Tuesday, September 11, 2007

don't get personal

In a post today discussing HRC and OHB's relative foreign policy strength, Kevin Drum wrote:

Judgment and temperament are the most important attributes in foreign affairs, not experience
This seems wrongheaded. Sound policy views derived from solid principles are the most important attributes in foreign affairs, just as they are in domestic policy. When discussing the positions of the candidates on the health care plans they have or haven’t put forward, the analysts worth listening to don’t talk about whether or not Clinton has enough experience, whether her experience in this area is a liability or an asset, or whether her judgment and temperament will produce a sound health care plan or a flawed one. They talk about whether the actual policies she proposes are likely to succeed or likely to fail, who will benefit from those policies and who will pay for them, and how they stack up against concrete policies announced by other candidates. They evaluate the candidates’ stated policies in terms of principles: utility, rights, and values. To a large extent, the policies are divorced from the person, and the best candidate is only the sum total of the best policies.

This is often not how the media evaluates candidates, and critics of media political coverage like Atrios and Eric Boehlert have argued persuasively that this has harmed American democracy.

But even otherwise sensible people like Kevin Drum treat foreign policy differently for some reason. When it comes to foreign policy, suddenly the watchwords are “experience,” “judgment,” and “character.” Reagan and Truman had “it,” whatever “it” is; Carter and Nixon didn’t.

As it turns out, “it” usually means “unwarranted belligerence towards outsiders and unquestioning nationalistic fervor.”

Reagan’s policies led directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Central America. Truman used nuclear weapons against innocent civilians and embroiled the country in the Korean quagmire.

Carter helped mainstream human rights and signed the Camp David Accords. Nixon defused needless hostility between the U.S. and China, further isolating the Soviet Union and laying the groundwork for China to become a major trading partner with the U.S.

Carter and Nixon had their screw-ups as well, especially Nixon, but the idea that Reagan and Truman were foreign policy maestros and Carter and Nixon masters of disaster is largely a product of this mindless, personality-based evaluation of foreign policy. This approach is problematic. Good policies deserve support. Bad policies deserve condemnation. If particular leaders (George-cough-cough Bush-cough-cough) espouse a large number of bad policies (invading Iraq, building up the military, running roughshod over international trade rules, dissing foreign leaders, denying global warming) and only a few good policies (liberalizing immigration, increasing aid to Africa), then they should not be entrusted with managing foreign policy. Choosing leaders based on foreign policy should be an inductive process, not a deductive one. If candidates don’t have actual foreign policy experience, they should be judged based on what they have said about policies others have enacted and what actions they propose to take if elected. The existing narrative frame for evaluating candidates is flawed and counterproductive, and leads to unhelpful adjectives like “Reaganesque” or “Trumanesque.”

This is typically because foreign policy is complicated and most people don’t know much about it. But the same could be said of tax policy or health care policy, yet debates on those issues are normally less retarded than what we’re treated to on foreign policy.

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