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August 03, 2007

Yglesias v. Slaughter - Partisanship and Bipartisanship
Posted by David Shorr

A lot of wires are getting crossed in the debate on the relative role and need for partisanship and bipartisanship, sparked by Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent WaPo column, "Partisans Gone Wild." (Heather, always quicker than me, posted days ago.) Some of the tangle is caused by the appearance of the Slaughter piece within a few days of Michael O'Hanlon & Kenneth Pollack's infamous "War We Might Just Win" NY Times op-ed.

Matthew Yglesias says in the LA Times yesterday that bipartisanship is not only a false god, but a self-justification and self-preservation by an elite class that places itself above the rabble. Ouch. Yglesias and Slaughter are both right - and both wrong. Matthew is correct in standing up for the validity of public outrage over Iraq. Anne-Marie is justified in her worries about the venom of the overall foreign policy discourse.

To echo Yglesias (and coin a phrase): acrimony in opposition to quagmire is no vice; calm in the acceptance of inertia is no virtue. It is entirely appropriate that Iraq should be debated loudly and passionately, in no small part because it wasn't debated properly at the outset. That said, I don't think the Iraq War can be laid at the feet of bipartisanship per se, nor is it true that the entire foreign policy establishment supported the war.

What's more, I believe bipartisanship can contribute to the debate and resolution of many other critical issues. Which brings me to a disclosure. For the past year, I have been co-editor of a Stanley Foundation project, Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide, that brought together Liberal-Conservative pairs of experts (including, yes, Mike O'Hanlon) to find consensus on different areas of foreign policy.

Policy Review Editor Tod Lindberg, Democracy Arsenal alumnus Derek Chollet, and I undertook this initiative for the exact reason that Dean Slaughter mentions: that too much of today's politics is pure shoutfest. We think bringing the left and right together generated some good ideas, not total agreement, but constructive proposals; any way you can judge for yourself. It is apt to note, by the way, that our project does not include a paper on Iraq, which we didn't see as ripe for such a coming together. Oh, and the Washington insiders are dying to engage the public on these issues, not shut them up or cut them out. If you don't believe me you should see all the contacts we get from members of the establishment who want to come out and talk with us Iowans.


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"Acrimony in opposition to quagmire is no vice; calm in the acceptance of inertia is no virtue."

Not exactly a bumper sticker, David, but I see your point. Here's my question back...I don't think anyone was making the claim that the desire for bipartisanship CAUSED the war, but rather that there are systemic problems that enable bad things to happen, like, for instance, entering into a war that is all around a bad idea. Your analysis worries me that it falls into a trap I think the foreign policy establishment has gotten too comfortable with---the idea that in a debate, the answer is always "you're both right, and you're both wrong." In a field claiming to be based on vibrant debate, can't we do better than that?

Great question, Moira. Of course my 'they're both right...'comment pertained to the debate about debates (meta-debate?) rather than specific substantive debates.

So, is the pursuit of a right-left synthesis a fool's errand that quashes rather than enlivens debate? Sure, sometimes. Which is my point about the War. But my contention is that a lot of other times, right-left dialogue makes a positive contribution to debate that would otherwise be missing.

It's more than Heather's point about the necessity of compromise. Sometimes progressives and conservatives have insights that could complement or benefit one another (of course they also have some positions that are, and will remain, diametrically opposed).

One quick example. As a firm opponent of the Iraq War, there was always one point I was willing to concede: that Saddam's flouting of Security Council resolutions was a problem. It was not a problem that justified the course of action they took, but it was a serious problem that progressives (and some European governments) would do well to take more seriously.

That's what democracy should be, a shoutfest. The problem isn't a lack of convergence, it's too much convergence, and in the wrong ways, which has been caused by a shortage of dissonance, and not only on Iraq.

So what we end up with is Kerry/Bush 2004, a noncontest of positions with both candidates being for the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, massive corporate welfare programs, the drug war, free-reign trade, unqualified support for Israel and a bloated Pentagon budget.

For the past year, I have been co-editor of a Stanley Foundation project, Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide, that brought together Liberal-Conservative pairs of experts (including, yes, Mike O'Hanlon) to find consensus on different areas of foreign policy.

This, I think, is part of the problem, David. The instinctive reaction of the foreign policy guild to signs of troublesome popular discord and unrest is to assemble the experts, and try to work out a new expert consensus. This was the same approach taken by the Princeton Project. They drew together most of the usual suspects from the foreign policy College of Cardinals in a series of meetings and working groups to come up with a pretentious new "X Article". There was no really significant, non-cosmetic input from ordinary non-expert Americans; no response to grass roots movements and organizations; no horse-trading with the large variety of local-level groups and organizations to effect a really broad-based compromise on wildly conflicting goals; not even any real attempt to determine what kinds of countries the people in this country would like to build, and the way they see different kinds of foreign policies as advancing or hindering those aims. Their work was, and was intended to be, shielded from the democratic process.

And as is typically the case, the participants in the pow-wow represented an absurdly narrow band of the actual spectrum of opinion in this country. I'm sure they think of themselves as a diverse lot, just as if the colors red and violet could talk, they might imagine themselves as occupying extremes of the electromagnetic spectrum, in ignorance of the vast expanses of invisible wavelengths that fall outside the tiny visible band. No matter how gracious and diplomatic and courteous they try to be, the established foreign policy practitioners make it plain that they believe huge segments of opinion in the United States simply don't count, and don't deserve a real seat at the table.

So these meetings were a selective gathering of the rock-solid ruling class center, whose diversity represented only fine gradations of orthodoxy, sponsored by the same elite foundations that sponsor all such gatherings. And the final product of their meetings was simply a predictable restoration document, aiming to put matters back on the centrist imperial track from which the Bush administration had torn them.

Why? Why does foreign policy practice in this country maintain such a strong reliance on these pre-democratic, almost medieval habits of decision-making?

Consider an area of domestic policy disagreement, such as abortion. Nobody would think the way to address the social divisions over abortion policy is to assemble a panel of "abortion experts" to come up with a consensus document - some sort of reproductive rights "X Article". And why wouldn't they? Because they know that even if one could get past the areas of factual disagreement, at bottom the dispute is one about values: deep and fundamental disagreements about some of the most basic values. There is no realistic hope of achieving broad philosophical consensus on these topics. Fortunately, human beings have invented structured democratic politics for just such circumstances. The way to achieve social decisions in the absence of consensus is for the contending groups to struggle in the political arena for power; find a way of achieving a governing majority, and then enact their preferences through the policy-making arms of government.

There is no reason not to work with the same model in foreign policy. Many of the disputes about foreign policy in this country are similarly disputes about deep and fundamental conflicts over ultimate values, that are not practically reconcilable through mere discussion and consensus-seeking, but require the tool of politics. The very fact that the elite FP class is able to achieve consensus so often is an artifact of the fact that the people who comprise that class are so similar in their outlook. Their fundamental social values are much the same, and so most of their disagreements are about means to agrre-upon ends.

This insularity and elitism would would be one thing if the foreign policy practitioners were simply an expert academic class, studying and debating issues, and offering their expert opinions, when requested, to the public and their servants and representatives in government. Domestic policy is closer to that model. But in fact, the very same people who form the foreign policy "expert" guild are the people who dominate the actual governance of foreign policy. They move in and out of government, taking sabbaticals in think tanks, academic departments, councils or strategic consultancies, then moving right back into government where they don't just talk and debate, but actually send people to their deaths. They have a lock on the country's foreign policy. And all of these recent calls to restore "bipartisanship" and quiet the rabble are just a defensive reaction designed to maintain elite privileges.

One can't fail to notice that the foreign policy elites represent a rather self-contained class in the traditional sense, and not coincidentally, the foreign policies they gravitate toward reflect their class interests. They hail from a small, tidy collection of schools, they tend to represent similar socio-economic classes. They are almost all white. Few people rise to the top of the foreign policy apparatus by moving up the political chain from activist, to alderman, mayor, representative, governor, etc. No "men of the people" here. Nobody on the roster of Truman Democracy Project fellows, for example, seems to be a working class laborer or white collar manager who got active in foreign policy and worked her way up the FP food chain.

Dan, you grant yourself presumptions about people that you would never countenance from any of my lot. Foreign policy experts are overeducated, overpaid, and under-calloused; all that can be inferred from what we're paid to do all day. But you really don't know what the variety of socio-economic backgrounds, experiences, and geographic roots of all of us really are. You can't. I'm ready to concede that the disconnect between the specialists and the public is a problem. It's a problem I have acknowledged to a wide variety of public audiences and have devoted time and effort to overcoming. But I'm afraid we're not going to have a meeting of the minds without an acknowledgment that the years (in good faith and goodwill) devoted to understanding the world has yieled some insight and not merely blindspots. For example, it always exasperates me when people spout defenses of interests of the developing world who haven't had a fraction of the contact I've had with it, which is limited but non-trivial. I don't direct that at you in particular, which is sort of my point; I don't know much about your life experiences, and you don't know much about mine.

Believe it or not, I get a lot out of the challenges you present. But if I'm nothing but deluded, are my musings subject to a massive discount?

Foreign policy experts are overeducated, overpaid, and under-calloused; all that can be inferred from what we're paid to do all day.

Gosh, where did I say anything like that, David! Overeducated? Under-calloused? That was no part of my critique at all. You seem to be projecting some practiced defense against certain other kinds of attacks onto my own criticism. When I said that the nation's foreign policy decision making should represent all of America, and incorporate the grass roots, I mean all of America, not just the more calloused and less educated parts.

As for overpayment: in my claim that the establishment represents the interests of a particular class, I was thinking more of where people come from, their social and cultural roots, as well as the class structure into which they have been initiated - I wasn't thinking so much of how much they are actually paid. It is my view that, particularly in the area of foreign policy, this country has a ruling class, with its roots in established wealth but not limited to the established wealthy alone, and that membership in that class is jealously protected by entrenched social networks, patronage and mentoring hierarchies, and sanctioning from a small circle of approved educational, corporate and social institutions. (Look at the educational backgrounds of the Truman Project fellows and "future leaders" for a sense of how small a circle). How much the ruling class actually pays its old members and new initiates is not my concern.

The core of my criticism of the foreign policy establishment was this: they form an elite; that elite disdains democratic politics, and works to insulate foreign policy decision-making from the democratic process; that elite represents a very narrow band in the spectrum of US political opinion; and that elite predominantly serves the interests of a limited class of Americans, by working with a conception of the "national interest" that reflects those class values. I would also add now that that elite is organized to build and serve empire, whether its individual members prefer the moral aggrandizement of a patrician, philanthropic sort of liberal empire, or the material aggrandizement of a more old-fashioned sort of rugged and ruthlessly acquisitive empire. They both want to rule the world in one way or another.

I think calling the separation between the elite and the public a "disconnect" is a bit too benign. That just suggests a well-meaning but tragic failure to communicate or find a meeting of the minds. But the Princeton Project didn't attempt to reach out, engage in genuine two-way communication and negotiation with the disparate groups in our society, rethink and rework foreign policy from the grassroots up, or even do any serious research into learning what kind or kinds of society Americans would like to build or live in. It apparently decided the latter based on the consensus of the highly unrepresentative body of in-group practitioners of the craft, and it systematically and intentionally excluded those other groups. It excluded them because they disdain politics and out-group values, and exalt undemocratic forms of social decision-making as virtuously "above the fray". This is not just a case of disconnect.

I would never call anyone overeducated. I'm one of those people who thinks no one can have too much education. I myself was an academic for 18 years. I have a PhD in Philosophy. Reading and research in that field, and just about any other field I can learn about, remains my chief leisure-time occupation - I guess writing blog comments is big too. For better or worse, I remain a highly uncalloused individual. I am more than ready to accept that years of study of a particular field produces valuable knowledge.

However, we don't have a situation in this country where, for example, the nation's leading "philosophy experts" also frequently work in the government for the Department of Philosophical Relations or the National Philosophy Agency or the Department of Philosophical Defense, commanding unaccountable black budgets and routinely sending people to their deaths, with minimal participation and input from grass roots democratic processes and people most affected by their decisions. We don't have a situation where the typical response to major public ethical disputes is for philosophers to form a Top Philosophers Only study panel aimed at writing a bipartisan "X Treatise" aimed at restoring a national philosophical consensus, after which the aforementioned executive branch agencies actually hire these "experts" to put the Treatise into policy effect, through machinations that are frequently conducted in secret. We also don't have a situation where philosophers receive oodles and boodles of corporate and foundation funding for their philosophical governing initiatives - funding that does not flow to activists and grass roots organizations - and then go to work for these very same corporations providing "high-level philosophy products" or "strategic philosophical consulting", in other words selling their expert knowledge in how to rule the world to the highest corporate bidder in the world of global robber-barons.

Finally, most of the philosophers I know haven't been responsible for war crimes. Of course I realize that most foreign policy experts are also not war criminals either. Yet they frequently sit and chat collegially with war criminals, and seem to glory in the charming bi-partisan agreeableness of the magic circle from which these war criminals never seem to be excluded. They celebrate the inclusion of the potent signatures of elegant butchers and urbane war criminals on policy statements and reports, since that signifies the whole bastard crew is reassuringly agreed on the All-important Consensus. All sorts of murders and murders-for-hire are brushed off as mere errors or snafus. "Oh yes, he helped arm death squads that raped and murdered nuns - a bit of a lapse there."

Maybe there is too much shouting in foreign policy politics these days. But the reason for all the shouting is that it is an instinctive response to powerlessness. Most Americans feel they have almost zero influence over the nation's foreign policy. When that policy fails badly, they get very mad because they themselves share little responsibility for it. And when it leads to lots of people getting killed, and major public interests being flushed down the toilet, they get furious. It's one thing to suffer through a bad policy that is the result of a democratic political dispute, where one side just loses a national argument fair and square to an opposing throng with more numbers. It is another thing to have to suffer through depressingly bad policies that are formed by a tiny exclusive club. And when that elite produces a massive national fuck-up through a raging epidemic of ruling class group-think, and yet still their instinctive diagnosis of the failure is that this country needs even more elitism ... well, then that makes one want to run into some government or think-tank office and throw someone out a window.

I also know little about the developing world. But I do know that there are an awful lot of people who express an admiration for the expansion of democracy in the developing world, but who have little affection for democracy as it is actually practiced, and little interest in establishing the social preconditions for real democracy here at home.

United States society, with its monstrously overgrown, secretive and militaristic executive branch is barely even a republic anymore, much less a democracy. Its democratic institutions at the national level are highly limited, and reduced in many cases to meaninglessness through a tolerance of a level social and economic inequality which is simply incompatible with democracy. Yet I read the foreign policy folks speak blandly of extending the American Way of Life and democracy, as though they were the same thing.

Dan is a master at saying stuff and expressing better than I can what I think, and I hesitate to even get involved here, but I will anyhow, briefly, to add one thought which concerns me about the world we live in which is at risk.

Has it ever occurred to the FP elite than Dan references, and which he rightly claims is out-of-touch with ordinary Americans, has it ever occurred to these folks that they are way out of step with the rest of the developed world? That other country's presidential candidates aren't routinely talking about invading and nuking other countries? That other countries (except poodles) aren't actually bombing and invading, either? That this sort of behavior, talking about which is like eating cereal to the average FP expert, is abhorrent to leaders in other countries and even more disgusting to their citizens because it kills, injures and displaces a lot of innocent people? That the US, as Dan suggests, is a world criminal? And that this criminal behavior isn't really done for 'democracy' but for power and profit?

"When that policy fails badly, they get very mad because they themselves share little responsibility for it."

Still can't go along with the picture of a conspiracy of an elite that wilfully excludes the public, but I agree wtih most of the paragraph that includes the above line. For what it's worth, I'm angry too and regret that those of us who were opposed to the war weren't much louder about it in 02-03, mea culpa.

Mr. Shorr,

Your lack of response to the problem I described is clear evidence of "a conspiracy of an elite that willfully excludes the public" and, as Dan wrote about the Princeton Project, refuses to "engage in genuine two-way communication and negotiation with the disparate groups in our society".

Thanks for illustrating it.

David I don't think I would call it a conspiracy. It's simply a collection of intellectual habits and institutional norms that reflect a deep-seated anti-democratic bias. It just seems to be an established conviction among the leading figures in the foreign policy field that the proper way to make foreign policy is at the top, through conciliar discourse and negotiation among experts, rather than through the bottom-up methods of participatory democracy. The ship of state, it seems, is such a complex and specialized piece of equipment that ordinary citizens are not qualified to contribute in a deep, constructive and systematic way to the detailed process of sailing it. Their sole role, apparently, is simply to vote yea or nay for some presidential candidate who might happen to defend the finished policy, along with a mass of other policies about other matters. This is the Bush "accountability moment" conception of democracy.

And I don't think one can seriously doubt that the exclusion of the broader public is quite deliberate. Otherwise, one is to believe that the organizers of projects like the Princeton Project simply forgot to invite people from outside the circle of scholars and career practitioners. I don't mean to make you answer for the practices of the Princeton Project, since that was not your project. But it was a very important project, and clearly had a lot of backing from the foreign policy establishment. And once the project finished its work of engraving the new holy X tablets, it engaged in a well-organized effort to spread the message among those who played no role in the writing of it.

Here is Dean Slaughter's welcome message describing the purposes and approach of the Princeton Project:

On behalf of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, I am delighted to welcome you to the Princeton Project on National Security. Under the stewardship of honorary co-chairs George Shultz and Tony Lake, the Princeton Project seeks to develop a sustainable and effective national security strategy to address the increasingly interconnected security threats confronting the United States.

In his February 2004 address at Princeton in honor of George Kennan’s 100th birthday, Secretary of State Colin Powell observed, “because Kennan could see more deeply, he could predict more accurately.” In this spirit, the Princeton Project is a bipartisan effort to strengthen and update the intellectual underpinnings of U.S. national security strategy.

The Princeton Project is based on the work of leading U.S. academics and policy makers and informed by consultation with top thinkers around the globe. The Project was formally launched at a high-level conference hosted by the Woodrow Wilson School in May 2004. Since then, through conferences, working groups, roundtable discussions and commissioned papers, nearly four hundred individuals have contributed their time and talents to the Project.

While most of the Project’s events are by invitation only, we invite all who are interested in these issues to browse the suggested readings, review the Project’s working papers, and check back for updates and announcements of public events. The Princeton Project does not seek to duplicate or compete with the important efforts currently underway in this field. Rather, our aim is to link these efforts together in a comprehensive fashion. If you have suggestions of other work being done in this area, please let us know.

So, nearly 400 individuals! That is the scope of the project's efforts to penetrate into and derive inspiration, ideas and policy contributions from the body politic. Amazing. These people, who are not mere academics engaged in the study of US foreign policy, but the past and future "practitioners" charged with the actual making and direction of US foreign policy, decided to write an X article that would provide a foreign policy charter for the administrations to come, and guide the fate of America and the lives and deaths of its children for the next generation, and yet they believe it is appropriate to restrict the discussion to 400 individuals.

Ah, but perhaps those individuals are somehow representative of the population as a whole, much as a Gallup or Zogby sample of 1000+ individuals might be representative of the entire country? You be the judge. The members of the working groups are listed on the Princeton Project web site. And here is the schedule of conferences the project held to solicit finishing input, after the main body of work by the working groups was finished. It's hard for me to see in the constitution of either the working groups or the conference panels anything approaching a collection representing all of the major groups and interests of American society. Where are the labor leaders? The religious and civic leaders? The advocates for the middle class? The environmentalists? The heads of community and ethnic organizations? The artistic and literary communities? Small business owners? Professional organizations? US figures in the global social movement? Nowhere.

But fear not. Because even though only the unrepresentative Mighty 400 were admitted to the "invitation only" process for hammering out a next generation foreign policy for The Greatest Democracy in the History of the World, the Project's leaders "invite all who are interested in these issues to browse the suggested readings, review the Project’s working papers, and check back for updates and announcements of public events." How gracious. I think it was Thomas Paine - or was it Patrick Henry - who wrote about those supreme and inalienable rights of man, the very keys to self-government: the rights of Browsing, Reviewing and Checking Back.

I'm not much interested in apologies and mea culpas. The problem here is not just the failure of certain individuals in a specific historical instance. The problem is structural and systematic. The problem is that we are afflicted in this country with a fundamentally wrong-headed process for the formation of foreign policy.

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