The Post-Ideological Pragmatism of Blowing People Up


Ryan Lizza's long New Yorker article on President Barack Obama's evolving foreign policy, which *re-introduced into the political lexicon the memorable phrase "leading from behind," should be required reading for anyone interested not just in current world affairs, but also in the predictable ways that "realist"-tilting, "post-ideological"-posturing American presidential candidates always end up embracing the "idealism" of military force against micro-Hitlers once in office.

The fact that Lizza utterly fails to see the pattern clearly laid out by Obama's two predecessors only underlines the point: When President Mitch Daniels, too, enters the White House after having won an upset victory as a pragmatist problem-solver with a humble foreign policy, he will also be confronted with evildoers mowing down (or threatening to mow down) their own citizens live on al-Jazeera and/or CNN. Once the pro-interventionist idealists eventually win that behind-the-scenes bureaucratic struggle, we will see well-reported pieces from the Ryan Lizzas of the world explaining in respectful detail how the president's abstract foreign policy ideas have responsibly adapted to unforeseen events in this mixed-up, shook-up world.

My favorite excerpt:

On March 17th, I interviewed Clinton in Tunis. She was sitting under a canopy by the hotel pool, eating breakfast. Although she had been noncommittal with the diplomats in France two days earlier, she now made it clear that the Obama Administration had made a decision. It was well known that she favored intervention, but she was frank about the difficulty in making such decisions. "I get up every morning and I look around the world," she said. "People are being killed in Côte d'Ivoire, they're being killed in the Eastern Congo, they're being oppressed and abused all over the world by dictators and really unsavory characters. So we could be intervening all over the place. But that is not a—what is the standard? Is the standard, you know, a leader who won't leave office in Ivory Coast and is killing his own people? Gee, that sounds familiar. So part of it is having to make tough choices and wanting to help the international community accept responsibility."

So we are helping the world accept responsibility for global affairs by providing the overwhelming military contribution to a muddle-headed mini-war against a nasty sovereign who might have otherwise massacred some rebels. That fact that there's an understood logic there only makes me despair more for the prospect of ever having a U.S. foreign policy with a default approach of non-intervention. There will likely never be a day without a Problem From Hell, particularly if we keep defining such things down from genocide (though not against the Armenians!) to what's happening in a half-dozen African countries on any given day. Only when we have a president who understands that intervention logic has the same bureaucratic inevitability as regulatory capture will we begin to contemplate the great unwinding of America's imperial responsibilities. Pragmatists will always and forever spill blood.

Whole New Yorker thing here. Some relevant oldies from me on "temporary doves," "the ideology of post-ideology," and "the cost of doing something."

* Added "re-" after being schooled by Tim Cavanaugh in the comments.