Saturday, August 4, 2007

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Your discussion question for the weekend

Your humble blogger will be away for the rest of the weekend.

Before I go, I could leave you with a link to some fluff like Entertainment Weekly's list of celebrity bloggers (where else but her blog would you find Pamela Anderson's statement, "I love theatre."). But that would be wrong.

Instead, I want to pose a discussion question to the group.

Liberal progressive bloggers are abuzz about this Ezra Klein post about a foreign policy panel over at the third concentric circle of hell Yearly Kos:

[Peter] Beinart in particular has moved substantially left over the past few years, and now says things like, "What separates conservatives and progressives is the recognition that America's pathologies can threaten the rest of the world just as their pathologies can harm us. Interdependence is reciprocal. If other countries owe us more, than we owe them more. If you don't recognize the second part of that equation, than you are, indeed, in some ways, an empire." From there, he moved towards a full-throated defense of international institutions in their oft-loathed role as shackles on American autonomy. "The great triumph of the institutions built during after the Iraq War was that they constrained our power. By giving weaker nations some influence over our power, we make our power legitimate."

A few years ago, it would have been inconceivable that Beinart would be anchoring a YearlyKos panel on a progressive foreign policy. Now, he's not only do it, but he's doing it from within progressivism, rather than as a critic of the crowd's opinions. The degree of convergence among the intellectuals in the foreign policy left in recent years is quite impressive, even if it's not been quite as much in evidence within the class of foreign policy experts who advise Democratic candidates. (emphasis added)

This prompts Duncan "Atrios" Black to ask: "Why is there a 'foreign policy community?'"

This prompts Matthew Yglesias to observe:

It's a good question. The consequences of its existence don't seem to be particularly beneficial. Steve Clemons is talking at a panel on foreign policy, blogging, and activism and gives voice to something that I think a lot of us tend to suspect, saying he was one of the few members of said community to go on television and speak against the Iraq War not because he was the only one to think it was a bad idea, but "because everyone else was a coward."

"People like me," he says, "were being fed quite a bit of inside information from people who were every bit as horrified" but very few people said anything. And it's true -- alongside the famously pro-war elements of the establishment, there's a shockingly large number of people at places like Brookings, CSIS, the CFR, etc. where if you try to look up what they said about Iraq it turns out that they said . . . nothing at all.

His perspective, he says, is that Washington is "a corrupt town." From that perspective, he says that "the political-intellectual arenas is essentially a cartel" -- a cartel that's become extremely timid and risk-averse in the face of a neoconservative onslaught -- and "blogs allow smart people to break the cartel." That all seems very true to me, and I'm not sure what I have to add.

So, in addition to seeing commenter answers to Atrios' question, I have one of my own: If there are no virtues to a monolithic, cartelistic 'foreign policy community,' what are the virtues of an ideologically uniform, progressive foreign policy community?

[But they were right about Iraq!!--ed. Kudos to them, but I'm afraid that this merely deepens my skepticism. Beware of foreign policy hedgehogs -- particularly those seeking ideological conformity within their ranks.]

Oh, and one last thought -- my scant experience with Beltway insider information is that 50% of the time it's dead on, but 50% of the time it's absolute horses#$t.

posted by Dan on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM


So what exactly explains people like Pollack and O'Hanlon? I can't say for sure, but I bet they are symptomatic of what Atrios and Matt Yglesias were talking about. That is not to excuse those on the right either. It is just to say that a lot of the so-called "serious" people have been spectacularly wrong about Iraq, where as people like Al Gore, and Jim Webb, were right from the beginning, yet O'Hanlon and Pollack are treated by the media with undeserved respect. In fact I direct you to this take down of Pollack and O'Hanlon:

Greg Djerejian does an excellent job and last time I checked, no one would confuse him with as a DFH. In short, how can we trust the so-called foreign policy establishment when they are gonna write pieces that the government wants them to write. That is not analysis, it is propaganda.

posted by: Joe Klein's conscience on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

I'm not interested in the meta-question about the wonk community, but rather about the substance of Beinart's views. If you have to be a transnational progressive to be a respectable Democratic foreign policy expert, then both the nation and the party are in deep trouble.

As long as the US provides 90% of the military capability used to protect the sealanes, project peacekeepers into various hellholes, deter adventurous regimes, fight al Qaeda, etc., it has to have 90% of the say about where, when, and how to use force. The kind of international "legitimacy" Beinart wants would rightly destroy the domestic legitimacy of all foreign intervention.

It's just barely possible that the US public would accept Kerry's "international test" as a veto on foreign interventions (though I wouldn't bet on it). It's not at all likely that the US public will accept an international right to require our intervention abroad. And if the international veto is in place, then the public willingness to voluntarily intervene when the rest of the world wants us to will be zero. Isolationism would follow, declining defense budgets, etc. (Unclear what the impact on trade policy would be, but 1920s and 1930s history suggests greater protectionism would result from greater isolationism.)

We probably should play harder to get in extending our protection abroad, now that the Cold War competition is over. The South Koreans and Saudis could use reminding that we're doing them a favor at least as much as the other way around. But binding US policy to the dictates of those with little skin in the game would destroy our legitimacy, not enhance it.

posted by: srp on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

SRP's points here are all points I agree with.

Those who are interested in an internationalist American foreign policy still have to come to grips with the power entrusted to the current administration having been badly misused. Strengthening international institutions so that they can shackle American foreign policy would not be my answer to any problem I can think of. But -- leaving aside the question of whether that is the only purpose such institutions can serve -- it isn't going to be possible in the future for anyone to conduct foreign policy as if the Bush administration had never happened.

Incidentally, I also agree with what Steve Clemons had to say about pre-2003 public discussion of the Iraq problem. I remember columnists like Mike Kinsley complaining at the time that there was "no debate" going on about Iraq, and thinking that the political reason for this seemed pretty clear -- no one thought highly of Saddam Hussein, lots of people thought it likely that most of the worst charges made against him were true, and (most important) people who thought the war a bad idea were afraid of being shown to be wrong.

I was thinking more of people in positions of public responsibility than I was of columnists, bloggers, and foreign policy geeks...ah, intellectuals. I was genuinely surprised that nearly all the Democrats nationally prominent at the time took the position they did during the year before the invasion. Obviously straightforward opposition (on whatever grounds) along the lines of what Sen. Byrd was saying then would have been unpopular. But prominent Democratic Senators like Kerry and Clinton had safe seats, and time before they would have to face the voters again. In any event, if you're not prepared to take a potentially unpopular position on an issue of great national importance, what's the point of being in politics in the first place?

At least the politicians had, in theory, something at risk. What people not holding public office had to worry about I wasn't clear about, and still am not, but they sure seemed to be worried about something.

posted by: Zathras on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

First off, as to the views of zathras and srp on internationalism, you two can believe whatever stupidity you want, but you are wrong. if you are a jingoistic and ignorant american, then you might be able to argue that the usa deserves ultimate power over the world, but no rational person would say that. Even a right-winger like dan (though, obviously with libertarian leanings) would recognize that the vast vast majority of power in the world is useless (as iraq proves) and that most things run fine because it is in everyone's interests to have them run, rather then start wars over every time the british or the Israelis cross into Iranian or Lebanese waters and airspace. The fact is that even if the usa has 90% of the world's war making supplies, that 90% doesn't even amount to 1% of the world's war making ability (just look at bin laden). So, you can act like American weapons actually gives the USA power, but that simply is not true. In fact, again, if we look at Iraq as an example, American weapons actually destroy American power.

Also, international projection of power is similar to economics in many ways. And one obvious one is that it hurts everyone to get into a protectionist trade war (or a real fighting war). So when you two talk about american rights to do what it wants in the world, you are dead wrong. Because regardless of whether there is a formal "international test" system established to constrain the usa or not, the fact is that there is an informal system that exists to constrain the actions of the usa any way. At some point that will catch up with the USA, even though it might take a while. So, the USA can flex it's useless muscles and threaten to bomb Pakistan or to put trade sanctions on China, but it will just never work. In some cases, little countries like Iran or Syria are subject American power (military or trade), but even that will not last. Both because flexing too much muscle by the USA will eventually backfire and get rockets fired at them, or just because too many other small countries will see their own fears played out in cases like Syria. Sorry to say, the American Empire can't last that much longer. Just as the Brits blew it in 1947, American days are numbered.

As for Steve Clemons, to Zathras, the answer is simple. As he said, the policy establishment is corrupt. They do not exist to provide ideas, but to provide themselves with power. So, they NEVER take hard stands and argue against the powerful. At best they take intermediate stands and vague positions so that they can be accepted by the most wide range of people possible. The don't value being right greater than they value having access to power. That is a simple fact. And too, the fact is that most policy makers are just stupid people on any one specific issue. There is not one congressperson or senator who gained their seat by studying Middle East politics, so what the F*ck do they know? They might own a used car lot or something, not a Ph.D in Arab Studies. So they just do what they are told when it comes to the Middle East. And there is only one voice in town when it comes to the Middle East. So how do you expect them to know what could go wrong? How do you expect them to stand up for what is right when they don't even know the most basic things? The only congresspeople who were against the war were congresspeople who are against all war on principle. Of course, those people are right 99% of the time, but they don't know enough about any particular issue to take a serious stand. And the others, the ones you would expect might be against war, well, they are just political hacks who will vote for anything they think will keep them elected....

posted by: Joe M. on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

This is probably pointless, but I'll try to clear up Joe M's confusion. The point is that other countries WANT the US to spend 90% of the money and take 90% of the risks on military actions that benefit the world (look at the list of activities I mentioned above). They are free riding on the US.

That setup is sustainable so long as the US gets enough individual benefit to justify carrying that disproportionate burden. But nobody here is going to support a situation where we do all the dirty work at the discretion of foreign countries. It's a package deal--the world only gets free US military services if it gives up most control over how those services are deployed.

posted by: srp on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

srp, my point is that when you say the USA spends 90% of the money or takes 90% of the risk you are making a false point. Because those 90%s are just not very much as the world is generally unregulated yet self-regulating (and in only a few cases regulated). At best the "90%" that the USA provides is only a small, small portion of what keeps the world "safe" (assuming you consider that the USA makes the world safe). I mean, the USA can't even guard it's own border with Mexico, how can you make an argument that American power provides much security to anyone else?

Then, to your other point, there is a small subset of time and countries that "WANT" the USA to use it's power. I think you are conflating issues when you make that statement. For example, I highly doubt that the Czech Republic thinks it makes them safer to have American missile sites on their land (they are not exactly threatened by imaginary Iranian or North Korean attack). Actually, obviously, it makes them much more unsafe because now they are a legitimate target if there ever was a war. But yet they go forward with it anyway. Why? well, because they have made a judgment that coming under American (overall) hegemony gives them more than ignoring the USA, and the risks of them being attacked is still low. But there is no way they think it makes them safer, they just are guessing that they will get other benefits like economic help or maybe some token military support.

Then, in specific cases like Saudi or South Korea, you have countries that face specific threats that you would think would be easier to tackle. But the Saudis have become universally hated because because of the USA, and those like Bin Laden (who actually are a threat to them) site American protection as a key reason to want to topple their government. I don't know much about South Korea, but my guess is that hosting the Americans has actually been the main reason that the war has stayed open for the last 50 years. Anyway, these cases are much different than the case of the Czech Republic, but in both situations, Saudis/South Korea and Czech Republic (again, i don't know much about SK, so i am just guessing), these countries are putting themselves in more danger by coming under the American umbrella, but doing so for other reasons. My point is, when you say "WANT" i don't think you mean they want American military power, but other things the USA offers. And too, they are not "free riding" on the USA, they provide lots of other things back to the USA, more then the USA provides them. They are only "free riding" if you only think of it in military terms. But truth is closer to the USA free riding on them, simply by putting a military base on their soil.

So, i think you are totally wrong about the way you are thinking and talking about American military power. Except in very very very limited cases (and those are not in relation to it's size), it doesn't actually provide security for anyone.

posted by: Joe M. on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Let me just be more explicit on this one point: how exactly is Saudi "free riding" on the USA? Is it free riding that Saudi gives the USA control of 85% of it's foreign policy? Is it free riding that they give the USA dozens of mouth piece media organizations that represent the American agenda (which is clearly against the will of the people and even the overall interests of the government)? How about, is it free riding that Saudi has bought billions of dollars of military equipment from the USA that they don't even know how use and just let sit in the desert? is that free riding? How about, is it free riding that Saudi keeps oil prices lower than any other country in OPEC, even though they would make more money to lower supply? Is it free riding that they provide cover for American bases all throughout the region, and they use their influence to make sure that other countries do the same as well? Is it free riding when they first become a conduit to American weapons and funding to Saddam when he fights Iran, and then in 1990 because a conduit for the American war against Saddam? Has the current war with Iraq made Saudi safer (if not, why did they support it? unlike the USA, they are not so stupid and knew it would be a disaster)? Are all these things free riding? and if so, free riding on what? If anything, the USA is free riding on Saudi, who could easily put the squeeze on American if they wanted to. But Saudi has looked around and noticed that American influence is great and therefore decided that they don't want to be left out of it. Iran (which is less extremist then Saudi) decided otherwise and have a fairly high standard of living for a country like theirs, but they don't have the luxuries that the princes of Saudi love. So the Saudi princes simply look around and ask each other whether it is worth it to go against the USA. Clearly they have decided that they don't think independence is worth the cost. The cost can be high, but not super high. Libya, for example, chose it's independence and has been an outcast for it, but it still has a much higher Human Development Index score then Saudi:

So, by trading independence for the token bones the USA throws to them, things like not sanctioning Prince Waleed Bin Talal, or giving individual princes access to Wall Street and letting them play in Cannes on their yachts... And just making sure that they don't have to go day by day feeling like they are in conflict with the USA... After the oil embargo, they realized how much work it takes to always be fighting. And how hard it is to keep a solid front together, so they took the typical prisoner's dilemma route, by cutting a deal with the USA. They know it is not really in their interests and that is why they have to break ranks ever so often by sponsoring a Hamas led unity government in Palestine, or by arming the Sunni resistance forces in Iraq...

That is not free riding. Like I said, if anything, the USA is free riding on them. The main thing the USA gives them is instability and regional conflict (though, it doesn't always reach their doorstep. though, as with Bin Laden's American funded and supported mission in Afghanistan in the 80's, sometimes it does reach them).

posted by: Joe M. on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Given that you are a scholar of blogs, I would have hoped that you of all people would have resisted the temptation to constantly pile on gratuitous insults on DailyKos and YearlyKos. If you're so sure YearlyKos is a "circle of hell" maybe you should go next year and see for yourself. Honestly, Dan, you sound more like Bill O'Reilly than Dan Drezner when you're writing about this stuff!

posted by: Joel on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

"but I'm afraid that this merely deepens my skepticism"

Are you also investing your retirement funds in Nigerian 419 scams?

posted by: Jon H on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

Dan, at your link to back in january you wrote: "misperception about the utility of experts: they might not be great predictors, but they are still better informed than you are -- which means they are still better predictors."

That's assuming the 'experts' don't have an ideological axe to grind, and that they aren't feeding you a line of bullshit in order to obtain some goal.

Can you honestly say that all the pro-Iraq War Kagan types of the world were entirely straightforward and honest, not biased or slanted to make the war seem like a better idea than a cold analysis would have made it?

Seems to me the serious, honest analyses were all on the anti-war side. The pro-war side was all handwaving and pipedreams with all the seriousness of a tone-deaf singer's rationalizations of why she will win American Idol.

What freaking use are experts who spout pipedreams, Dan?

posted by: Jon H on 08.04.07 at 09:04 AM [permalink]

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