There was near consensus in Washington, D.C. last week in support of the U.S. strike on Syria. Voices from the left supporting Trump’s action include Hillary Clinton, most of America’s European allies, Tom Friedman, and a large number of former Obama officials. On the right, the usual suspects like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham supported the attack, as did most Republican members of Congress, including some like Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell who opposed exactly such an action when President Obama was considering in back in 2013. Even the mainstream media appear to have decided it was time to strike Assad, at least to judge from much of the breathless “journalism” we’ve seen so far.
On first blush one might imagine that this consensus is a good thing, coming as it does during what has otherwise been an incredibly polarized first few months of Trump’s presidency. Finally, you might say, we agree on something. And all this agreement among the people we elect and pay to run U.S. foreign policy might also give you confidence that Trump did the right thing.
That confidence, sadly, would be misplaced. The truth is that the elite consensus on Syria, like Trump’s missile strike, is premature and ultimately dangerous to American national security.
The fundamental danger of elite consensus is that it undermines the marketplace of ideas. A democracy’s primary strength in foreign policy making is the ability to weigh competing policy proposals in the news media. Debate and deliberation reveal the evidence and logic behind competing claims and helps the public and political leaders assess the implications of different courses of action. This process, in theory, helps the United States avoid poor decisions.
Consensus, however, undermines this process by substituting doctrine for debate. Almost by definition, consensus requires little, if any, debate or deliberation. When was the last time elite consensus resulted from a free-flowing and vigorous debate in the United States? The natural outcome of debate is division and disagreement. Consensus emerges only when people already agree so completely on the key assumptions and value judgments involved that the conclusions are preordained and debate is unnecessary.
In the case of Syria, Republican and Democratic elites supported Trump’s missile strike not because they had an extended debate over its wisdom–in fact, there was zero debate before the surprise attack was announced–but because they all relied on the same basic doctrine that strongly endorses the value of military intervention, what Obama recently called the “Washington playbook.” Reliance on doctrine may be sufficient when the topic is how to handle routine issues, but it is clearly not the right approach when it comes to complex policy problems, about which both citizens and political leaders have incomplete information. Though beliefs are useful as general guidelines, they must be married to a careful consideration of the facts of the case at hand in order to produce sound policies. And the best way to assess the connection between beliefs and actions is to debate policy options in the marketplace of ideas.