A long, winding, and long-winded response
My previous post on my probability of voting for John Kerry generated a lot of feedback – and most of it was civil and respectful, a pleasant surprise given the tenor of the current political season. It would be impossible to respond specifically to all of the arguments made by all the commenters and e-mailers, ...
My previous post on my probability of voting for John Kerry generated a lot of feedback – and most of it was civil and respectful, a pleasant surprise given the tenor of the current political season. It would be impossible to respond specifically to all of the arguments made by all the commenters and e-mailers, so I'm going to distill them into a few short bullet points:
My previous post on my probability of voting for John Kerry generated a lot of feedback – and most of it was civil and respectful, a pleasant surprise given the tenor of the current political season. It would be impossible to respond specifically to all of the arguments made by all the commenters and e-mailers, so I’m going to distill them into a few short bullet points:
1) I’ve underestimated Bush’s foreign policy successes — evicting the Taliban from Afghanistan, eliminating that country as a base of Al Qaeda operations, and finally dealing with Saddam Hussein. I’ve also overestimated the costs of Operation Iraqi Freedom — that even with the acknowledged reverses, it’s only been 18 months and things are getting better in that country; 2) I’ve overestimated John Kerry’s decision-making process. Kerry’s record — and, parenthetically, the management of his current campaign — suggest that his foreign policy instincts aren’t just wrong, they’re dreadfully, appallingly wrong. According to this argument, Bush gets that we’re at war with radical Islam, and Kerry doesn’t get it. 3) I’ve overestimated the caliber of Kerry’s appointments as well — do I really want Madeleine Albright’s “Team B” minding the foreign policy store? 4) Kerry’s domestic policy proposals in areas such as health care and possible Supreme Court nominees are so bad that even if he’s marginally better on foreign policy grounds, the domestic policy ramifications are too grave to be easily dismissed.
Let’s respond to these in reverse order. The last point I find really unpersuasive for three reasons. First, a President Kerry would be unable to implement any major domestic policy proposal without the consent of Congress, and there is no chance that Kerry will be able to command disciplined majorities in both houses. Which means Kerry will have to deal with the Republicans. And here, Kerry’s weak Senatorial record is actually an argument in his favor, because I’m happy to have some gridlock in DC for a while (a related point: Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s observation that it’s impossible to enact major policy without a rough 2/3 consensus makes it highly unlikely that George W. Bush will be able to get Social Security privatization through, should he become president. So while I’d like to see that — provided the transition costs could be funded — it’s an underwhelning reason to vote for Bush). Second, the details of the latest
massive porkfest tax bill makes me none too sanguine about one-party control of anything at this point. And third, foreign policy (including foreign economic policy) is what I care about, and it also happens to be the policy bailiwick where the president has the greatest control. The critique of Kerry’s foreign policy team gives me greater pause. I do wonder whether people like Susan Rice would wind up being the Douglas Feiths of a Kerry administration, having to be “consistently bailed out of trouble by career diplomats,” as my secret correspondent phrased it. However, I have two rejoinders to this objection. The first is that the people who spark objections are second-tier appointments. The people at the top — Richard Holbrooke, William Perry, and Robert Rubin in particular — tend to command greater respect (though not love) among policy cognoscenti. But I can’t guarantee that Holbrooke would be named Secretary of State if Kerry wins, and so that is disturbing. Second, at least Kerry’s second-tier people would actually talk to the career staff. One of the biggest problems with the Bush administration has been the tendency for people like Feith and Wolfowitz to simply ignore expert advice. Indeed, Feith in particular went so far as to create his own little intelligence shop to bypass DIA. Again, I’ll take a group of medocrities who actually listen to their staffs than supposedly brilliant men like Feith who simply block out any information that contradicts their assumptions. The critique of Kerry’s own record of decision-making gives me the greatest pause. Kerry was on the wrong side of the nuclear freeze debate in the early eighties on the wrong side of the first Gulf War debate in the early nineties, and on the wrong side of the “lift-and-strike” optiuon put forward by Bob Dole on Bosnia in 1995. This Washington Post story by Dale Russakoff and Jim VandeHei from last week makes me feel even less sanguine. Key part:
This is the paradox of Kerry as a manager. When he has a clear vision of where he wants to go — as he did in the prosecutor’s office and in the signal achievement of his Senate career, investigating long-standing allegations that the Vietnamese had been holding American POWs and laying the groundwork for normalizing U.S. relations with Vietnam — he has used information and advice to become more focused and persuasive, according to colleagues and longtime aides. But in his presidential race, the approach has bogged down his campaign in indecision or led to jarring changes in direction — even if the result, so far, is that Kerry remains in contention with President Bush. “Things you thought you resolved a week ago pop up again because he’s had another four conversations,” a former adviser said.
The more I contemplate this argument, the more disconcerting I find it. It doesn’t help that whenever I bring up John Kerry’s name to Democrats based either in Massachusetts or DC, I don’t feel a lot of love in the room. Their attitude towards Kerry is reminiscent of the disgust many of them felt towards Al Gore after the 2000 election. The only response I can find to this argument — and it’s not a great one — is that the John Kerry of 2004 has learned a little bit from his past mistakes. This is the essential thesis of Thomas Oliphant’s much-cited essay on Kerry from this summer — that because Kerry has screwed up, and because he knows he has screwed up and been forced to face the political ramifications, he is unlikely to adhere to a disastrous policy choice for very long. Still, I find that this is the hardest point to rebut — so I invite Kerry supporters to do so in the comments. The final argument boils down to whether I’m misjudging the outcome of Bush’s foreign policies. Which really boils down to Iraq. Why did Bush invade Iraq? Three reasons are generally given. The first is the WMD issue. The second is the neocon argument — to which I’m sympathetic — that the Middle East was the region of the globe that seemed most hostile to liberal democracy, and it was also the region responsible for the growth in global terrorism, and that these two facts were not coincidental. If Iraq could be transformed into something approximating a democracy, it would put pressure on all the other regimes in the region to quit diverting domestic attention towards the Israeli/Palestinian issue and promote genuine reform. The third argument comes from Greg Djerejian’s must-read post on why he’s voting for Bush — it’s a quote from former Bush administration official Richard Haass in The New Yorker about why Iraq was invaded:
I will go to my grave not knowing that. I can’t answer it. I can’t explain the strategic obsession with Iraq–why it rose to the top of people’s priority list. I just can’t explain why so many people thought this was so important to do. But if there was a hidden reason, the one I heard most was that we needed to change the geopolitical momentum after 9/11. People wanted to show that we can dish it out as well as take it. We’re not a pitiful helpless giant. We can play offense as well as defense.
[W]hatever you make of Iraq, can anyone now deny that the U.S. takes the threat of terror with the utmost seriousness? Have we not proven that we are not a paper tiger? That we will fight valiantly and hard in pursuit of our security and our values? This too, is part of Bush’s record–no matter how often it is poo-pooed by cynics who think this is all dumb Simian-like macho talk that doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, but it very much does. To deny this is to deny reality.
OK, to date, has Operation Iraq Freedom achieved any of these three goals? On WMD, yes, although I’m not sure anyone wants to trumpet that as a resounding success for the administration. On democratization, the jury is definitely out, and I hope I’m wrong about this, but it’s very, very difficult to claim that current situation is a hospitable one for creating the kind of model state necessary for the grand neoconservative argument to work. As Djerejian acknowledges:
Put simply, the U.S. has failed in providing basic security through wide, critical swaths of Iraq. And, consequently, reconstruction has severely lagged. So Iraqis can be forgiven musing whether the previous brutishly imposed order might not be preferable to the near chaos that reigns in parts of the country today.
The third argument rests on perception — does the Arab world now recognize that the U.S. is not a paper tiger? And this is where I firmly disagree with Greg. The mere existence of an insurgency able to explode bombs in the Green Zone eighteen months after the end of “major hostilities” makes the United States look weak. The escalating number of U.S. casualties makes the United States look vulnerable. The failure to properly police Iraq’s borders makes the United States look incompetent. And as for what Abu Ghraib makes the United States look…. let’s not go there. What’s so frustrating about this is the evidence that had things gone well, the U.S. would have reaped significant policy dividends. The invasion did help compel Libya into abandoning its WMD programme, and there’s evidence it could have swayed Iran to do the same. However, as the occupation has proven more and more difficult, the desired bandwagon effect stopped with Libya. For the Bush administration to have achgieved its policy goals in the region, it wasn’t necessary that things go perfectly, but it did require that the U.S. respond as quickly as possible to adverse circumstances with an unstinting flow of men and materiel. Instead, there was apparently no real plan for the post-war phase (click here for more) and there has been a profound reluctance to increase troop levels or increase the supply of necessary materials. I found most of Ron Suskind’s New York Times Magazine story on Bush to be overblown (see Matthew Yglesias on this point), but here are the quotes that rung true:
The circle around Bush is the tightest around any president in the modern era, and ”it’s both exclusive and exclusionary,” Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative policy group, told me. ”It’s a too tightly managed decision-making process. When they make decisions, a very small number of people are in the room, and it has a certain effect of constricting the range of alternatives being offered.” ….In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” ….Machiavelli’s oft-cited line about the adequacy of the perception of power prompts a question. Is the appearance of confidence as important as its possession? Can confidence — true confidence — be willed? Or must it be earned? George W. Bush, clearly, is one of history’s great confidence men. That is not meant in the huckster’s sense, though many critics claim that on the war in Iraq, the economy and a few other matters he has engaged in some manner of bait-and-switch. No, I mean it in the sense that he’s a believer in the power of confidence. At a time when constituents are uneasy and enemies are probing for weaknesses, he clearly feels that unflinching confidence has an almost mystical power. It can all but create reality.
Any international relations expert will tell you that the perception of resolve is a source of power. But it’s far from the only source, and any measure of power that relies solely on perception is fragile to changes in the situation on the ground. At the present moment, I think Bush’s perception is off and he can’t and won’t be comvinced otherwise — this showed up in his poor foreign policy performances in the debates. Indeed, Bush’s ability to articulate and persuade others of the rightness of his own foreign policy positions is shockingly bad. In the end, all he an say is “trust me.” Well, I don’t trust him anymore. Kerry, for all of his flaws, has at least acknowledges that the U.S. is going to have to expand the size of its military to meet the current demands of U.S. foreign policy. Bush does not — and the effects on America’s armed forces will be deletrrious for the long run. Some commenters have suggested that Bush secretly recognizes that mistakes have been made, and there will be changes after the election. I’m glad they’re confident of that — this David Sanger story in Sunday’s NYT makes it clear that even insiders aren’t sure about this:
“Honestly, I can make a more reliable prediction about what Kerry’s foreign policy would look like than I can about our own,” said one senior American diplomat who has spent considerable time with President Bush over the past three years. “I could argue that you’ll see Dick Cheney’s revenge, or that the President will determine that the hawks got him in deep, deep trouble, and he’d better turn this around.”
So where am I now? I’m unpersuaded by arguments saying that Bush’s foreign policy has been a greater success than commonly thought, and I’m not convinced that he would ever be able to recognize the need for policy change. However, the responses to the previous post have fed my doubts about Kerry’s bad foreign policy instincts — enough to slightly lower my probability of voting for Kerry to 70%. So it’s now up to Kerry’s supporters to make their case — how can I trust that John Kerry gets the post-9/11 world? How can I be sure that Kerry’s policymaking process will be sufficiently good so as to overwhelm Kerry’s instinctual miscues? UPDATE: David Adesnik and Megan McArdle are also deliberating and asking questions (Megan has a lot of questioning posts up — do check all of them out). Stuart Benjamin makes the libertarian case for Kerry.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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