Sunlit Water

September 11, 2006

Think About It

Filed under: Politics — by teofilo @ 1:24 am

Today is September eleventh, a good time to reflect on all the tumult of the past five years and what it means.  Kevin Drum has a post containing a speech by Al Gore from early 2002 that is eerily prescient and not a little disheartening in its optimism.  What interests me more, though, are Kevin’s introductory remarks on foreign policy in general.  He writes:

On nearly all domestic issues, I feel pretty comfortable applying my liberal principles to the issues at hand and deciding for myself where I stand. However, I’m far less comfortable doing that on foreign policy issues, which are inherently murkier and less amenable to ideological solutions. Instead, when it comes to foreign affairs, I rely much more on the guidance of people I trust, people who have (I think) demonstrated an even temperament and good judgment when they’ve had to make difficult calls in the past.

I find this interesting because it’s essentially the mirror opposite of my own behavior; I tend to puzzle out foreign policy issues on my own and leave domestic policy to people I trust who seem to share my values and concerns.  Part of that is just my temperament, which seems to be quite different from Kevin’s.  Domestic policy is all about moving large sums of money around, which is something I just don’t find very interesting in and of itself, and not something I’ve ever had any particular aptitude in understanding the details of.  My eyes glaze over when the discussion turns to macroeconomics.  I therefore seek out pundits and politicians who seem to share my basic philosophical outlook about public policy and trust that their recommendations and proposals are more or less in line with the outcomes I want.  Foreign policy is something I’m personally more interested in, so I’m more inclined to do the heavy lifting of figuring out good policies on my own and have less need to rely on expert opinion.

There’s more to it than that, however.  One thing I noticed in reading the Gore speech in Kevin’s post is that I don’t actually find his analyses of the world situation particularly compelling, or at least not as much as Kevin does.  I like Gore and think he’s a smart guy, but a lot of what he says in that speech is just either very superficial or composed of the kinds of boilerplate pieties that work well for American audiences but aren’t necessarily useful in understanding the rest of the world.  This isn’t just a problem with Gore; the number of American politicians whose foreign policy proposals I find both realistic and laudable is extraordinarily small, and not just on one side of the aisle.  Americans don’t tend to pay much attention to the rest of the world unless they perceive it as a threat, so there’s little payoff for a politician in acquiring large stores of substantive knowledge about foreign policy, and as a result few bother.

This is a problem, since foreign policy is very important, and it has led to many of the most boneheaded moves of US administrations more concerned about their poll numbers at home than about the actual issues facing our country overseas. Our current Middle East policy is a prime example, and there are many others.

I’m not claiming that everyone should go out on their own and figure out what the best US policies toward every country in the worlds should be; there are in fact experts who are trustworthy on these issues, in academia and various think tanks.  But I would advise caution in simply trusting politicians to do the right thing because they’ve been through tough situations before.  As Kevin points out, foreign policy is a murky area that’s hard to understand, but that doesn’t mean critical thinking is useless in regard to it.  Indeed, it’s more important than ever.



  1. there are in fact experts who are trustworthy on these issues, in academia and various think tanks

    I used to believe this. Robert McNamara’s mea culpa did a lot to shake my confidence in it. My current understanding of the Vietnam War is that there is plenty of blame to go around for all the bright young men who thought their analysis was so unquestionable and their prescription so grand. IDP probably knows a lot more on this — does he read over here?

    I think part of the problem is the difference between context and decisionmaking. I expect my president to lack context at times, and rely on advisors (academic or otherwise). I accept that the presidency is *about* decisionmaking. Somewhere in between this is the president’s responsibility to critically interpret the analysis he gets.

    There is another story — maybe apocryphal — that Kennedy used to make his senior staff crazy by direct-calling the CIA analysts at their desk, so he could get first hand interpretation of the data. I can certainly understand the urge.

    Comment by Witt — September 11, 2006 @ 10:14 pm |Reply

  2. Yeah, I’m actually pretty skeptical about that part, but I don’t want it to sound like I’m telling everyone to become experts themselves. I mean it more in the sense that there are people out there who do know more about this stuff than we do, but you still have to judge for yourself how much to trust them.

    I don’t know if IDP reads here; I don’t think he’s commented. I agree that his take on this would be interesting.

    Comment by teofilo — September 11, 2006 @ 10:19 pm |Reply

  3. I’m with you. The notion that experts could be trusted to craft a meaningful foreign policy — as if it’s like fixing a car or something similarly objective, is just mind-boggling to me. My wife works in foreign policy — for a foreign political party — and regularly interacts with Kissinger, Zbig, Scowcroft, and the rest. Zoellick, for example, is a very smart guy (she says) but a smart guy trying to accomplish a goal set by politicians with one eye on polls isn’t going to do any better than execute a questionable policy well.

    Comment by CharleyCarp — September 12, 2006 @ 12:57 am |Reply

  4. […] but it turned out to be in a comment at Unfogged.  In looking for it here, though, I came across the post I did on the fifth anniversary.  It’s interesting to see how my perspective has changed in […]

    Pingback by Ten Years « Sunlit Water — September 11, 2011 @ 12:46 am |Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: