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June 28, 2007

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I think what Ezra is really upset about is that the neocons have coopted the language of traditional liberal arguments. This sort of thing is happening all over, of course; the fashionable argument against affirmative action is that you just want to be true to Dr. King's vision of colorblindness. (Yes, I know MLK supported affirmative action, but the rhetoric is still everywhere you look.) It's not the values that are the problem, it's the way clever wordsmiths pretend to be appealing to those values.

Ezra's complaint is really a request for politics to be more about issues and plans than about mushy appeals to values. For better or for worse, I think rhetoric is here to stay.

What I do fear is what happens when their terms close, and the language that they let Americans remain accustomed to is appropriated by a far more hawkish administration. Much better for Democrats to create a foreign policy framework that a future administration would have to fight against if it wished to revive neoconservatism.

Two things in this one paragraph I have to disagree with. Am I the only one that finds the usage of let here condescending at best? The governing Democrats will let, will allow Americans to remain accustomed to their words of wisdom? How lucky for us. The second of course is the idea of establishing some kind of permanent foreign policy that by its nature can’t be easily reversed by the following administration. Just think if somehow Bush had accomplished this (somehow) and the next administration were saddled with his foreign policy…

Am I the only one that finds the usage of let here condescending at best? The governing Democrats will let, will allow Americans to remain accustomed to their words of wisdom? How lucky for us.

"Let them remain accustomed to" means the same thing as "didn't raise an objection to."

The second of course is the idea of establishing some kind of permanent foreign policy that by its nature can’t be easily reversed by the following administration.

The only way to do this is by articulating a framework that the voters find compelling, so there's not a lurking danger here. If people are persuaded that a given framework is right for America, they'll insist on that framework regardless of who might be President.

hilzoy--

in third paragraph from bottom, a minor typo within "were certainly wrong abut our self-interest", I think.

I must be missing something, because I don't understand Ezra's point at all. As I think you say, passing judgment on which consequences are preferable requires values. Else, how do you decide?

I certainly don't like the abuse of language found in so much current rhetoric, and all the deliberate leanings towards vaguenesses that seem to come from a desire not to be clearly understood--the things Orwell wrote about in the famous essay--but I can't see that the problem is talking about values itself. It's the toleration of this b.s. by the electorate that allows it, and the willingness of the media to focus on brief inanities, et patati et patata.

JakeB: thanks.

I think one could choose some sort of consequences to promote on non-moral grounds (e.g., self-interest), but those would still be, in a broader sense, values.

not only is there nothing about caring about values that requires that you be stupid, caring about values requires that you think hard about what you're doing, and what its results are likely to be.

This is the strongest part of your case, hilzoy.

Ezra's 'consequences' vs. 'values' argument was put more clearly a few years ago by Max Sawicky, who posed the opposition (or balancing) as 'feasibility' vs. 'moral imperative'.

Max was pushing back against the browbeating liberal interventionists who ignored your excellent point that having highflown values as the supposed motor of one's foreign policy requires paying more, not less, attention to how they're to be accomplished, and realism about the consequences of proposed actions.

George Packer is my personal poster boy for the 'noble intentions absolve me from my failure to ask hard questions' position that has soured many in Ezra's generation on the very concept of democracy promotion, etc.

A somewhat separate issue is the role that democracy and freedom promotion have played as the supposed justification for so many sordid exercises in maintaining American hegemony, and the role that the resulting self-deception about empire and democracy has played in strengthening Americans' belief in American exceptionalism. And that in turn undergirds Americans' belief in our right to tell the rest of the world what to do, etc. etc., leading to a widening spiral of distance between our internal view of ourselves compared with the rest of the world's that has been taken to its limits by the current regime.

If people are persuaded that a given framework is right for America, they'll insist on that framework regardless of who might be President.

This neatly encapsulates what's wrong with the emphasis on what a great and noble country we are and our right, even duty, to spread the values which make us so great.

This is flattering to the people, who are thus easily persuaded that an interventionist policy is 'right for America'. A message that comes closer to the truth about our actual history and the limits of what we can achieve is not as flattering or as optimistic. It can be a tough sell. So intervention-justified-by-exceptionalism starts off with a great big advantage. The fact that it's also buttressed by a massive interlocking set of financial interests doesn't hurt a bit.

Welcome to American' permanent foreign policy, or the permanent limits of respectable discussion about it.

It's taken a debacle as immense as Iraq to make it respectable to acknowledge the fact of American empire. (In fact, the country did acknowledge it once, for about ten minutes in 1975, but the next twenty-five years were a constant campaign to paper over that knowledge.)

I think the past few years have really driven home the importance of occupying the moral high ground if you actually want to persuade other countries to help you accomplish good things for the world. Without that, you have no credibility.

Not only is the moral high ground a "value" in my book, but it also incorporates many other values into its definition.

I still think Ezra is simply calling for less mush.

If you're saying the only way we ever learn is in the school of hard knocks, Nell, I'd say that's probably true the world o'er.

I think Nell is saying that we forget what we learn in the school of hard knocks about ten minutes after the knock is delivered. We're being knocked right now. If we ever do get out of Iraq, it'll be a matter of months or at most a few years before our little adventure there is transmuted into our noble effort to do good, brought down by the complexities and evil that exists in a world not worthy of us. (Some conservatives will add that we were "stabbed in the back by the antiwar movement".) The process has already started, and this way of looking at foreign policy is put forth almost every Sunday in the NYT Week in Review section.

Steve: I agree about Ezra's point But I think its immensely important to distinguish values from mush. Values are just too important.

"Let them remain accustomed to" means the same thing as "didn't raise an objection to."

I really don’t read it that way. The first definition of “let” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “not prevent or forbid; allow”. It is just this style of writing/speaking that comes across to people in the flyover states (and me) as elitist and condescending. More so because the author/speaker doesn’t even have a clue that it could be taken that way. Inherent in the comment is “we know what is best for you.” It is nowhere near as blatant as HRC’s “We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good” remark but it is in the same vein. I did not parse the article for that – it jumped out at me when I read it. And that is the point I stop taking the author/speaker seriously.

The only way to do this is by articulating a framework that the voters find compelling, so there's not a lurking danger here.

Because our elected officials pay so much attention to voters? ;)

Am I the only one that finds the usage of let here condescending at best? The governing Democrats will let, will allow Americans to remain accustomed to their words of wisdom? How lucky for us.

I'm not Karnak, and maybe Klein really did mean what he said, but I don't think he meant "let" to equal "allow." I think he meant it more as taking the words to describe a policy and using them to describe an entirely different policy. Or, to be even more subtle about it, a policy that might be the same on the face of it, but without the planning or expertise to actually implement it.

Take "nation building," for example. Candidate Bush was against nation building; but President Bush justified the Iraq war as an exercise in nation building. Conservatives, who had also been regarded nation building as a liberal policy and thus opposed it, also changed their minds to support Bush's invocation of it.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Bush and conservatives were sincere about wanting to build a new Iraq. That means - again, for the sake of argument - the value called "nation building" means the same thing as it does when liberals say it.

Well, if the value invoked is the same, does that mean the policy is the same?

It isn't, and you need only look at liberal vs. conservative philosophies to see why. When liberals think of nation building, they think of social fabric first and foremost. Social fabric means creating a shared sense of nationhood, of citizenship. That means the priority is going to be on things like education - curriculum as well as buildings - on developing a civic infrastructure (police, fire fighters, libraries, hospitals, recreation areas, public squares, and roads to connect them all), on developing a political system characterized by universal sufferage and clean voting, and on developing a legal code that balances existing cultural imperatives with Western ideals (fair trials, no cruel and unusual punishment, rules of evidence, etc.). And those things are difficult: they take lots of teachers, mentors, lawyers, scholars, even social workers; and a lot of money; and a lot of time.

Conservatives have never thought highly of those things even as domestic policy in America, much less foreign policy. When it came time for them to contemplate nation building, they certainly weren't to define it by liberal terms, but by the conservative terms they had always held. Free market economics is first on the list: low taxation, little government regulation of business, a stock market. Those items were, in fact, first and foremost on the Bush Administration's agenda, so the people it sent to "nation build" in Iraq immediately set up tax policy, created a stock market, and profit-friendly business structures. The other stuff - the stuff neither Bush nor conservatives set very high value on, like education, legal systems, civic institutions, etc. - were left to the armed forces to do. And some notable areas the Bush Administration completely neglected, like establishing law enforcement: insofar as there was any at all, that too was left to the armed forces. The same armed forces that had invaded and occupied the country.

Even if we assume Bush and conservatives were utterly sincere in wanting to "nation build" in Iraq, the way they defined it - the priorities they set and the quantity/quality of resources they devoted to it - were completely different from what "nation building" meant when liberals advocated it.

And they failed. Completely failed. Now, you can argue the failure was in execution, not in the idea itself. But the idea determines the execution. To build a free-market economy, you need a stable society that understands what a free market is; to build a democracy, you need a society that understands what democracy is. You need to start way down the dialectic structure - with education, community building, legal systems, etc. - before you can establish a corporate-commodity free market.

Bush and conservatives, in effect, set out to build a fancy mansion without pouring a foundation. And they did so precisely because that foundation work was the type of work they didn't think was important in the first place. They thought a free market would trigger the rest of it, because free markets are the very basis of conservative thought.

There are many other examples of policy labels that mean entirely different things to different ideologies. "Family values" is another incendiary example.

When a society, a country, is used to hearing a policy label meaning one set of understandings, another government or Administration can use that label to get popular support for a policy based on a very different set of understandings. And the society, the country, finds it has signed on to something very different from what it thought it was getting into.

I think that's what Klein meant. At least, that's how I interpreted it.

CaseyL: I don’t necessarily disagree with you. (Very good, detailed, and logical comment BTW.) I’m just throwing it out there that it jumped out at me that way. So you can assume that at least some others of my ilk would interpret it the same way. Once I read it that way I am turned off and not likely to seriously consider the rest. Giving that impression is easy enough to avoid, so why does it seem to happen so frequently? At least frequently enough that many on the right hold the stereotype that many of those on the left are elitist. There is a reason that “a guy you’d like to have a beer with” strikes a chord with much of the country.

Actually, OCSteve, I see where you are coming from, and based upon that mindset, I tend to agree with you.

It would be so much easier to just have said which people became accustomed to.

I also agree with your second objection. A static foreign policy creaytes major problems.

I also agree with hilzoy, but I take the term consequences even further.

We have to not only look at what consequences we would like to see happen, but also what other consequences that might happen which may go against the hoped for consequences.

And this can, to a major degree, be looked at through a set of "values." For example, if a perceived possible consequence of our invading Iraq was the death (directly or indirectly caused by our presence) of hundreds of thousands of civilians, a decision would have to be made as to whether or not that consequence corresponded to our nation's values.

Perhaps on a large scale, democracy fostering is a value, but human life can also be a value (according to Bush it is) and one value has to be considered next to the other.

Is attempting to achieve one value worth a consequence that goes against another (apparently to Bush it is)?

What Klein dismisses is that anything we do is seen through a lens of values, and those values have to be taken into consideration.

Both sides tend to play the elitist game, just in different areas.

The right tends to play it in the sense that they are better because they are more patriotic.

Anytime there are two sides, both are going to be elitist.

We have to not only look at what consequences we would like to see happen, but also what other consequences that might happen which may go against the hoped for consequences.

Definitely. I believe I recall a very good Hilzoy post on that exact topic but I’m too lazy to find it right now.

The problem isn't idea-based foreign policy, it is the Bush League's ideology-based foreign policy when de-linked from reality. Bush had a shining dream: replacing dictatorships with democracies throughout the Mid-East. His failure was in thinking that this was enough. Contingency planning? Bush famously said "there is no Plan B."

All Bush's other failures were covered up by having Dad's rich friends bail W out - folks like the Saudis. Interestingly, Bush's buddies the Saudia are funding Sunni extremists throughout the Middle East as a counterweight to the Iranians unleashed by Bush's failed policies. Deja vu all over again? I wonder who the next Osama will be, and how W will explain why it is really Bill Clinton's fault.

Like Hilzoy, I understand Ezra's point, but I think it concedes far too much. Paying attention to the outcomes of one's actions is a moral deed; refusing to pay attention is immoral as well as foolish. The conservative movement isn't excessively moral, it's insufficiently moral, and a better set of policies is more moral as well as smarter and other good things.

No, Steve, I wasn't saying that at all. I'm saying that no matter how hard the knock, we seem to magically unlearn the lesson in record time.

My post is about some of the basic mechanisms that drive that un-learning: an ideology of American exceptionalism that justifies U.S. intervention everywhere, the human desire to think well of oneself that makes that an easy electoral sell, the military-industrial-intelligence complex that benefits from the intervention, and the huge, concentrated corporate media complex it funds (a primary instrument of the un-learning process).

Ezra's theory is unique, to say the least:

Ezra: It's a fair cop, but values are to blame.
Detective: Agreed. We'll be charging them too.

It would be nice if the "general arc" of your history actually was moral! You are quite right, of course. We could do with an America that actually did pursue values that were respectable, instead of the one we've had almost throughout its history, which trumpeted values that it mostly destroyed where it found them, and used as a cover for cynical, selfcentred exploitation. For all that, Bush is worse, not different.

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