Thursday, January 10, 2008

Democrats and Foreign Policy

I have received what may be thought of as an exceptionally long question from a member of the studio audience. That member bought me a subscription to “The Nation” magazine, and asked my opinion about the contents of this news magazine. The first issue (January 2, 2008) just recently landed in my mailbox.

The story that caught my attention first was, “The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars.” By Ari Berman. The first part of the article looks at Senator Clinton’s foreign policy advisors and identifies Richard Holbrooke as a likely candidate for Secretary of State under a Clinton administration.

“No More War” democrats would likely see this as bad news. Holbrooke, it seems, is not adverse to the use of American military power overseas. He favored American military action in the Balkans under the Clinton administration, favored the removal of Saddam Hussein, and advises that we must keep an eye on Iran. In other words, he is not likely to advocate breaking significantly with Bush’s foreign policy.

One of the things that the article does not do is examine the reasons for believing that “No More War” democrats are right and that Holbrooke’s positions are mistaken. It does not at all look at the reasons behind holding competing views and judging whether those reasons are good reasons or bad. They are, in fact, writing for the converted, and saying, “Now that we all agree on X, what should we do about it?”

One of the things that I dislike most about Presidential politics in general and presidential elections in specific is that we have a number of substantially ignorant people, who get their information in 2-minute News segments or reading the headlines on newspapers, who think that they have the perfect solution to every problem. When they listen to a Presidential candidate speak, they go with the attitude that, “This person had better tell me that I am right and that I have perfect wisdom on this matter, or I am not voting for him or her.”

Whereas I hold that the most morally responsible position is to walk in with the attitude, “I do not have time to become an expert on this issue. I’m too busy making a living, raising my children, taking care of my elderly parents, taking care of the yard, keeping my job, and the like to become an expert. So, is this somebody who seems to have become the expert that I do not have time to become, and does he have the moral character that would drive him to do the right thing with the information at hand?”

Fad Beliefs

I have a great deal of sympathy for any political candidate who has to deal with this type of situation. Imagine that you are a Senator. Acting responsibly, you devote a great deal of your time studying an issue, trying to come up with the best solution. However, while you study the issue, some significant subset of your constituency adopts a “fad belief” that the conclusion other than the one you reached through reasoned deliberation is mistaken.

By a “fad belief” I refer to the fact that virtually nobody who holds this popular position has nearly enough information to make an intelligent decision. They have adopted their position, not based on knowledge and reason, but based on a desire to be a part of a fad that has latched onto this political position the way they might all adopt a new hair style.

So now you have a choice. If you look at your evidence and base your decision on a considered evaluation of the reasons for and against each side, you run the risk of coming into conflict with individuals who have done far less work, yet consider their opinions superior to yours. If, instead of applying reason to evidence, you look at the opinion polls, you can keep the people happy, but you find yourself often doing the wrong thing, and doing the right thing only by chance instead of by intention.

One of the issues that Clinton is being pressured on is to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible. I hold that people with this position are morally irresponsible – as morally irresponsible as Bush was when he sent the troops in to begin with. These advocates of troop withdraw cannot possibly have a sufficiently detailed understanding of the situation in Iraq to be making policy decisions. It is not that I think they are wrong. It is that I think that they are ignorant – and so am I

Bush’s Stupidity

If somebody were to ask me, “When should we pull our troops out of Iraq?” my answer would be, “How the heck do I know? Give me a top-secret security clearance and 5 years to study the issue and I might be able to give you an answer. Until then, I have no choice but to trust people who have had top-secret security clearance and 5 years to study the issue.”

Even though I do not have enough information to draw a conclusion on what to do in Iraq, I often do have enough information to judge whether the person telling me his plans is intelligent enough and moral enough to come up with a good plan. When President Bush made the decision to attack Iraq it was clear, at least to me, that he was significantly deficient in both of these qualities. It did not matter whether I thought that invading Iraq was a good idea or not, it was a very bad idea for Bush to be in charge of the operation. In fact, we have seen the consequences.

If, in 2003, Congress would have budgeted $1 trillion, 4000 American lives, and 30,000 American military personnel injured to dealing with problems in the middle east. I have little doubt that we could have done much more than Bush was able to accomplish with this allotment.

I continue to wonder what would have happened if we had spent that $1 trillion on reducing American dependence on foreign oil – invested it in wind farms, solar power stations, and conservation instead of in Blackwater-style mercenaries and military hardware. What would we have been able to do today if we were now able to approach Middle-Eastern countries from a position of independence and strength, rather than from about the same position as a drug addict to his supplier.

And we could have saved the 4000 American lives, and 30,000 American military personnel would not have been injured.

Using History

One of the ways to determine the answer to the question of what a candidate will do as President is to ask them their opinion about past events. In this regard, there is no need to limit our discussion to the invasion of Iraq. What about Bosnia? What about the first Gulf war?

I supported Papa Bush’s decision to liberate Kuwait. Hussein was the aggressor, and needed to be pushed back. This response would serve as a deterrence to other aggressor nations that the days of conquering other countries with impunity are over. It would be a useful program to adopt for promoting peace. However, we somewhat shoot ourselves in the foot when we become the nation that is doing the conquering. This, then, makes us hypocrites.

I supported the attack on Bosnia. People are people. I reject the idea that a Bosnian life (or an Iraqi life) is worth less than an American life. Death is the ultimate loss for those who die. The campaign in Bosnia saved innocent lives, and did so without a hint that it was done for anything other than humanitarian principles.

So, I would like to ask the candidates whether they would have supported (or did support) these actions and why. If not, I would count this against the quality of their character.

Do they care enough about innocent life to save it? Do they care enough about bringing an end to tyranny that they will devote efforts to bringing an end to tyranny? If not, they do not have the moral character necessary to be good people, let alone good Presidents.

Do they have the intelligence enough to do so without utterly destroying one country and doing significant harm to their own? If not, than even if their heart is in the right place, it would be better to trust the job to somebody competent enough to do it correctly.

Which of the current candidates has the competence and concern to do the best job at saving innocent lives regardless (even if they are not American citizens) and promoting freedom? I'm looking for the author who can help to answer that question for me.


Anonymous said...

Which of the current candidates has the competence and concern to do the best job at saving innocent lives regardless (even if they are not American citizens) and promoting freedom?

Unfortunatly, such people don't run for political office in the USA. They coudln't get elected if they did.

Anonymous said...

"I continue to wonder what would have happened if we had spent that $1 trillion on reducing American dependence on foreign oil – invested it in wind farms, solar power stations, and conservation"

BTW I consider preferring wind farms & solar power to nuclear to be one of the 'fad beliefs' you mentioned.

Also , it would be difficult to use any of those 3 energy sources to replace oil, since those produce either electricity or low grade heat & are not easily used in mobile machinery like cars or farm tractors where we use most oil. Moving people & cargo by electric rail rather than road or air wherever feasible is one of the best possibilities.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

jim baerg

Though I agree that much (a lot of) the objections to nuclear energy stem from irrational fear, it is also the case that a lot of wind and solar power is economically viable.

Ethanol has serious problems - not only in terms of the amount of energy extracted per unit of input, but in terms of driving up food prices and creating a situation where the poor starve so that the rich can travel as they please.

Yet, none of these specifics affect the actual point of the essay. Which was: What would we have gained with a $1 trillion investment in alternative energy as opposed to a $1 trillion in war.