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Hawks Love Their Foreign Policy Quizzes. But Do Americans Care?

While Lindsey Graham, Hillary Clinton, and the Washington Post guffaw at Gary Johnson, voters seem strangely unpersuaded by the language-policing of interventionists.

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Lindsey Graham. ||| United States Senate
United States Senate

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made a funny yesterday about Gary Johnson's Aleppo-gaffe. "He set back the cause of legalizing marijuana by 50 years." This seemingly non-sequiturial fusion of two separate concerns actually makes perfect sense if you view it through the lens of establishmentarian self-policing of what is and is not "serious." As I wrote two years ago,

For decades, all the way up to November 2010, prohibitionists could rely on dismissive giggling and hand waving any time the rest of us advocated legalizing drugs. And those current or former pot smokers in or near power who should have known better were often the ones leading the mockery. When California tried crossing over from medical marijuana to full legalization in 2010 through Proposition 19, the state's editorial boards almost universally panned the measure. Instead of fact-based persuasion, they offered "reefer madness" and "what were they smoking?" jokes. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned, tellingly and inaccurately, that legalization would make "California a laughingstock."

This is how prohibitionists and cowards alike avoided having an argument: by playing to the insecurity of political elites who were desperate to be taken seriously.

It takes genuine effort for governing elites to maintain bipartisan distance between their policy preferences and the contrary desires of voters, and foreign policy is one of the areas where that gap is widest. This helps explain why so much of the discourse surrounding the Iraq War—even in its disastrous aftermath!—was framed as a discussion between Very Serious People (who either favored it or were on the fence) and a bunch of hippie know-nothings. The constant social policing of who gets to be Serious and who doesn't is one of Washington's great policy-perpetuation machines. And strangely, no matter how many failed wars (Drug or Middle Eastern) the Lindsey Grahams of the world support, and how many presidential primary campaigns they fail to finish in the top 10, they will always and forever be treated as possessors of gravitas, while the Rand Pauls of the world will be presented as dangerous flakes. As I explained last night on The Blaze:

As a matter of basic presidential preparedness, Johnson's Aleppo-blanking was a gratuitous brainfart. But is there any evidence that voters give a rip? I'm not so sure.

Consider what I referenced in the video above: Donald Trump's infamous-at-the-time Sept. 3, 2015 interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt. Here's a snippet:

HH: Are you familiar with General Soleimani?

DT: Yes, but go ahead, give me a little, go ahead, tell me.

HH: He runs the Quds Forces.

DT: Yes, okay, right.

HH: Do you expect his behavior…

DT: The Kurds, by the way, have been horribly mistreated by …

HH: No, not the Kurds, the Quds Forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Forces.

DT: Yes, yes.

HH: …is the bad guys.

DT: Right.

HH: Do you expect his behavior to change as a result…

DT: Oh, I thought you said Kurds, Kurds.

HH: No, Quds.

DT: Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you said Kurds, because I think the Kurds have been poorly treated by us, Hugh. Go ahead.

"Donald Trump," wrote the Washington Post at the time, "leading in the polls and riding a wave of momentum in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, just hit a speed bump named Hugh Hewitt." Yeah, not so much: Trump's next two national polls saw him go north of 30 percent for the first time, and his average monthly poll percentage from September onward would go 25-26-28-34-35. In February, on Lindsey Graham's home turf of South Carolina, Trump enraged the Very Serious People by calling the Iraq War a "big, fat mistake," saying that Bush administration officials "lied" us into war, and pointing out that the World Trade Center went down while Jeb Bush's brother was president. He promptly won the primary in that military-heavy state by 10 percentage points. The only heavy foreign interventionist who managed to compete after Trump entered the race was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who finished a distant third.

||| Reason
Reason

As I have argued in these pages, presidential-candidate demonstrations of foreign policy ignorance or disinterest fill me with worry, since presidents who are unfluent will always in a time of global crisis (and there's ALWAYS a global crisis) reach for the knowledgeable, who tend to be hawks. But I think it's also true and worth pointing out that moments such as yesterday are opportunities above all for the policy establishment to reassure themselves about their own qualifying wisdom, completely untroubled by their long record of supporting disastrous policies while getting their place-names right. For instance, here's a headline from the Washington Post's reliably hawkish editorial board: "Gary Johnson's Aleppo gaffe was bad. But Trump's consistent ignorance is worse." Needless to say, the phrase "smart power at its best" is nowhere to be found within.

Given my druthers, all intervention-skeptics, including presidential candidates I like, could find every important world city on a map, and exhibit a winning mastery of global affairs. I think libertarian foreign-policy arguments are too often an off-putting ad-mixture of sound instincts and embarrassing ignorance. That said, I will take his gaffe-prone restraint over Hillary Clinton's unreflective interventionism any day of the week, and I vastly prefer as a potential leader someone who readily admits ignorance and error rather than tries to paper over it with bluster.

Humility—both personally, and as an approach to knowledge acquisition and policy argumentation—has for too long been a neglected virtue in Washington, as I argued a year ago after Trump's Hewitt interview:

[A]s the rise of Donald Trump reminds us, there is…very little reward out there in the field of political and policy commentary for luxuriating in difficulties and nuance. Certainty makes for much better television than doubt. People would rather confuse Kurds with Quds than admit they're only noddingly familiar with either. […]

What would happen in a world where humans, including those in or near power, freely admitted that they don't know how to stop ISIS, can't tell the difference between a Yazidi and and Assyrian, have no convincing explanation for why crime stats are fluctuating this year, and don't know why Billy Beane's shit doesn't work in the playoffs? For one, I think people would be a little less likely to champion or sign up for giant, mass-mobilizing schemes. If we are humble in the face of facts, and mindful of the unforeseen consequences that come with every grand plan, we might be more cautious about bending a sprawling nation's resources and will in one direction or another.