Progressives and liberals were quick to praise President George H.W. Bush when he passed away. Some of this was basic human decency. Some of this was honest admiration for a masterful foreign policy practitioner and a decent man. But some of it felt strategic, a way to point out all of Trump’s failings. Highlighting Bush’s virtues emphasized the issues with Trump and his Presidency. The fact that Bush was a Republican seemed to make this more effective; “look,” Trump critics could say, “here are things Republicans used to value.” It seemed an effective tactic.
And then Trump nominated William Barr to be Attorney General. Barr has been skeptical about the probe into Trump’s Russia ties and thinks the “Uranium One” deal is a major scandal that implicates Hillary Clinton. He has also called on the government to promote socially conservative values. So we can expect some potent attacks on him by progressives…except that he was also Attorney General in the George H.W. Bush Administration. It’s going to be hard to accuse him of being unqualified and dangerous without questioning the wisdom of the man so many recently praised.
This highlights the danger of trying to steal Republican talking points. Progressives frequently do this: “Republicans claim to care about X, but they’re not actually doing much on it.” There are many examples:
- When President Obama was calling for nuclear disarmament, he referenced a similar call by Ronald Reagan. He made similar appeals to Reagan when announcing the New START treaty with Russia. And I know, at the urging of a progressive foreign policy group I was then part, I made a similar argument but I haven’t found the article yet (I’ll update this if I do). This provided useful historical context to Obama’s policies, but it was also an attempt to undercut Republican objections.
- When Democrats retook the House in 2006, part of their platform was controlling the deficit that had expanded under George W. Bush. This was also one of Obama’s attack lines in the run-up to his Presidential campaign. Again, this represents fiscal prudence, which is good. But it’s also an attempt to “steal” fiscal prudence from Republicans.
- Another Bush-era attack line had to do with US Special Operations Forces (SOFs). Democrats didn’t just argue against the Iraq War, they argued that it–and the broader war on terrorism-were being mismanaged and that they could do better. One of their proposals was to “double the size of [US] Special Forces.” This was meant to highlight the fact that Democrats could be tough on national security too, taking away an additional GOP talking point.
Most of these worked at the time. But they later backfired. Obama’s praise for Reagan makes it harder to criticize problematic aspects of his legacy, and was countered by conservatives, limiting its impact. Democratic criticism of Bush’s deficits opened Obama up to GOP attacks on his economic policies–some of which require expanding the deficit–and Democrats are running into this problem again. Democrats’ call for more Special Forces was criticized for definitional issues (Special Forces refers just to Army personnel) and infeasibility. It also makes it harder to criticize Trump’s use of SOFs in counterterrorism operations that haven’t been debated or approved by Congress.
And I’m not even going to go into poorly-thought-through but convenient attack lines. Remember when Obama mocked Romney for being stuck in the 80s after he expressed concern about Russia, with a lame “the 80’s called” joke. Progressives at the time (including me) thought it was great, but it’s made current Russia concerns seem opportunistic.
As Democrats get ready for 2020, there are a lot of potential attacks on Trump. Candidates and their campaigns will be tempted to attack him as not being a good enough Republican. If those attacks come from a centrist trying to present a Bill Clinton-esque “third way” that may be ok. And if it is praise for an earlier, more cooperative era of politics, that’s fine too. But more often than not they’ll come from progressive candidates who are just trying to score an easy point. This very well may work, but it will continue to muddle Democratic messaging. Resist the temptation.
The US Congress recently introduced bills that would call on the Trump Administration to press China over its treatment of the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. This would seem to be a good fit, as Trump has been critical of China throughout his time in office. And religious freedom–under which this would initiative would fall–seems to be the one area of human rights his Administration cares about. But any US pressure on China will be undermined by the similarity between some of China’s Uighur policies and the Trump Administration’s Muslim travel ban. This relates to a broader point I’ve been trying to raise (unsuccessfully) with international religious freedom advocates who praise Trump: he may implement a few policies in line with your initiatives, but the overall tenor of this Administration will undermine the cause.
The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that has been horribly repressed by the Chinese government. China had initially placed strict controls on Xinjiang–the region in which most Uighurs live–for alleged counterterrorism reasons. This expanded into broader restrictions on Uighur’s way of life, targeting their faith. China has tried to force Uighurs to act contrary to their faith, even requiring Uighur shopowners to sell alcohol. This recently escalated into the detention of Uighurs in concentration camps in which they will be “re-educated.”
I’ve been watching the current debate over nationalism with some interest. Donald Trump identified himself as a nationalist in the run-up to the mid-term elections. He contrasted this with his foes, for whom he used the problematic term “globalist.” Many saw this as a concerning move, especially paired with Trump’s alarmist rhetoric over a caravan of Central American migrants. It also prompted a response from France’s President Macron, criticizing nationalism as a “betrayal of patriotism.” This got me thinking of my graduate studies, which involved a good amount of reading on nationalism (intended to help conceptualize religious contention). And it made me go back to one of my favorite books of all time, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.
Imagined Communities is one of those books that is referenced more often than read. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an article mention Anderson’s concept of imagined communities in passing without really engaging with it or even seeming to really understand. Anderson argued the nation is a modern concept, an “imagined political community..imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” He argued it emerged from cultural and social developments that undermined the hold of the “religious community” and “dynastic realm” over individuals’ identities. So (a quick aside) no, it is not just an “imagined community,” it is a particular type of community with a particular conception of its place in time and space.
For many, Saudi Arabia finally went too far. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; reports suggest he may be dead. Pundits who gave Mohammed bin Salman—Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, also known as MbS—a chance to prove his reformist credentials have become critical. In the midst of all this, a commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom—(USCIRF) a government-affiliated human rights watchdog—announced…that Saudi Arabia is making great progress on protecting religious freedom? At first glance, this is confusing, but it may be an indication of the powerful role of strategic framing and policy gatekeepers in eroding international norms.
In “Bono made Jesse Helms cry,” international relations scholar (and permanent Duck of Minerva contributor) Joshua Busby discussed the dynamics through which activists can influence states’ foreign policy; his article also inspired the title for this post. Activists can intensify the appeal of their moral arguments by strategically framing their campaigns to match the cultural value of targets. And when they specifically target “policy gatekeepers,” who provide direct access to the relevant policymaking tools, their appeals can change states’ behavior.
Most assume this dynamic is a positive one, a way for activists to spread altruistic ideas and get states to adopt them. But what if it could be used by states themselves to undermine human rights norms?