Sunday, March 20, 2016

A question I wish they would ask the candidates

Sar Shalom

There are variations on this for other issues, but the question I would ask would be, "If in response to an international crisis, you received memos from an interventionist and from a realist, what criteria would you use to evaluate whose advice to follow?"

To see the impact of such a question, consider the Arab Spring in Egypt and Obama's decision to force Mubarak to step down. If the question of whether or not to support Mubarak was posed as whether or not to support him to the bitter end, then a reasonable case could be made that doing so would carry costs that are not worth paying. At that point, the question becomes one of at what point do we throw in the towel. With that type of formulation, there is no right or wrong answer, so whatever condition is selected to concede Mubarak's loss would be reasonable.

Initially, I thought that Obama's reasoning process followed such a path. However, Robert Gates recent revealed (h/t Ian and EoZ) that such was not the case. Instead, all of the senior defense officials recommended caution in responding to events then unfolding in Egypt while three junior "back-benchers" said that it was Obama's responsibility to be on the "right side of history." As we know, Obama selected the advice from those three back-benchers.

The problem with arguments to being on the right side of history is that doing so also carries the responsibility of thinking through what happens the day after the ancien regime is overthrown. Part of doing so is assessing whether the most likely successor would resemble more Thomas Jefferson or Maximillian Robespierre. Since Obama did not ask those questions, a potential disaster was set in motion as the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, fortunately to be mitigated by the army ousting the Brotherhood in a coup.

The question I pose might have illuminated Obama's thought process in 2008, possibly exposing his susceptibility to arguments like "the right side of history."


  1. In purely pragmatic terms, Obama's right side of history in Egypt was leading inexorably to famine, chaos and medievalism. At the time the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled, Egypt was 8 or 9 months from running out of both food and the money to buy food. These are blunt arithmetic facts. Only an idiot or a glint-eyed fanatic would ignore that. I suspect that Obama was more than hoping for something like that to occur since either it would lead to a massive 'migration' a-la Syria a few years later, or, it would have lead to massive violence aimed at Israel, or it would have lead to any number of other horrendous outcomes that Obama would claim is yet another victory for Obama.

  2. There is such a thing as the wrong side of history. Take for instance chattel slavery. Nobody can openly advocate for its revival or even justify its application in the past. So much so, that Confederate partisans of today who refer to the "War of Northern Aggression" jump through hoops to deny that the Civil War was about slavery. By that standard, 19th century advocates of slavery were on the wrong side of history.

    The problem becomes when you try to say that anything distasteful to some segment of the population and you predict that future responses to it will put it on the "wrong side of history." As Yogi Berra said, "predictions are difficult, especially about the future." A further point is that even support for a regime were to be on the wrong side of history, such a determination has to be made as "support for that regime over a specific realistic alternative" is on the wrong side of history, rather than "support for that regime over a fantasy human-rights respecting, pacifistic replacement."

  3. Sar Shalom,
    I wonder if it could be more appropriate to say that one can be "on the right side of justice"? The argument against slavery, and the American Civil Rights movement being fine examples. I think "history" suggests an unfolding movement in a particular direction. And, I would suggest that that does not - and cannot exist. History has ups and downs, and unforeseen outcomes, and, as someone said; "it has no conscience." Justice is different, and, one hopes, eternal. An absolute good. It transcends time and place.

  4. Obama has improved US relations with two countries during his administration: Iran and Cuba. Heh.

  5. "Obama Welcomes Castro's Criticism of America: 'I Personally Would Not Disagree'

    Bizarro world.

    1. "President Castro, I think, has pointed out that in his view making sure that everybody is getting a decent education or health care, has basic security and old age, that those things are human rights as well. I personally would not disagree with him," Obama said.

      "But it doesn't detract from some of these other concerns. And the goal of the human rights dialogue is not for the United States to dictate to Cuba how they should govern themselves, but to make sure that we are having a frank and candid conversation around this issue. And hopefully that we can learn from each other."
      With what part of that do you disagree?

  6. Perhaps it's true. But that would not stop people from using the expression "right side of history." As Gates noted, that was the expression used by advocates for abandoning Mubarak used that expression.

    Going forward, I'd like to know how susceptible the next president is to the notion that being on "the right side of history" should trump (not Trump) all other concerns. Any suggestions to flush that out?