Monday, August 20, 2007

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Taking Glenn Greenwald seriously

Glenn Greenwald has a post up in response to yesterday's flurry of blog exchanges between the "netroots" and "foreign policy community."

In his post, he critiques my critique of his critique of the "foreign policy community" as follows:

[T]he notion that the U.S. should not attack another country unless that country has attacked or directly threatens our national security is not really extraordinary. Quite the contrary, that is how virtually every country in the world conducts itself, and it is a founding principle of our country. Starting wars against countries that have not attacked you, and especially against those who cannot attack you, is abnormal. Drezner refers to my "very strange definition of imperialism," but the belief that military force can be used whenever we decide that our vaguely defined "national interests" would be served by such a war is the hallmark of an imperial power.

It may very well serve our "national interests" to start a war because we want to control someone else's resources, or because we think it would be good if they had a different government, or because we want the world to fear us, or because we want to change the type of political system they have, or because they aren't complying with our dictates, or because we want to use their land as military bases, or because they are going to acquire weapons we tell them they are not allowed to have. But those who believe that war is justifiable and desirable under those circumstances are, by definition, espousing an imperial ideology.

Ruling the world that way through superior military force -- starting wars even when our national security is not directly at risk -- is the definitional behavior of an empire. And, without even realizing that he is doing so, Drezner defends the Foreign Policy Community by describing, accurately, its central, unquestioned orthodoxy as embracing precisely this view of America's role in the world. That is the whole point here.

In the Foreign Policy Community, these propositions are virtually never debated and anyone who contests them is almost certain to have their Seriousness credentials questioned, if not revoked. The only real "debate" that takes place within the Community are tactical and implementation questions, all within the assumed belief that the U.S. should act as a hegemonic power and can and should use military force at will.

That is why war opponents on the "left" -- including bloggers -- were and still are deemed Unserious even though they proved to be correct. Their opposition was not based (at least principally) on the belief that we were using the wrong "force deployment packages," that the timing was wrong, that we should have waited a little longer (that type of "opposition" was the only permitted type). Rather, it was largely based on the notion that the war itself was illegitimate because Iraq had not attacked us and could not threaten our national security, and that going around bombing, invading and occupying other countries which haven't attacked us is both immoral and/or self-destructive.

Yet these days, expressing that rather ordinary belief -- that it is wrong to start a war against a country except where they attack you, are about to, or directly threaten your national security (such as by harboring terrorist groups waging attacks on your country) -- will subject you to the accusation that you are a "pacifist," a term Daniel Drezer (sic) incoherently (though revealingly) applies to me.

That is how far we have come, how low we have fallen, how recklessly and extraordinarily pro-war we are as a country as a result of our Foreign Policy Community. Now, if you believe that we should wage war only when a country actually attacks us or threatens our national security, then you are a "pacifist," an unserious leftist who is removed from mainstream discourse....

There is nothing wrong per se with our foreign policy establishment embracing rigid ideological views. But it ought not pretend to be something other than that. And the ideology it has embraced, and the ideologues who exert the greatest influence and command the most respect within it, have engendered disasters of unparalleled magnitude. At the very least, that ought to lead to exactly what the Foreign Policy Community hates most -- namely, an examination of whether our "experts" really still deserve to have their opinions treated with respect and their judgments assumed to be reliable, apolitical and, most of all, serious.

Contra his implication, I think Greenwald's points should be taken seriously, so let me respond in kind:

1) As I explained in my updated post, I was wrong to label Greenwald a "pacifist", and I apologize to Greenwald for the incorrect labeling. "Non-interventionism" or perhaps "Jeffersonian" would have been better terms. That was a poor word choice by me on an important point, and unfortunately it seems to have distracted many from the primary points of disagreement. Sorry.

It is ironic, however, that Greenwald is complaining about being crudely lumped together with others who would agree with him about Iraq, since his original post did an awful lot of lumping together of disparate views by members of the "foreign policy community." So let's move on.

2) Greenwald is using an overly expansive definition of imperialism. "[T]he belief that military force can be used whenever we decide that our vaguely defined 'national interests' would be served by such a war" is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an imperial power. Indeed, by that definition, China, India, Russia, the European Union (the UK and France in particular), Australia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Nigeria are also imperial powers. Greenwald's definition is way too permissive, in that it includes all states that have used force in the past few decades. Using the word "imperial" to describe what great powers have been doing for decades pretty much strips the term of any concrete meaning.

For useful (and academic) debates on whether the United States is an empire, click here and here. It's worth observing that the article more sympathetic to Greenwald's position on imperialism nevertheless concludes that: "Decades-long geopolitical developments have, in fact, tended to render American relations less, rather than more, imperial in character.... the salience of even informal imperial relations in American foreign policy, as we noted earlier, may be in decline." So much for the powerful influence of the imperialist foreign policy community.

3) Greenwald is conflating an awful lot of disparate but "mainstream" views within his definition of the "foreign policy community." There is a big difference between not taking force off the table as a policy option and vigorously advocating its use. As I said in my previous post, there are vigorous debates about what constitutes a "vital national interest" Greenwald himself acknowledges that force should be an option when other countries "directly threaten your national security" or harbor terrorist groups that will do the same. How does one define direct threats to national security? For the United States, would civil war in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan qualify? Should the use of force be categorically rejected in both cases? Does Iran's links to the Khobar Towers bombing justify the use of force against Teheran, as per Greenwald's criteria?

These are important questions, and they're being debated amongst members of the foreign policy community. Greenwald seems to think that "rigid ideological views" have stifled such a debate. But consider that you can't get more "foreign policy community" than Brent Scowcroft, and he vigorously opposed attacking Iraq. Does Greenwald believe Scowcroft was "shunned" by the rest of the foreign policy community?

This brings up another point. Greenwald feels that he is not taken seriously by the FPC because he did not support the war in Iraq. But respecting others' opinions has a reciprocal quality to it, and it doesn't seem to me that Greenwald is taking those who disagree with him seriously at all. Is labeling everyone within the so-called foreign policy community as "imperialist" useful to promoting an exchange of ideas?

4) Greenwald did not address some of the points I made in my last post, so I'll rephrase them here:

a) Do you believe that analysts like O'Hanlon and Pollack have the same credibility now that they did in 2002?

What about the neocons? Over at Democracy Arsenal, Shadi Hamid points out:

Maybe a handful of neocons are still around and kicking, in places like AEI perhaps. But PNAC, the former standard-bearer of the movement, appears to have fallen off the face of the earth, while analysts like Steve Clemons has documented extensively how the neocons are an embattled and dwindling minority in the Bush administration. In short, as a movement, they are significantly weaker and less respected now than they were, say, 4 years ago, which makes me wonder if Greenwald is using a different definition than I am.
Even within the Bush administration itself, U.S. foreign policy in 2007 looks very different from U.S. foreign policy in 2002.

b) Do you believe that the "foreign policy community" enabled the Iraq War? Given the political facts of life in the fall of 2002, do you really think that think tank protests would have derailed the war? Is a failure to oppose Iraq the same thing as cheerleading the invasion?

In response to InstaPutz, this difference matters. It is one thing to chastise an analyst for getting his or her analysis of invading Iraq wrong. It is an entirely different (and, yes, more egregious) thing to accuse them of "taking us to war" or "has nontrivial responsibility for the hundreds of thousands dead."

c) Do you believe that the political and policy conditions that made the Iraq war possible in 2002 are still present today? You point to Pollack and (Fred) Kagan getting together, but what about the universe of wonks and analysts beyond Pollack, Kagan, and O'Hanlon? Do you really believe that the rest of the "foreign policy community" has the same view of the costs and benefits of military action that they held five years ago. I certainly don't -- and neither does the Center for American Progress. For example, the ridicule that Rudy Giuliani's essay received in "mainstream" quarters suggests that the ground has shifted.

This doesn't mean I categorically reject the use of force either -- but, as I said above, there's a difference between considering force as a viable policy option and then deciding to use it.

d) You accuse the foreign policy community of holding "rigid ideological views." After hearing reports about, say, YearlyKos, in what way are the outsiders you want included in the conversation more ideologically diverse? Indeed, would a netroots-driven foreign policy community be any more tolerant of ideas than the group you've been lambasting?

There's a lot more, but that can be dealt with in future posts. If Greenwald wants a serious dialogue, I'm happy to engage him.

UPDATE: Greenwald responds to my post here. He's clearly far quicker in being able to compose large blocks of prose than I, so I might be a bit slower in responding. It's a useful, nay, "serious" response, however, and well worth reading.

ANOTHER UPDATE: My reply is here.

posted by Dan on 08.20.07 at 09:32 AM


To start at the bottom: If the people attending yearlyKos have views different from the people in the foreign policy community, it would create diversity in foreign policy debates to include them regardless of whether their views are internally diverse.

As for political and policy conditions: This is kind of a facile point since political and policy conditions always change over time. It is no surprise that 2007 is different than 2003. Much of the change, however, is due to the spectacular failure of the vast majority of the people involved in designing our foreign policies to do anything to stop this disastrous war.

Regarding your point about whether that community enabled the war: You've set the standard in the wrong place. Your point is essentially that the war was going to happen regardless of what the foreign policy experts did. But the fact is that the vast majority of our foreign policy experts supported the war, cheerleading the invasion. The question is why they were in favor of it even if they were incapable of making a difference. If it didn't matter what they did, then we could expect them to do nothing about it. In any case, we have no idea how a concerted effort by our supposed experts would have changed the debate in the months before the war. It is quite reasonable to think that if many foreign policy experts repeatedly stated that the war would be a mistake, was unjustified, or was immoral, that in fact public opinion might not have supported the war.

As for O'Hanlon and Pollack, why do they have any credibility left? Why should they?

posted by: Reece on 08.20.07 at 09:32 AM [permalink]

The overarching point of Greenwald, in his critique of your critique of his critique(!) is that the FPC is ideologically blinkered, hopelessly partisan and irredeemably riddled with conflicts of interest. This results in it (i.e. the FPC) pushing for, in some way, shape or form, of either appeasement of the worst regimes or the outright support for ruinous wars (or in other words, the feeding of the military-industrial complex), both in the strategic and economic sense, which further deteriorate US’interrnational relations.

Your question to Greenwald, whereby you ask him to clarify whether he thought an analyst/think-tanker who supported the war in Iraq in 2003, did it out of malfeasance or ineptitude is a prime example of how you, and every defender of the FPC, misses the point which is that it is irrelevant as to why they got it so wrong. The fact that they got it SO wrong (the biggest foreign policy mistake of our times) is the ONLY point and shows up the FPC as being in extremely poor shape with its’ credibility lost for a generation.

posted by: JS on 08.20.07 at 09:32 AM [permalink]

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