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Walt on What Is To Be Done

Must read piece in The Boston Review even if I don't agree with it in every particular. See also Henry Farrell's comments. It would be nice if, for once, the people on the right (or even the "Fighting Faith" crowd) would engage serious criticism like this of the direction of American policy instead of ranting and raving about Fahrenheit 9/11 as if a movie were a foreign policy treatise.

February 16, 2005 | Permalink

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Tracked on Feb 18, 2005 10:01:15 AM

Comments

Serious criticism is irrelevent. When has anything "serious" accomplished anything at all during Bush II? It is a serious question. Record surpluses into record deficits, hundreds of billions of dollars and I've lost track of how many Americans killed (not to mention civilians) in Iraq, etc., and politics is just waving purple fingers and calling Carter a traitor.

There is nothing serious or reality-based about politics today. Time to wake up, IMHO.

Posted by: AlGore | Feb 16, 2005 11:26:56 AM

There is some good stuff there, but the author neglects to specifically address, as most "experts" do, under what conditions the world's most important natural resource will be extracted, and what consequences will naturally flow from that decision. He seems to implicitly decide that extraction via the paradigm employed for the last eight decades, that of enslavement (by proxy) of the populations of the Persian Gulf is still viable, or is the least worse way in which to extract the oil of the Persian Gulf. This belief verges on being reactionary, for it is this paradigm that has much to do with what has led us to the current conumdrum.

Unless a pundit or expert is willing to specifically state under what conditions the oil of the Persian Gulf is to be extracted, and performs some sort of cost/benefit analysis of the pursuit of those conditions, they really don't have much to say that is of any use.

Posted by: Will Allen | Feb 16, 2005 12:19:50 PM

"It would be nice if, for once, the people on the right (or even the "Fighting Faith" crowd) would engage serious criticism like this of the direction of American policy instead of ranting and raving about Fahrenheit 9/11 as if a movie were a foreign policy treatise."

The criticism of Michael Moore by the Fighting Faith crowd is not mainly on a policy level, of course. It's a political criticism that by not distancing itself from Moore, the Democratic Party has allowed itself to be caricatured in a dangerous way.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 16, 2005 12:28:24 PM

"Serious criticism is irrelevent."

Well, not irrelevant. It's useful to figure out what a rational Holbrooke-ite policy would look like.

Someday, the crazies running the country won't be in the WH anymore.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 16, 2005 12:37:59 PM

Mr. Yglesias,

Mr. Walt seems to be trying to construct discrete categories of policies that he wants to fit US strategy into. This is maybe a useful exercise to get someone to think about analyzing strategies, but this is not a useful way to operate in the real world. As he himself points out, the present administration has used different policies that fit into all three of his lines of strategy. This is not a surprise, as any administration tends to do the same thing. The world is too complex for a pat system. US policy in Bosnia/Kosovo for instance was very much a US strong-arm job however disguised. The US ran a huge covert operation arming and organizing the Croats for their final offensive that settled the Bosnia question, against the Euro consensus, and managed that under the Euro-media radar.

What his criticism amounts to, other than disliking the Iraq war, is that the US has been playing a poor PR game. I don't disagree, the administration is poor at PR among people who are in the authors cultural milieu. The question is whether that is an important matter, and whether the very idea is futile, if that cultural milieu is fundamentally opposed to vital interests of the United States.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 16, 2005 1:21:33 PM

A really good essay. You may have disagreements on certain specific areas, but the general idea is pretty good. And Luis, shouldn't the overall strategy determine your policies, instead of the other way around? And of course, if "vital interests of the United States", includes the ability to invade and bomb any country it chooses at will, well, you may find that the rest of the world is part of that "cultural milieu"

Posted by: Carlos | Feb 16, 2005 1:42:50 PM

The question is whether that is an important matter, and whether the very idea is futile, if that cultural milieu is fundamentally opposed to vital interests of the United States

people can phrase this idiocy so many different ways - it's amazing, really.

Posted by: cleek | Feb 16, 2005 1:51:17 PM

Unfortunately, Carlos, the piece's lack of specificity reduces the "general idea" to the level of bromides of rather limited usefulness.

Posted by: Will Allen | Feb 16, 2005 1:53:43 PM

Mr. Carlos,

As I understand Mr. Walt's essay, all three of his strategies are based fundamentally on the idea that the US does indeed need to retain the ability to "invade and bomb any country it chooses to at will", its just a matter of how this is disguised or sold. US hegemony is not going away. And that is the fundamental problem with that particular "cultural milieu".

The world is at peace, profoundly so. This is the fruit of US hegemony. I think thats a good thing, Mr. Walt thinks this is a good thing, I believe. If you do not think this is a good thing, if you would rather that rival power blocks re-start the arms races of the early 1900's or 1930's or the Cold War (and Mr. Walt hints at promoting some of this as part of his third strategy, which I think is unsound), then your ideas are inimical to the interests of the US, and of the well-being of the world in general. One day, hopefully, this will no longer be true and US hegemony will be unnecessary, but that is not yet the condition of the world.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 16, 2005 1:54:16 PM

Mr. Luis is an asshat. The artilce is about how to maintain American power and dominance. Luis knows this but doesn't like the author's conclusions. What is a good troll to do. Luis settles on throwing around 'cultural millieu' and stating the problem is not with current US policy (might want to skim Project 2020) but with the author's antipathy to US dominance. Clown - the whole article is how to best maintain American primacy. - "Given these constraints, how can the United States maximize the benefits that primacy brings and minimize the resistance that its power sometimes provokes......
Offshore balancing is the ideal grand strategy for an era of American primacy ." Then Mr. Luis pulls out this strawman/trope - if you are a proponent of a differnent grand strategy than US hegemony 'your ideas are inimical to the interests of the US, and of the well-being of the world in general.' So you see if you disagree with the Bush Administration/Luis you hate the US and the whole world - Brillant work. Mr. Luis next time save all of us some time and just post - Bush (and his manservant Luis) right - liberals and critics wrong and they hate America.

Posted by: MrLuisisanasshat | Feb 16, 2005 2:42:21 PM

Well, first things first. I'm not a US citizen and I don't live in the US. So, of course I don't think US hegemony it's a good thing. I may accept it at the least bad option, but it doesn't mean I like it.
Luis, I'm afraid you are not reading the essay well. While Walt says that the US should retain the ability to defend itself as it sees fit, it also says that the US should consult and reassure others about its military actions whenever possible and use military force with restraint. This is not "invade and bomb any country at will". And of course that US hegemony is not going away (well, at least for a few decades). The point of the article is how to manage it. The "matter of how this is disguised or sold" on the other side, it's not a minor thing, seeing how badly the current administration has sold present US policy. In fact, it could well be the key issue of US foreign policy. And finally, the world is not at peace because of US hegemony. The world is relatively at peace because the truly decisive weapons are so destructive that great powers are reluctant to start a war against each other. This is a matter of technology that is independent of US dominance.

Posted by: Carlos | Feb 16, 2005 2:42:24 PM

Mr. Carlos,

Why shouldn't you like the least-bad option ? I know the resentment is just human nature, but it is plainly opposed to reason.

And no, the reason there is no arms race is not because of nuclear weapons. In the era of nuclear weapons the Soviet Union attempted to reprise the Imperial German policy of challenging the dominant naval power through a naval arms race, and also built a huge tank army oriented for offensive operations in Europe. And this was a common pattern for many smaller countries in the 1950's-1980's. There are no longer huge tank armies or fleets competitive with the US, and nobody is really building them even for regional disputes - with the one exception of China wrt their littoral navy. They bear watching.

If the US were not so conventionally overwhelming things along these lines would be a temptation.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 16, 2005 2:54:10 PM

Mr. Asshat,

I think you will find that being polite is an asset, to yourself for your own internal peace and stability, as well as in the more obvious matter of persuasion.

Putting that aside, I did say that what Mr. Walt wanted was the same thing I, and most of us I think, also want. The only thing I disputed was whether one could categorize strategies so neatly, and I boiled down Mr. Walt's complaint about current US policy as one of dissatisfaction with US PR, not underlying strategy.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 16, 2005 3:01:34 PM

"It's useful to figure out what a rational Holbrooke-ite policy would look like.

"Someday, the crazies running the country won't be in the WH anymore."

Ah, a beautiful dream...

Posted by: AlGore | Feb 16, 2005 3:09:37 PM

Another interesting essay found through blogging. If only this were a starting point for the foreign policy of a new administration, but it is not. Neocons rule. Our current foreign policy is so bankrupt of reality, I fear where we will be four years hence. I feel as if I’m living at the beginning of the previous century, and seeing a little trouble erupting in the Balkans, know something terrible is about to happen over most of the rest of the century. What have the Neocons wrought?

Posted by: scou29c | Feb 16, 2005 4:23:21 PM

Luis, however you characterize it, non-Americans do not feel or owe a duty of patriotism to the United States of America. You call it "ressentiment", which rather ludicrously implies that obese red state office workers are Nietzschean ubermenschen. But, whatever, the main point is you recognize that this is a fact.

Given this fact, non-Americans will only support US hegemony to the extent that they perceive it to be in their interests. Even if they do perceive it to be in their interests, they might still oppose it out of national pride, but they damn sure are not going to support it if it is not in their interests.

You can accept this fact or deplore it, but it remains a fact.

Now, if US hegemony is framed within a set of norms, then at least some non-Americans may indeed reason that it is better than a world of rival blocs. But, to the extent that the President of the United States denies that there are any norms binding on him, this may impress his domestic constituency, but it scares the hell out of everyone else. Frankly, it scares them more than a few crazy tinpot dictators in tiny countries.

It ain't just Gaulois-smoking sophisticates on the Left Bank. It's the Financial Times, and Canadian businessmen.

Now, you could argue that it doesn't matter. But Iraq shows it does matter. Occupying one country can hold down a significant part of the US's offensive military capacity. America's financial infrastructure is upheld by mercantalist East Asian central banks. Progress in reducing international trade barriers has stalled under this administration, primarily because of the distrust it invokes. In most of the democratic world, you win elections by running against the US. (In Canada, for example, I'm pretty sure the Liberals won the last election largely because Canadians don't trust the Conservatives to deal with Mr. Bush).

It is possible to exaggerate. International relations is not a zero-sum game, and other countries have many interests in common with the US, not least of which is containing Islamist terrorism. But rhetoric which emphasizes the zero-sum, and American domination, just isn't going to be popular elsewhere, Nietzsche or no.

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 16, 2005 4:28:31 PM

Mr. Gareth,

I did not imply some Neitzchean ressentiment, just plain old human resentment, as in the result of injured pride and envy. People can easily, too easily, hate the things from which they derive benefits.

Of course, nobody owes the US fealty, or anything of the sort. As I see it the current world situation is in part the happy result of US hegemony. This result, and therefore its mechanism, are in the interests of nearly everyone.

As for norms binding on the US, frankly this is a matter of power and interests. The US is, as you point out, bound by the limits of its power. It has not used its unaccountable power to trample in any gross way on the interests of any decent country, as far as I see it, nor has it threatened to, but the perception of this or of its potential is the kind of thing that would be colored by the deplorable human failings of pride and envy.

If you don't like this situation, badly enough to spend resources on it, I suggest your country, whatever it is, offer to take over some portion of the US burden, for a start, say, by offering a couple of light infantry divisions to the UN on an open commitment for peacekeeping or occupation duty in the nasty parts of the world. Your country would gain a very great degree of influence thereby, I assure you.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 16, 2005 4:50:38 PM

Luis,

My country is Canada. As a matter of fact, some of our soldiers have fought and died in Afghanistan in a war that I think was justified, but in your national interest. Your ambassador responded by threatening us with economic retaliation if we did not back the Iraq war.

It is true that you have not invaded us or looted our cities. We carry on mutually profitable trade, with some irritants. Many have claimed that we "free ride" on your security. But we may have good faith disagreements about whether your actions are improving or diminishing our security. If it came to it, we are only a few months from nuclear capacity, so external invasion is not an issue. Global chaos is, but then we have to ask whether current American policy is promoting or fighting this.

I don't deny that some anti-Americanism is based on less admirable features of human nature. Nor do I deny that American hegemony has some benefits for others.

The point is just that the *best* Americans can expect is that other countries view its actions on a cost/benefit basis (to them). Americans, particularly of the red state variety, tend to find this outrageous, and threaten boycotts and temper tantrums if others don't participate in their chosen schemes, even if they take no steps to frustrate them.

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 16, 2005 5:39:42 PM

Mr. Gareth,

Fair enough. I don't think anyone (important) in the US is demanding anything from any country other than recognition of shared interests.

Canadian troops certainly have done a lot of good work, and they are mostly committed to foreign deployments in difficult places. But I ask you, is a nation of Canada's wealth pulling its share of the work of the world, when it cannot maintain more than the equivalent of 2 battalions in foreign deployments ?

As for the rhetorical balance, I am not American by birth, and I have lived in Europe and Asia, and its my impression that in terms of rhetoric the US much more sinned against than a sinner. I don't know whether that holds true with respect to Canadian media, but in the US one hardly ever hears a cross word about Canada.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 16, 2005 5:51:08 PM

"The point is not to cede control over American foreign policy to foreign powers or to an international institution like the United Nations; the point is to use other states or existing institutions to reassure others about the ways the United States will use its power."

How preytell does using the UN as a cover for American imperial power reassure anyone other than Chirac, Schroeder, who for all intensive purposes have little intention of punishing America for its imperial hubris? The "reassurance"-based foreign policies of George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton did little to prevent 9/11 from happening, and little to quell the emerging rage throughout a good swath of the developing world about the ill effects of neoliberalism on them.

As a democratic leftist, I don't support the Bush foreign policy, and while there's no question that 9/11 was the result of blowback from our relationship (primarily) with the corrupt, repressive, and brutal Saudi regime, there's also little question that what al Qaeda seeks to achieve is not simply an end to the American imperial presence in the region, but an Islamo-fascist caliphate, and that's simply not a goal anyone in the world should countenance.

Honestly, as far as I can tell, what the liberal internationalists care most about is smoothing over our relations with the political and economic elites in Europe, the Arab world, and I suppose in other places as well. But what about the people? As far as I can tell, the people of the Arab world, like people generally, want democracy and political self-determination more than anything else. That they also it would seem wish to preserve at least a measure of their current illiberalism is worrisome, but not I believe fatal. America and the west have a moral duty to play a role in the democratization and liberalization of the Muslim world (as well as the rest of the world), and I'm with the neoconservatives in believing that this project is also vital to American national security, even as I strongly contest the notion that it needs to take place at the barrel of a gun.

American engagement with the Muslim world is only part of the equation though. America, with the help of other western countries, not to mention the WTO, IMF, and world bank, has committed crime after crime after crime against the poorest countries of the developing world, hoodwinking them into accepting huge and unrepayable loans for infrastructure projects whose contracts by and large go to big western multinationals, exploiting the human and natural resources of these countries, and generally enriching themselves and a small economic elite at the expense of nearly everyone else. Democratic and Republican administrations for at least the last half century are almost as culpable as each other, though the situation has gotten immeasureably worse since the neoliberal crackpots came to Washington in the late 1960s and 1970s. In any event, the people of much of the developing world have had enough of America and the west's economic exploitation and immoralism, and are starting to fight back. Witness what is happening in Latin America in particular, from Argentina to Bolivia.

The only question now is whether or not this blowback leads to more benevolent policies on the part of America, the west, and global economic institutions, or to the arrival of a new generation of revolutions, civil wars, and fascist and populist demagogues coming to power (and possibly making league with the likes of radical Islamists) all over the developing world. America ignores the plight of the poorest countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia at its own peril. Cynicism, elitism, and corporatism are no longer viable options. What the world needs now is an enlightened, moral internationalism from this country, and the rest of the developed world.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Feb 16, 2005 6:24:07 PM

Luis, I know what you mean about unbalanced anti-American rhetoric. It exists. It is a problem. I think it would even be fair to say that unbalanced anti-Americanism is more prominent in Canada than unbalanced anti-Canadianism in America. That too is not surprising, given the differences in power and importance of the two countries.

But this is an American site, where an American moderate throws rhetorical punches at ultra-nationalist American rightists. I think those folks do demand more than that other countries recognize common interests. What's worse, because more important, is that they tend to downplay even the existence of common interests out of a misguided zero-sum concept of international relations.

Take the 2002 National Security Strategy. This is not a document composed by a few wingnuts, but by the highest echeolons of the White House's national security staff. It is hard to tell whether it is intentionally or unintentionally designed to feed anti-American paranoia, but it does not radiate a sense that other countries might have their own interests, and might have valid reasons for opposing American ends.

PS. Maybe Canada *should* do more to bring order to this benighted planet. However, any argument to that effect is premised on something other than realism.

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 16, 2005 6:56:58 PM

The essay strikes me as a farrago of typical center left critiques dressed up in international relations theory without much concern for internal consistency. We should pursue "offshore balancing," but we should have intervened in Rwanda. The dual containment strategy for Iraq and Iran by the Clinton administration helped Al-Queada's rise. Which means what? If we had a cut a deal with Iran, Osama would have been hurt somehow? Allegedly based on some sort of hard-headed realism, tt all boils down to a pretty vapid prescription of "be nice."

Posted by: rd | Feb 16, 2005 7:46:04 PM

The essay strikes me as a farrago of typical center left critiques dressed up in international relations theory without much concern for internal consistency. We should pursue "offshore balancing," but we should have intervened in Rwanda. The dual containment strategy for Iraq and Iran by the Clinton administration helped Al-Queada's rise. Which means what? If we had a cut a deal with Iran, Osama would have been hurt somehow? Allegedly based on some sort of hard-headed realism, tt all boils down to a pretty vapid prescription of "be nice."

Nicely said rd. The article strikes me as another aimless rehashing of textbook international relations themes from the dismal towers of Kennedy School foreign policy wonkdom. I feel like I've already read the same article dozens of times before.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Feb 16, 2005 11:55:17 PM

" I feel like I've already read the same article dozens of times before."

Might as well read it again if you're a Democrat. Down at Democratic Party Central they have the essay-on-tape version on an infinite loop. Ten bucks the Democrats nominate Bill Richardson in 2008 (he's Latino! he's from the Southwest! he's charismatic, not like that Kerry! and he's not Hillary!), and he spews the same old liberal internationalist/neo-liberal groupthink that cost Kerry the election this year, leaving Democrats in the wilderness until they finally feel ready to run Obama.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | Feb 17, 2005 1:45:24 AM

One is reminded of nothing quite so much as the late Robert Heinlein's observation that it's truly remarkable how much so-called "mature wisdom" just resembles being too tired.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Feb 17, 2005 9:04:51 AM

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