Friday, August 26, 2005

Welcome, Slate readers! For your enjoyment, here are some links to a selection of my previous rants on the subject of the judiciary's naked usurpation of democracy...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Gideon Rose, editor of the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine, demonstrates the brain rot at the heart of the field of international relations in his latest New York Times op-ed. Rose contrasts the "overenthusiastic idealists of one variety or another" who "have gotten themselves and the country into trouble abroad" with the "prudent successors brought in to clean up the mess" by applying "realism, American foreign policy's perennial hangover cure."

Rose defends his analysis with a truly bizarre retelling of the history of American postwar international relations, administration by administration. He begins with the "idealistic" Truman administration, whose most famous, most spectacular foreign policy success--the Marshall Plan, and its accompanying reconstruction of Europe--he omits completely, so that he can concentrate on blaming it for the Korean War (which was in fact also tremendously successful, until the Chinese intervention, which might well have been avoidable). Similarly, Rose credits the "realist" Eisenhower administration with ending the Korean War early on--and then ignores the entire seven subsequent years of mixed successes and failures, from the Iran and Nicaragua operations through the Suez fiasco to the Lebanon intervention and the U2 incident. He sums up the "idealistic" Kennedy and Johnson administrations by citing only the Vietnam War escalation, leaving out the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Berlin crisis, the Cuban missile crisis and the Dominican Republic intervention, among other events.

The "realist" Nixon/Ford/Kissinger administrations are evaluated in slightly more detail: the end of the Vietnam War (inexplicably judged a success, despite the ignominious abandonment of Saigon), detente with the Soviet Union (also judged a success, for reasons that aren't entirely clear), and the opening to China (admittedly a more unequivocal success). Left out are five years of war in Southeast Asia, the Yom Kippur War and subsequent Middle Eastern peace negotiations, and numerous other smaller-scale involvements. Rose then proceeds to leave the Carter administration entirely unexamined, except to dismiss it as an "idealistic" failure. Likewise for the Reagan administration (although he admits it "got lucky", with that whole collapse of Communism thing).

The "realist" first Bush administration is credited, strangely enough, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany--the latter being an event over which the administration actually had little influence, and was quite divided internally. It is also credited with "the reversal of the occupation of Kuwait" (note the clever wording--leaving Saddam Hussein in power is not mentioned). The "idealistic" Clinton administration is then faulted for its readiness to confront Serbia and China, though, according to Rose, it was ultimately forced to reduce its ambitions to "marking time while dithering" (by bombing Belgrade into submission?). Again, the major focus of that president's foreign policy--the Middle East peace process--is omitted, as is Clinton's failure (understandable, I think, given the times) to deal with the looming threat of Islamist terrorism.

Finally, Rose arrives at the current administration, which he writes off as "merely one more failed idealistic attempt to escape the difficult trade-offs and unpleasant compromises that international politics inevitably demand". Yet he concedes that the Afghan campaign was a success, while labeling the one in Iraq a "costly and bungled occupation" (without mentioning the relatively inexpensive and well-executed invasion).

The underlying problem with Rose's analysis is that his division of American foreign policy into "realist" and "idealist" camps is ridiculously simplistic. Idealists, for example, differ widely in their goals: "diplomatic idealists", to coin a phrase, seek to strengthen global institutions, whereas "democratizing idealists" seek global democratization within nation-states. Non-idealists include political nationalists, who wish to expand America's raw political power abroad; economic nationalists, who consider American economic benefit their primary goal, and realists, who seek a global "equilibrium" in which no one country is dominant. Finally, members of any of these groups can differ over means to their particular ends: hawks prefer the aggressive use of military force; diplomatists prefer to use diplomacy; materialists prefer economic means; and isolationists eschew the use of any means as a waste of effort and resources.

The position that Rose adopts, judging by his evaluation of past postwar administrations, boils down to a rejection of democratizing idealism as an end and hawkishness as a means. But it's not a consistent rejection--he applauds the democratization of the East Bloc, for instance, as well as America's military actions in the first Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan. Rather, he implicitly criticizes, above all else, protracted American involvement in military combat--particularly "preventive war"--and moral fussiness about doing diplomatic business with brutal but powerful foreign governments.

But the former is simply a preference for quick victory--such as the Afghan campaign and the first Gulf War, of both of which Rose apparently approves. In other words, his guiding philosophy is, "wars are costly and painful, if you don't win them quickly and easily"--hardly a shocking conclusion. Likewise, his fondness for negotiating with dictators apparently met its limit with Mullah Omar of Afghanistan--a fellow who turned out to be, in hindsight, pretty easy to knock off. The lesson appears to be, "shmooze with despots--unless you don't have to"--again, not exactly a penetrating insight.

In fact, even the above highly simplified capsule history of postwar American foreign policy provides some genuinely useful lessons, if one is prepared to look objectively for patterns:
  • Know whom, exactly, you're fighting against. The US has gotten in the most trouble--Korea, Vietnam, Iraq--when failing to understand and deal with the full breadth of the enemy. Nothing ruins an easy victory like a neighbor's intervention on the other side.
  • The stability of non-democratic regimes is notoriously difficult to assess. The Soviet Union is the classic example, but plenty of other resilient-looking dictatorships--Spain, Portugal, Nicaragua, Mexico, Argentina, South Korea, Taiwan--crumbled remarkably swiftly, while others that have seemed shaky for years--Zimbabwe, Burma/Myanmar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and many others--have nevertheless limped along as if they were always rock-solid. Democratic countries, on the other hand, seem to decay in a very predictable way, viz., Russia, Venezuela.
  • Negotiating with dictators doesn't necessarily mean being nice to them. Ronald Reagan negotiated with the Soviet Union while calling it an "evil empire". Nixon was no less blunt--nor any less willing to deal. On the other hand, the leaders who improved the atmospherics, hoping for genuinely improved relations--Carter with Brezhnev, Clinton with Arafat--generally ended up getting shafted.

  • Now, these are all rather trite, simple observations, and I'm sure that a serious international relations scholar, studying postwar American foreign policy in more detail, could arrive at more sophisticated conclusions. Why, then, do they instead so often end up sounding pretty much exactly like Gideon Rose?

    Tuesday, August 09, 2005

    You may never in your life hear any music more bizarre and disturbing than this.