Tuesday, July 29, 2008

foreign policy and the pretense of understanding

Stories like this, which have grown like weeds in the major newspapers since 9/11, to me illustrate one great advantage of the non-interventionist worldview: being unburdened from having to understand and navigate the morass of internal politics in foreign countries.

The Iraq fiasco has been characterized throughout by this kind of news story, long pieces detailing the immense internal upheaval and internecine warfare going on at any given time in any particular unstable country. Americans who closely follow the news, politics or foreign policy have become intimately acquainted with names like Moqtada al-Sadr, Ayatollah al-Sistani, the Badr Brigade and AQI, Ahmad Chalabi and Abu-Musad Al Zarqawi, SCIRI and SIIC.... And all of that, of course, is mediated by an international news media that (while I believe it to be overwhelmingly competent) is far from perfect. To put it simply, internal politics in any country are incredibly complicated, and it is close to impossible for a citizen in any country to understand every aspect of those politics. For a the government, citizenry or media of a culturally and geographically isolate country like the United States to attempt a working knowledge of the shifting internal politics of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Zimbabwe or Sudan or similar, is incredibly difficult.

What foreigner could ever really untangle the twisted and shifting internal politics of countries that don't share our culture, our language, our system of governance? Part of the true ideological poverty of an expansionist foreign policy is that it makes a mockery of the idea of an informed citizenry. Though not everyone is an expert on health care, everyone experiences their own access to health care and that of those close to them. Though not everyone is qualified to explain the ins and outs of US Tax code, everyone pays taxes and understands the impact that taxes have on their life. Domestic policy is close at hand, ever-present and immediate for the voters of a democracy. But a foreign policy that requires the average voter to understand, say, the inter-tribal warfare of Waziristan region on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is an invitation for a dispassionate, ill-informed citizenry.

And it breeds a strange combination of misunderstanding and overconfidence in the pundit class. It is the height of arrogance for, say, James Kirchick to believe that he really understands what is happening in Zimbabwe. The truth of the matter is, it is the people of Zimbabwe, and they alone, that can truly understand the Zimbabwean situation-- and only then contingently and temporarily. But this fact isn't a reason for despair. It's an opportunity to remember that it is entirely moral and just for Zimbabweans to be the sole arbiters of Zimbabwean internal affairs. I am often confronted with what I find a real cognitive dissonance on the subject of foreign policy among otherwise principled and intelligent people. I've grown accustomed to feeling truly divided on the issue from people who otherwise I feel great intellectual and political sympathy with. It is profoundly weird, to me, for great powers to be intimately involved in the affairs of sovereign governments. It is deeply strange for a remote country of vastly different circumstances to be so heavily involved in shaping the internal reality of Afghanistan. And it is a perverse and reckless foreign policy ideology that turns this kind of remote manipulation into the default state of the world.

1 comment:

Chris M said...

This post seems to me the beginning of a very fine, very timely, and very important argument (one that I hope will have never been made with such care, etc., etc.). Connecting the perils of interventionism to epistemic demands of citizenship seems, having read your post, so obvious that I can't quite imagine why it didn't occur to me before.

But there's the worry of bullet-biting: "An interventionist foreign policy places epistemic demands on the citizenry of a liberal democratic republic that they cannot hope to meet? Well, so much the worse for that model of citizenry, then!"