January 29, 2005

Column 2005-1-29 Commentary

This website was established to prove a simple and seemingly obvious fact: David Brooks is a moron. However, based on his latest columns, we have to face the possibility that we are wrong about this. It seems increasingly likely that Brooks is simply insane: unable to face reality, he has withdrawn from it and lives in a fantasy world of his own creation. Of course, it could also be that he is simply a moron who has bought completely into the fantasy world created by the administration. Either of those hypotheses could explain Brooks writing a column about how the Bush administration will be pursuing a kinder, gentler foreign policy in Bush's second term. However, this column is definitely incompatible with any scenario in which Brooks is paying any attention to what is actually going on in the world.

Let us begin by looking at a couple of articles in the very same edition of the New York Times that this column appeared in. One page A3, there is an article entitled "United States and Europe Differ Over Strategy on Iran". The substance of the article is that the United States continues to saber-rattle at Iran -- Bush has refused to rule out military action, Cheney calls Iran a top trouble spots and suggests that Israel might attack Iran -- while distancing itself from the European initiative to get Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions via negotations. This article from Reuters has more on the U.S. refusing to join talks on Iran's nuclear program. The NYT article also references a piece in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh reporting that the U.S. has teams in Iran preparing target lists (this article from the Guardian has more on Iran, as well as stating that U.S. officials have confirmed Hersh's claims). All together, this article does not suggest that the U.S. will be taking a softer path in Bush's second term.

But that's not all. On page A5, I see the headline "US Lobbies UN on Darfur and International Court". It seems innocuous, but the article is actually about American efforts to prevent those responsible for the Darfur atrocities from being tried by the ICC. According to the article, "Almost all of the members of the Council are known to favor that course [referring atrocities to the ICC for prosecution]". This includes Britain, America's staunchest ally. Apparently, the Bush administration's new commitment to playing well with others goes only so far.

Of course, Brooks is careful not to mention Iran in his column, except at the end in a disclaimer (essentially, he says "Warning: actual events may not match predictions"), and only mentions the UN in a sentence admitting that the administration is not likely to be making up with Kofi Annan anytime soon. However, he does make some specific claims on other foreign policy issues, ranging from the completely ridiculous to the merely unfounded.

Claim 1: "The campaign is over". By this, Brooks means that there will be less fighting in Bush's second term. There certainly won't be any new wars, because the Army can't handle it and a draft would hand Congress back to the Democrats, but the wars we currently have aren't going away and most likely will not get any smaller. Specifically, Brooks seems to think that the American role in Iraq is going to reduce steadily and that after the election, the American burden of offensive operations against the Iraqi insurgents will drop rapidly. The kind of wild, unbounded optimism needed to make this assertion verges on lunacy. Consider that only three days before the column was published, the U.S. experienced the deadliest day for its forces in Iraq. The day after the column was published, up to 15 Britons died, in what may well be Britain's single deadliest day in Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. is constructing "enduring bases" and will most likely maintain over 100,000 troops in Iraq until 2007. Maybe, as Brooks says, they'll be doing more training and less fighting, but even though they may not be there to fight the insurgents, the insurgents are there to fight them, and it only takes one to start a firefight.

Claim 2: The administration is much more interested in working with other counties than it was in the past. This sounds nice, but reading down reveals that Bush is still opposed to most international institutions. What they like are coalitions of the willing: i.e., a bunch of countries who are willing to do whatever the administration tells them. This is not actually working with other countries: this is merely adding an international cast to American unilateralism. It is interesting that Brooks mentions the institutions developed in response to the tsunami as instances of the administration making nice, given that Germany, Australia, and Japan were all more generous in absolute terms and most European countries were more generous in terms of dollars as percentage of GDP.

Claims 3: The administration is going to concentrate more on the soft power aspects of diplomacy, specifically trade, education, and anti-AIDS programs. The evidence for this? Well, Brooks thinks "they mean it". Call me cynical and jaded, but I'm not particularly impressed.

Claim 4: The reduction in friction between the State Department and the Pentagon is a sign of the new beginning in American foreign policy. Well, that's one interpretation. I have a different one: friction was reduced because the war between State and Defense is over, with Defense winning hands down. The appointment of Rice gives Bush and Cheney direct control over the State Department: as Powell and Richard Armitage leave, they take the State Department's independence with them (see this editorial in the Guardian). The influence of the realists is further reduced with the ejection of Brent Scowcroft. "It's hard now even to see a split, at least within the administration, between so-called realists and so-called neocons", says Brooks. He is correct, but he neglected to note that this is because there are no more realists in the administration.

Claim 5: "People are even tired of fighting with Europe." Evidence: "'Let's stop analyzing this relationship' somebody pleaded". First of all, Brooks doesn't say who the somebody is. Hell, it could even be him. And secondly, there is a difference between being tired of talking about fighting with Europe and actually being tired of fighting with Europe. And finally, there is a difference between being tired of fighting with Europe and being determined to stop fighting with Europe: in fact, given various pieces of evidence presented above, it seems very unlikely that the U.S. will have fewer conflicts with Europe in Bush's second administration.

Finally, it is worth noting that there is a basic problem with Brooks's column: he does not recognize that while the U.S. busied itself with Iraq, the world has changed. While the U.S. is still unchallenged militarily, the limits of its military power are clearly apparent, and it is no longer the pre-eminent diplomatic and economic power of the world. Three years ago, we lived in a unipolar world: now, it is increasingly recognized that the world is multipolar. For instance, Brooks says that the administration is eager to talk about Latin America. At one point, the creation of the U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas was a major goal of American foreign policy. But then Iraq happened, and in the meantime South America began moving in a different direction. Led by Brazil, they are forming their own group to compete with the proposed FTAA, the South American Community of Nations. Elsewhere, Russia, China, and India are potentially moving closer together, with the possible addition of Brazil to form a potentially powerful bloc of emerging economies. India no longer regards the US as central to its foreign policy, and may even be fairly indifferent to America. The fact is, the Iraq debacle has seriously damaged the U.S.'s position in the world, and emboldened other countries to form their own alliances and use their soft power while the U.S. was wasting its military in the Middle East. See this article for an interesting analysis of the movement towards multipolarity (I apologize for the fact that it is from Pravda, but it definitely appeared somewhere more reputable: I just can't remember where or find it anywhere else). Since it is rather unlikely that the Bush administration will accept that America has lost its position as the sole major power since the Iraq war started, having been joined on the stage by the E.U., Russia, China, India, and Brazil, it seems that the soft power initiatives that Brooks trumpets are unlikely to go very far.

Brooks's refusal to face certain realities about the world strongly suggests that he has decided to write columns about a personal fantasy world. If the New York Times plans to switch all its reporting to Brooks's fantasy world, then they should keep him as a columnist: otherwise, it may be time to find someone who actually lives in this world.