The “me” approach to foreign policy

Stanley Kurtz at the Corner dissents from NR’s editorial support for military intervention in Libya. However, more than the substance of Kurtz’s arguments, which of course I largely agree with, what strikes me most immediately about the article is the amazingly self-referential way he approaches the subject, which happens to be the way most establishment conservatives today talk about foreign policy issues. Everything is about Kurtz, about his feelings, about his beliefs, about his label for himself (“I am a skeptic on the freedom agenda”). With respect for Mr. Kurtz, this is not a serious or appropriate way to discuss matters of war and peace.

Below I have copied the article and bolded each of Kurtz’s references to himself and his feelings and his thoughts:

Against a No-Fly Zone
By Stanley Kurtz
March 17, 2011 8:50 P.M.

I’ve been traveling lately, with no time for Corner posting. Before we see what’s about to unfold in Libya, however, I’d like to give my take on our policy choices there.

I am not an advocate of establishing a no-fly zone in Libya. When it comes to the freedom agenda in the Middle East, I am a skeptic. Democracy promotion may (or may not) work as a long-term enterprise in places where U.S. troops are in place. I don’t think it should drive our Middle East policy in the short or medium term, however. The Libyan opposition is a complex mix of Islamists, actors motivated by tribal allegiances, and liberals. The last element is probably the weakest of the three, and even their purported liberalism may not guarantee a pro-Western stance. While we might be lucky enough to quickly and cleanly displace Qaddafi, I don’t think the relatively thin prospects of the Libyan opposition developing into liberal democrats justifies the risks of an extended military entanglement.

I take arguments for a no-fly zone based on more traditional considerations of national interest more seriously. America does have an important interest in securing the supply of oil from the Middle East. Libyan oil is not critical to our supply, however, and this operation does not appear to be an attempt to send a signal about the need to stabilize oil flow.

We also have an interest in making sure that Middle Eastern governments do not support terrorism, especially if those governments also have active nuclear programs. There is some danger that Qaddafi will restart his nuclear program and resume his sponsorship of terrorism if he survives this struggle. Nonetheless, it is very far from certain that Qaddafi will move in this direction, and preventing him from doing so does not seem to be the motive for our actions in Libya.

I would rather see us convey a clear message that a resumption of terror sponsorship and/or a nuclear program would not be tolerated, than to have us risk a complex intervention on that assumption now. Targeted military attacks of the sort President Reagan used on Libya could be used in case Qaddafi resumed his nuclear program or terror support, and we could clearly convey that message to him beforehand.

Granted, helping an indigenous opposition overturn Qaddafi might be a quick and cheap way of preventing his return to full-scale rogue status in the future. Yet it could just as well begin a messy and extended military adventure, or usher in an anti-Western, pro-terrorist, Islamist government.

So I oppose the establishment of a no-fly/no-drive zone, which is tantamount to a commitment to overthrow Qaddafi with grounds troops, if necessary. Should air attacks fail to work, we either go in and finish the job with troops, or make ourselves look weak by initiating a military action we cannot or will not carry through to a favorable conclusion. I don’t think the risks are worth it.

There is a cost to the sort of stance I’m supporting. It means leaving opponents of a contemptible dictator in the lurch. Yet we cannot and do not intervene to overthrow every dictatorship in the world. More to the point, I think the West is badly misjudging the motives of many of the protests sweeping the Arab world right now. I do not think we are witnessing a liberal democratic revolution, and I don’t think active attempts by the West to turn the unrest in that direction will succeed any time soon.

I recognize that, given America’s considerable military power, we may be lucky enough to quickly displace Qaddafi. A relatively painless successful military outcome is a real possibility here. But the risks of something that falls short of that are also real. And especially to the extent that we expect this operation to advance the cause of authentic liberal democracy in the Middle East, I am deeply skeptical of this venture.

In Kurtz’s short, 653 word column consisting of 31 sentences, 15 sentences refer to Kurtz, his thoughts, and his feelings, and the word “I” appears 16 times.

But as I said at the beginning, Kurtz is far from unique in this regard. This is the standard jargon today for discussing foreign policy among establishment conservatives and particularly neoconservatives; indeed, it well may have been started by the top neoconservative and all-time champion of the first-person singular, Norman Podhoretz. In the polite conclaves of this establishment, everything is, “I suspect…”, “My suspicion is…”, “My guess is…”, “I’m an optimist…”, “I’m a pessimist…”, “I’m a skeptic…”, “As a dyed-in-the-wool hawk, I believe…” It’s as though their foreign policy discussions were not about a reasoned thought process leading to falsifiable conclusions, but about self-identification. A conclusion, an idea, can be shown to be wrong. But one’s identity (“As a dyed-in-the-wool hawk, I believe…”) cannot be shown to be wrong, just as a person cannot be shown to be wrong for saying, “As an African-American woman, I believe…” It’s a way of speaking perfectly tailored to the Age of the Self.

- end of initial entry -

Rick Darby writes:

Someone thinks your comment on Stanley Kurtz is hilarious.

LA replies (March 18):

Rick Darby replies (March 21):

Er, someone doesn’t want to be guilty of the “me” approach to comments.

LA replies (March 21):

Oh, now I get it.

So now VFR is like the futuristic collectivist society in Ayn Rand’s “Anthem,” where the word “I” is not known and is prohibited.

Now the Randians will have more reason to hate me than ever. And by the way, the Randians hate me far more than any other group does. The most intense hate e-mail I receive always comes from Rand types.

LA writes:

I said: The Age of the Self that I spoke of encompasses both the personal self and the group (ethnic, sexual) self. Both the personal self and the group self assert complete sovereignty.

Stephen Hopewell writes:

On the language of the Stanley Kurtz piece, I think the framing of policy recommendations in subjective “I think,” “I feel” terms also has something to do with the need of the “establishment conservative” to present himself as a nice person in liberal society. I see this a lot in the National Review writers. They will say things like, “I personally think gay marriage isn’t a great idea, but I respect that so-and-so feels otherwise. Let the people of ___ vote on it.” Or, “I’m not as optimistic as Harry Reid about the long-term effects of this health care law.” The subjective tone, combined with a conspicuous profession of respect for one’s opponents, saves one from having to pass intellectual or moral judgment in absolute terms. I think liberal writers, say, Paul Krugman, are largely free from this pressure and often take an absolute and judgmental tone in their statements about policy.

Sage McLaughlin writes:

I had just finished reading your post about the personalized way of speaking about serious policy issues among conservatives. I was in the process of digesting Stephen Hopewell’s observation that

the framing of policy recommendations in subjective “I think,” “I feel” terms also has something to do with the need of the “establishment conservative” to present himself as a nice person in liberal society. I see this a lot in the National Review writers.

In that moment I found this opening paragraph in a post by Stephen Hayward at National Review Online:

Mark Levin and Pete Wehner are having a spirited and civil but serious argument about how George W. Bush measures up to the Gipper Gold Standard. I’m not going to try to score this like Ali-Frazier; I like both men, and besides, I’ve already delivered my Cranky Flakes breakfast-inspired beatdown for the day. But three of Pete’s weaker points deserve comment, I think.

Notice he’s not trying to “score the fight,” in other words, choose sides on the objective question of who has the better argument. Why? Well, because he likes both men, and choosing sides would be mean. It’s a social question more than a matter of merit. He even finishes with that careful little barnacle, “I think,” as though to cast some doubt on whether Peter’s weaker points really, actually, deserve comment. He’s almost apologetic for even deigning to remark on the debate. But apparently what’s important is that Peter’s weaker points inspired in Hayward the desire to comment.

Or at least, that’s how I personally think his post should be interpreted.

LA replies:

Yes, I think that’s the best way of understanding the motive behind this way of talking. The main priority of the respective speakers is not to try to get closer to the truth of a subject, but to maintain relationships with one’s fellow conservative careerists. So instead of making a judgment about objective reality, such as, “Getting involved in Libya for the purpose of advancing democracy is a wrong-headed and disastrous policy,” one puts a label on oneself, such as: “On spreading democracy, I’m a skeptic.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 18, 2011 02:24 PM | Send

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