Wednesday, December 3, 2008

small steps from lunacy still leave you in madness

Something that's worth saying about the recent foreign policy debates going on is that you can take the discussion away from grander theoretical concerns entirely and still see how Daniel Larison and I can be so frustrated by the national conversation. There was a great deal of push back against my noninterventionism in the comments, and there were many fair points. But forget about ideology for a moment and just focus on what we might mean by prudent behavior.

The people who have weighed in on this at one stage or another, James Poulos, Scott Payne, Daniel Larison, Ross Douthat, myself, my commenters-- we're all likely to agree to a statement of the form, "America should undertake its foreign policy entanglements with prudence, discretion and reserve, and project ourselves militarily only in extreme circumstances." But what we mean by that, I think, is going to be very different. My great frustration, and I believe Daniel Larison's, is that the goal posts for what entails prudence and restraint have been moved to such an absurd degree for this country, in historical and international contexts. What Americans consider moderation in foreign policy, in comparison with other countries and the history of our country and others, is wildly militaristic, expansionistic and aggressive.

This is going to necessarily depend a lot on perspective, of course, but I think a huge amount of our foreign policy vision is predicated on assumptions that are radical; our people, meanwhile, don't understand their radicalism. Anyone who has considered our foreign policy aloud in various online fora will be aware that the idea that the United States can act with impunity in any country, at any time, for any reason, ever, is one that is held by many people. And it's not even as if this is some dearly-held belief that people defend rabidly; no, it slides by as though it needs no defense. It's just the baseline assumption for many Americans who don't traffic in foreign policy debate.

The notion of what we are capable of is popularly considered to be near-limitless. The overwhelmingy military advantage the United States enjoys (which is real, particularly concerning naval and air combat) is mistaken for the ability to create any change we desire. That attitude should have taken a near-fatal hit after Iraq. And yet, despite the constant assurances from the hawks that lessons have been learned, I find that we are not anywhere near as cowed as we should be by one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in modern history. I was just saying in the comments yesterday-- on cable news I heard talking heads agree that we needed to "pacify Waziristan". Pacify Waziristan. Warlords have been battling in Waziristan for, oh, thousands of years. And yet America is blessed by such unfailing, god-given strength that we're going to be the ones to change all that. This is the problem for those who believe in a foreign policy of restraint. We're starting from a position of such cognitive dissonance that when people think they've been chastened, they still imagine that we will succeed at whatever misadventure we happen to dream up.

So when I read stuff like this from James, I disagree with hardly a thing. But I worry that, in the context of American culture, "Don’t be stupid; don’t be lax; don’t be overidealistic; don’t be cheap; don’t be disorganized" means only "don't be monumentally stupid, only be mostly lax, let your idealism soar only to a point, believe that you'll spend just little more than the absurdly low amounts you've predicted, try to get organized if you get a chance." Prudence and discretion, on the American spectrum, are another country's immoderation and recklessness.

The other thing I would counsel is that this is a country that can convince itself that pretty much anywhere is invadeable, and frankly, if Iraq qualifies as highly invadeable in contrast to others, maybe "never invade" really should be the order of the day.

Update: Consider the presidential election. Every debate featured a segment where both candidates took turns competing to be the one who could level more war-mongering rhetoric towards Iran. When this is the context in which we're dealing-- when Barack Obama represents "moderation" in regards to Iran-- definitions of prudence and restraint have to be examined.


ryan said...

Contrary to what my earlier comments might indicate, I can pretty much agree with you here wholesale. Not sure I have much to add, as a matter of fact.

An excellent post.

raft said...

well, you're right. that's the first thing and it's important. But i think it's also a little too shallow. if you're going to (rightly) chastise our imperialistic foreign policies, you got to also ask WHY we have them. the sense i'm getting from your post is that, basically, you believe Americans are an exceptionally war-loving and imperialistic people. This is in contrast to other more enlightened countries.

maybe that's an unfair characterization. but it's the sense i'm getting. and there are certain implications--if our culture is the problem, then the solution is educational, right? We need to teach people that war is bad, we should use restraint, etc. And then when we're enlightened we'll stop doing so many bad things.

I don't think this analysis is really right. The difference between our current foreign policy and the "historical and international contexts" is not culture but something more fundamental, which is American power. as you noted, America started out as an isolationist, non-interventionist country. But as our economic and political power grew, the culture changed. i doubt the process would be any different for so-called more peaceful societies. in our shoes they would be just as if not more imperialistic--i'm looking at you, Switzerland.

the point of all this is that you can't ask too much of people. yes, pacifism and non-interventionism is absent from our political discourse. yes, it's sad that during the debates Barack Obama was not standing in the center between John McCain and Dennis Kucinich. And to make it explicit I'm not actually disagreeing with anything you said in this post. But you have to work within the realities--not just the political realities, but the deeper and more fundamental reality of our status as a hyperpower. unless and until that reality changes (and i think it may be changing, but not yet), the allure of American Exceptionalism will never go away. moving the national conversation left is a worthwhile project, but only possible in nudges and pokes; the time simply isn't right for anything more. I think it's important to recognize that, both because you should always know what you're getting yourself into, and because understanding the causes of aggressive interventionism helps you identify solutions. so, for example, if the cause is a hyperpower country unrestrained by other states, then a possible solution might be to try to build up countervailing forces--increasing the power of the United Nations, buffing up international law and other international institutions, etc. Arguably an assertive UN could have prevented the U.S. from invading iraq.

anyway this post is too long and i have to go write a paper now so let me just reiterate the main point i wanted to make, which is that non-interventionists shouldn't focus too much on discourse--the surface level--but to dig beneath and figure out where the levers of power are, and then try to make structural changes in how that power can be used. that seems to me the most effective approach to placing real constraints on American foreign policy.

Bob said...

I have two words that go a long way to explain America's foreign policy, American Exceptionalism. A truly cringe inducing term.

Joseph F. said...

I'd like to second what raft said, though I'm more pessimistic about the possibilities. America is too powerful, I think, to not be imperialistic. What needs to be done is to try and manage to ease us out of this role as undisrupively and undestructively as possible. The question I have is, can this be done? Can an empire be ended without a cataclysmic world war or a civilizational collapse?