are invited to visit

The February 2007 issue of Commentary, is rich in material. Joshua Muravchik leads off with "Our Worst Ex-President," attacking Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid as the centerpiece in our 39th president's array of crimes of omission and commission. Two articles on Iraq: "Realists to the Rescue?" by Bret Stephens and "Is Israel the Problem?" by Amir Taheri follow. I can recommend the Taheri article, although the question posed in the title is somewhat disingenuous. It is interesting to compare Taheri to some of the articles and essays in Bernard Lewis From Babel to Dragomans, as a study in the tendency of the Arabs to displace the blame for their failures and shortcomings onto the Israelis, the British, and, naturally, the United States. Gabriel Schoenfeld weighs in with "Why Journalists Are Not Above the Law." Hillel Halkin contributes an essay about Tel Aviv: "The First Hebrew City." Terry Teachout, the regular music and art reviewer, has sent in "Hitchcock's Music Man", a nice piece for anyone who has seen North by Northwest recently enough to remember the way in which Bernard Herrmann's scoring helps to maintain the pace and tension of the film.

The books reviewed include Dangerous Nation, by Robert Kagan (a neoconservative himself); The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud; Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War, by Robert L. Beisner; Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life, by Jon D. Levenson; and American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M. Barrett.

The particular article I would like to discuss here is by Eric Cohen and Yuval Levin, "Health Care in Three Acts." In the interests of full disclosure, let me note that one reason - the primary reason, I enjoyed this article is that I have an analytic bent. The original meaning of "analysis" goes back to the Greek for "breaking down" or "taking apart." I don't have any problem with big, sweeping measures to solve a lot of problems, but I think they should be based upon a process in which the problems are disassembled into their constituent parts and examined severally. This is what Cohen and Levin do in "Health Care in Three Acts." The key sentence comes near the end of the first page of the article (page 46 of this issue of Commentary, for those who are following along).

"In fact, America faces three fairly distinct predicaments, affecting three fairly distinct portions of the population - the poor, the middle class, and the elderly - and each of them calls for a distinct approach."

They go on to further analyze the problem of the poor, in which they break the 46 million uninsured Americans into:

- those who have lost insurance with their jobs
- those who are not American citizens
- those who are eligible for for Medicaid and similar programs
- those ("many of them young adults under 35") who could afford insurance but don't buy it.

The problem of the middle class, on the other hand, is "the uncertainty caused in part by the rigid link between insurance and employment and in part by the vicissitudes of health itself."

Finally, the elderly face different problems based on costs and end-of-life issues.

As Cohen and Levin note, such disparate problems are not susceptible of a single solution.

Let me note at this point that the portability of health insurance, with some means-tested subsidies, would take care of many people both the "poor" (i.e., the poor and the unemployed). There is a program now, COBRA, which allows people to retain their employers health insurance coverage, if they can pay the premiums. Take off the time limits, add a subsidy for those who can't afford the premiums, and allow coverage to continue if a new employer does not offer a health care plan, or if the employee has a pre-existing condition, and you would both eliminate many of the 46 million uninsured, and ease middle-class anxiety about the prospect of losing coverage. Add to that a campaign to educate poor people about the programs for which they are already eligible, and you narrow the numbers a lot. The big remaining question is: Do we, or do we not, want to provide health care coverage for illegal immigrants?

Cohen and Levin opine, and I find them persuasive, that the biggest problem we face, the one we've done least to solve, and the one that is going to be a killer, is how to manage health care for the elderly. Again, we can break this problem down into its constituent parts, but the big problem is that we are not facing the problem at all As Cohen and Levin say:

"Neither socialized medicine nor a pure market approach is suited to America's three health-care challenges, while the bipartisan conspiracy to ignore the looming crisis of Medicare in particular will return to haunt our children." (Page 52)

Let me give you their last paragraph, as they seek to balance practicality and compassion in a complex system:

"Even as we pursue practical options for reform, however, it behooves us to remember that health itself will always remain out of our ultimate control. Medicine works at the boundaries of life, and its limits remind us of our own. While our health-care system can be improved, our unease about health can never truly be quieted. And while reform will require hard decisions, solutions that would balance the books by treating the disabled and debilitated as unworthy of care are no solutions at all. In no small measure, America's future vitality and character will depend upon our ability to rise to this challenge with the right mix of creativity and sobriety."