13 September 2012

Wherefore a foreign policy debate? It ebbs and flows and then is heard no more.

Most people do not follow foreign relations. Fewer still follow these events abroad, and our interventions in them, with much serious interest. So for people who have the misfortune to follow me and see social network feeds jammed with IR related things (from time to time) during an election that's supposedly about economics (but isn't really), a word or two. 

I began writing in blog form back in 2006. At the time, I was disheartened by our international affairs, our conduct abroad, and to an extent our internal relations as they related to these. Dissent it seemed was not prized or debated but was viewed as treason. Dissent not merely from a foreign policy consensus that excluded pacific and realism perspectives, but also from the absurd lengths of our internal security measures and the expense paid in both blood and especially treasure to attain whatever it is we thought we were attaining. I titled a blog at that point after a famous IR realist (perhaps THE famous IR realist until Machiavelli and Clausewitz appear, and Bismarck puts much of it into practice) in part because I wanted to signal what views I felt needed airing. I have since had the disconcerting habit of butting my head in to think about other things, like economics or health care or anti-drug policy, but I am at heart greatly interested in how a nation plays the game of nations.These other matters, how it taxes, who it taxes, how it polices itself, what it polices, how it treats its poor, how it rewards its wealth, how it teaches its children, what it teaches, what infrastructure it has and wants, energy, climate policies, and so on. These are all concerns that can feed back into that "game" because they are ways we use our precise communal and individual resources and attentions, and how we may gain new resources for our collective and individual futures. Observing these trends may be helpful to gain insights into how a society and its people prepares for the mundane task of encouraging growth and prosperity, who it intends to grow and prosper (and who it does not), what sources of vibrancy in culture or innovation it seeks and which it condemns, how capably (or not) its government and officials disturb or cultivate these trends. By this we might hope to see how it might be prepared or not for larger tasks like major supply shocks, trade embargoes, unfriendly or aggressive actions by neighbours or rivals and so on.

Now. Back to this year. I've long since declared here and elsewhere that I'm essentially in the tank for Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico and libertarian candidate for President. I have many reasons where my views and his seem to align, often where his depart radically and preferrably in my view from the two party consensus on a number of important issues. Chief among these are foreign policy and civil liberties related issues. Johnson does not describe coherently an IR vision anymore than most candidates do, and perhaps less so than is typical owing to his third party status in a two party nation. But where he has opined about various matters international, he has expressed what seems to me like a liberal realist vision. If there can be such a thing, or neoliberal IR if not. The basic premise of a country in realist terms is to look to satisfy its interests. It can do so through aggression where it needs to and where that will succeed, but it often as not is possible to achieve desirable ends with diplomacy, both through cunning in the form of espionage and through allegiances and friendships of either value or convenience.  War is to be viewed as a non-trivial expense that can be avoided, with most conflicts to be won without ever having to fire a shot. This is also not the same as isolationism, nor an inherent desire for massive and extensive military cuts. A modestly powerful military with a defensive mindset in army and air power terms, and power projection in naval and air power terms with special operations branch for rapid global deployment would generally satisfy our needs below unlikely WW3 scenarios. Or the alien invasion/zombie apocalypse scenarios where our military usually gets to square off and triumph over in movies and books now days. 

It is perfectly possible for the American union to construct and maintain a powerful force for defensive purposes and to do things like combat international threats (like piracy or terrorism or aggressive foreign powers), while also doing things like nominally abide by international treaties we sign, cooperate with allies abroad in the satisfaction of their interests (where it is useful to us to assist or to maintain their allegiance) and so on. It is not, and was not, in the interests of this union to do things like expend valuable blood and treasure on matters of choice or where that expenditure served no interest and accomplished no valuable goals. Conquest and occupation of foreign countries that pose minimal international threats and through which we gain no value that isn't otherwise cheaply attained through trade and diplomacy are among the list of valueless goals for using force in my view.

I might be persuaded that we can deploy force abroad to stop people from aggression against their neighbours abroad. There are examples of such things, and it seems a prudent measure for our own long-term security to maintain a relative balancing of power on the globe, if not a hegemony of our own dominance. I might even, less likely, be persuaded that we can deploy force abroad successfully to stop people from aggression against their actual neighbours (the people living in the same country with them). I cannot be persuaded that either the post 2003 Afghanistan war or the invasion of Iraq occupied any of the above spheres of influence and interest to carry out and to extend and continue. I recognized this as a problem back in 2003, and was fed up with it by 2006. I saw little chance for the political figures involved from either major party to properly and rapidly extract themselves and indeed, observed their intentions to double down on these engagements with disdain.

Fast forwarding back to today. I have seen precious little debate and precious little evidence that Gov Romney even notices the rest of the world goes on. What evidence there is does little to suggest that either of our two party candidates have a firm grasp on a foreign policy vision, and disturbingly, little evidence emerges that they would do anything of substance with great distinction from the other. Running down the problems here.
1) Both have a very mixed, muddled strategy depicted in Afghanistan, alternately proposing that we keep troops there, diplomatically attempting to arrange such a status, and proposing that we leave or should have already left. These are incoherent visions mostly.
2) Both have a very mixed, muddled strategy depicted on Iraq. Again, alternately proposing we leave, we should have left, we should stay, we should have stayed, declaring that we have left when we haven't and so on.
3) Both have a strong pro-drug war stance which weakens and destablises at least one neighbouring country and causes some instability and danger directly on or very near our borders. Drug war deaths in Mexico alone are staggering over the past decade. Adding in Afghanistan or Colombia and the picture gets uglier. Currently also, both have advocated aggressive enforcement of immigration statutes, even if Mr Obama has recently decided for political purposes to stop prioritizing certain enforcement strategies, his administration is and was at a record pace for deporting people largely for the "crimes" of living and working. Mr Romney it seems endorses the idea that fixed fortifications would accelerate this process ignoring the obvious fact that the swiftness of voluntary deportations over the last 4-5 years has both made enforcement easier and pointed out that the principle motivation of migrants is employment and economic opportunities. Not the apparent laziness brought in by a too forgiving social welfare system, as he describes it. 
4) Both have advocated a mostly hostile approach toward Iran. Mr Obama took a more diplomatic tone in rhetoric but has still managed to walk through large-scale sanctions and penalties that his opposite endorsed (prior to them becoming policy). And both wink-nudge (our) approaches of espionage for sabotage and assassination of Iranian scientists and centrifuges. Neither has discarded the possibility or rhetoric of conflict despite an American public that is mostly arrayed against the idea of another open war.
5) Both have suggested and promoted defence budgets that grow. Gov Romney's proposal is larger than that of both his VP candidate (Rep Ryan) and President Obama's, but it is nonetheless bizarre that both parties want to increase defence spending. Neither is articulating a clear vision of what to do with those dollars, on what weapons systems we are apparently lacking, on what enemy we need be prepared to face. What little has emerged here is not encouraging, as it seems clear both parties want to be able to play whack-a-mole and drop bombs and drones and put some boots on the ground in mostly trivial countries for indefinite periods of time. This is a horribly expensive use of a military and a wasteful one for the things we expended vast sums of money on. Stealth aircraft and armored tanks are mostly useless for urban pacification. Pretending that we should perform both roles is likewise useless. We would have to train all service personnel for both roles (at least Army, National Guard units, and the Air Force, probably Marines as well). Which is wasteful use of specialisation gains and requires extended deployments in countries many troops will be scarcely more aware of as to the language and culture around them than we are. I will say it is more clear that Mr Obama has an interest in these as goals for liberal internationalist reasons. But that only calls into question for what uses Mr Romney might have in mind for his more extravagant military budget proposal and why he hasn't communicated such things.

What I'm left with in difference are generally only the most ridiculous and absurd statements made by either Messrs Obama or Romney, such as over this latest tragedy with the death of an ambassador in Libya and the apparent desire that this death be seen as part of a continuing right-wing trope about apologetics rather than recognizing that an ambassador in a foreign land which we helped to destabilise by bombing and weakening its previous ruler out of power (and to his death), is liable to be at least an unwelcoming environment requiring a modest attention to security of our personnel as they carry out their duties representing our interests. Or perhaps recognizing that it may not have been that wise or necessary to intercede when it produces a continuing level of violence and bloodshed both there and in the surrounding area (Mali), as Mr Obama did by committing our forces to assist in a civil war abroad alongside allies who had more compelling interests at stake and a more regional claim to do so.

It can be said that a large measure of the violence and demonstration over the last few days was no doubt affected by the attitudes of many foreigners to our stubborn (and well-intended) adherence to free speech codes that do not protect against offending religious displays nor against offending the views of those religious and thus permit the publication and distribution of ridiculous if not outright hateful statements and behavior on the part of some among us. Our first amendment is extremely hazardous to the sensibilities of others, including often enough ourselves (as in the recent cases like Citizens United or the WBC army funeral protests). We should neither apologize for this nor cease defending the capacity of some to say hideous things while exercising it. Instead, we can condemn and argue against such things said publicly and rebuke the attitudes that give rise to them. All without withdrawing the government's sanction to express feeling and opinion unrestrained. We can even do so with some amount of predictability as to the private sentiments and actions of our citizens most likely to draw offence abroad or from within, and design careful and thoughtful defences both of ourselves and appeals to our intentions and friendships among those offended, and indeed, even condemn and counsel against the response of violence taken up in the name of offence and insult. Nowhere in the condemnations and tin eared words of Mr Romney were these ideals cited and it was rare enough that the State Department and Mr Obama made any reference to it either as they burned the bridges with the local consulate who issued an ill-timed and poorly worded statement in a perhaps well-intentioned move to reduce local passions that obviously failed.

This is not the first time in this administration that I have seen the first amendment tested, and largely go undefended. The great Burlington Coat Factory Recreation Center fight in a meaningless series of talking points lo many months ago now only gave rise to Mayor Bloomberg of NYC, of all people, defending a free right of the people in the American tradition. No stirring defence or oration from the floor of the Senate, or from a White House press conference was to be heard. I take this, with the other great offences against protected rights (such as most TSA procedures, stop and frisk cop behavior, etc), to be a signal that such rights are not treated with dignity and confidence, and that they are no longer seen as the pillars of strength to be defended by either party that they should be. That they are of value for our abiding interest to create community out of diversity and thereby to offer a wealth of opinion, a wealth of conscience and viewpoint, and strengthen ourselves by the experience, and that we should abide by these limitations, recognize them, and offer up what value they generate to others that they may be drawn in and inspired if possible. It is not necessary to go in and bomb and maim to show our strength and dominance. It may be necessary to seek justice where others cannot or will not. But it is hardly our design to silence dissent and offence elsewhere any more than it would be here. And to expect and learn where that dissent is, to better understand it and learn to live with a certain reserved portion of it (non-violent expression) should be preferred to condemning it and denigrating others for their ill-conceived and directed anger and tempers. Nor is that a form of accommodating it, to be conceived as an assault on our values or as a formal expression of weakness. To recognize where we may err, to stray, and where others must abide us for our faults so that we may abide them theirs is a value worthy of some defence and recognition. It must be so not merely for ourselves, but that we may defend it in word or deed where needed abroad.

Do let us know when a political figure begins to seek or to strive to appeal to that, promises to strengthen rather than erode them in our policies and intentions here, and has shown a record and practised habit of doing so. This would also be someone likelier than not to be able to articulate a vision of the role we may take in the game of nations moving forward, and an understanding of both our strengths, as these may be conceived, and our limitations. 
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