Sunday, August 19, 2007

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The netroots' foreign policy calculus

Matthew Yglesias responds to Gideon Rose's critique of the netroots critique on the foreign policy community (discussed here). The highlights:

Rose would, I think, like to make this a conversation about expertise and professionalism. But I'm not, and I don't think anyone in the blogosphere is, against expertise and professionalism. The question is whether some of our country's self-proclaimed experts -- and media proclaimed experts -- really deserve to be considered experts. What, for example, is the nature of Michael O'Hanlon's expertise on the broad range of subjects (his official bio lists him as an expert on "Arms treaties; Asian security issues; Homeland security; Iraq policy; Military technology; Missile defense; North Korea policy; Peacekeeping operations; Taiwan policy, military analysis; U.S. defense strategy and budget") upon which he comments? Obviously, it would be foolish to just let me speak ex cathedra as an "expert" on the dizzying array of subjects on which I comment, but it seems equally foolish to let O'Hanlon do so, especially since his judgment seems so poor. I made a stab at a systemic difference between think tank people and professionals in the public sector, but Rose raises some convincing points to the effect that this dichotomy isn't as sharp as I wanted it to be. Still, we can certainly talk about specific individuals -- particularly individuals who seem to be unusually prominent or influential -- and whether or not they really deserve to be held in high esteem.

What's needed isn't less expertise, but better expertise and above all more honest expertise.

After wading through all this, I'm somewhat sympathetic to Yglesias' point. If one believes in the utility of markets to correctly align incentives, then a price should be paid when foreign policy community experts screw up.

Nevertheless, I have three cavils:

1) While O'Hanlon and Pollack haven't lost their jobs, is it correct to say that they've paid no price for their past errors? Beyond blogospheric ridicule, I'm willing to bet that far fewer people paid attention to Pollack's Iran book than his Iraq book, for example. Bloggers would counter that they are still appearing in the NYT op-ed page and Meet the Press; I would counter that if those interventions are accorded less weight by the audience, then a price has been paid. The netroots might want to exact their pound of flesh, but these guys' reputation has suffered (especially after today's New York Times op-ed). Inside the beltway, this loss of reputation is significant.

2) Is it correct to extrapolate from Pollack and O'Hanlon's errors on Iraq to an indictment of the entire "foreign plicy community" on all foreign policy questions? That seems to be what Atrios, Greenwald, and Yglesias in his earlier posts were attempting, and that's an awfully big leap.

Greenwald, in particular, is making critiques that go way beyond individual analysts. During the latest contretemps, Greenwald wrote:

The Number One Rule of the bi-partisan Foreign Policy Community is that America has the right to invade and attack other countries at will because American power is inherently good and our role in the world is to rule it though the use of superior military force. Paying homage to that imperialistic orthodoxy is a non-negotiable pre-requisite to maintaining Good Standing and Seriousness Credentials within the Foreign Policy Community.
Let's excise some of the adjectives and rephrase the wording a bit:
The number one rule of the bi-partisan foreign policy community is that America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened. Paying homage to that orthodoxy is a non-negotiable pre-requisite to maintaining good standing within the foreign policy community.
I suspect that anyone who accepts the concept of a "national interest" in the first place would accept that phrasing. As a paid-up member of the Foreign Policy Community (FPC), I certainly would. And I also suspect that Greenwald would not accept this formulation -- it would contradict both his pacifism strict non-interventionism and his very strange definition of imperialism. Indeed, I'm not ntirely sure that Greenwald would accept the concept of "national interest," period.

Does this mean, as Greenwald implies, that there is no debate within the FPC? Hell no. There can and should be vigorous debates over what constitutes a "vital national interest," whether force should be used multilaterally or unilaterally, what other policy tools should be used, etc. That's not a small zone of disagreement. Indeed, as Chris Sullentrop pointed out in March 2003, Pollack's Threatening Storm rebuked an awful lot of the Bush administration's approach to Iraq.

3) A plain truth needs to be said: if, in the fall of 2002, O'Hanlon, Pollack, and the entire Brookings staff had marched on the White House and then immolated themselves in protest over the possibility of going to war in Iraq, it would not have made the slightest bit of difference in halting the war. This goes double if the AEI or Heritage staffers had done it.

In the fall of 2002, you had the following political situation:

a) A president with a 70% approval rating;

b) A Republican-controlled House and a Senate that was barely controlled by the Dems;

c) A Democraic Party that was haunted by what had happened to Senators who voted against the 1991 Gulf War (two words: Sam Nunn);

d) A military that had made its recent wars (Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Gulf War I) seem quick and merciful;

e) A sanctions coalition in Iraq that seemed to be fraying;

f) Fresh scars from the 9/11 attacks;

g) An adversary that elicited little sympathy from anyone -- especially the American people.

The moment George W. Bush decided he wanted to oust Saddam Hussein, the debate was effectively over. Nothing the foreign policy community did or could have done affected the outcome (Pollack is a possible exception -- The Threatening Storm did play the role of "useful cover" for many Democrats, but if it wasn't Pollack's book it would have been something else). The members of the "foreign policy community" were not the enablers of Iraq, because no enabling was necessary.

The good news is that conditions (a) through (f) no longer apply. So, contra the netroots, I don't think what happened in the fall of 2002 will happen again with, say, Iran.

UPDATE: Ilan Goldenberg has an interesting post at Democracy Arsenal about distinguishing experts from "experts" when it comes to the Middle East. Atrios is thoroughly unimpressed.

Kevin Drum makes some interesting points in this post. This point augments what I wrote above:

Sure, the war skeptics might have been afraid to go against the herd, but I think that was just an outgrowth of something more concrete: a fear of being provably wrong. After all, everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was a brutal and unpredictable thug and almost everyone agreed that he had an active WMD program. (Note: Please do some research first if you want to disagree with this. The plain fact is that nearly everyone ó liberal and conservative, American and European, George Bush and Al Gore ó believed Saddam was developing WMDs. This unanimity started to break down when the UN inspections failed to turn up anything, but before that you could count the number of genuine WMD doubters on one hand.) This meant that war skeptics had to go way out on a limb: if they opposed the war, and it subsequently turned out that Saddam had an advanced WMD program, their credibility would have been completely shot. Their only recourse would have been to argue that Saddam never would have used his WMD, an argument that, given Saddam's temperament, would have sounded like special pleading even to most liberals. In the end, then, they chickened out, but it had more to do with fear of being wrong than with fear of being shunned by the foreign policy community.
It's also worth pointing out that some foreign policy community-types did argue that a WMD-enabled Saddam would be deterrable. It's just their their writings were pretty much ignored in the debate about Iraq.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Robert Farley responds to all of this here.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Oh, dear, I appear to have upset the mighty Atrios: "Dan Drezner is very serious and we should be listening to him. He's been right about so many things, and he's got the number of that patchouli stinking Greenwald."

Aside from impugning my track record, I'm not entirely sure what Duncan's trying to say. If, as Robert Farley suggests, I might have mislabeled Greenwald as a pacifist (not that there's nothing wrong with that), then I apologize. The thing is, I'm not entirely sure how else to categorize the views he expresses in his post. [Perhaps "non-interventionist" is a more accurate term--ed. See my change above.]

Regardless, this poem is awesome.

EVEN ANOTHER UPDATE... YES, I"M REALLY INTERESTED IN THIS TOPIC: More on this debate from Rick Moran, Michael van der GaliŽn, and Brian Ulrich.

FINAL UPDATE... OR IS IT?: Gideon Rose follows up on his original post here. You should read the whole thing, but this part does stand out:

[Netroots critiques display] a mindset inimical to foreign policy professionalism. If you donít see the world in its full context, if you know the answers before you ask the questions, if you consider anybody who disagrees to be a contemptible idiot or traitor, then whatever youíre doing, it isnít serious policy analysis. Large sectors of the right have gone down this route in the last generation, and now many on the left are joining them.
FINAL UPDATE: Greenwald responds here -- I'll have my response up shortly. My response is here.

posted by Dan on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM




Comments:

Dan,

I believe your rephrasing of Atrios' excerpt about wars of choice misses his entire point.

The fact that his phrasing sounds inflammatory is because that is actually the non-whitewashed version of the powers being granted to the administration. It was sold to the american public in a form that looks like your wording with whitewash applied by the VSP country club.

Now the value/necessity of the Iraq invasion may still be debated, but the future and larger context of the war authority that was granted to this administration in this situation should not be looked at as anything but a road to perdition.
Telling ourselves we are the good guys and invading nations at every perceived threat is a bad practice. Conservatives like to talk about how the media and the liberal societal values have crippled this nation's ability to defend itself, but that is a lie, and Iraq showed how far we were from that constraint.

posted by: Condor on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



Alcibiades or Churchill?

posted by: Condor on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



I do agree with you that, especially the last year, people forgot just what the nature of agreement was in 2001 and 2002 on Iraq. There's a lot of selective memory and 20/20 hind sight. None of this is to excuse the experts or worse yet the main stream media on the subject.

The real criticism, as I see it, ought be pointed less towards self-proclaimed experts than to the media that never reports of the qualifications (i.e. track record) of experts. Rather we get multiple talking heads spewing their opinions with no method provided to consumers of the media to be able to guage the importance of these figures beyond proclaimed "qualifications."

If the media were doing their job they'd report on just how many predictions or claims these fellows were getting correct. But of course that goes against the sound bite mentality of the media and the "entertainment" value of getting two opposed talking heads to spew talking points to each other.

posted by: Clark on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



I do agree with you that, especially the last year, people forgot just what the nature of agreement was in 2001 and 2002 on Iraq. There's a lot of selective memory and 20/20 hind sight. None of this is to excuse the experts or worse yet the main stream media on the subject.

The real criticism, as I see it, ought be pointed less towards self-proclaimed experts than to the media that never reports of the qualifications (i.e. track record) of experts. Rather we get multiple talking heads spewing their opinions with no method provided to consumers of the media to be able to guage the importance of these figures beyond proclaimed "qualifications."

If the media were doing their job they'd report on just how many predictions or claims these fellows were getting correct. But of course that goes against the sound bite mentality of the media and the "entertainment" value of getting two opposed talking heads to spew talking points to each other.

posted by: Clark on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



I see Rose also seems to think this is mostly about Iraq. Though I agree with this, I think his equation of the left-wing "netroots" to the right-wing "neocons" misses something.

The neoconservatives of the 1990s had a focus for their thinking about America's role in the Middle East, this being their sentimental attachment to Israel and, in many cases their identification of American interests with Israeli ones. This isn't to say there weren't plenty of neoconservatives whose consciences carried the burden of what happened in Iraq after the first President Bush declared victory in the Gulf War (a declaration that inspired as little dissent from the foreign policy community as did his son's decision to invade Iraq 12 years later) or who genuinely believed in the cause of Arab democracy. But Saddam Hussein's regime was hostile to Israel, was supportive of groups that were also hostile to Israel, and would -- if he did actually have weapons of mass destruction -- have posed a grave threat to Israel. Certainly on an emotional level neoconservatives' focus on Iraq before 2001 is hard to imagine without this component.

The "netroots," on th other hand, don't have such a focus where the Middle East is concerned. The most aggressive netroots bloggers include a number of people who couldn't find Iraq on a map if the United States didn't have an army there, and who wouldn't care that we had an army there if the war and occupation had gone well. But they haven't; the Iraq adventure has been a disaster of the first order, and it is partly because many of its critics had not thought a great deal about foreign affairs before 9/11 that they are reacting so intensely against it now.

The netroots also, by and large, understand something that the foreign policy community has resisted to the degree it has grasped it at all. The Bush administration at its highest levels is driven by the crudest calculations of electoral politics and the imperative to maintain its chief's self-image as a strong leader. Growing doubts among foreign policy professionals about its course in Iraq (and elsewhere) just don't have the impact they might have had on earlier administrations. The priorities of the White House on the one hand and foreign policy professionals on the other are simply too different.

Perceiving that nuanced, modulated dissent have no influence on the most senior levels of this administration, the most aggressive left-wing bloggers have become extremely impatient with people for whom nuance and modulation are a way of professional life. I don't really think this adds up to a rejection of "professionalism" where foreign policy and national security affairs are concerned. What it reflects instead is a desperation to end the adventure in Iraq.

Has the community of foreign policy professionals come to terms with this desperation, let alone with their own complete lack of influence over the salient issue of American foreign policy today? It doesn't look that way, not at all, and this I think explains some of the distance between people like Gideon Rose and their critics in the blogosphere.

posted by: Zathras on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



" a mindset inimical to foreign policy professionalism."

Seems like 'professionalism' requires one to acknowledge error, examine where you went wrong, and examine how other people got things right.

There's little, if any, of that in the foreign policy community.

posted by: Jon H on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



Outside of the hard sciences (and not always even there) I don't think you'll find a lot of academics acknowledging error. I suspect it's acknowledged in the hard sciences simply because of their history and because answers are typically so objectively obvious given a certain class of data.


posted by: Clark on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



" Inside the beltway, this loss of reputation is significant."

So how come they get so much media time and column space on the New York Times op/ed page for a column which O'Hanlon himself wouldn't stand behind?

At what point do we get to ask why O'Hanlon and Pollack persist in publishing rather than doing the ethical thing and finding another career that they're suited for? (Maybe they could open a Taco Bell.)

posted by: Jon H on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



My interpretation of the critique FWIW:

There are celebrated pundits with interesting things to say about foreign policy.

A minority have distinguished themselves with by seriously studying the matter they expound on.

A minority go beyond considering options beyond what their base and sponsorship considers 'serious', ie politically/socially acceptable.

A minority constrain their punditry to reflect reality on the ground, common sense and maybe a little wisdom.

So how useful are they?

By your own admission, not very, given realities of 2003. Perhaps about as much as the analysts (with MBAs and CFAs and Ph.D.s no doubt) who gave high ratings to securities backed by NINJA (no income, no job, no asset) loans.

Credentials and grandiloquence are no substitute for knowing what you're talking about, and the 'community' failed repeatedly and miserably.

posted by: curmudgeonly troll on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



"A minority go beyond considering options beyond what their base and sponsorship considers 'serious', ie politically/socially acceptable."

And note that apparently it is politically/socially acceptable for Thomas Friedman to engage in playground bravado on air, saying the Arab world has to be told to "suck. on. this." and Iraq should have been invaded because we could.

And he's still taken to be a Very Serious Thinker, and not a complete shithead and dilletante.

posted by: Jon H on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



Zathras, i mostly agree with you here... for once. either i am getting soft or you are getting hard, i can't really tell.

But i am glad to see that you so explicitly acknowledge the Israel aspect of the Iraq war. I think the role of Israel is both explicit and implicit. That defending Israel was a direct reason that the war started, and was also an indirect reason by setting the conditions and norms that the policy discussion can be seen within. What is your view on the latter?

posted by: Joe M. on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



I don't actually believe Israel was in any significant way a proximate cause or motivation for the invasion itself. Saddam's support for groups like Hamas was invoked as a debating point on behalf of the administration's sloppy argument that terrorism (meaning 9/11) and Iraq were somehow linked, but the people who actually took us to war had many motivations more significant than anything to do with Israel.

My point was more about the reason Iraq became and remained a focus of neoconservative thinking about American foreign policy during the 1990s. Absent concern about the implications of Saddam Hussein's regime for Israel, Iraq might have been seen as a problem; for many neoconservatives the implications for Israel made regime change in Iraq a cause.

posted by: Zathras on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



Your recalculation of Greenwald's statement demonstrates your bias and your inability to deal with this issue sincerely. There is no reasonable way to rewrite this:

America has the right to invade and attack other countries at will because American power is inherently good and our role in the world is to rule it though the use of superior military force.

as this:

America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened.

Nor was there any way basis to call Grennwald's position "pacificism" (nor does strict non-interventionist" also cut it).

Your trip-line for justifying war is set so low as to be fairly categorized as warmongering. "Vital American interests" includes a wide range of policy concerns -- your default position is to permit war whenever the problem "really matters."

To respond fairly on this question, you should articulate a paragraph or two on when it is OK to initiate wars. That is the real debate, and you show a casual indifference to the seriousness of this question. It is that same sort of indifference that was a root cause for the Iraq war. There was nothing inevitable about the Iraq war, except that which is inevitable when good people do nothing in response to evil.

posted by: dmbeaster on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



It's never been entirely clear to me the purpose of the IR discipline. But having read this post, I'm beginning to get an idea.

Drezner claims, and I believe him, that all IR scholars necessarily believe that "America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened." The only questions up for debate are "what constitutes a "vital national interest," whether force should be used multilaterally or unilaterally, what other policy tools should be used, etc." As Drezner comments, "That's not a small zone of disagreement." But note how all the disagreement leans to one side--for IR scholars, the normative commitment is presupposed and all questioning follows accordingly: does X or Y serve the United States and which serves best? As Drezner tacitly admits, IR is not something properly scholarly but by definition an interested discipline, an adjunct to the state: for IR scholars, IR exists to advance the state.

In some sense I suppose this is defensible. All of us love our country and as citizens wish for the best. But so long as IR scholars continue to accept mindlessly a sort of transcendentalist concept of the "national interest" while ignoring its actual incidental character--that is to say, it's existence as a by-product of a particular regime in a particular moment in time--the discipline will continue not only to be unscholarly but potentially pernicious, an advocate for a cause, unstated of course, with which many citizens may disagree and even find personally harmful.

Everyone seems to think that dissatisfaction with the FA community relates entirely to its misjudgments regarding Iraq. But as catastrophic as invasion was, in and of itself, its enduring importance for critics of the FA community is its role as a catalyst, as a spark to the realization, however dim and so far unarticulated, that the FA community is partisan to a cause, that that cause is the State (and not the country), and that the Iraq war is simply a logical outcome of its principles. People are beginning to despiseóI mean, despiseóthe FA community because theyíre becoming to understand it as ideological, poisonous and an active detriment to the health and well-being of the country.

posted by: Mark on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]



I don't mean to speak for Glenn Greenwald--he does that quite well all by himself--but I wanted to respond to your troubles with the term pacifism. The issue is when a war is justified. For me, and I suspect for many people, a war will only be justified if it is defensive, i.e. if it is in response to an actual attack on the U.S. or our allies, or if it is necessary to stop an imminent attack on the U.S. or our allies. You can call this non-interventionist if you want, but the real problem is with the Bush doctrine of preemptive war, i.e. going to war to prevent a non-imminent threat from becoming imminent. So, I think it is more accurate to call this position anti-preemptive. For what it's worth, the idea of preemptive war is in no way sanctioned by international law, and this is crucial for those of us who happen to think law is important (remember Greenwald is a lawyer).

The "foreign policy community" clearly accepts the idea of preemptive war, and thinks it is justified. Much of the netroots would be satisfied if some "serious foreign policy experts" would explicitly, publicly, and loudly reject this notion.

posted by: Reece on 08.19.07 at 10:18 AM [permalink]






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