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November 19, 2007

Don't Judge a Book by Two Chapters, Yglesias
Posted by David Shorr

Matt Yglesias extends his scorn for Fred Kagan and Mike O'Hanlon's New York Times Pakistan op-ed to the entire project from which their ideas emanated, the Stanley Foundation's Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide project, whose resulting book is coming out this week. Having been co-editor for the foundation of this project -- together with Tod Lindberg of Hoover Institution and Derek Chollet of Center for a New American Security -- I'd like to respond.

Matt is making three big leaps as he uses the op-ed to question the value of bipartisan dialogue and consensus-building: from op-ed to book chapter, from book chapter to book, and from book chapter to bipartisanship. With each step, the critique gets weaker. In their essay for the project, Kagan and O'Hanlon use a number of scenarios (including the one for Pakistan given in their NYT piecee) to argue the need for an increase in the overall size of US ground forces. But the key point is this: you can view their scenarios as an argument for enlarging the Army and Marines without agreeing with the authors' options for how to respond to these contingencies, as they point out themselves.

This project included ten essays by pairs of authors from the right and left on different issue areas such as detainee treatment, China, the UN, and the relationship between US interests and values. Matt doesn't care much for Ivo Daalder and Bob Kagan's essay on the use of force (which was summarized in a WaPo op-ed last summer), but I challenge Matt to read the entire set of essays. In fact I'll make it easier for him and make sure he gets a copy of the book.

I have differed with Yglesias over whether there is value in bipartisanship before. There are and should be sharp partisan differences over foreign policy issues, and bipartisanship cannot bridge all of the divides. On the other hand, partisanship has absolutely had a warping effect on the debate, and there is definite benefit in clearing the air of some of the mutual caricatures that go back and forth.


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If you don't want people to criticize your essayists without reading the whole book, you might want to discourage them from summarizing their contributions to your anthology as stand-alone Op-Eds.

Also, the Kagan O'Hanlon argument for increasing the size of the military falls on its face if Kagan and O'Hanlon are wrong about their analysis of what's happening in foreign countries and if they're wrong about, say, the need to commit US forces in Pakistan.

Indeed, the two seem to be looking for problems that our military can respond to. If you take my view that there are really no circumstances in which we should send troops into Pakistan then you quickly come to the conclusion that money spent on enlarging the military would be better spent on any number of domestic social programs.

You should send Yglesias a copy of your book. But I wouldn't expect people to see it as much of a useful project if the results of bipartisanship are going to be increased military spending and belligerence. We already have that. It's called copnservatism.

I don't have any problem with criticism of the individual pieces. If the wider enterprise hadn't been questioned, I might not have responded at all. As to your last point, maybe belligerence isn't a main theme through the essays. Each pair of coauthors deserves to be judged on their own arguments, and a verdict on the whole needs to be based on more than one or two of the constituent elements.

I agree with David that the piece should be criticized on its merits. It has no merit, in my view. It is sloppy, uninformed, and supremely off course, with little sense of the mission, or of the culture into which such a mission would intrude. I should say, too, in full disclosure, that I believe the larger briefing, from which it is excerpted, is also fatally flawed, presuming scenarios that won't happen, and asserting an interventionist agenda that it fails to justify. In fact, that larger project is not a bipartisan effort, at all. It brings together two people who basically supported the enlargement of the ground forces, and could disagree on the margins about how much. It failed to confront two truly opposing views, one in favor of enlargement, and the other not in favor of enlargement.

If O'Hanlon is "left" in your universe, you might think about paying a visit to the reality-based community.

I can't criticize the content of book directly, since I haven't read it. I'm sure several of the essays are worth reading, although I'm not expecting to be wowed given what I already know of the positions and attitudes of many of the writers. Some of the chapters have disconcertingly difference-splitting titles, apparently choosing some object like the UN that Republicans and Democrats tend to disagree about, and arguing for a "not too much; not too little" approach. And based solely on the titles, the whole assortment strikes one as rather conventional, hide-bound and unimaginative. There is apparently no chapter on climate change; no chapter on global environmental degradation; no chapter on resource-drive conflicts and the global energy economy; no chapter on the global arms trade; no chapter of global organized crime, including the drug trade; no chapter on the global financial system and currency exchange; no chapter on Russia; no chapter on Latin America; no chapter on Europe, no chapter on Africa. At least China is there.

There are no chapters directly given to discussion of systems for preserving the peace; no chapters on peacekeeping forces; no chapter on building new international institutions or significantly reforming existing ones; no chapters on international law and state criminality; no chapters on the role and regulation of NGO's; no chapters on diplomatic innovations or treaty proposals; no chapters on global communications, communications liberty, communications barriers or communications security; no chapters on the causes and implications of regional breakdowns of governance and state failure.

Incredibly, there here are no chapters on trade or economic development. Indeed, there are no chapters at all on specifically economic matters, which many would argue are the prime determinant of global developments and challenges. Surely that is a rather astonishing omission, but it seems the crucible of money and power is too frank, seamy and unmentionable for high-minded policy lords present in the collection. There are no chapters on the global growth of superpopulated slums, or on the destitution of the bottom one billion; no chapters on understanding and relating to social movements around the world; no chapters on issues of nationalization, privatization and dispossession; no chapters on the global labor situation; no chapters on demographics, population trends and the movement of peoples; no chapters on disease and global public health; no chapters on the roles of intellectual and cultural exchanges and interactions; no chapters on the security of markets and shipping.

There are no chapters on the overall US military posture in the world, aside from the subsidiary issues of whether or not to expand our ground forces and how to achieve legitimation for the use of force. Indeed, there are no chapters on the global military situation and basing trends in general. There are no chapters on the defense budget; no chapters on weapons procurement; no chapters on intelligence and covert operations; no chapters on space-based weapons.

It seems like a rather limited dialogue between two different kinds of academic idealists - liberal interventionists and moderate neoconservatives - with their extreme focus on competing value systems and political systems, and disdain for the practical commerce of the world, and the strife and dangers this commerce causes. And the emphasis seems a bit too much "ripped from today's headlines" and focussed on the obsessions of the moment: terrorism, interrogation, democracy promotion. I will be interested, though, in seeing what is proposed in the chapter on nuclear policy.

Maybe I'm not the intended reader for this kind of collection. But personally, I'm not particularly interested in "bridging the divide" between two mildly different, and differently outmoded, conceptions of the global scene as viewed from universities, NGO's and think tanks. It all seems a bit out of touch with the most fundamental global realties.

No, the collection is not comprehensive or systematic. The backdrop is, consciously, domestic politics. Does it reflect the significant rightward drift of the center of political gravity? Probably. If all of the liberals on the roster are moderate sell-outs, and none has any bona fides that can be considered as left-of-center (or at least center-left), then, no, this collection isn't for you.

But let me say the grounds on which I'd like to be judged. The organizers of this project view the dominant political discourse as unconducive to policy discourse even among moderates on the left and right. Both sides get caricatured and the caricatured positions overshadow the actual views of specialists on both sides. The purpose of the book is to debunk these straw men. We consider ourselves successful if the reader is surprised by positions endorsed from the left and right, and those positions seem sensible.

BTW, because Michael Schiffer and I are on the staff of the Foundation, the links to our papers on China and the UN (respectively) are still live while we had to disconnect the others as the book comes onto the market.

David, It's not that I think the liberals are sell-outs. I assume they are all quite sincere and idealistic in their views. It's that I think they are profoundly out of touch with concrete human realities and human nature, and have a hard time facing up to the fundamental sources of conflict and human suffering in the world, and the most significant material threats to life, limb and prosperity. They seem to be drawn to grand philosophical themes about conflicts of abstract moral values and the dialectics of political systems. Owing to their ivory tower fantasies, and excessive focus on abstract conflicts of ideas over concrete conflicts among carnal human beings, they produce flawed and unrealistic advice that inadvertently makes the world more dangerous, rather than safer.

I just feel like I am living in a different world than they are. I see the world of practical affairs as a not-very-lofty struggle for wealth, power, pleasure, fame and survival among a species of animal with demonstrated proclivities for theft, domination, exploitation and fantastic levels of violence. And I see the perennial challenges of international affairs as mediating disputes before they get out of hand, identifying and resolving conflicts before they are unresolvable, and generally keeping the worldly and competitive class of human beings - the ones who actual run governments and economic enterprises - from killing each other, tearing things up, poisoning and destroying their own habitats, and blowing the crap out of things as they claw their way through their mortal lives in search of material rewards.

I don't think all people are like this. Some are saintly; some stick to their own business; some are drawn away from material strife toward the pursuit of beauty or wisdom. But the people who create most of the conflict in the world, who lust after power and who thus actually rule our societies, are in the business of domination, self-aggrandizement and acquisition. They like to build and use weapons, gobble up resources, dispossess the weak, get into fights, and generally make a noisy, hostile, selfish mess out of things. They don't do these things by mistake, but because they like to live this way. Doing battle with one's rivals, and winning, is what it's all about for them. And I'm not just talking here about the behavior of primitive savages, but the governments of advanced states as well. The behavior of these states is a kind of legitimized gangland racketeering, dressed up with some lofty mottoes and slogans about the "ideas" they are spreading.

It's true that I tend to favor left-wing solutions to the fundamental sources of conflict, but I expect my general view of the world is also shared by many right-wingers with a similarly realistic bent.

This is all important, because it is precisely the ivory tower, over-ideologized nature of the liberal-neoconservative discourse leading up to Iraq which is behind the failure to act with practical intelligence. The problem was that neither group of idealists seemed to have any understanding about what happens when you launch a military invasion of a weak state, in a region filled with strife, and where a large number the world's largest and most prosperous powers are at the same time wheeling and dealing for a piece of the petroleum action and control of markets. The US military was carving a trail of destruction in a murderous blitzkrieg to Baghdad, and engaging in barbarous displays of Shock and Awe, and liberals are arguing about whether to include this article or that article in the new Iraqi constitution.

So the purpose of this collection of essays was to reconcile neocons (some of them) and liberal hawks (some of them). For the rest of us that is about as interesting as a reconciliation of the followers of Stalin and Trotzki.

Have you involved a single non american in this venture?

If not, don't you think this illustrates a little problem with the dominant american approach regarding foreign countries?

"Does it reflect the significant rightward drift of the center of political gravity?"

That is a quite peculiar interpretation of the 2006 elections.

"[...]overshadow the actual views of specialists on both sides."

I respect specialists. If I ever want to discuss Russias policies in the caucasus in 1820s, I will listen to Mr. Kagan. To learn about ancient war, Hanson is the man. And if I ever need an expert in everything, O'Hanlon will come handily.

Look, everybody is useful. If a software company wanted to develop the game Total Imperial War III: Russia in the Caucasus, they should turn to Kagan. I like historical accurate war games.

The exchanges between the two of us also represent an encounter between two different places on the political spectrum (though I won't try to specify). I agree with much of what you write. During the years that I was focused on Burunti, Rwanda, and Eastern Congo, I certainly tried to understand practical realities, sources of conflict, and not look at them from the 'armchair.'

Seems to me that the category you are really talking about is supporters of the Iraq War. The issue has come up before, when Ivo Daalder and Bob Kagan published their piece in the WaPo, but it's important to remember that not all liberals supported the war. So there are just such blind spots as you describe. I certainly take those complexities to heart as a caution against simplistic beliefs about what the use of force can accomplish. I'm sure there remain differences between us and that I'm afflicted with this blindness as you see it. That is an honest disagreement.

What always bothers me, however, is the idea that all Kosovo liberals ('liberal interventionists,' I guess we're called) have an itchy trigger finger to involve America in military misadventures. As it seems to me, the argument is that since a number of prominent liberal experts supported the Iraq War, they lack any prudence about the use of force. That is a prejudgment about an entire group and just doesn't hold water.

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