Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Enduring Stupidity of American Foreign Policy Discussion

President Obama recently gave what was hyped as a "major foreign policy" statement before the graduating class at West Point this past week. Given the strong realistic streak in Obama's overseas maneuvering to date, I thought that this would either be a huge redefinition of terms or a complete and utter non-event. It turned out to be the latter.

This has given a lot of folks who are otherwise critical of Obama, both left and right, a chance to be further critical of him. And it gives me the chance to point out that it was pretty stupid to set himself up for this fall.

Unless somehow his message of extreme moderation somehow slips through the chorus of mostly nonsensical caterwauling and reaches the public. It is possible.

What amazes me about foreign policy discussion in this country is the extent to which it is dominated by people who utter little that isn't complete & utter bullshit. I've written before (mostly here and here) about the essentially theatrical attitude many purportedly expert commentators take toward foreign policy; where foreign policy is all about cutting a figure, creating an image that is pleasing to the American public (and, allegedly, one that is terrifying to our enemies), whatever the reality behind it.

This is essentially a cynical attitude: Americans know little about the rest of the world and don't care to know very much. The *reality* of our involvement vis-a-vis the rest of the world is not something they are likely to become cognizant of, at least in the short term. The image of a forthright and defiant American President, gazing off into the middle distance with a light wind rippling his hair. That's something that'll reach them. Albeit briefly.

Obama's hairstyle is not the only thing that makes him ill-suited for this role. He had his chance to rework this image after his own predilections after he was elected. He had, after all, did a bang up job of reworking our image of presidential candidate over the prior year. But there was a pesky financial crisis and ensuing recession to deal with, and he always seemed a bit . . . mmm . . . ill at ease with the purely theatrical elements of politics. His middle-distance stare always had an element of "I wish I were anywhere but here" to it, rather than the "I really LOVE me, and so should you!" or "They really LOVE me, and so should you!" that we see in leaders who have really mastered the art.

At heart, Obama is a tinkerer and improver. A realist. A man who hates stupidity and waste and who has had plenty to do just unwinding the commitments left to him by the prior administration, which came to be defined by stupidity and waste.

Translating what he really feels about foreign policy--that he doesn't hold with any religious mission at the core of American foreign policy, that he doesn't hold with fomenting paranoia (and the ensuing overseas commitments) as a civic distraction, that he realizes America is not omnipotent and intends to behave that way--telling that truth would require confronting a whole host of contradictory feelings America has about itself. That we can do anything!; that we're terribly and unjustly overburdened. That we're the best!; That we've been in decline throughout living memory! That everyone needs to do what we say!; That we don't feel like making any sacrifices.

The usual talking heads we see complaining about the Obama foreign policy and mostly would-be directors of a much better political/theatrical presentation than currently on offer. They are interested in *exploiting* these contradictions in our attitudes.

Someone we don't like ruling Syria? Well how can Obama possibly let that happen? He is weak!

But this is a very easy complaint to make. The suggestion being that a "strong" President never has to live for long with anything he doesn't like. But is this true? Of course not. And when asked particularly about what they are suggesting ought to be done, the essential actions are always either in the past or nebulous in the extreme. Apparently Obama didn't sacrifice the right chicken to the right God or something, and if he had Bashir Assad would have been smothered in his crib as an infant. Or something. I can never quite figure out what is being suggested.

Which is nothing new, except for the fact that journalist who cover this sort of thing seldom push the questioning to the point where real answers must be forthcoming. In fact, they are complicit in mystifying foreign policy because that give their sources (and they themselves) an aura of privileged knowledge (however nebulously presented) for access to which we are dependent on them.

When in fact, foreign policy is largely about learning to lose well. It's about acknowledging where you can't win or can't win without undue risk. It's about scooping up an easy win here or there and putting your effort and taking your risks where they really matter. It's about playing a high stakes game. It isn't primarily about principles and it isn't theater. There are disagreements about how that high-stakes game should be played, about whose bluffs should be called when; about when risks are justified.

But those who image of foreign policy seems to be Wagnerian bellowing from the "World Stage"--well, there's a reason they aren't at the table, even in their childish imaginations!