Archives: 09/2009

On What Larger Theory Is Neoconservatism Based?

There have been some interesting writings coming out of AEI’s new Center for Defense Studies recently.  On Friday, Daniel Blumenthal offered some thoughts on China.  In the course of making the case that Chinese leaders should realize that we are not trying to contain China, he wrote the following:

Blumenthal- Daniel-150If countries acted in accordance with rational actor theories of political science, the Chinese would be pretty well assured that we are not going to contain it. We have made clear across administrations that we welcome China’s rise as a great power and urge it to act as a responsible one.

But countries do not act in accordance with political science theories.

Later in the piece, he wrote the following:

China is not the only country that is rising. So is India. But we do not worry about India’s rise. That is because India is a democracy. Almost everything it does is transparent to us.   We share liberal values with India, including the desire to strengthen the post-World War II liberal international order of open trade and investment and the general desire among democracies to settle internal and external disputes peacefully and democratically. The fact that China is not a democracy matters greatly as it rises. It makes its rise more disruptive as countries have to divine its intentions and observe the gap between its rhetorical policy of a “Peaceful Rise” and some of its actions that are inconsistent with a peaceful rise.

He closed thusly:

Wouldn’t it be nice if China got on board with all the post-modern, feel-good notions about international politics put forth by the Obama Administration? In the 21st century, says the Obama team, all countries have common interests in confronting transnational issues like climate change and proliferation. Sorry guys, those who lead China think 21st century international politics will look more or less like it did in the past. They favor good old fashioned power politics. Unfortunately for Obama, that forces us to do the same.

There’s an awful lot of interesting stuff going on here.  First, Blumenthal’s claim that “countries do not act in accordance with political science theories” is strangely incoherent.  As his second and third quotes above make clear, Blumenthal has a political science theory–two actually.

With respect to India, the theory he is expounding is called “liberalism” in IR jargon.  This theory places the causes of war at the so-called “second image” level: wars occur because some states are bad and their badness causes them to do bad things.  India being a good (democratic) state means we should be friends with it.  (There is another variant of liberalism that centers on international institutions, which is mostly but sometimes not bound up with the democracy-focused version.)

In the latter paragraph about China, Blumenthal looks like he’s dropped liberalism and glommed onto traditional balance-of-power realism: that is, as a state’s power grows it wants more influence at the international level; positions in the balance of power change in a zero-sum fashion; as China grows richer it will seek a larger security role and we will not want to afford it such a role.  “Good old fashioned power politics,” as Blumenthal calls it.

What’s most curious is Blumenthal’s seeming desire to dismiss the very idea of political science theories.  My colleague Ben Friedman has dealt with this concept before, noting

efforts to weigh the costs of war inevitably involve theories of how the world works. As my Professor Steve Van Evera likes to point out, foreign policy makers can use good or bad theories to guide their actions, but if they attempt the slightest foresight, they cannot have none. In other words, there is no such thing as foreign policy without foreign policy theory.

That is, without a theory about how the world works, we would be simply paralyzed by the prospect of issuing advice on foreign policy.

Today, Gary Schmitt at AEI wrote the following in criticizing Andrew Bacevich:

the real, underlying point of not only this particular piece but his views more generally is one connected to his own particular brand of conservative Catholicism.  For Bacevich, the U.S. is too secular, too trade happy, too materialist. (”The exploitation of women” referred in his article is not, as presumably the Post editors thought, about “equal pay for equal work” but more likely about the sexual objectification of women.)  You see, America is really a nation of imperfect men, marked by original sin, who have no right to take the lead globally.  Our real concern should be with our own failings-not American preeminence.

Taking his lead from Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich believes we are on an utopian mission to remake the world–or, in this instance, the Muslim world; it is a program that is immoral both because it is impossible (and hence counterproductive) given human nature and because, in pursuing it, we adopt policies that chip away at our own morality.  (The ends begin to justify the means, etc, etc.)  The more limited our ambitions in Bacevich’s view, the less damage we do to ourselves and others.

All of which contains a kernel of truth–but only a kernel.  Whatever problems we face domestically, it is just an historical fact that a broader American vision abroad has typically made us a better people at home.  Nor is there any evidence that a less expansive (and hence less expensive) foreign and defense policy would free up monies that miraculously would solve a problem like poverty or second-rate schools.  To the contrary, more government funds could well confound finding the policies that would actually help alleviate those problems. However, the larger point is that Bacevich and other conservative critics, like George Will, are standing on unsound ground when they argue that the transformative goal of the Long War is utopian.  It might be long and it might be difficult but, if anything, the evidence so far suggests that the establishment of decent democratic regimes is possible in all kinds of regions and in countries with diverse cultural histories.  That hardly means that failure in the Long War isn’t possible; but to hear Bacevich and others tell it, is inevitable. (emphasis mine)

The italicized portion above is just bizarre.  In Schmitt’s reading, spending tax dollars on welfare or education “could well confound finding the policies that would actually help alleviate those problems.”  This is a fairly straightforward conservative argument.  What’s strange is that Schmitt makes the argument that while the U.S. government likely could not figure out how to improve education or the general welfare in the United States, it can parachute into faraway countries and improve the governance over there.  Or it at least ought to try, since “a broader American vision abroad has typically made us a better people at home.” This is, to my mind, utterly, profoundly incoherent.  I think the most important point is that we ought not to send our military overseas to kill and die so that we can be “a better people at home.”  But I wonder how Schmitt’s view fits into the argument made by Brian Schmidt and Michael Williams in this article.  For Schmidt and Williams, neoconservative views on foreign policy are merely an extension of their domestic policy.  To wit:

A social order based purely on narrowly egoistic interests, neoconservatives argue, is unlikely to survive–and the closer one comes to it, the less liveable and sustainable society will become.  Unable to generate a compelling vision of the collective public interest, such a society would be incapable of maintaining itself internally or defending itself externally.  As a consequence, neoconservatism regards the ideas at the core of many forms of modern political and economic rationalism–that such a vision of interest can be the foundation for social order–as both wrong and dangerous.  It is wrong because all functioning polities require some sense of shared values and common vision of the public interest in order to maintain themselves.  It is dangerous because a purely egoistic conception of interest may actually contribute to the erosion of this sense of the public interest, and the individual habits of social virtue and commitment to common values that sustain it.

I am reminded of Irving Kristol’s statement that “A nation whose politics turn on the cost of false teeth is a nation whose politics are squalid.” It’s something of a parlor game in IR to debate whether neoconservatism is its own IR theory; whether it’s a theory at all, of anything; whether it’s really just liberalism; et cetera, but what would be really good to have is a clear statement that could be scrutinized on its own merit.  Until then one is left guessing or, at best, turning up weird conspiracy theories about Leo Strauss and the University of Chicago on the internet.

“How American Health Care Killed My Father”

Not my father.  David Goldhill’s father.

David Goldhill is a Democrat.  He is the president and CEO of the Game Show Network.  And he’ll be speaking on health care at a Cato Institute event on Capitol Hill this Thursday.

Why would you want to hear the president of the Game Show Network discuss about health care reform?

Because after Goldhill’s father succumbed to a hospital-acquired infection, Goldhill spent two years studying America’s health care sector.  The product of those efforts is “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” an article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic that bloggers have acclaimed as a “stemwinder” and “a fascinating read.”

Goldhill analyzes why America’s health care sector is so dysfunctional and concludes that “this generation of ‘comprehensive’ reform will not address the underlying issues, any more than previous efforts did. Instead it will put yet more patches on the walls of an edifice that is fundamentally unsound—and then build that edifice higher.”

The event will take place in room B-340 of the Rayburn House Office Building at noon on Thursday, October 1.  Click here to register.

Another “Victory” in the War on Drugs

A grandmother in Indiana has been arrested for purchasing cold medicine. We can all sleep more safely now that this hardened criminal has been taught a lesson. The Terre Haute News reports:

When Sally Harpold bought cold medicine for her family back in March, she never dreamed that four months later she would end up in handcuffs.

Now, Harpold is trying to clear her name of criminal charges, and she is speaking out in hopes that a law will change so others won’t endure the same embarrassment she still is facing.

…Harpold is a grandmother of triplets who bought one box of Zyrtec-D cold medicine for her husband at a Rockville pharmacy. Less than seven days later, she bought a box of Mucinex-D cold medicine for her adult daughter at a Clinton pharmacy, thereby purchasing 3.6 grams total of pseudoephedrine in a week’s time.

Those two purchases put her in violation of Indiana law 35-48-4-14.7, which restricts the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, or PSE, products to no more than 3.0 grams within any seven-day period.

When the police came knocking at the door of Harpold’s Parke County residence on July 30, she was arrested on a Vermillion County warrant for a class-C misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to 60 days in jail and up to a $500 fine.

PATRIOT Act Provision Used for Drug Cases

The PATRIOT Act contained a number of tools that expanded the power of federal law enforcement officials. One of these, the “sneak and peak” warrant, allows investigators to break into the home or business of the warrant’s target and delay notification of the intrusion until 30 days after the warrant’s expiration. This capability was sold to the American people as a necessary tool to fight terrorism.

In Fiscal Year 2008, federal courts issued 763 “sneak and peak” warrants. Only three were for terrorism cases. Sixty-five percent were drug cases. The report is available here.

Ryan Grim has more on this, including video of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) grilling Assistant Attorney General David Kris.

Debt Aggravates Spending Disease

USA Today’s Dennis Cauchon reports that ”state governments are rushing to borrow money to take advantage of cheap and plentiful credit at a time when tax collections are tumbling.” That will allow them to “avoid some painful spending cuts,” Cauchon notes, but it will sadly impose more pain on taxpayers down the road.

When politicians have the chance to act irresponsibly, they will act irresponsibly. Give them low interest rates and they go on a borrowing binge. The result is that they are in over their heads with massive piles of bond debt on top of the huge unfunded obligations they have built up for state pension and health care plans.

The chart shows that total state and local government debt soared 93 percent this decade. It jumped from $1.2 trillion in 2000 to $2.3 trillion by the second quarter of 2009, according to Federal Reserve data (Table D.3).

Government debt has soared during good times and bad. During recessions, politicians say that they need to borrow to avoid spending cuts. But during boomtimes, such as from 2003 to 2008, they say that borrowing makes sense because an expanding economy can handle a higher debt load. I’ve argued that there is little reason for allowing state and local government politicians to issue bond debt at all.

Unfortunately, the political urge to spend has resulted in the states shoving a massive pile of debt onto future taxpayers at the same time that they have built up huge unfunded obligations for worker retirement plans.

We’ve seen how uncontrolled debt issuance has encouraged spending sprees at the federal level. Sadly, it appears that the same debt-fueled spending disease has spread to the states and the cities.

Limited Options in Dealing with Iran

IranThe revelation last week of a second secret Iranian nuclear facility, and Iran’s test firings over the weekend of its short and medium range missiles, bring a new sense of urgency to the long-scheduled talks between Iran and the P-5 + 1 beginning on Thursday in Geneva. Many in Washington hope that a new round of tough sanctions, supported by all of the major powers including Russia and China, might finally convince the Iranians to abandon their nuclear program.

Such hopes are naive.

Even multilateral sanctions have an uneven track record, at best. It is difficult to convince a regime to reverse itself when a very high-profile initiative hangs in the balance, and Iran’s nuclear program clearly qualifies. It is particularly unrealistic given that the many years of economic and diplomatic pressure exerted on Tehran by the U.S. government have only in emboldened the regime and marginalized reformers and democracy advocates, who are cast by the regime as lackeys of the United States and the West.

But whereas sanctions are likely to fail, war with Iran would be even worse. As Secretary Gates admitted on Sunday, air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would merely degrade and perhaps delay, not eliminate, Iran’s program. Such attacks would inevitably result in civilian casualties, allowing Ahmadinejad to rally public support for his weak regime. What’s more, the likelihood of escalation following a military attack – which could take the form of asymmetric attacks in the Persian Gulf region, and terrorism worldwide – is not a risk worth taking.

The Iranian government must be convinced that it does not need nuclear weapons to deter attacks against the regime. It is likely to push for an indigenous nuclear-enrichment program for matters of national pride, as well as national interest.

The Obama administration should therefore offer to end Washington’s diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran, and should end all efforts to overthrow the government in Tehran, in exchange for Iran’s pledge to forswear a nuclear weapons program, and to allow free and unfettered access to international inspectors to ensure that its peaceful nuclear program is not diverted for military purposes.

While such an offer might ultimately be rejected by the Iranians, revealing their intentions, it is a realistic option, superior to both feckless economic pressure and stalemate, or war, with all of its horrible ramifications.

Honduras’ Interim Government Falls Into Zelaya’s Trap

Once again, and as a response to the return of deposed president Manuel Zelaya to Tegucigalpa, the interim government of Honduras has overreacted by decreeing a 45-day suspension of constitutional guarantees such as the freedom to move around the country and the right to assemble. The government is even imposing some restrictions on freedom of the press. More disturbingly, today the army shut down a radio station and a TV station supportive of Zelaya.

As I’ve written before, these measures are unnecessary, counterproductive and unjustified. While Zelaya’s supporters are known for repeatedly relying on violence, their actions have been so far contained by the police and the army. Zelaya himself is secluded at the Brazilian Embassy, and while he is using it as a command center to make constant calls for insurrection, the authorities have so far been in control of the situation.

One of the most troubling aspects of the suspension of constitutional guarantees is that they effectively obstruct the development of a clean, free, and transparent election process. Let’s remember that Honduras is holding a presidential election on November 29th, and many regard this electoral process as the best way to solve the country’s political impasse, particularly at an international level.

There can’t be a free and transparent presidential election while basic constitutional rights have been suspended. By adopting these self-defeating measures, the interim government of Honduras is lending a hand to Zelaya and his international allies in their effort to disrupt the country’s election process.