Friday, February 12, 2016

Foreign policy trivia is not foreign policy knowledge

Media and policy elites appear to have arrived at a remarkable consensus over Hillary Clinton's supposed foreign policy advantage against Bernie Sanders. CNN reports that "Clinton's fluency on foreign policy has long been a strength Sanders can't possibly match"; the New York Times refers uncritically to Sanders' "minimal expertise in foreign policy"; and even relatively sympathetic journalists like The Week's Ryan Cooper argues that Sanders "needs to start bulking out his overall political worldview - particularly on foreign policy." Meanwhile, Foreign Policy reports that the beltway's international affairs apparatus has almost unanimously rallied around Clinton's campaign, though Vox's Max Fisher notes that this is largely a matter of wonks trying to protect their careers from probable retaliation in the event of a Clinton win.

But there is, it turns out, at least one group that remains skeptical of Clinton's foreign policy credibility: the American public. From YouGov / Economist's latest poll:



On both of these central foreign policy issues, Clinton has significantly higher negatives than Sanders; and as is so often the case, his lower positives can be entirely accounted for by the "not sures" that come with lower name-recognition. If public opinion at all reflected elite opinion as expressed in our media and in endorsements, Clinton would win by a blowout on both questions; that this is not the case signals a dramatic but long-understood disconnect between our foreign policy establishment and the American people.

I see two related dynamics driving this disconnect.

The first is a major disagreement between our foreign policy establishment, which favors an active and leading international role for the United States, and everyone else, who prefer that the US disentangle itself from foreign affairs. It is no coincidence that Henry Kissinger has become such a polarizing figure during this debate: this is the man who coined the phrase "Vietnam syndrome," a slur that right-wing hawks use to pathologize Americans who are reluctant to intervene abroad. This latter trend is well documented and has only increased in recent years: in 2013, a historically high 52% of Americans insisted that "the US should mind its own business internationally".

There are all kinds of well documented reasons for this disagreement. One is simply doctrinal: as leftists like Chomsky have argued for years,
The underlying assumption [among elites] is that the US system of social organization and power, and the ideology that accompanies it, must be universal. Anything short of that is unacceptable. No challenge can be tolerated...[and] since the latter days of the Indochina wars, elite groups have been concerned over the erosion of popular support for force and subversion... (Deterring Democracy)
A directly related reason is that foreign policy is not just a field - it's also an industry. It's firmly embedded within a military-industrial complex driven by powerful economic motives that have little to do with the humanitarian and defensive rationalizations that characterize foreign policy discourse. It's infected with lobbyists who are pursuing agendas that most Americans would find monstrous, but who are willing to pay extraordinary fees for intellectual cover.


The second dynamic I see at work here is that Clinton's foreign policy expertise is like a planet-sized sheet of plastic wrap: it's world-wide but paper thin, and absolutely transparent to anyone who bothers to look at it. A typical Clinton statement:
We have to support the fighters on the ground, principally the Arabs and the Kurds who are willing to stand up and take territory back from Raqqa to Ramadi. We have to continue to work with the Iraqi army so that they are better prepared to advance on some of the other strongholds inside Iraq, like Mosul...
This sort of name-dropping certainly demonstrates an elementary familiarity with regional geography, the sort that you would expect from a first year Middle Eastern Studies major or a child who lives nearby. Less generously, it demonstrates Clinton's ability to remember rehearsed lines (the scripted consonance of "Raqqa to Ramadi" is obvious). Either way, it certainly accomplishes the goal of signaling knowledge, which is more than enough for people who are impressed by that sort of thing.

But what it does not do, of course, is what it needs to do: make a case for further military intervention in the Middle East. Nothing about Clinton's acquaintance with these names does a thing to establish that giving arms out latest ally-of-the-month is a good idea. Here is what Sanders had to say:
The point about foreign policy is not to know that you can overthrow a terrible dictator, it's to understand what happens the day after...as president I will look very carefully [at] unintended consequences. I will do everything I can to make certain that the United States and our brave men and women in the military do not get bogged down in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.
Sanders admittedly did not pepper this response with superflous geographic trivia, but what he did demonstrate was a direct understanding of and engagement with the substantive issue at hand. The longstanding critique of foreign intervention, articulated by scholars and intellectuals throughout the world and throughout the modern era, is that it can create unintentended consequences like power vacuums which can actually make the situation worse - and that it often leads to intractable conflict. This is neither a trivial insight nor mere dogmatism: it is hard-won and rigorously defended knowledge about how intervention works.

The foreign policy knowledge that Clinton deals in lends itself to glowing media coverage precisely because it is so superficial and uncontroversial. Fortunately the public is relatively unimpressed by any of this, though it's obvious why elites like Kissinger would approve.