Pragmatic contradictions

>> Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The other day, answering a question from Janiece about how I got into law, I mentioned that I went to law school because I had an interest in foreign policy and intended to eventually take the Foreign Service Exam--something that never happened, obviously. But it was something that interested me a great deal and I still find interesting.

Now, the other thing that readers know about me is that I am a proud, unabashed liberal. Friends, family, and maybe even some readers will have also gleaned that there's a stubbornly idealistic streak in that liberalism, too. I've been known to criticize the Democrats in Congress, for instance, for not doing things that even I'm willing to concede would be pyrrhic at best. For instance, I've said that the Democrats should consider instigating impeachment proceedings even if they'll be stonewalled and will terminate unsatisfactorily when Bush steps down from office in January, since (a) I think it's morally right and (b) hearings, impeachment or otherwise, might compel testimony and discovery about the Administration's workings and inform public awareness and debate over how this country is run. By the way--and I hate this kind of sniping where someone says something controversial and runs away, but...--by the way, I really don't want to get into a discussion about impeachment pro or con or just stupid; it's not what this post is about and I'd be thrilled to agree to disagree on it for now, since I'm just citing it as an example of how I can be a pig-headed idealist.

And I want to point out that I'm a stubborn liberal idealist on some scores because it's kind of ironic to me that I'm not a liberal when it comes to foreign policy, I'm more of a realist. It's something I sort of hate to admit, because I really loathe Kissinger, who is often looked on as an archetype of political realism in the foreign policy sphere. My liberal instinct is to throw up in my mouth a little when I think about having to deal with genocidal despots and psychotic tyrants as equals, and yet I have to admit I think realpolitik is mostly prudent. If I loathe Kissinger, I loathe Woodrow Wilson--often looked on as an archetype of political idealism in the foreign policy sphere--as much or more; there is not a single good thing you can say about Wilsonian policy towards Mexico, for instance, and while I certainly like the idea of international organizations, the League Of Nations was a joke and Wilson's post-World War I policy an utter failure. (The most you can say in his defense about those last two things, really, is that Wilson had a stroke and can't be held accountable for his idiocy when he was nearly a vegetable at the time.)

I'm thinking about these things right now because of a commentary by Fareed Zakaria in the current Newsweek about Barack Obama's positions on foreign policy. I'm not a huge Zakaria fan--he's a smart writer, he just doesn't usually do much for me--and I almost didn't read the piece, but I'm glad I did. Zakaria takes the usual charge about Senator Obama--that he's a foreign policy naïf--and makes a compelling case that Obama is actually the only realist in the race. He compares Obama, for instance, to George Kennan, the brilliant diplomat and scholar who epitomized the breed of rational, thorough State Department analyst who dispassionately evaluated world events from a perspective far above the morass of politics and storms of ideological strife. (Alas, Kennan's vision extended too far, far beyond what most American politicians were willing to see--or publicly admit to seeing--and Kennan was virtually exiled from policy decisions for decades.)

Critics of Obama like to rhetorically ask why his supporters like him, or accuse us of drinking the Kool-Aid. They don't necessarily appreciate that many of us have reservations about things like Senator Obama's recent vote on domestic intelligence, including his boneheaded decision to vote in favor of telecom immunity (arguably the single most-offensive thing about the bill, since it effectively gives retroactive carte blanche to corporate acts of complicity in illegal acts by the White House and shuts down the discovery of such acts). But there are, nonetheless, things that some of us approve of; I can't speak for all Obama supporters, but I can say that Zakaria's characterization of Obama's stance on foreign policy describes someone who, all other things being equal, I'd vote for. Other things aren't equal, of course, and if McCain were a realist and not an opportunistic dork floundering to adopt the younger George Bush's Wilsonian reckless fecklessness, I don't know that it would cause me to reconsider my vote. But, along with everything else, Obama's pragmatism is just One More Reason to vote for the man, and Senator McCain's rank naïveté is just one more warning on the Do Not Vote For This Man list.

There is a place for moral calculus when it comes to foreign policy, don't get me wrong. Sometimes we should shun or even bomb or invade sovereign states that cross an ill-defined line (nobody should say we did wrong in taking down Hitler in the '40s, or that we did right in tolerating the Khmer Rouge in the '80s because they were enemies of the Vietnamese). But there is no benefit in flinging around the epithet "evil," either, unless you count the domestic benefit of suckering some ignorant bastard into voting for you out of some cartoony image of the world; I don't count it because I happen to be naïve enough to think a politician should put his nation before himself. I don't really know for sure whether the President believes in an Axis Of Evil or not--I actually hope he doesn't and that it's merely a cynical ploy, but I have a bad feeling he has said those words with such conviction, not because he's a stupid man (all evidence to the contrary, he isn't, though he likes people to "misunderestimate" the Yale and Harvard man he is), but because he is a foolish man, however intelligent he may really be beneath the insipid "aw shucks" façade. It doesn't do any good to throw around the epithet because the people you're describing see it the other way around, you know--they think they're good and we're evil, and setting aside the uncomfortable reality that they're occasionally right (again: Woodrow Wilson, Mexico, hell-o-o?), more importantly the name-calling is a barrier to getting anything useful from them. If you've decided we're not going to get anything useful out of them--e.g. they're Nazi Germany, and we're just going to have to kick their asses about it--fine, call them all the names you want to. But unless you're ready to invade North Korea (suggestion: let's not), publicly calling them "evil" isn't going to do anything except embarrass them and make them even bigger pains in the asses than they were when it really would be in our best interests if they'd postpone or even abandon any nuclear weapons programs they might be working on. Yes, the leaders of North Korea are horrible, horrible people and it would be nice if they were more like those wonderful South Koreans; but maybe we keep that to ourselves a bit, no?

And if that's the kind of man Barack Obama is, the realist, and that's the kind of man John McCain is, the idealist--I know what I prefer when it comes to setting my nation's foreign policy agenda. Give me realism, give me practicality, give me a responsible and comprehensive view of a world with America in it and not the illusion of an American world. And if you have any uncertainty at all on the point, I hope you agree we need a practical leader facing the world, not some kind of adventuring Don Quixote tilting at windmills that are likely to strike back at us in one way or another. And if one of your friends is sitting on the fence, point him or her to the Zakaria article, "Here is a smart man, explaining why another man is also smart, please read it."


Janiece Murphy Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 12:25:00 PM EDT  

I have nerd-love for Fareed, and now I have nerd-love for you, too.

Well said.

Tania Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 2:11:00 PM EDT  

As usual, I'm agreeing with you.

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