Erik pronounces Reihan’s latest column a disappointment. I’m not sure why. Oh, the column is very wrong-headed, but it isn’t disappointing, because disappointment suggests that you’d be expecting something different. I don’t know how he’s managed to elude this characterization, but for as long as I have read him Reihan has been a particularly uninspired and uninspiring neoconservative. I don’t say that as though it’s somehow disqualifying, or anything, but it’s what he is, and I haven’t seen any evidence that he particularly makes any bones about it.
I suppose it’s because of his notable heterodoxy that people don’t think to put him into the neocon camp. But if you think about it, Reihan’s ideological idiosyncrasy is precisely what empowers him to endorse a rather vanilla Bill Kristol-style line; at a time of a movement’s public relations nadir– or as close to a nadir as unapologetic militarism and hegemonic impulses can come, in a fundamentally militaristic and hegemonic country– in such conditions, only a truly ideologically promiscuous and heterdox person can so nakedly embrace it. That’s part of the problem with heterodoxy, beyond its tendency to become a racket. People think orthodox things, often enough, because their rightness is so obvious that most everyone agrees on them. This is one of the reasons why I instinctively cringe when I hear someone pronounce themselves politically uncategorizable. Reihan, meanwhile, is a person who likes to wander around in point Q and point H-12 in order to go from point A to point B. It’s perhaps of the best things about his writing, aside from its deceny, clarity and never-wavering commitment to the notion that all good writing is at heart an act of friendship. The problem is that while you are enjoying the flowers over at point Zeta-9, you run the risk of imagining that it’s as important as point A, when point A is first principles stuff along the lines of “people don’t want you to invade them and don’t want you to bomb them and you shouldn’t do it.” Reihan, I think, sees the best in everyone, which is heartening to a cynic like me, but I fear he especially sees the best in the least popular, which makes tarnished-for-good-reason doctrines like neoconservatism seductive.
Anyway, I think that Reihan’s views on foreign policy demonstrate the limitations of both brilliance and good intentions. Reihan is unquestionably a brilliant person and hugely talented writer, and he has enormously good intentions when he meditates on foreign policy, and he is desperately wrong when it comes to foreign policy. Foreign policy is where Reihan’s tendency to view conservative ideas with rose-colored glasses as thick as Coke bottles hurts the deepest, because it is in foreign policy where mainstream conservatism has damaged the country the most considerably. Despite his swipes at “crabbed realism”, and my own disgust with realist callousness, one would have to say that realism has served this country and the world far better in the last decade than neoconservatism. But those again are the wages of ideological wishful thinking; the constant search for beautiful losers leads one to imagine the beauty and fail to see the loser sitting right in front of you.
For the issue at hand, I have little to add beyond what Larison has ably described, except to add two things that apply to many people considering this issue: first, that it is folly, sheer folly, to consider yourself to have the best intentions for a people while willfully ignoring what they intend for themselves. This cuts both ways. It should both undermine the continued desire to bomb Iranians to kingdom come, because reformer, “fascist” and other, Iranians seem united in not wanting to be bombed; it also must undermine our feelings of friendship with those Iranians we most prefer, because democratists or not, liberal reformers or not, enemies-of-our-enemies or not, those revolting in Iran have powerful disagreements with most any American pundits about what Iran should and should not pursue. I have struggled and am struggling with so many mixed thoughts and emotions about this Green revolt, but I have become convinced that I have to distrust any feeling that isn’t qualified or provisional.
The second thing to say is that for any foreign people, as long as America’s friendship is provisional on towing a particular line on any particular issue, it is not to be trusted. I saw a man on CNN the other night (his name escapes me) who pronounced that there was no difference between those revolting and the government that they are revolting against, because both want nuclear weapons. Which, you know, is a handy and perfect example of how most of America’s intelligence and foreign policy communities see the world around us. Setting aside an argument about whether that is a moral way to consider the people and countries around us, it’s precisely the answer to those who continue to ask why the world distrusts us. Of course, they distrust us, when our feelings towards them– which carry with them very real threats of action, no matter which country you are, really– are dependent solely on our use for them. An Iranian movement that was loved and supported by the United States precisely because it towed the correct line on a particular issue, like nuclear armament, is an Iranian movement that knows trusting the United States is folly. As long as someone or some country views you as a means to an end, your importance to them is entirely a function of your continued use, and thus fickle and unreliable.
Not that I’m suggesting friendship is ever free from expectations, or provisos. We all expect certain things from people or countries in exchange for friendship. But then, my ideal national friendship, or the lack thereof, becomes a much less loaded and dangerous thing, because it carries with it far less of the threat than that of your average neocon. When you take so much of military intervention off the table, the boundaries of what kinds of disapproval are open to you widen considerably. When you assume that lacking the authority to invade some other country is the norm, rather than dependent on preferred behavior, you are suddenly living in a world of various levels of friendship, antipathy, apathy and whatever else, rather than the current binary of those countries to demonstrate aggression towards, and those to be left alone.
Update: I use the word “precisely” far too often, which is a particularly poor word to overuse, as things are rarely precise. Bah!
Update II: Reihan has responded here at the American Scene.
You’re right. I guess the reason I used “disappointing” is because I’ve been reading Reihan over at his new digs at The Corner and find that, as usual, I think he’s very astute on a number of issues and then I read his Daily Beast column and feel – well – disappointed. But I certainly shouldn’t have been surprised.
Great post by the way.
Good point. I think that rather than this blustery hawkish position we’ve taken toward Iran for so long, we should adopt a sensible diplomatic approach. At least then, next time the Iranians rise up, we’ll have some form of leverage with the government beyond “strongly condemning” them. More trade would also help.
By the way, what is your position on “crabbed realism” which you describe as callous but which seems, at least to me, to be a foreign policy framework that would fit nicely with your brand of non-interventionism. Pacifism as a foreign policy is certainly not feasible, so realism seems a reasonable choice.Report
but I fear he especially sees the best in the least popular,
Do you remember that crazy justification of McCain he wrote at TAS after the racist campaign ad (linking blacks and welfare came out) and Manzi said…..”McCain/Palin, the gift that keeps on giving?”
Reihan has too much empathy.
One should not have empathy for the stupid and the evil.
Sympathy for the devil.Report
as long as America’s friendship is provisional on towing a particular line on any particular issue, it is not to be trusted.
Well, yeah. But what bugs me about this attitude is this: what else should it be based on? A nation-state cannot have “friends”, only allies, rivals, and enemies, and such relationships are necessarily conditional. And again as Larison points out, pragmatism =/= goodwill or moderation. What it does mean is attempting to accurately gauge a)the degree to which your interests are threatened and b) what strategy will have any real chance of producing the outcome you want. The answer to B, more often than not it seems to me, is “there isn’t one” – something that is arguably as true for the Iranian leadership as it is for the U.S. Where I disagree with Larison is in his belief that their reactions (blatant rather than subtle election-fixing, street violence and mass arrests) were those of reasonable self-preservation. They weren’t based on rabid zeal either, but on last-ditch panic, which is not rational but is predictable and understandable (which, contrary to popular use, are far from being the same thing)- the inevitably counterproductive actions of those who see no options that don’t require sacrificing some of their power to preserve it. (In that, they are not unlike the non-neocon supporters of Bush).
All the critiques of realism I have studied (and there have been a lot, especially since my first major international-relations class was taught by a committed Social Constructivist), none have really convinced me that it is essentially wrong except in its assumption of rationality. I am willing to admit this may just come from a cynicism even deeper than your own, though having my views called “crabbed” by someone as nakedly interventionist as Reihan is actually something of a complement, I think.
that basic realism (or post-constructivist neo-neo-realism, or whatever) – per E.D.’s comment above – is most of the reason why I share your non-interventionism, without always really agreeing with your ethical/democratic reasoning.Report
“Where I disagree with Larison is in his belief that their reactions (blatant rather than subtle election-fixing, street violence and mass arrests) were those of reasonable self-preservation. They weren’t based on rabid zeal either, but on last-ditch panic, which is not rational but is predictable and understandable (which, contrary to popular use, are far from being the same thing)- the inevitably counterproductive actions of those who see no options that don’t require sacrificing some of their power to preserve it.”
What you seem to be describing is an incompetent Iranian leadership, not an irrational one.Report
Good point. But that, I think, just proves that “rational” is too vague a term to really be meaningful.Report
A nation-state cannot have “friends”, only allies, rivals, and enemies, and such relationships are necessarily conditional.
Sure, but conditional on long-standing relationships, or on whatever the issue of the day happens to be? Of course we have to deal with bastards, but this got taken too far when we started dividing Europe into “Old” and “New” in late 2002.Report
Well, both, I would say. Longstanding relationships are obviously important, but in some cases they can’t be overriding. The Bush approach to Europe was more one of “we’ve made up our minds that we’re going to do something foolish, and if you disagree then screw you.” I’m not advocating that. I’m sort of arguing the reverse: that France and Germany were right not to let their relationship to the US drag them into a war that they had no reason to support. And (even in spite of my heritage, though perhaps also because of it) I think the US, even after all that has happened, should take that same approach towards Israel, if, say, Netanyahu decides that the situation in Iran just confirms his worst fears and attacks. (I have no idea how likely that scenario is, but you get my point.)Report
Very well said, Freddie! The disturbing thing about US foreign policy is the tendency to make virtually any issue – not just ones of foreign relations that might actually effect the US, but domestic policies that are irrelevant to America’s well-being – the dividing line for whether a nation is a friend or enemy. And the fact that “friend” and “enemy” are the only two categories out there. Venezuela is a classic example – what has their government done, but direct some harshly-worded criticism at the US and adopt economic policies America doesn’t agree with? Neither of those things harms or endangers the US, but they’re considered an enemy.
And yes, it would be far more comfortable if there seemed to be a middle ground between “countries we like” and “countries we might invade”.Report
Well I’m super-tired of it.
Like I said, bad conservative memes seem to be the orphan puppies of Reihanistan. All his stuff is like this at the Beast…..Cheney for president, Beck is really a good guy instead of the second coming of Jack Lucas without the self-examination, Obama is a closet neocon, crazypants stuff.
This stuff is political satire, not political commentary.
And it is badcraziness for the low information base, like the Sarah Palin crack Ross and Reihan were dealin’ last summer…..my studied hypothesis is that Ross and Reihan killed the GOP by not denouncing Palin for the big-hair-and-mall-bangs ex-beauty queen that she is in the beginning.
If all the conservative intelligentsia could have presented a united front you could have got rid of her…….now you are doomed.Report
I dunno, maybe Sara P. can beat Steve Erkle? We might “all” be tired of socialism in a few years?Report
I doubt it.Report
“The road to hell, etc.”
There are many, many problems with putting overmuch weight on intentions.
First and foremost, of course, is the whole “people lie” thing. “I didn’t mean for X to happen. I wanted for Y to happen!” is something that pretty much everybody says when X happens.
The problem, of course, is when people say “if you try that, Y isn’t going to happen, but X is going to happen”, other people will say something to the effect of “at least we’re trying something!!!” or “I would rather live in a world where people hope for Y despite the possibilty of X than in a world with negative netties like you.”
And then, when X happens, people will, once again, point out that they didn’t want X to happen, they wanted Y to happen.
The basic assumption that people who are hesitant to try a policy because they think that X will be the true outcome will generally be attacked as people who are opposed to Y… and, only if they are lucky, will they be engaged in a conversation about what the policy is likely to result in.Report