June 02, 2005

"These are my principles,
if you don't like them, I have others!"

We hear a lot in some quarters about how liberals need to articulate some sort of foreign policy vision or set of principles—because, supposedly, it's both important on the merits will help Democrats win elections. On some level, though, I'm skeptical that foreign policy principles are always a useful thing to have, at least after a point. I bring this up because Patrick Hynes is highlighting a new article in the National Interest, by Rich Lowry, that outlines a bold new conservative foreign policy vision. It's not paleo-conservatism, it's not bloody-minded realism, and it's not even neoconservatism. It's... well, there's no catchy name, but here are Lowry's principles (quote):
1. The best defense is a good offense.
2. A healthy skepticism of government action.
3. A healthy appreciation for all instruments by which national power is projected.
4. A healthy appreciation for the role of democracy in fostering liberty.
5. A solid grounding in American traditions, "built on the four schools identified by Walter Russell Mead."
Um, okay. Now the funny thing is, I'd agree with all of those things, wholeheartedly even, and yet Lowry supported the war in Iraq and I didn't. Funny, that. In my case, it was because I leaned a little more heavily on principle #2 than Lowry did—the war seemed fine to me in the abstract, but my skepticism towards Bush administration actions at the time was beyond healthy—training for marathons in fact. (Thinking back on it now, though, I was wrong: the war probably wouldn't have gone much better under more competent management.) Others had other reasons. But a lot of opposition to the war—not all, but a lot—was based not on any kneejerk principle but cold hard empiricism. Saddam could be contained. Massive nation-building projects were untenable. There were better ways to spend all that blood and treasure and conduct "a good offense" elsewhere. Blah blah.

And that's really what it comes down to. The best defense is a good offense? Sure, I'll buy it. Lots of people would buy it. If we could take out North Korea's nuclear facilities easily and with minimal repercussion, many liberals would sign up. But we can't, of course, and that has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with 500 long-range artillery tubes pointed right at downtown Seoul. So things get tricky, and we all end up with some principle like, "The best defense is the minimal amount of offense needed to ensure you don't get blown up." In which case everything rests on that word "minimal," and that's what sober think tanks and military assessments and other classics of evidence-based analysis are for. Same with "a healthy appreciation for the role of democracy in fostering liberty," a maxim so banal as to be nearly meaningless. (Unless the game is to seize the high ground in ordre to make the case that liberals don't believe democracy fosters liberty, which Lowry may want to do.)

At any rate, Lowry's principles certainly never tell us what to do in a given situation. Ticking off the list, presumably Lowry believes that with respect to Iran, say, our best defense is a good offense... unless offense would do too much harm. Which it might. And government action might have certain defects, except when it doesn't. And we should use all instruments of national power but rely more on the ones that are working. And democracy in Iran would be cool but it can't be done badly. Right. No shit.

Obviously some foreign policy stuff reduces to first principles—as when, for instance, certain people think we have a duty to intervene when genocide takes place (unless it would do more harm than good), and certain people don't. No amount of empiricism will split the difference here—unless, say, you can show the latter group that genocide is a security concern. But most of our current foreign policy debates really don't need to reduce like that, even if they tend to in practice. Arguments that the world would be a safer place (or whatever we agree to value) if we projected military might around the globe, as opposed to strengthening multilateral institutions (or arguing about the relative balance between the two), shouldn't be a matter of pure principle so much as a matter of actual, concrete knowledge. Facts are wonderful things! And reality shouldn't get waved aside as one big deviation from true doctrine.

Now if we're talking about a presidential candidate who wants to win elections, then fine, it's probably good to have some foreign policy principles handy. Whatever the people demand. Principles do sound rousing and all. And in fairness, they at least give voters a sense of the sort of thing a candidate might well do in a given situation. But presidential campaign strategy really oughtn't, I think, be the same thing as an intellectual approach to foreign policy.
-- Brad Plumer 3:36 AM || ||