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February 17, 2008

Details, I Want Details! (Not)
Posted by David Shorr

The New York Times editorial board lays out a thorough and well articulated foreign policy agenda for the election. But in doing so, they also succumb to the wonk's blindspot. One of my stock lines for about two years has been: "I'm a progressive, stop me before I put out another ten-point plan!" In other words, we're prone to lose sight of the difference between an election and governing.

In a word, the difference is details. They matter in settting policy, not so much in the election campaign. It's the wonk's blindspot because we wonks live and breathe details. For the broder voting public, they're the next best thing to Ambien. For me, the issue is not a capacity problem. I know that tens of millions of Americans are well able to understand all of these issues in impressive detail. But I do see a supply and demand issue; demand is limited, and we're prone to overproduce.

Here's what the Times editorialists said:

Before Americans choose a president they will need to know how he or she plans to rebuild America’s military strength and its moral standing and address a host of difficult challenges around the world.

I agree with most of that sentence, until they get to the part about addressing a host of challenges. Wonks want to hear prescriptions for all the challenges -- both we full-time specialists as well as our avocational wonk friends. Most voters, though, are merely looking for a clear sense of the direction a candidate wants to take the country, including on top issues like Iraq, Iran, use of force, and our international image (it was interesting that the Times wrote about China, but not growing fears that it's the place where 'all of our money is going.') But there is a point of diminishing, indeed negative, returns from presenting a lot of details. Which is a different, but no less real, electoral hazard.


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Speaking just for myself, I'm likely to have a lot more confidence in my ship's captain if I know he not seeing large parts of the ship and the waters he will have to navigate for the first time. I'm a more comfortable passenger in a car with a licensed driver behind the wheel.

Modern American history supplies only two examples -- that of Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon -- of Presidents who were sophisticated enough about international affairs when they took office to run them competently without relying heavily on the departments and agencies with nominal jurisdiction over this area of policy. The next President is not going to be a third example, which makes issues of process of great importance.

For example, the role of the State Department in foreign policy was significantly diminished in the Clinton administration and further restricted in the Bush administration. What does each Presidential candidate propose to do about that? The Pentagon is now the lead agency in American foreign policy toward many areas of the world. What if anything would each Presidential candidate change about that? The incumbent President has been willing to live in a foreign policy bubble, receiving input from a small number of senior officials and White House staffers. How would each Presidential candidate alter that situation? The incumbent President has allowed the creation of a new center of foreign policy influence -- "new" in the sense of unprecedented in over 200 years of American history -- in the Office of the Vice President. Would each Presidential candidate reject that precedent, or not? The incumbent President has preferred to work with weak National Security Advisers unable or unwilling to enforce enough discipline in the foreign policy process to ensure that the President is aware of the opinion of all relevant officials on important policy questions. How does each Presidential candidate propose to change that practice?

Voters in general will not think to ask these questions, any more than homeowners installing a geothermal heating system will think to ask their heating contractor how he intends to avoid laminar flow. A candidate who can demonstrate the thought he has put into them, however, can thereby win a degree of confidence in his ability to actually implement a successful foreign policy -- as opposed to merely describing one. What a Presidential candidate is after, really, is not to teach the American public about foreign policy, but to win their trust that he can do foreign policy. It's not just about where a Presidential candidate wants to go; it about showing he knows how to get there.

The Times list is not an "agenda". It is just a vague tally of general questions or issues, and some names of places on a map where the editors dimly perceive there are some problems. When I read things like this Times list, coming as it does from the flagship paper of mainstream American liberalism, I am reminded why I can no longer call myself a “liberal”.

Once upon a time there was something vaguely called “left-liberalism”, which was the dominant current of thought among a lot of elite American intellectuals and opinion-makers. This tradition combined classical liberal concerns about social and civil values and freedoms with classic left-wing concerns with the material conditions of life.

These days, all the left seems to have been drained from left-liberalism, at least as far as elite opinion-makers go, and what remains is just an insipid and sentimental ivory tower form of classical liberalism. It’s not just that these contemporary liberals don’t seem particularly interested in imbalances of wealth and power in the world, and the old egalitarian aspirations of the left. It’s that they seem unable even to grasp that we live in a material world, where in addition to desiring freedom of association and expression, and “democracy”, people are also struggling to make a material living, and doing so in a world where some people seem spectacularly more successful than others in steering the world’s material product their way.

Look at the list of questions and issues the Times proposes, and note what is not on that list. The whole grubby world of money, wealth, commerce, labor and finance seems so far beneath them that they don’t even see it. It’s a typical brand of contemporary affluent liberal cluelessness - a luxury of the comfortable. The issues of debt and dependency, growth, development, poverty, disease, resources, inequality, environmental degradation, labor, trade, the control and flow of capital, the role of financial institutions, the epochal rise and decline of industries – apparently for Times editors, none of these things are worth a mention in our foreign policy debates.

One would have no idea from reading the Times questions that there is an ongoing global struggle among states and enterprises for dominance over key industries and markets; that the military power arrayed in the world is connected in some way to these economic struggles; that expanding populations and global development are creating an intense, competitive demand for resources that are the key factor in the mobilization of state power; that this competitive struggle has something to do with our own security and the risks to material well being, and to life and limb, that our children and grandchildren will have to face; and that if the world ever does come to nuclear blows – an issue about which the Times does manage to generate concern – the underlying competition for wealth and power will most likely be the motive.

I’m so sick of the airy “beacon of democracy” and “city on a hill” crap beloved by elite liberals such as those represented here at Democracy Arsenal. They look out over a world of slums and destitution, where some people don’t make in a year what they make in an hour, and all they see is that these diseased and hungry slum dwellers don’t have a sufficiently free press, or that there is some gender inequality in the pursuit of squalor in these immiserated lands. Honestly, if contemporary NY Times-style liberals saw two packed trains heading toward a crash at the same junction, I suspect all they would worry about is whether the passengers on the train were reading newspapers from a private or state-controlled press, or if they had voted for the conductor in a fair election.

I have a lot of trouble entering into this frame of mind. At least I understand a person like Dick Cheney. He sees the world like a business man and a captain of industry. For him, it’s a dog-eat-dog battle out there for control of the world’s booty and the power that comes with that booty, and he is willing to throw soldiers, armies and material resources into that struggle. And when push comes to shove, he aligns with the interests of American capital and wealth against the world’s lowly miserable and the insignificant ranks of cannon-fodder and human refuse that need to be blown up to win the battles in the competition.

The real left always used to understand this world. They see the same material factors and struggle. But their sympathies lie on different sides, and their aim was to effect structural economic transformation to ameliorate the inequality, and eliminate the class division between exploitative barons of capital on the one hand, and the insignificant machine-tenders, crop pickers, bullet-stoppers and cannon-fodder on the other.

Not contemporary liberals. They’re like mafia wives. Their husbands are out killing and stealing and throwing muscle around the world, and doing violent battle for control and domination, while their wives have their eyes closed to the whole stinking war, and are organizing church raffles, making a few gift baskets for the poor, and lighting candles as they pray for the moral improvement and Christian conversions of their husband’s victims. Or perhaps contemporary liberals are like the stay-at-home ladies in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness who believe all the buncombe about the “civilizing mission”, and imagine the organized global blood-sucking and slave-herding that furnishes their homes is some sort of imperial beautification project.

David, I know what you're saying.

But I would like the details anyway. I deserve them, whether I want them or not, don't I?

I'm not placing a gag order on the candidates, nor am I arguing against having definite positions and plans to deal with these challenges. So yes, the candidates need to get ready to govern, and it is reasonable to ask for a preview.

My real point, which I think you understood, is to recognize the value of broader themes and limitations of ten-point plans. The broader themes are actually important for collecting the voters' mandate.

I'm never sure how to respond to Dan. I'll just say that I do consider the twin problems of global economic inequality and domestic inequality critically important -- as do most of my VSP friends and fellow DA bloggers.

I'm never sure how to respond to Dan. I'll just say that I do consider the twin problems of global economic inequality and domestic inequality critically important -- as do most of my VSP friends and fellow DA bloggers.

David, I know your recent Stanley Foundation policy brief did contain a section on spreading the benefits of globalization, and some recognition of how unequally those benefits are currently spread. But in the end the emphasis in the brief was on yet more privatization, trade liberalization and political reform. That is, it seemed to call for a further extension of the neoliberalism of the Washington consensus. This is a style of economic thinking that grants no more substantive importance to economic equality than does the dominant pattern of US domestic thinking about the economy - that is, hardly any importance at all.

All over the world, people are rejecting the harsh, extreme and inegalitarian forms of classical economic liberalism that are seen as characterizing the American system and way of life. But in a report supposedly devoted to winning the "battle of ideas", no cognizance was taken of this problem. These days, post-Reagan liberals are apparently just like their old conservative counterparts in generally trusting the market and preferring that government keep its hands off the global economy. The best we get from liberals is some calls for the constant re-training and re-education of the masses so that the chronic social "dislocations" of out-of-control capitalism are not too painful.

But the real problem is that the majority of the world's people just do not want to live the way that globe's dominant economic classes want them to live. They don't want to live with the relationship-destroying and community-destroying flux of manic accumulation and consumption, or be treated as some ideally free-flowing labor resource that can be plugged into a new slot, possibly far from their homes and families, whenever the brave new modern economy "dislocates" them.

Frankly, it seems to me like most of the writers on this site find the economic dimensions of the world rather annoying, and an ugly and unpleasantly challenging reality that just gets in the way of their democracy-promoting liberal dreams. Where most people see intensely important competitive struggles for economic power and control, DA writers mostly just seem to see a conflict between systems of government, a struggle they evaluate in abstract moral-ideological terms rather than in practical terms.

To take one example, we are currently witnessing the resurgence of a vast, populous and ancient empire, and the relative decline of a newer empire that has been top dog for almost a century. These two great powers are beginning to compete in many places around the world for control of the commanding heights of the global economy. History tells us that when these epochal transitions occur, the result is almost always war. And in this case, such a war would be stupendously painful and destructive, on a global scale. People who profess to be concerned about peace and security as a professional matter, and to making sure our children or grandchildren aren't incinerated in some coming global cataclysm, should be riveted on this emerging competition, and should be entertaining and debating all sorts of ideas about how the competition can be managed, potential areas of strife defused and a future war averted. Frankly, this phenomenon seems far more important to me than philosophical concerns about the form of the domestic government of the emerging empire, a form of government which reflects a complex combination of modern innovations and ancient patterns, and over which we have very little influence.

To take another but related example, we know that large energy-hungry powers are competing in Africa, the Middle East, the Caucuses, Southeast Asia, Latin America and Central Asia for strategic control over energy resources, and that as populations, economies and energy demands swell, the struggle over energy will become more intense, and is likely to lead to repeated rounds of violence among the competing states and local proxies. Iraq is just one in what may prove to be a string of conflicts in vital resource-rich regions. How bad these conflicts get probably depends on how quickly the globe is able to transform its energy economy and way of life. It seems to me again that we should all be riveted on this great global game, and should be entertaining and debating all sorts of ideas about how to promote collective energy security, speed the global transition to a post-petroleum economy, and better manage the existing global petroleum economy so as to prevent the gang warfare of states and petroleum companies from dragging us into hell. But at Democracy Arsenal, we get talk about every little Middle East issue under the sun except for this overriding one.

Of course neoliberals, with their love of free enterprise and unregulated market solutions, are loathe to consider any global security measures that might smack of economic planning or management. But with the DA authors it is even worse than that. You can't even get them to recognize and discuss these massive global economic issues. The whole subject just doesn't seem to compute with their sentimentalized view of US behavior and global history, and their poetic mentalities. If Shadi Hamid, for example, were to take any real cognizance of these issues, he might be forced to admit that there is something more important to our children's future than whether or not Egypt reforms its government. This is why I would never be able to trust someone like Shadi, Heather Hulbert, Michael Signer, Derek Chollet or Michael Cohen with the life and death issues of the security of our own people, or the security of the globe, and it's I hope that their influence on the next administration would be minimal. They are too naive.

I understood your meaning, DS. I agree with it, too. It's really empiracle -- you don't win elections with multi-chapter papers in Foreign Affairs and as interested as I am, I don't read a lot of those either. I wouldn't want all of this stuff laid out in a stump speech. I do like more detail in debates. I especially want places to go to get more detail, even if they aren't emphasized. But as I write this I realize those places exist. Really the press should be highlighting that stuff while the candidates give the public the broader sense they're looking for. Maybe I just want a better, more analytic media.

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