Between Facts and Norms
David Adesnik at OxBlog reports that his neighbors across the street have seen the Union Jack displayed in his window and responded with a big “Stop the War” sign. He comments:
While bigger is often better, I think the folks in no. 32 have embarrassed themselves and their cause by putting up a sign distributed by the Socialist Workers Party.
David thus reveals himself as a bit of a McLuhanite. The medium of the card and its origins trump the message written on it. On the other hand, I doubt he feels the same way about the Union Jack, a sign originally distributed by an insane Hanoverian with a rather shaky grasp of foreign policy. (I’m joking, OK? No abuse, please.)
For something a bit more substantive, take a look at David’s and Josh’s opening statements from their OxDem panel discussion. My initial reaction is this. The commitments of their political theory—a laudable belief that the rights of liberal democracy are the “common aspirations of all people”—are in tension with both the realpolitik of international relations, which they know a lot about, and the problem of institution-building, which they pay much less attention to. Their FAQ on War and Democracy in the Middle East asks hard questions—How committed is the United States to promoting democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere?, What are America’s plans for postwar Iraq?—but relies more on statements from the White House than, say, an analysis of historical precedent or an account of how, practically, liberal democracy is supposed to be constructed after the war is over. (I know David has an argument that politicians can be forced to live up to promises they make without really believing in them, which I’d like to see in more detail.) Thus, Josh, for instance, maintains as a matter of principle that “democracy must always be the outcome of military action, even if it is not the cause.” That is the “must” of a political theorist rather than a political sociologist. What is its empirical component? The historical evidence does not support the idea that the outcome of military intervention by the United States must be a liberal democracy. The cases tend in the opposite direction.
OxDem may fall into the gap between the rhetoric of the Administration and its actions. Josh and David’s Op-Ed in the WSJ Online acknowledges the problem:
We are deeply troubled by last week’s news that the Bush Administration failed to request any money for reconstruction in Afghanistan in the 2003 budget, and we applaud Congress for stepping in to add the funds. If the administration ever turns away from postwar Iraq in a similar manner, OxDem will be there to remind it that its job has only just begun. Until the people of Iraq share the freedom that Americans cannot live without, America’s mission must go on.
There’s that “must” again, poised between facts and values. What if we are skeptical that the Bush Administration can or will do what it ought to do, on OxDem’s terms? Max Sawicky is currently exploring this line. He argues that the U.S. “can destroy bad regimes; it cannot bestow self-government on people.” I think there’s a lot to be said for this view. OxDem should be clear about whether it is giving us a description of what the U.S. is doing, or whether it is advising the U.S. about what it ought to be doing.
It’s the privilege of a few high-ranking diplomats and statesmen (people like George Kennan) to combine these tasks. They can bind the ambitions of political theory and the analysis of international relations into a body of foreign policy. OxDem is playing this game but is not in power. Thus, the principles they endorse may be betrayed by the Administration they support. They will then be left having to explain why the post-war strategy which they felt helped justify the invasion was not pursued by the Administration. That’s an uncomfortable position.
In the abstract, it would be great to have stable liberal democracies all over the Middle East. But the central question is, how likely is this goal in practice, and what will be the costs? I can’t answer those questions. But, as I’ve said before, the potential hubris of the U.S. enterprise is the belief that being the most powerful is the same as being all-powerful. Because it is the most powerful, the U.S. will win this war in the short term. But because it is not all-powerful, the long-term prospects are much messier. Articulating an ideal outcome does not simplify the long-term view, or clarify the likely outcomes on the ground.