Monday, June 12, 2006

Hilzoy on 'Seriousness'

Hilzoy has an excellent piece on Beinart & co.:
1: It is not true that being realistic always requires taking the toughest option. -- This is obvious once you think of it; and yet it's amazing how often you find, lurking beneath the surface of arguments on foreign policy, the idea that all the temptations that pull us away from a realistic assessment of our situation are temptations to soft-heartedness; or that "being realistic" always involves being willing to take harsh measures for some good result, and not, say, being willing to recognize that harsh measures would be counterproductive even when saying so will get you called a wimp.

Back in my poker days, I fought a constant battle against overaggression. Much like in war, in cards being the aggressor is generally a good thing. However, aggression simply for aggression's sake is often a losing proposition. On the more thoughful message boards, hands played too hard and too far are derided as "peen waving," the object of the game isn't to have the biggest balls, it's to have the most chips.

Now, outcomes from international relations are not easily reducible to a metric as simple as 'chips,' but I think the point holds. There is certainly value to both being aggressive and to be perceived as aggressive. But crucially, this value is as a means not an end to its own - being known as a badass allows us to do (or not have to do) many other things. That said the so-called 'Ledeen Doctrine':
Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.
doesn't hold much water. 'Showing we mean business' does not occur in a vacuum - there are consequences as well as benefits for being the baddest kid on the block. If we are seen as a bully, intimidation becomes our only tool. At a certain point, even that method is no longer useful. To get back to the poker, you can bulldog your way to a few pots, but it's repeated game, and people will adjust. And they will begin to set traps, which you will blunder into in your 'peen-waving, chip-spewing' furor.

Plus, it is an intellectually lazy approach. If youe only response to any action or provocation is the punch to the face, why bother to consider further? Why bother to consider at all? At a certain point, why bother to even wait for provacation, which leads us to preventive war, with no real purpose aside from throwing a little-country against a wall to show how tough we are...

In life, as in poker, a more balanced approach is required at times. The need for just such nuance and balance is why this stuff is hard. If it were easy, anybody could do it, but I think the very least history tells us is that no, not just 'anybody' can do it right.


cakreiz said...

I'm worried, Pooh. I agree wholeheartedly with your post and with Hilzoy's. What does that mean? Am I becoming weak in my old age? Actually it just confirms my Colin Powellish instincts.

Pooh said...

I think it just reflects a desire to have the conversation driven by the grown-ups instead of the Id-driven on either side.

Tom Strong said...

Excellent article, and a fine counterpoint to views like Callimachus'.

I think he's a little too hard on Beinart, though. Beinart deserves the rough welcome his book is receiving, but I think his main argument - that one cannot have "national greatness" without also having national humility - is right on point.

cakreiz said...

Hilzoy's general epistemic principle #1 is interesting: ("it is not true that being realistic always requires taking the toughest option.") Sometimes I'm vulnerable to this idea- although I was a Colin Powell pre-war supporter so maybe I'm being too harsh on myself. It can be a very seductive (and misleading) idea.