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The Biden-DeSantis Re-Balancing Act
A new era of normality and stability is possible. Let's nurture it.
For a written statement on foreign policy from a potential presidential candidate, it was, I suppose, a big deal. The salient sentence from Governor Ron DeSantis:
While the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party — becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.
It’s open to some interpretation. DeSantis says the Ukraine war is not in the “vital national interests” of the US, but is it maybe still in our general interests? Not clear. And he commits to no further entanglement, which could mean sticking with where we are now, but no more. Sure: no F-16s. But that’s also Biden’s position.
“Territorial dispute?” That set a lot of people off. But of course it’s undeniably, at some level, a border dispute. The entire post-Soviet settlement was a redrawing of national borders — and marked an extraordinarily rapid advance of Western arms and allies to the edge of Russia itself. In any kind of perspective, the current war has come at the end of that now-disputed settlement, and is indeed a debate over where Russia ends and Ukraine — which literally means “borderland” — begins. DeSantis didn’t blame Ukraine for its self-defense. He didn’t defend Putin. He merely proffered a different view of vital US national interests in the medium-term.
The Blob declared another “Munich!” — an ancient neocon ritual — and declared the DeSantis candidacy all-but-over. Chris Christie called DeSantis “Neville Chamberlain”; Chuck Schumer asked, “I have to wonder what [DeSantis] would’ve thought if he was around in the 1930s”; Jenn Rubin called DeSantis “pro-Putin”; and the WSJ warned of a return to “isolationism in the 1930s.” This morning, the WaPo dusted down and wheeled out their perennial “appeasement!” editorial. And we got a French-Brooks double-whammy direct from 1983. Churchill envy never dies.
And I’m sorry. But I don’t get it. It is surely perfectly fine for a country to have two political parties that differ on foreign policy. In fact, it’s a critical advantage that democracies have over more rigid regimes: it helps us correct mistakes in time (and sometimes not), change personnel, and adjust to an always changing reality.
And in the 21st century, after the collapse of the imperial ideologies of the 20th, the role and reach of the United States is legitimately open to debate. It makes sense that one party would be more interventionist and one would be less so; it makes even more sense for the conservative party to be the one more skeptical of wars, small and large, and the unintended consequences they invariably entail.
That’s what’s happening — partly in reaction to the catastrophic, and bipartisan, hyper-interventionism of the first two decades of this century, and partly because of the rise of China. And it’s a good, normalizing thing. It will keep pressure on Biden not to escalate any further; and force us to think through the ugly compromises that will almost certainly confront us in the future. DeSantis’ position is pretty much where Obama was on Ukraine — and Obama was not some far-right fanatic. Money quote:
The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do. … We have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.
Replace “core” with “vital” and it’s DeSantis’ outrageous position. Yes, Putin miscalculated badly and invaded Ukraine, which means a new situation, and defense of Ukraine. But the core reality of America’s and Russia’s interests is unchanged. And Putin is not in command of a huge war economy and occupying the Sudetenland. He’s stuck in Eastern Ukraine, for Pete’s sake, and can barely move. China is maneuvering to counter and exploit our escalation. We need flexibility. What we absolutely do not need is some kind of shrill, bipartisan consensus on yet another war — and the usual McCarthyite smears of critics.
And DeSantis foreign-policy realism is being accompanied right now by a clear move by Biden back to the center on the crucial issues of crime and immigration (and even energy). Biden’s veto of the DC crime overhaul — and the Senate’s overwhelming support for it — marks the final collapse of the disastrous 2020 BLM agenda.
But his immigration adjustment is the most remarkable. Last month, Biden effectively conceded the core point so many of us have been making for years: that the asylum system is being gamed to enable mass economic migration. The only way to stop this is to presume that migrants entering illegally are not eligible for asylum, and to send them back. Ditto the possible return of family detentions — as some kind of stopgap to cope with the sheer numbers.
This is just about getting a handle on a wave of mass illegal migration — and Biden is expanding legal avenues for entry at the same time. (In Britain, the Tory government is doing much the same thing with those arriving illegally by boat.) It’s not fascism; it’s a basic duty of government. For many on the left, it’s an outrage. But it has slowly sunk in to mainstream Democrats that Americans want immigration safe, legal and, if not rare exactly, then at least in line with our choices, and not others’.
Biden has straddled this, of course, but I always wondered how he’d move if unchallenged in his own party for re-election — and it’s to the right. More to the point, he hasn’t actually been blasted for it. The op-ed pages of the major papers have been eerily quiet — especially given the collective hysteria over Trump’s previous, similar moves. (You could hear similar left responses to Biden’s executive order permitting new drilling on federal lands in Alaska: sincere but muted.)
One reason for Biden’s shift may be the reaction of Democratic city mayors to the new influx of migrants in Chicago, DC and New York. Jared Polis, the Democratic governor of Colorado, even bussed some migrants out of his state for a while — though not all the way to Martha’s Vineyard. “At one time we had to deal with Republican governors sending migrants to New York,” Mayor Adams said. “Now we’re dealing with Democratic governors sending migrants to New York.”
Denial was never going to work politically for Biden. And it seems he gets this now. And dealing with this issue is not racism. Nor is “cruelty the point.” Borders require enforcement, just as crimes require policing. It’s what government is for.
One more point. The over-the-top condemnation of DeSantis this week is not, in my view, helpful for restoring the health of our democracy. He has plenty of flaws and I have plenty of objections. But as even the MSNBC neocons concede, he is not Trump. And a more realist foreign policy is not some type of Chamberlain-style appeasement of a fascist menace; it’s about measuring the costs as well as benefits of defending Ukraine and Taiwan indefinitely, with all our might; it’s about managing a declining Russia and its shit-army and nuclear warheads; it’s about checking China without pointlessly suppressing that great civilization’s future role in the world.
Similarly, DeSantis may be overreaching on the anti-woke stuff; and he comes off as gruff and stiff, with a bully’s affect. But in the broader context of a top-down cultural revolution from the woke left, his attempts at pushback are hardly the stuff of fascism. They’re almost poignant in their plain unconstitutionality. And it matters greatly that one of our political parties does not collude in the elevation of group rights over the individual, or place postmodern subjectivism over empiricism and science, or rely on emotional blackmail and coercion over discourse and compromise. We need a sane GOP. And DeSantis is not insane. If Biden falters, or if, God forbid, Harris takes over, he may be the only non-Trump option.
In all this, I think you can sense a re-balancing of sorts — away from the hysteria-inducing absolutes of Trump and BLM and toward the pragmatic shadings of Biden’s and DeSantis’ evolution. Getting as knee-jerk about DeSantis as we were about Trump will postpone the democratic healing. And lambasting Biden for essential moves to the center on crime and immigration won’t help either. The center is showing some signs of life again. For God’s sake, let’s nurture them while we can.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a conversation on Christianity with my longtime friend and gay Catholic priest, James Alison; reader dissents on Ukraine, wokeness and trans issues; nine notable quotes from the week in news; a dual Yglesias Award for NPR and Katie Herzog; two Hathos Alerts; 19 new Substack pieces we recommend — mostly on SVB’s collapse; a Mental Health Break of sweet dance moves; an eerily beautiful window from France; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
Here’s a quick reflection on last week’s column from a “long-time freeloader, now a subscriber”:
This is the quote that pushed me over the edge:
In general, it’s a very good rule to ignore anyone who says there is no middle way on a contentious question. That goes for Ibram X Kendi as well as Knowles. If their first instinct is to reject complexity, they’re not actually interested in humanity as it is.
This should not be noteworthy. The fact that a quote like this stands out at all is a sad and poignant comment on the current state of our culture.
I was raised in an environment of religious zealotry. I fled because I learned to fear that zealotry for very good reasons. No regrets there. But now I feel increasingly surrounded on all sides by the mindset of zealotry. It is deeply frightening. The Dish helps me remember that we can be better. Thank you.
New On The Dishcast: James Alison
James is a Roman Catholic priest, theologian and writer. His life’s work has been the application of the thought of René Girard — the French theoretician of desire and violence — to the understanding of basic Christianity. He has also stood up for truthfulness about gays and lesbians in the life of the Church; and has been a good friend for many years. Among his many books are The Joy of Being Wrong, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, and Jesus the Forgiving Victim — an introduction to the Christian faith.
One of my current projects is a book on Christianity and its future; and James has been a big influence on my thinking. We range a lot here. For two clips of our convo — on an exasperated but loving God, and the evolutionary role of homosexuality — pop over to our YouTube page. That bolded link also takes you to commentary on our recent chats with Cathy Young and John Gray, along with more dissent over “An Eradication of an Ism” and wokeness. Dishheads are eloquent as always.
Dissents Of The Week
After reading last week’s Dish, a dissenter asks:
So what should we do about the human rights abuses occurring in Ukraine? Professor Timothy Snyder and others say that Russian actions constitute genocide. (For that matter, what should we have done differently, if anything, with respect to Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and the Uighurs?)
2014 with Obama was different — perhaps because the Russians took Crimea so easily and civilians were not as targeted. But we did arm Ukraine and continue to do so. If we stop providing military aid, that still does not address human rights violations.
Read my response — along with another dissent comparing trans medicalization to circumcision — here. More dissents are over on the pod page. Money quote from one: “We don’t affirm an anorexic’s insistence that they’re actually obese, or provide medical assistance to suck out all their subcutaneous fat.” As always, keep the criticism coming: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cool Ad Watch
Copyranter tees up “one of the best ads of the last 20 years”:
The dealer casting is perfect. Production cost: cheap as chips. You are sold on the Gulf and you get a laugh. What the fuck else do you need.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about 20 of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse, the woes of Meta and Buzzfeed, and the free-speech mess at Stanford Law. Below are a few examples, followed by a brand new substack:
We should follow the remarkable lead of Israel when it comes to solar water heaters — 90 percent of their homes have one.
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. The drinks continue to flow:
No real time to look for the window this week. It looks very Middle East to me, so I am going with Jeddah — even though I never found the electric pylons I can see in the distance.
Tonight we’re trying out the Fire & Powder cocktail that the VFYW mixologist made for the Hokkaido contest. I think my ginger is fiercer than my fellow sleuth’s, but it’s quite yummy and original!
It so happened because my husband — who doesn’t read the VFYW but sometimes helps along with the pictures — came home with a bottle of Japanese gin. Fate had played its hand: I had to try the cocktail!
Cheers, and see you next Friday.