The new administration may be sorely tempted to close a showy diplomatic “deal,” the origins of which are President Obama’s extraordinary policy failures in the Middle East. With American financing rather than resistance, Iran has thrown a military bridge from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, a feat the U.S. could not equal at the height of its powers when it unsuccessfully tried to construct the Central Treaty Organization in the 1950s. Worse still, Mr. Obama’s “executive agreement” with Tehran gives it a U.S.-guaranteed path to nuclear weapons.
As Mr. Obama denuded the Mediterranean of armed American naval vessels and backed off supposed red lines, Russia re-established itself in the Middle East after having been almost completely excluded during the previous nine presidential terms. The result of such astounding American incompetence has been genocidal wars and the metaphorical transformation of the regional security situation from gunpowder into nitroglycerin.
It threatens to become even worse, in that with the presence of rival great powers, the processes at work may leap the bounds of their containment in the Middle East and unravel the long peace of Europe. Because of the March 7 meeting of the American, Russian, and Turkish military chiefs, and simultaneous Russian signals that it is ready, for a price, to abandon its support of Iran, Iran–as documented by the Middle East Media Research Institute–is in a state of “shock.” It knows that it cannot stand against the might and favorable geographic position of a combination of these forces and the proximate Sunni states. President Hassan Rouhani recently rushed to Moscow, but his meetings there were conspicuously opaque about the future of Iran in Syria.
Excluding Iranian troops and arms from Syria and Lebanon would be a major achievement, which could have been a feature of the Obama foreign policy before Russia reinforced in Syria. American, Saudi, Turkish, and Jordanian air power might easily have laid an air blockade across the 1,000 miles from Tehran to Damascus, and kept the few roads in wide-open country clear of overland supply. Needless to say, Iran would have found the sea route unavailing.
Even now, with a Russian air component in western Syria, it is unlikely that Moscow would risk breaking a blockade any more than it attempted to breach the 1962 quarantine of Cuba, for the reason that it could not then and cannot now project power into the area of contention with even a small fraction of the force that would resist it. As the Soviets did in the Cuban crisis, Russia might resort to nuclear bluffing, but it would be only that. Its interests in the Levant, which, given its lack of power projection and capable allies, it cannot exploit, would not be worth an empty threat that it would then have to withdraw.
Nonetheless, nuclear brinkmanship is hardly to be considered lightly. So, given that the U.S. failed to capitalize on its open opportunities before Russia came on the scene, should it not now take the opportunity to begin putting Iran back into its cage by striking a deal with Russia?
No, because this is not the only way to do so, and the price, if indeed Russia would fully cooperate, would be to bless the developing Russian alliance with a mischievous and eminently separable-from-NATO Turkey, and, much more consequently, the lifting of sanctions related to Crimea and Ukraine.
That Russia is shy of the madness of Iran and foresees such a trade as (from a column in Kommersant) opening a “window of opportunity for Donald Trump’s diplomacy,” has been suggested by various Kremlin ventriloquist dummies. According to a U.S. intelligence report, the ever injudicious Vladimir Zhirinovsky proclaimed on the eve of the U.S. election that if Mr. Trump won, “Russia would ‘drink Champagne’ in anticipation of being able to advance its positions in Syria and Ukraine.”
In a Syria-Ukraine trade-off, the Trump administration would not merely lend weight to the accusation that because of the president’s mysterious admiration for Vladimir Putin it is unduly partial to Russia. It would also legitimize the breaking of treaties, the seizing of territories, and the instigation of war not in a subsidiary Third World theater of maneuver but in Europe itself.
The United States should not go down this road. Europe in its current disarray is hardly bereft of Putin-friendly business interests, political factions, and politichiens from dinosaur communists to Marine Le Pen. Even the gentlest push may flip it on sanctions. This would be a cardinal error on the scale of Chamberlain’s betrayal of the Czechs, Roosevelt’s too-easy abandonment of Eastern Europe, Acheson’s mistake in excluding Korea from the American defense perimeter, U Thant’s 1967 withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force from the Sinai, and April Glaspie’s confusing signals to Saddam Hussein. Each of these perhaps momentarily attractive concessions ended in war.
The trade would confirm to Mr. Putin that leveraging prior American fecklessness with only a low-cost and unsustainable intervention in the Middle East was able to change the international order in Europe to his advantage. Logically, he would look next to the Baltic states. Crimea and eastern Ukraine are different from the former Soviet republics on the Baltic, given the NATO tripwire force in the latter. But it is only a token presence, and a Russian blitzkrieg from Kaliningrad and the east could conquer them in a day. Without the ability to bring strong conventional forces to bear quickly, would NATO go nuclear to reclaim them? It would not.
Harvesting Russian “concessions” in the Middle East in return for legitimizing its aggressions in Europe would teach Moscow that, given time, the West will accept its conquests. If history is a guide, Russia would then advance to the kind of tragic miscalculation that spurred Hitler to invade Poland. Just as tragic is the pattern that when seduced to concede, the West gives a false impression of its ultimate resolve, and eventually stumbles into war.
Mr. President, if such a trade is offered, do not take it. It would be a very bad deal.
First published in the Wall Street Journal (Online); 29 Mar 2017.
In the tumultuous sixties, as an undergraduate at Harvard (for which I have prayed for forgiveness most of my life), I was disappointed again and again by the common Victorian and early twentieth-century convention of beginning a chapter with lush description and then abandoning it in favor of social interaction, philosophical reflection, and plot development. Nature was treated mainly as a stage direction: “Night. Wind in the pines. Soldiers around a campfire.” Even such details as those were to me more evocative and meaningful than much that followed, dry and disconnected from the universal language of creation that is the grammar and syntax of great art because it is the language given to us in the fullest and deepest measure.
Falling Into Eternity continued at First Things March 2017.
The American Constitution (an ancient document that annoyingly hobbled the genius of Barack Obama) is as abused as one might expect of something splendid that excites the envy and ire of those who willfully misunderstand the long history to which it has brought its bright and cleansing light. It prevents those who live to command from ruling like the kings and saints they think they are. It frustrates those who mistakenly attempt to govern man analogously with the physical principles that govern nature. Whether progressives, Communists, socialists, or fascists, the arrogant engineers of humanity are naturally averse to a document that, though it is more excellently reasonable than they are, is a work of art compatible with human nature rather than destructive of it.
The Constitution of 1787 is the product of the philosophical climate of the Enlightenment, a meticulous review of classical history, the evolution of the English legal system, the stress of war and revolution, the physical and political geography of the colonies, the rare brilliance of the leading figures of the time, and, in the last third of the 18th century, a widespread frenzy of constitution-making and debate that be- came a national pastime replaced only later by the invention of baseball.
Hardly ignorant of unforeseeable circumstance, the framers constructed a system so supple as to accommodate changes over time. In that its principles and procedures must be applied in ever-changing conditions, it is indeed a living document, but not as de ned by progressives, who are expedient to the point of recklessness in the belief that varying circumstances should act upon principles rather than the other way around. Though we live in an age in which the most superficial flickers of the present are wielded as instruments with which to wreck the profundities of the past, it is still stunning to hear, for example, the argument that, because the framers didn’t have to buy television time, freedom of speech may therefore be abridged.
The heart and sin of modernist political thought is that transient circumstance has license to alter proven principles. is arises not merely from opposition to such principles but from an insatiable lust for chaos, in that chaos is as much the handmaiden of change as principle is its sobering impediment.
Under Article V of the Constitution, amendments may be proposed either in Congress or by a convention of the states called by two thirds of the 50 state legislatures. (In either case, any proposed amendments would need approval of three fourths of the state legislatures to be val- id.) Given that no one is entirely exempt from the pull of the present, should constitutionalists live to see an Article V convention, they must be disciplined. Not only must they take care not to lard-up the document with pet causes, making it the statutory instrument it was never meant to be, but in making appropriate changes they should balance and counter-balance the impulses of the moment. Two brief examples:
Because the executive branch has molted into a near-Prussian administrative state, and the judiciary long ago succumbed to legislative temptation, two correctives have been proposed. Namely, submission of executive rules and regulations for legislative approval, and the abolition of judicial review.
As much as rebalancing the branches of government is necessary, keep in mind that the tectonic shift from a parliamentary to a written, constitutional system ended in America the British legacy of legislative supremacy. As each component of government must be able to check the other, active legislative review of executive regulation, now long overdue, should not be absolute. Perhaps it could be balanced by presidential veto reversible by something less than a super-majority.
Without judicial review, the equilibrium of courts and legislature shifts too much to the latter. As the judiciary now legislates at will, it cries out for restraint, such as the possibility of overriding judicial review not only by constitutional amendment but, for example, by a super-super-majority in Congress.
Anticipation beyond the passions and problems of the day would honor the framers, who looked not only back but ahead—as should we in seeking to restrain the organs of government that have leapt their confinements. Rather than merely rebalancing in the present, as difficult as that may prove to be, constitutional revision should have as its goal foresight of potential imbalances and their consequences. Impetuous reform might lead in directions such as the legislative preponderance that upon the birth of the written Constitution we chose to abandon.
In granting powers to government, the people should always err on the side of caution and restraint. Nor should the people even in this scientific age hesitate to champion artful rather than scientific governance, because man is not a substance to be engineered, and has neither the consistency nor the predictability of the rest of nature. Not science but art, with its deliberate lack of precision that by indirections finds directions out, is the way to deal with souls, collectively or otherwise. For all its clear reason, the Constitution is nonetheless a work of art, which is why it has worked. By analogy, the Old Statehouse in Boston is surrounded by immense glass towers. How much more humane in scale, warmth, and beauty is the former, welcoming still after 300 years, whereas the towers will be always be blank glass.
And if it is to be touched, the Constitution must be approached with honor, which is not amour propre but rather the willingness to sacrifice one’s interests—immediate, parochial, even essential—in favor of doing right. So it is with constitutional questions, not only in application of law even if the result is contrary to one’s preferences, but in revision or amendment—with the primary concern being not ideological advantage or the politics of the day but keeping the powers of government separate, balanced, limited, and checked, so that the people may forever exercise sovereignty over their lives.
From The Claremont Review of Books 17:1, Winter 2016-2017.