Friday, April 29, 2011

“A Doctrine of Inconsistency”

Owing to his recent resignation over the conditions of alleged WikiLeaker Bradley Manning’s incarceration, ex-Undersecretary of State P.J. Crowley is now outside the Obama tent pissing in. Naturally, that inspires some sympathy in this blogger (who, having only one foot outside the liberal tent, can usually be found pissing liberally on himself). So I was particularly taken by what Crowley has to say about this administration’s regrettable zeal for inconsistency (my emphasis):
"Although Obama seemed to embrace the concept of 'responsibility to protect' in intervening in Libya and calling for Muammar Gaddafi to step down from power, he has not done the same in Syria. If Gaddafi must go because he is unwilling to reform and has employed extreme state-controlled violence against a population that no longer fears him, so should President Bashar al-Assad. . . .  

"The White House was quick to downplay the idea of a precedent. “We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent,” said Denis McDonough, the deputy national-security adviser.

"So we have the Doctrine of Inconsistency, which is becoming ever clearer as the administration struggles to develop a coherent approach to events in Syria in light of our statements on and actions in Libya. If Libya, then why not Syria?"
As it happens, I’m agnostic when it comes to the merits of the foreign policy issue that Crowley’s addressing. There’s no denying that there’s a vivid appearance of inconsistency in embracing a policy of regime change in Libya, but not in Syria. Yet I’m perfectly willing to contemplate the possibility that it’s an illusion generated by an apples-to-oranges comparison. Maybe we have a national interest in not alienating Assad that we don't have respecting Gaddafi that overrides our moral revulsion at Assad's brutal suppression of internal dissent.

But that doesn’t keep me from sharing Crowley’s exasperation at administration spin. Incredibly, members of this administration don’t seem to think that it’s part of their job to explain to us why the apparent inconsistencies of Obama’s foreign policy are only apparent. Unless Crowley is ripping his words violently out of their proper context, the administration's Deputy National Security Adviser is advising us not to waste our time trying to ascertain the principles animating Obama’s foreign policy because the president has made it a matter of principle not to have foreign policy principles. That, I take it, is the paradox Crowley’s getting at when he speaks of a “Doctrine of Inconsistency.”

If, like me, you subscribe to the quaint notions that principled consistency is an essential feature of practical rationality and that it’s the job of a democratic politician to explain himself to voters, you're left in a quandary. You have to decide whether to take the Obama administration at its word and believe that its foreign policy is as studiously thoughtless as it claims, or whether it’s proceeding according to thoughts that Obama and his minions are keeping to themselves. In either case, it seems to me, you should recognize the spin that Obama’s inscrutability is evidence of his superior rationality for the brazen evasion of intellectual and democratic accountability that it is.

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