Speaking Well of the President
by

A fine article by Conrad Black suggests the anti-Trump factions lost rounds last week. While the Mueller investigation has yet to produce any evidence of illicit campaign “collusion” with the treacherous Russians, one of the leaders of the disputationists, former FBI director James Comey, appears to be caught in a credibility gap of his own making, and may find himself following his former deputy Andrew McCabe, since discharged, in the crosshairs of the fearsome federal Savonarola, the Justice Department’s Inspector General.

Black has been a consistently sensible anti-anti-Trump writer since 2016, cutting through the hysteria that turned the campaign into a circus. He continued in this vein as the new administration moved in, lancing the serial distractions whose purpose he views as psycho-neurotic. There are professionals who can help with this condition. In the political realm, there comes a point when their crankiness upsets the conduct of sound government, and civic minded men must put on their gray flannel and navy blue suits, don hats, and make a stand for order.

Because even if the winners in ’16 were, then or after they took charge, guilty of malfeasance, the government of the United States must function. The duty of responsible and moderate and patriotic oppositionists would be to build their case, without obstruction and without fanfare (though of course not surreptitiously), and then go through proper forms and channels to request that consequences be faced legally and soberly. They have, of course, done nothing of the kind, behaving instead like carnival barkers and coup plotters and giving our great Republic the semblance of a banana republic.

It has to be said in passing that it is to National Review’s credit that it kept publishing Conrad Black even as the magazine’s editorial leaders made it the headquarters of conservative anti-Trumpism.

There is no reason to object to conservative anti-Trumpism. Conservatives are not temperamentally suited to faction-hatred and should welcome debate, even acrimonious debate, inside their several tents, since they are united on fundamentals.

Nevertheless, NR treated the candidate as an enemy even after he secured the nomination — at which point one would think the time comes to tone it down and, with no lessening of spirited argument, make it known that, as William Buckley Jr. said, just make sure that at election time you get behind the candidate with the best chance of beating the liberal.

So in this respect, it has to be said the editors were big, big hearted, big souled, big brained, in letting the Canadian newspaper tycoon and elegant biographer and author, profound student of American political mores, to keep having his say. Conservatives — and the country — benefited.

As at home, on the frontier: even in an atmosphere of polarized political debate politics should stop at the water’s edge. Unfortunately to think they will any time soon is to indulge in fantasies. In foreign policy, security policy specifically, there is a national interest that must be kept in mind. It is an area where partisan passions must give way to definable questions and pragmatic answers, however unsatisfactory, regarding our nation’s safety. Carrying such passions into the debate on matters of peace and war can never be wise.

Conrad Black, characteristically, made this point very well while focusing on what he clearly hopes is the coming end-game of the vain political furies of the past two years, by moving sideways from his scathing review of the latest chapters in the Mueller investigation and the Comey vanity into the furious response to the administration’s Middle East policy, specifically in the Syrian theater. Black objected to the way critics greeted (or failed to greet) our riposte to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against dissenters holed up in Douma on the outskirts of Damascus (which it denies but which American and allied military authorities affirm is all too real).

Black lit into Eliot Cohen for calling the Syrian strikes “cowardly,” “worse than doing nothing,” and so forth, and described this as a symptom of Trumpphobia gone mad. This is heavy invective, but Eliot Cohen is a heavy hitter in foreign affairs and Black’s singling him out is a measure of how seriously Black takes him and how much weight he gives to seriousness in foreign and security policy discussions.

Black notes that Trump’s Middle East strategy is, piece for piece, probably one of the least bad we can expect following the disasters of the past 15 years, and least bad is usually pretty good in foreign policy, especially when there’s a war on. As Walter Russell Mead explained in the Wall Street Journal, what the administration’s national security team is striving for — no one claims yet success is assured — is the restoration of a balance of power in the Middle East, which will have the effect of checking Russian and Iranian ambitions in the region.

Concurring, Black points out the demonstrable geographic fact that to achieve such a balance we need to protect the Kurdish state-in-the-making in the east, hole up the Assad clan’s Alawite-based regime in the center-south of the country, and reduce Iranian influence, all the while finding a way to kick some sense into Turkey’s Recip Erdogan, who certainly does not like us but whom we are not going to dislodge and some of whose interests mesh with ours.

The Kurds, in this respect, are indispensable as they give us a key asset to keep the Turks and the Persians on the defensive.

This is all very old school and reasonable and, of course, somewhat abstract, but it is difficult to see how restoring this kind of agenda is advanced by intemperate vituperations about Trump and his men having done too little or too much in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of internationally condemned poison weapons. It is a species of what Black calls Trumpphobia, not unlike the odd editorial in Washington’s Republican-leaning organ, the Weekly Standard, which found a way to approve of Secretary of State-nominee Mike Pompeo’s talks with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un while simultaneously warning that the president is likely as not to subvert any consequential policy arising from such quiet negotiations.

The requirement of skepticism remains, of course. There are arguments against talking to the North Koreans, just as there are arguments against involvement in Syria; the American Conservative, another Republican-leaning organ, makes them regularly. Donald Trump himself expressed a reluctance to maintain any sort of war capability in the region, both during the campaign and after.

There are arguments against bombing chemical weapons facilities prior to the definition of a clearly stated broader strategy. This is Eliot Cohen’s point, which he could have made far more calmly, without calling Trump a coward and so forth. In point of fact, Cohen, a profound military thinker and lively writer, should be on Trump’s national security team — I may be mistaken, but I believe he even let his name go forward after the election, despite opposition to Trump during the campaign, on the sensible and patriotic grounds that, the election having settled the issue of who is president, ’tis the duty of every man to serve if called.

Indeed Cohen, even now, would be an asset and would make himself valuable to James Mattis and others. Advisors capable of saying “no, bad idea” should never be shunned — one wishes George W. Bush had taken a few of those, such as James Webb.

As it happens, we at TAS are rather half and half on these Tomahawk attacks. I agree with Mead and Black that there is a case in and of itself that we have to enforce certain red lines. While it true a cluster bomb kills as much as does chlorine gas, you have to make the statements that can be heard. Phony as it may seem to the victims of mass killers like Assad and his enablers, sending a message is the only way to avoid more violations by more actors.

The issue here is that it is difficult to avoid the security implications of not sending the message to the other side, most importantly the Russians, that we are perfectly capable of upping the stakes. Eliot Cohen asks, why should the Russians be impressed when not a single Russian military advisor was hurt? Quite the opposite. The Russians felt the whiff of cordite around them all of a sudden and are bound to think, maybe next time they’ll come in with bigger ammo.

Moreover, we did go after the Russians: in a piece of news that was widely neglected a couple weeks ago, but that was run in the WSJ under the able pen of Tod Lindberg who must have got it from a very deliberately positioned DoD source, our forces destroyed a battalion-size (it appeared from the article) force of “little green men,” the Russian irregulars who (out of uniform and against recognized rules of war) are active in eastern Syria just as they are in Ukraine. Say what you will, the Russians know the current administration has serious thinkers on war and deterrence — Eliot Cohen’s kind of men, it would seem to me — and there is a very good reason their response to the Tomahawks was not only muted verbally, but, militarily, involved moving the warships from the Syrian port at Tartus to safer waters.

Syria, an ancient name but a political entity that has not really existed since Biblical times and Antiquity, may be finished. It is a sad story, emblematic in its way of the failure of post-colonial Arab politics, but also a certain arrogant lunacy on the American side. It may time, as Michel Gurfinkiel and others have noted, to take a deep historical, even anthropological, look at the whole region and the missions we have assigned ourselves there. The Trump administration cannot be blamed for doing exactly that by trying to demarcate a few lines that previous administrations only blurred. These lines are not only geographic, but involve religions, sects, clans.

It is the good fortune of the conservative side in American political writing that voices like Conrad Black’s and Walter Russell Mead’s regularly cut through the bitterness that permeates so much of our supposedly serious debate. Without these, we would be hearing and reading only echoes of the liberals’ bitter wails: the country is in irresponsible hands and our only response must be obstruction and petulance. Someone mentioned years ago that American conservatism should offer a choice not an echo; as observers, the least we can do is make an effort to understand the choices at hand and show some respect for those whose thankless duty is to act upon them.

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