Saturday, April 11, 2009

Frank Gaffney's "Freedom Rule"

On Thursday evening, I attended a debate with my good friend and colleague, Ali Wyne, at the New America Foundation. The clash was between Steve Clemons, president of the Foundation, and Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Strategy and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy under Reagan. Essentially, the topic was the first 100 days of Obama's foreign policy.  

I had never heard Clemons speak before, but in the short time there, he struck me as a pretty pragmatic observer of US foreign policy. Gaffney, on the other hand, was touted before the debate as a neoconservative -- boy, did he deliver! (Quick note: neoconservatism is a foreign policy paradigm that strongly espouses the use of intervention -- especially military intervention -- to serve US interests and to build a liberal world order. In other words, spreading free markets and democracy by the barrel of a gun.) 

Gaffney characterized Obama's foreign policy up to this point as "submission". If you want an explanation, let Gaffney (try to) explain through his commentary in the Washington Times. But as far as I'm concerned, his views were ridiculous. He sounded out of his league debating with Clemons. 

I rarely feel this strongly about most foreign policy commentators, including neoconservative thinkers. I respect Bob Kagan -- often associated with neoconservatism -- highly for his intellectuallism. 

But Gaffney held such unrealistic perceptions of the world. His views were myopically focused on two things -- the war against Islam and the "freedom rule":

1. Gaffney repeatedly spoke on Thursday of the inevitability of the US war against Islam because Islam's ultimate goal is the downfall of the US. (Then he would contradict himself moments later by saying that "of course" not all Muslims were dangerous, but the religion of Islam is still the largest threat to the US.) The endgame is, in Gaffney's view, that we will eventually have to dominate those groups that practice Islam, like the Taliban. Communicating with such groups is futile. 

2. He also said that Obama was submitting to despotic rulers and abusers of freedom by negotiating with illiberal regimes, like Iran. Gaffney said that it was a rule of thumb that the US should not negotiate with such regimes -- I dub this the "freedom rule". America should either communicate only with forces for freedom and democracy (e.g. dissidents) or overthrow their governments by force (Iraq-style). 

Both of these views are related and absolutely unrealistic. The problem lies in two facts that Gaffney simply seemed to ignore every time it was posed to him during the debate:

Fact #1: America cannot fight a war with all illiberal regimes. It simply does not have the resources.  
Fact #2: the US has economic, security, and principled interests with many of these same regimes. 

Therefore, to refuse negotiation with these regimes is to deny reality. This is an obvious conclusion to most foreign policy thinkers, and the real debate lies in the details about when and how to negotiate.  But Gaffney doesn't even get past this, it seems.

And this is to say nothing of some other blaring problems, like the accusation that Islam itself is a prominent foreign policy threat. Also, one runs into problems when trying to argue what constitutes "illiberal". Should the US be invading every country it deems even the slightest bit less free than itself?

After the debate, I asked Frank how -- given the freedom rule -- Obama should go about dealing with China. Should the US remove all diplomatic communication in the name of freedom and work only with China's civil society? Should we militarily overthrow China? His response was that China is a "special case". Which makes the freedom rule defunct. I told him so. Frank responded that "the rule has exceptions". (Duh!) Which is exactly why this "rule" is unrealistic. 

The point here is simple: if you truly care about the well being of people that are oppressed elsewhere, then -- given the fact that the US cannot overthrow every regime in the world -- America's best hope is to engage with those regimes that restrict freedom. This will better position the US to support democratic movements. Further, as the country develops from trade with the world, its middle class will grow, and historically, this is when people demand for more political freedom.     

Really, the freedom rule just dooms those desiring freedom to economic hardship and indefinite years of suppressed freedom. 

(Also, this say nothing of what people elsewhere want the US to do. According to a Pew study completed in July 2008 [p.14], 86% of Chinese people are satisfied with the direction their country is going. That is compared to 23% in the US. Maybe Americans ought to look inward first.)


  1. Kev.

    To have had the opportunity to speak to Gaffney is an experience that I view with envy.
    Having been exposed to his "thinking" for the past twenty years (through my political (junkiness????) as a guest on so many of the talking head political programs (his twin is William Crystal)I would have relished the opportunity to rip his ass with the most basic, logic and reasoning that easily transcends his idiotic prattling. In the past
    I had taken to talking to the television when he came on. I've matured to the point when he is a guest on a debate on TV, it becomes apparent that the host of the TV show loves to have him juxtaposed with a reasonable counterpoint guest, just to provide to the viewing audience with the extreme contrast in intellect and reasoning.

  2. His reasoning (or lack thereof) is even more apparent in person.