Sunday, March 2, 2003

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Memo to liberal hawks

Dear Kevin Drum, Kieran Healy, and Matthew Yglesias:

As self-proclaimed "liberal hawks," I see you're debating whether to hope against hope that a war with Iraq will be called off due to a lack of multilateral support (even though you all support multilateral action against Iraq), leading to Bush's political downfall in 2004. You object to the absence of strong multilateral support, due to "the more-or-less inept manner in which the Bush administration has handled the build-up for war," combined with evidence that the Bush administration's plan of democracy promotion looks haphazard at best and phony at worst. Kevin Drum sums it up:

So if I thought that opposing the war had a chance of hurting Bush's re-election, it would probably be all the nudge I'd need to actually switch sides and oppose it. I've never thought that Saddam Hussein posed an immediate threat, so postponing war for a while would have little downside, while getting rid of Bush would have a big upside.

OK, as someone who's to the right of y'all, let me try to provide you with one substantive point and one cynical point while you continue your debate:

The substantive point is that when push came to shove, internationalist Republicans did support President Clinton when he used force in both Bosnia and Kosovo. In the case of Bosnia, Bob Dole supported Clinton even though it was not in his political interests to do so. They supported the President because, corny as it sounds, it was the right thing to do [C'mon, not every Republican acted this responsibly--ed. No, but most of the ones the media took seriously on foreign policy matters -- Dole, McCain, Lugar -- did act responsibly]

These "conservative hawks" supported the administration even though they also -- justifiably -- disagreed about process and planning matters. If you read Richard Holbrooke, Samantha Power or David Halberstam, it's clear that the Clinton foreign policy team took far too long to act in Bosnia. When they did act, it was in a largely ad hoc manner to avoid the shame of deploying U.S. forces to cover a withdrawal of French and British peacekeepers. In the case of Kosovo, there was such a lack of consensus about the means that Clinton decided on his pledge not to use ground troops a few hours before his televised speech in response to an offhand comment from an ex-NSC staffer. Altruism and democracy promotion were not high up on the priority list.

I dredge all of this up not to argue that the Bush team is better than the Clinton team, but rather to point out that crafting foreign policy is like making a sausage -- you really don't want to know exactly how they do it, but the end result is usually pretty tasty. The interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were not the result of carefully crafted decisions in line with an overarching philosophy of foreign relations -- they were messy and clumsy and, in the end, did much more good than harm.

Whatever you think of Bush's intentions or his decision-making process, Tom Friedman is correct:

Anyone who thinks President Bush is doing this for political reasons is nuts. You could do this only if you really believed in it.

Even if you don't like the process by which the U.S. currently finds itself, the cause is just and the outcome in Iraq ikely to be a dramatic improvement over the status quo.

The cynical point is simple: politically, the best outcome for Democrats is for the war to take place sooner rather than later. The "no war" outcome is a nonstarter, for all of the domestic political reasons Matthew outlines. However, the longer a war is delayed, the more it benefits Republicans, for two reasons:

1) The rally-round-the-flag effect will be stronger. A successful war now will fade from memory quicker than one taking place in the fall or next spring. We're approaching the exact point in the electoral cycle when Bush 41 was riding his after the Gulf War victory. Eighteen months is a liftetime in politics. Twelve months or shorter, and Bush will be better poised to use the war to bolster his electoral chances.

2) The economic rebound will be stronger. It's clear that what's depressing business investment and consumer confidence is the uncertainty over the Iraq situation. If an attack occurs now, the economy will probably experience a short-term rebound from the reduction of uncertainty. Over the longer term, macroeconomic fundamentals like the size of the budget deficit and interest rates will kick in. Now, if you're a Democrat, you have to believe that in the long term, the "bizarrely destructive " domestic policies of the Bush administration will trigger a downturn. So, if you're a Dem, when do you want the short-term uptick in the economy to take place -- 2003 or 2004?

Have fun with your debate!

UPDATE: Kevin Drum e-mails to say I missed his biggest beef:

my biggest issue is less competence than vision: does Bush genuinely believe in using this as a springboard to promote democracy in the Mideast? If I thought he did, I'd bury my personal discomfort with him and stay on board. But more and more it really doesn't look like he cares much about that.

I think Bush's speech last week is pretty convincing evidence that he does care about democracy in the Middle East. However, this NYT Sunday Magazine story suggests the possibility that the neocon position won't necessarily win out. In any event, my main point is that even if Iraq turns out to be like Bosnia is now, that's still a dramatic improvement over the status quo, which is just wretched.

Also, be sure to read Kevin's entire post on this. My quote makes him sound more cynical than he actually is.

More on the liberal hawk debate from Dmitriy Guberman.

posted by Dan on 03.02.03 at 02:56 PM