Saturday, August 18, 2007

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The netroots and the neocons

Last week I blogged about some dubious netroots criticism of the "foreign policy community".

Since then, the netroots have been going to town. There's this Glenn Greenwald post... here's a sample:

America is plagued by a self-anointed, highly influential, and insular so-called Foreign Policy Community which spans both political parties. They consider themselves Extremely Serious and have a whole litany of decades-old orthodoxies which one must embrace lest one be declared irresponsible, naive and unserious. Most of these orthodoxies are ossified 50-year-old relics from the Cold War, and the rest are designed to place off limits from debate the question of whether the U.S. should continue to act as an imperial force, ruling the world with its superior military power.
Matthew Yglesias provided his "amen" here.

Gideon Rose, guest-blogging at the Economist, fires back in this post. The highlights:

The funny thing is...hell, I’ll just come out and say it: the netroots' attitude toward professionals isn’t that different from the neocons', both being convinced that the very concept of a foreign-policy clerisy is unjustified, anti-democratic and pernicious, and that the remedy is much tighter and more direct control by the principals over their supposed professional agents.

The charges the bloggers are making now are very similar to those that the neocons made a few years ago: mainstream foreign-policy experts are politicised careerists, biased hacks, and hide-bound traditionalists who have gotten everything wrong in the past and don’t deserve to be listened to in the future. (Take a look at pretty much any old Jim Hoagland column and you’ll see what I mean.) Back then, the neocons directed their fire primarily at the national security bureaucracies—freedom-hating mediocrities at the CIA, pin-striped wussies at the State Department, cowardly soldiers at the Pentagon....

First, many of the people in the various national security bureaucracies are indeed Humphreys, and deserve to have their every move and utterance treated with great skepticism. Second, many of the people at Brookings or CSIS or other top think-tanks are fully as noble, disinterested, serious-minded, and knowledgeable as the best people inside the system, and the notion that they’re not is just cheap cynicism. Third, the idea that there is some Chinese wall separating the professionals inside the system from those outside it is just silly: the higher ranks of the bureaucracies are filled with political appointees, many outside experts have extensive experience inside the system, and the good people in all places tend to know and respect each other.

Bottom line, there just isn’t a good clean answer to the question of how much deference foreign-policy professionals should get from other citizens in a democracy. The populist answer "none" might be appropriate in terms of democratic theory, but it would yield pretty crappy policies in practice. But obviously something like a Federal Reserve for foreign policy would also be absurd, given how nebulous, limited and fallible "professionalism" in this area actually is. Jefferson told us to pay a "due respect to the opinions of mankind"—that seems about right for people with specialized knowledge and experience in the policy arena as well.

I would describe the netroots response to this as mixed.

The moderate elements have reacted like this.

The less moderate elements reacted like this.

I'll react a bit more to this debate over the weekend.

UPDATE: Here's my follow up post.

Finally, I must link to Atrios having some fun with the folks at Democracy Arsenal. As much as it pains me, I have some sympathy for Atrios here, since there have been times when the folks at Democracy Arsenal have confused the living hell out of me.

posted by Dan on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM


Rose just comes off as whiny. The "netroots" is right. The foreign policy community has not covered themselves in glory lately. Just look at Pollack and O'Hanlon for starters. Cordesman makes statements that contradict what Pollack and O'Hanlon said and when Glenn Greenwald tries to interview Cordesman, he hangs up on Greenwald. They seem to be more interested in their club then getting things right. As has been pointed out before, there was hardly an anti-war article posted in Foreign Affairs before the war. They don't give both sides of the debate a somewhat even shake. Not only that, but discredited hacks, like O'Hanlon and Pollack never pay a price for their mistakes. One last beef with the foreign policy community. On the run up to the war did they ponder the human toll in all this?

posted by: Joe Klein's conscience on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

That they are even having this debate shows the stupidity of both the bloggers and the Very Serious people. Because, clearly, this debate is answering the question before the question has even been asked. What I mean is, it seems to me that the answer that they are starting with in this debate is "the Very Serious people are idiots because they got Iraq wrong!" Unfortunately, they are trying to fit that into the question of, "why did the Very Serious people get Iraq wrong...?" well, as we all know, it doesn't work like that, even if the answer is mostly correct.

In reality, the Very Serious people are a diverse bunch who generally reflect a pretty wide spectrum of knowing what they are talking about (though, they do tend to be on the conservative side because they are scared to offend, and are corrupt like steve clemons said). For example, you can find people on economic issues that range from Milton Friedman to Joe Stiglitz (as i said, they lean conservative) who can make compelling arguments for basically any issue they talk about. Though i disagree with Dan a lot, there is one Robert Reich for every one of him. and i think that is true in most policy areas. Take Cuba, China, trade policy, African development, blah blah.... almost every subject has prominent people on both sides...

Generally this is not a big problem. But, the debate gets messy when the foreign policy community starts to talk about the Arab and Muslim worlds (and it is especially unfortunate that our part of the world is the focus of most of America's brain dead foreign policy these days) because a) there is only one perspective on the table, b) every moron and their brother thinks they have something valuable to say about how savage or evil Arabs and Muslims are, c) there is a deafening silence when it comes to self-criticism of American and Israeli policy in the region (and since the USA and Israel deserve a ENDLESS criticism in terms of their policies in this respect, there is lots and lots of silence and additional ignorance), d) Israel and the USA are the ones causing the top problems there, and no American policy person is going to start with that premise if they want to keep their job.

Those things said, the problem in this debate is that the bloggers are trying to make a generalized criticism of the Very Serious people even though their focus in on a specific problem. The policy community is not as stupid overall as they seem, but they are especially and unbelievably stupid on the Arab and Muslim world (and that just happens to be the focus of the most pressing policy decisions). In fact, as they have proved time and time again, they just invent fantasies about the Middle East to fit their stupid worldviews. It really is a load of trash. And what's worse is that the Very Serious people are so established, so deep in the system... that they can't change. They can't become anti-Zionist overnight because they would both discredit themselves as ever being believable and also discredit themselves in a system that rewards being Zionist. Basically they would be admitting that they 1) were totally stupid before 2) that are unamerican now. Even though both are true and both are the correct views of the world (looking at American policy, you would have to be an idiot to support the USA. Just as, too, you had to have been an idiot to believe the stupid policy in the first place). So, in the end, even though this is totally obvious, they will never admit it or realize it. and unfortunately, until they realize i, both the bloggers and the Very Serious people can keep yelling at each other, but it will just be more hot air.

posted by: Joe M. on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

This whole debate of course is about attacking the enablers rather than the "leaders" who were doing the pushing to hear the opinions they wanted to hear.

posted by: Condor on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

I posted some thoughts on this subject on Kevin Drum's site, somewhat against my better judgment. I say that because although Kevin is one of the very best liberal bloggers his comment section doesn't often do him justice.

The obvious question as far the immediate controversy is concerned is whether this is really about the Foreign Policy Elite vs. The Netroots, or is instead just about Iraq. I lean toward the view that it is primarily about Iraq.

There are, to be sure, people who believe (as Glenn Greenwald claims to) in a whole alternate theory of how American national security and foreign policy should be run -- it should be "less imperial," "less militarized" and so forth (I won't go further in describing Greenwald's views, as he does this himself in the post Dan links to). There are strong strains of both pacifism and isolationism in the history of American thinking about their country's role in world affairs, and it is perfectly true that these are underrepresented among establishment institutions like Brookings, AEI, Heritage and even more traditionally academic institutions.

Why? Is it mostly about careerism and corruption? Surely there is some of both, but what produces them? Fundamentally, I think, they reflect political currents outside the foreign policy community. There was not much more opposition among foreign policy professionals in 1991 to the elder President Bush's decision to declare victory in the Gulf War and bring the troops home than there was to his son's move toward war with Iraq in 2002-03. Both decisions were generally popular with the public, and consequently with the experts.

If we look deeper, though, we see something else. During most of the period that the American public and its elected representatives have had reason to think at all about foreign affairs they have done so in the context of an existential threat: the Axis powers during World War II, and the Soviet Union after that. Following the Soviet collapse international affairs were not salient in American politics for years, until the unprecedented events of 9/11. There has been little time either for the public to adjust to the new international environment or for the foreign policy community to develop a new context for thinking of America's role in the world. Both have therefore lagged behind events.

This is true in a number of areas besides Iraq. But the war in Iraq is the issue salient with the public and its elected representatives right now. They see a disaster, and want the earlier policy they went along with earlier thrown out -- the kind of abrupt change of course that is anathema to foreign policy professionals under most circumstances (there is of course a minority of Americans who believe that President Bush must be supported at all events, whatever his strategy of the day may be, against liberal critics who would weaken the country by undermining its President. The foreign policy community, in general, isn't supportive of that view either).

Between the public on one side and foreign policy professionals on the other, it is the professionals who will adjust their views about Iraq. They will need time, but much more than that they will need political leadership to rally behind, pointing the country in a new direction. It would be much better if that leadership were provided by a new President who actually knew something about foreign affairs; regrettably we seem poised to put a novice in this area in the Oval Office in 2009, for the third time in a row.

posted by: Zathras on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

Zathras, let me ask you, do you think there is a discrepancy between the quality and amount of debate that goes on between, say, normal domestic or international policies vs. the debate that goes on when it comes to the Arab or Muslim world?

So, for example, do you think the debate on China or Cuba policy is more robust and informed then is policy toward Iran or Syria for example? do you think there is any difference in the type of debate available for most topics vs. the debate on Arab/Muslim issues?

I think there clearly is. And i don't think it has anything to do with 9/11. All 9/11 did was make these issues more immediate, but it absolutely did not change the tone or the content.

I mean, if there was any desire to invade Brazil rather then Iraq, I am absolutely sure that no one would have believed those stupid claims that Bush and Cheney were making... you may disagree, and if so, why? but if you agree that there is less informed and less quality to the debate on the Arab and Muslim world, why do you think that is?

Oh, and last, there is an obvious problem in asking this question. If someone are uninformed about the Arab and Muslim world, then it would be pretty hard for you to tell whether the debate was informed or not....

posted by: Joe M. on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

In response to Joe M's interesting question, a few points right off the top of my head.

First, as I say upthread, the particular controversy that inspired Dan's recent posts is one I think is mostly about where people come out on Iraq, as opposed to foreign policy issues in general. Any one of the more general questions raised in Dan's post of August 19th -- for example, what constitutes an expert -- could be (and is) raised with respect to all sorts of subjects, most of them having nothing to do with foreign policy. They are hot now, because the Iraq problem is so painful for so many people.

Second, the Bush administration political strategy -- which, again, is by this time largely tied to the war in Iraq -- has been to make the case that the United States is engaged in a desperate, existential struggle against an adversary of global reach, extremist Islamic terrorism. The central front of this struggle, from which America dare not retreat is, of course, Iraq. Personally, I regard this case as nonsense. But there is no denying that it has influenced the tone and content of public discussion (as well as certain areas of government policy) in this country.

Third, as to whether American views of Arabs in general and Arab terrorism in particular are influenced by 9/11, they are. The course that the Bush administration has chosen to follow in justifying its policies in Iraq and the Middle East has certainly influenced public attitudes, but this is only a matter of degree.

Fourth, perception and understanding is a two-way street. Partisans of causes dear to non-Americans delude themselves if they think it is more important for us to understand them than it is for them to understand us. Israelis have always grasped this, and so have some Arab leaders over the years -- Sadat especially, but also King Hussein of Jordan and some of the Saudi royal family. The most zealous Arab partisans of the Palestinian cause haven't. In the simple matter of language, for example, the implications of Americans' tendency to take statements by public figures literally have usually been lost on the Arab side of the interminable dispute over the West Bank and Gaza. Americans assume "Death to Israel" means "Death to Israel," a fact Israelis interested in expanding their country's territory have exploited for decades now. If Americans made the effort to immerse themselves in Arab language and culture they might emerge with a much more nuanced and accurate understanding of Arabs' real objectives -- but if the Palestinians' partisans understood how talking as if they really intended to reopen all the issues settled in 1948 sounds to American ears they might be better able to influence American policy. And having a state of their own matters to Palestinians, not to Americans.

Fifth and finally -- and speaking here only of my own views -- from the Iranian border to the Moroccan coast are somewhere north of 300 million Arabs. There are in this world over four times as many Chinese, nearly four times as many Indians, a good three times as many Muslims who are not Arabs. Economically Arabs are not nearly as productive as Europeans or Japanese; the oil sector apart, the entire Arab world put together doesn't generate as much economic activity as some European countries one can bike across in a day. Every one of the Arab states is thousands of miles away from the United States; half a billion Latin Americans are right on our doorstep.

These, to me, are the essential facts about the Arab world. I have no special sympathy for Arab causes; Arab claims to the moral high ground, victimhood status or even to be upholders of Islam I see through lenses tinted by the Darfur genocide, sponsored by an Arab government without objection from, indeed with the support of, the others. Arab democracy I regard as a chimera not worth American blood. But fundamentally my objection to the Bush administration policy that treats one, mid-sized Arab country as the center of American interests in the world isn't about rights or wrongs, or about whether our opinion of Arabs in general ought to be high or low. I simply don't think the Arab countries are that important.

posted by: Zathras on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

Zathras, you didn't answer my question. Do you think the level/type/depth of debate about the Middle East is significantly different from the debate about other policy areas (say, Cuba or China or Russia...)?

Do you think that there would have been such unanimity of voice in policy circles had Bush decided to invade Venezuela rather then Iraq (for example)?

posted by: Joe M. on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

No, I don't.

Venezuela had not attacked four of its neighbors within ten years, was not (and is not, yet) a totalitarian state with a record of slaughtering its citizens before they were brought under the protection of the American military, and had no record of seeking weapons of mass destruction. This doesn't mean that an invasion to overthrow the Baathist regime was wise; a more realistic view of the situation would have taken account of the fact that Saddam Hussein did not fall out of the sky, and was not the aberration within Arab, or at least Iraqi, political culture that we might have wished him to be. However, the bar was lower for military action against Iraq, and the primary reason for that was the record of the former Iraqi government.

That was the second question. The first one mentions three different countries.

Public discussion about Cuba has long been dominated by exiles from that country, many of them with property as well as personal interests there; moreover Cuba is not that big, so there is less complexity to begin with.

Russia was the core of the former Soviet empire, the focal point of American thinking about foreign affairs for almost half a century. It was out of sight and out of mind for most Americans for a good ten years, and public attention to Russia here lately has dwelt so heavily on Vladimir Putin's personality that information on the rest of the country has been crowded out, of the general media at least. My personal view is that Americans were deeply relieved a decade ago at the thought that Russia was no longer an enemy, and most of those who are aware of Russia (and who do not study Russia for a living -- there are still quite a lot of people who do) don't really know what to make of the country now.

There is much more information circulating about China, but then again China is a much bigger place. It's not just that it has a lot more people. Its economic relations with America are vast, intricate and changing rapidly; its cultural influence in the region is profound; it is a key component in American relations with some of our closest allies (Japan) and biggest problems (North Korea). China has become a factor in South America, Africa and even with respect to the earth's climate.

So I would say yes, there is more depth and complexity to American public discussion (or discussions, some of which are ongoing without reference to one another) about China than there is about most other places. More than about the Arab Middle East? Absolutely.

posted by: Zathras on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

So, when you posted a couple times ago you said:
"I simply don't think the Arab countries are that important."

Granted, you specifically said "Arab countries" rather than, say, the Arab world or some other system of organizing the region... But why, to use your phrase, is it that "there is more depth and complexity to American public discussion ... about China than there is about most other places", but there is far, far, far more policy about the Middle East then there is about China?

And you might evoke 9//11, but this does not totally answer the question either. because even before 9/11 there was far, far, far more policy about the Middle East than the entire world combined (not just China). So, I mean, you admit that you don't think the Middle East is important, but yet as a matter of policy, it has been by far the most prominent region in the world for decades...

and that goes without including the total ignorance that still dominates the policy decisions about the region... while, the Cuba discussion might be dominated by the ex-pats, but there are strong voices on both sides of the policy. Same with discussion about China or Russia or any other policy conflict the USA involves itself with. But that simply does not happen with the Middle East, there is only one voice. and it is wrong, it proves itself wrong all the time, yet it keeps dominating the discussion. What's the difference between Tom Lantos and Bush on Middle East policy? If anything, Lantos is more radical. Why? He is not radical on Cuba or China or anything else, only the Middle East...

posted by: Joe M. on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

I'm afraid I don't see this at all if we are talking about "decades." One could say the Middle East was always more important than everything else if one ignores everything else, but what would be the point of that?

Things blowing up make the news, and in the Middle East things blow up with great frequency. Permanent normal trading relations with China does not make as much news, but is more important both for China and for us. So was reunifying Germany. And securing surplus Soviet nuclear weapons in newly independent states of central Asia. And supporting a friendly Colombian government against leftist guerrillas and narcotics cartels. And preventing a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

I understand that none of these things are as important as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Palestinians or to other Arabs. And up to a point -- because I deny that any national interest of the United States is served by expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River, and recognize that funding settlement expansion would be more difficult if so much American aid were not flowing to Israel -- I sympathize. No more than the hardest-line neoconservative, though, do I have any interest in reopening the question of whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state. Very few Americans do.

posted by: Zathras on 08.18.07 at 12:43 AM [permalink]

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