Populism and the New Axis of Evil

I wrote a brief comment in response to Paul Krugman’s regular New York Times column today on “Populism, Real and Phony.” I’m a big fan of Krugman’s work, but I thought today’s column was a bit lacking in its terminological definition of what “populism” actually is. Luckily, Jan-Werner Müller is here to help. His book What is Populism? is without doubt the best thing I’ve read to date on the subject. It is useful both for understanding the motivations and methods that forged our current global political climate, as well as for starting discussion on concrete actions we might take to reduce the very real dangers now posed by populist governments at home and abroad.

The full text of my comment is below. If you like it enough, I highly encourage you to click here and “recommend” it on the NYT website.

I’m a bit surprised at Prof. Krugman’s dismissal of “populism” as an appropriate term for these recently empowered political entities, given his usual antipathy toward adhering to the “conventional wisdom” of the moment. My guess is that he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to read his former Princeton colleague Jan-Werner Müller’s work on the subject, which offers a (re)definition of the term to something much more useful for our current political moment. Müller’s work posits that populism is defined more by its moral boundaries than its numbers. The populist appeal is essentially identity-based: an us vs. them confrontation in which the populist party or candidate claims to represent the “real” people and no one else. The key difference between this version of populism and the conventional wisdom is that the populist denies the existence of a legitimate opposition to their rule, and seeks various means — race-based, anti-elitist, or classist appeals, for example — to consolidate their dominant faction against subversive “others.”

Clarifying the definition of populism beyond a vague understanding of mass political movement is of vital importance as non-populists prepare to confront this new “axis of evil.” Knowing both who and what we are dealing with will enable us to formulate a strategy and prescribe solutions to defend against the worst abuses of these governments, and hopefully, eventually, remove them from office.


The View from Iran

As Donald Trump’s administration takes shape, two things are patently obvious: domestically, the United States will be governed by a group of mega-rich oligarchs; and abroad, Iran will once again be public enemy number one.

So far, this has led to rampant speculation about what the Trump administration will do with the Iran nuclear deal. Most Iran specialists, myself included, have urged Mr. Trump to keep the deal if not in its current format, then at least something similar. But this appears highly unlikely given the rhetoric of proposed appointees like Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, Mike Pompeo as CIA director, and James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense.

But beyond the deal, what does all this mean from Iran’s perspective? Nothing good for those who still believe in the value of diplomacy.

Politically, hardliner politicians have already been emboldened by Trump’s victory. To them, his ascendancy conveys a larger message about the United States’ character and credibility. Trump, they contend, is the true face of America; his anger, bellicosity, and dishonesty far more authentic than the faux-statesmanship of Barack Obama. They are using Trump and his appointees’ words as ammunition against the Rouhani government by casting the Iranian president’s decision to negotiate with the United States over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program as a fateful error that has fundamentally weakened Iran.

Economically, non-nuclear sanctions are virtually guaranteed to remain in place, if not expand. The efficacy of these sanctions remains somewhat uncertain, however, since it is difficult to anticipate what the European reaction will be to this effort. The key question will be whether European companies eager to do business in Iran will abandon their plans when faced with possible American retaliation. Airbus’s rush to deliver Iran its first plane before January 20 gives some indication both of how eager European companies are to conduct business with Iran, and how wary they are of the uncertainty that surrounds the Trump administration’s intentions regarding Iran.

Most serious, however, are the potential military consequences. Several commentators have already pointed out the similarities between the incoming Trump appointees’ views on Iran and those of the George W. Bush administration on Iraq in the months following the September 11 attacks. There is a severe risk that the Trump administration’s confirmation bias on Iran will result in ascribing any regional conflagrations to the deviant machinations of the Islamic Republic, leading them to begin building the case for war with Iran as the only available response to the Iranian threat.

A great deal rests on the fate of the Rouhani administration in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections scheduled to take place on May 19, 2017. Rouhani has already intensified his rhetoric toward the United States in an effort to counter conservative critics who are painting him as weak on foreign policy. Following the recent renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act, he vowed a “strong response” and “decisive action” if the United States fails to adhere to the nuclear accord. He also said, “America is our enemy; we have no doubt about this.” Rouhani’s directive to Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, to begin production on a nuclear-fueled propulsion system for naval ships represents the first tangible step toward testing the resolve of the United States to maintain its commitment to the nuclear accord.

Ultimately, Rouhani’s appeal rests largely on the premise that the nuclear deal would offer an economic boon for Iran, so it remains unlikely that he will take any action that extends too far beyond what can reasonably be deemed symbolic. That could change if Rouhani fails in his bid for reelection and is replaced by a hardline conservative administration that is more willing to respond aggressively to American threats, consequences be damned. Potential Iranian responses include heightened military activity in the Persian Gulf, including more aggressive naval and air force exercises in close proximity to United States vessels; increased funding for allies in proxy conflicts, including Hezbollah in Syria, Shiite militias Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen; or an expansion of missile development programs or nuclear-related activities. This could lead to an action-reaction spiral between the United States and Iran, in which both sides’ animus not only undoes the progress of diplomacy achieved during the Obama-Rouhani overlap, but launches a race to the bottom that entrenches hardline positions on both sides and sets the stage for direct military confrontation in the future.

All the Wars to Come

If there was anything good to be said about soon-to-be National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, it’s that at least he wasn’t Steve Bannon. Sure, Flynn had numerous problems, but at least he wasn’t death incarnate.

Now, I’m not so sure. As Eli Clifton at Lobelog reported yesterday, Flynn gave an interview a day before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in which he directly attacked the basic tenets of the Muslim religion, including the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed. He said:

So a thousand years ago, the Arab world would have had all the Nobel prizes – Science, Art, Peace – they would have them all a thousand years ago, so what changed was this guy Muhammad comes into play and, honestly, we’re dealing with a text that is ancient and not helpful and a society that lives on that text and it can’t come to grips with modernity, with becoming modern.

Setting aside the fact that “this guy Muhammad” came along a couple centuries earlier than a thousand years ago, this statement demonstrates that Flynn’s conflict with Islam extends well beyond the fundamentalist sect and into the mainstream.

This information comes on the heels of a series of articles in the New York Times cataloguing Flynn’s various character flaws, including his caustic personality, penchant for promoting conspiracy theories (including the infamous “Pizzagate”) and his near-total contempt for fact-based evidence. Most alarming is the revelation that as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he instructed his analysts to confirm his gut feelings about Iran having had a hidden role in the 2012 Benghazi attacks. He declared that the attacks represented a “black swan” event, and that they would have to dig deeper to confirm what he already knew to be true. Pointing out all the deficiencies with this inane logic is hardly worth the effort. The fact that Iran is a Shiite country and the Benghazi attackers Sunnis should have been enough to dismiss Iran as a likely culprit. Apparently, it wasn’t.

But minor details such as these don’t matter to Flynn, not when an apocalyptic showdown between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world for the future of humanity is coming. Trivialities like sectarian divides, political differences, and ethnic distinctions — or, really, subtlety, in general — have no relevance in this fight. In his book, The Field of Fight, published this past June, he and coauthor Michael Ledeen (a “Freedom Scholar” at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies) wrote on the benefits and virtues of a cleansing Holy War: “This type of war is not at all new. It created our world.” They continue, “The world badly needs an Islamic reformation, and we should not be surprised if violence is involved. It’s normal.”

Flynn hasn’t stepped foot in the Trump White House yet, but it is becoming abundantly clear that war is on the horizon. The only questions now are what form that war will take, which Muslim nations will be targeted, and how many people will suffer and lose their lives as a result. The Rubicon is behind us now, the die already cast.

Fighting Sectarianism with Sectarianism

I admit that I was skeptical when I first picked up Dennis Ross’s book on the history of Israeli-U.S. relations, Doomed to Succeed. I did not think, given the nature of the United States’ relationship with Israel during his tenure as a senior diplomat, that he would be capable of writing a dispassionate historical accounting of its trials and tribulations. I was pleasantly surprised when the end result proved my initial suspicions wrong.

Which is why its so baffling to come across his latest offering in the Telegraph today. Ross, a former advisor to Presidents George H W Bush and Bill Clinton, adds to the chorus of voices yelling foreign policy advice in the new President-elect’s general direction, but his, unlike so many other Middle East experts, does so in favor of regressive and illogical policies.

Ross’s argument is summed up explicitly in the op-ed’s title: “Donald Trump must keep Sunni allies onside and shun Iran to show he is serious about Isil.” The first half of that is not particularly controversial. Yes, it is important to engage Sunni partners in order to defeat an extremist offshoot of that sect. It’s the “shun Iran” part that makes no sense here: is Ross suggesting that the U.S. fight sectarianism with…more sectarianism?

This is essentially an argument for a return to the Middle East policies of George W. Bush, whose record in the region is hardly enviable. Bush’s policy of isolating the Iranians not only proved ineffective at halting the Iranian nuclear program and quelling violence in Iraq, it also squandered efforts at diplomatic engagement initiated by Iran’s reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Bush’s decision to “shun” Iran doomed Khatami’s presidency, and prompted a hard right shift in Iranian politics that led to the election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Ross also throws around the oft-repeated hyperbole about Iran’s desire to “dominate the region,” without ever really explaining what that means. Like so many others, he fails to even acknowledge that the Iranian regime might have its own legitimate security interests with regard to those same Sunni allies. By omission, Ross appears to absolve the Sunnis — code, I suspect, for the wealthy Gulf states — of any responsibility for the region’s current woes.

Ultimately, there’s no real endgame here other than a panacea-like elimination of the Islamic State and the perpetual isolation of Iran. We’ve been down this path before. It’s time to try a new one.

UPDATE 12/1: Ross really is everywhere right now. In addition to the Telegraph piece discussed above, he also has an op-ed in the Washington Post giving Trump advice on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I won’t go into detail on it other than to say this one also makes brief mention of Iran in a not-so-positive light. Ross’s last bullet point advises that the new president realize that the prospect for Holy Land peace “may be influenced by how credible the United States seems to be in countering threats from Iran.”