Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pragmatists for Obama

Yesterday I asked whether the trouble we’re all having deciphering what, if any, principles govern this administration’s conduct of foreign policy speaks well of Obama or poorly of us. The answer to that question, I suggested, largely depends on where the person asking it places the burden of proof. And that, in turn, is largely a matter of faith.

If the person observing Obama’s foreign policy from the outside has sufficient faith in Obama’s intellectual acumen and moral integrity, he’ll presume that there’s a powerful theory that ties together and justifies Obama’s seemingly inconsistent foreign policy positions even if he hasn’t yet figured out what it is. If the observer’s agnostic or cynical about Obama’s acumen and integrity, he’ll presume that Obama’s foreign policy is empty-headed until Obama convinces him otherwise by acting in a visibly principled way.

Andrew Sullivan’s faith in Obama is more radical than the kind I was contemplating. Sullivan’s as perplexed and skeptical as the rest of us about the rationale behind Obama’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya. Yet that doesn’t seem to be testing his faith in Obama.  Sullivan's not bothered by the apparent inconsistency of Obama's various foreign policy positions because he thinks that, when it comes to international affairs, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. He’s ready to absolve Obama of the responsibility of having a principled foreign policy because the world we confront is just too complex for that:
“I see no alternative to pragmatism in these times. The core truth is: the US is navigating the currents of Middle Eastern history in a way that cannot be reduced to a doctrine.

“Interests and values conflict constantly; every rebellion has its own dynamic; reacting to an authoritarian regime and to a totalitarian regime must be different. The core hypocrisy of the US over the last few decades cannot be simply wished away. And yes, it lingers because oil matters still. Because we have refused to make the tough decisions to make us and the world less reliant on it as an energy source. You go to war with the economy and legacy you have.

“That means that almost any action by this administration in this region can be criticized for impurity or inconsistency, or for violating a doctrine, or for representing (God forbid!) a nuanced direction. My own worries about Libya are based on the Libyan case alone. But I could be wrong and I'm going to take stock of this as time goes by. Assessing pragmatism's effects requires a series of non-ideological judgments.”
It’s tempting to dismiss all this as simple nonsense. “Complexity,” after all, isn’t a fact about the world, but a feature of our cognitive relationship to the world. To he who understands nothing, everything is complicated. Understanding the world is a matter of having a decent theory that explains or justifies hitherto dissimilar-looking things. Having such a unifying theory doesn’t change the world apart from our perception of it, but it makes it simpler in our eyes.

Seen in this light, complexity always presents an intellectual challenge. So if you want to be cynical, you could dismiss the general idea that the world is too complicated for any foreign policy doctrine as an open-ended invitation to stop thinking inconvenient thoughts. The fact that a confirmed  Obama-supporter (who was never shy about deploring every alleged inconsistency in the Bush administration’s foreign policy) is applying the idea as a way of making us stop thinking disparaging thoughts about Obama makes it easier to be cynical.

Here’s a more plausible interpretation of Sullivan’s brief for pragmatism and Obama. On this view, there’s nothing wrong with trying to come up with a unifying foreign policy theory, but it’s presumptuous for us to think that the best one we’ve come up with is very likely to be true. That being the case, turning even our best foreign policy theory into an operational doctrine is likely to be self-defeating because the malign unintended consequences generated by its mechanical application are likely to dwarf its intended effects. On this view, Bush’s conduct of the Iraq War, and in particular his reluctance to make mid-course adjustments when things started to go wrong, is a cautionary tale about doctrinaire presidents. Bush’s ostentatiously principled foreign policy testified less to his intellectual integrity than to his simple-mindedness.

We’re likely to experience better outcomes, Sullivan suggests, when a sensible president conducts foreign policy by the seat of his pants. I’ll admit that there’s a certain consistency to this view inasmuch as it judges presidential pragmatism pragmatically, according to the desirability of its effects. But notice how much faith in Obama it takes to buy into Sullivan’s application of it. Why is he so sure that Obama's a sensible enough guy to be entrusted with conducting our foreign policy by the seat of his pants? His long and distinguished record of effective public administration and demonstrated insight into foreign affairs?

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