Saturday, August 12, 2006

Lamont vs. The Hawks -- The Hawks vs. Reality

The election of Lamont shows that Democrats are getting serious about security – rejecting leaders who have proven themselves deeply unserious about the broad security questions of our day. Democratic politicians were once afraid to battle Republicans on defense; even John Kerry’s ideas were mostly just Bush’s with added competence. But I think that paradigm has changed even if Democrats haven’t done a good job explaining it. The election of Lamont shows that Democrats have rejected the old ideas; hopefully, the 2006 election will be used to show that we have ideas of our own.

So what are we rejecting? As Chait would say this election serves to “intimidate other hawkish Democrats”. Unlike him I think that’s a good thing. I don’t belong to the school of thought which says that being a hawk – advocating aggressive policy on foreign relations – is equal to being strong on defense. It depends on the situation. Currently, the hawkish position is a weak one and that may be why Democrats are polling higher than Republicans on issues like Iraq and terrorism.

This article lays it out well. During the cold war hawks were probably the purveyors of the most dangerous, most destabilizing, least secure foreign policy in America. Nowadays the same is true though for different reasons. The cold-war hawks were unserious because they didn’t accept the limits imposed by the nuclear stalemate; the current hawks are unserious because they don’t appreciate the limits imposed by modern asymmetrical warfare. Though realities have decreased the usefulness of war, the hawks continue to indulge their emotional predisposition to to solve problems though war, insisting that they have a way to make it work.

Bush assumed he could solve the problem of Al Qaeda by invading Iraq (though to be fair he thought it would solve a whole lot of other problems as well). Rumsfeld assumed could escape the limits of asymmetrical modern warfare by waging blitzkrieg with a tiny ground force. When that didn’t work some hawks suggested putting the State department in charge (what they were supposed to do differently wasn’t even explained). Some are suggesting we “get tough” with Iran or Syria though as of now few of them are brave enough to come out and say what exactly they mean.

In all cases the underlying assumption is the same:
  • The pre-war situation was intolerable
  • A tolerable situation is achievable
  • Therefore there must be some kind of war we can wage that will make the situation tolerable. It’s only a matter of figuring out what war that is. QED
In Israel, we see the same situation in miniature. Instead of accepting the Hammas attacks while encouraging and expanding the cedar revolution that could ultimately bring peace the Israeli hawks just assumed that somehow a war could fix everything. Now they’re discovering their folly but as sure as the sun does shine the hawks will come back with another fool-proof plan that’s sure to work.

I'll discuss the alternative - standard liberal internationalism - later.


Paul said...

Good call on the "underlying assumptions". The only thing I'd add is that it's worth finessing out details of that first assumption you mention. Often, the assumption is that while things might seem tolerable now, they're going to get catastrophically worse if we don't intervene militarily. Usually that catastrophy is a fairly particular event or set of events, so one might imagine that such developments are unlikely, all things considered.

But the thing is, probability seems to play no role in the thought process. We have good reason to suppose with a high degree of certainty - well upwards of 50% - that military invasions of most kinds will be catasrophically bad. At the same time, we're supposed to take it for granted that we can be nearly as (or more) certain that a particular set of worse circumstances will unfold if we don't invade. In cases of preventative military intervention, we're also supposed to expect a radical departure from the status quo.

At best - so to speak - you get pathetic gestures that try to downplay the chances that invading will be bad - flower petals in the streets and all that. Even that, though, is just meant to deflect attention away from the likelihood of the hypothetically worse scenario.

There seem to be no compuntions about using that sort of fortune telling. Maybe that's because the hypothetically worse scenarios are really terrifying, and scarier things loom larger in our minds - but if we didn't romanticize military intervention, that might loom a little larger, too.

Aaron said...

One doesn't need to romanticize military intervention -- it's usually pretty damn ugly -- in order to recognize that it is sometimes your least-fucked-up policy option.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

You are right. Wars can be the least bad options. The problem is hawkism which assumes that there must be some way around the modern realities which make war very difficutl to win.

Paul said...

The issue is that the odds that military intervention is the least-bad option are pretty small. To make the case for military intervention, you have to show that there is a very high probability that a worse situation would result from not intervening.

Instead, the arguments usually involve a combination of 1)underestimating the odds that the military intervention will go poorly and 2) overestimating the odds that alternative approaches would be worse still than the military options. There is rarely ever any of that aforementioned "showing" - there's mostly just speculation and scaremongering of various kinds.

So you hear stuff like, "Wouldn't it be awful if Iran acquired nuclear weapons?" Even if you flesh out what Iran might do with a nuclear weapon, though, you've only really done half of a risk assessment; the other half is a probability assessment. It might be that such a risk justifies military intervention - but it might also just be that the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear bomb detonated in my backyard is so scary that I tend to overestimate the odds that such a thing would actually happen.

Aaron said...

To make the case for military intervention, you have to show that there is a very high probability that a worse situation would result from not intervening.

I agree with this, although I think that there is an equal danger that people with generally pacifist instincts will reflexively reject military action when it may well be the best (if not perfect) available option. Israel, I think, is a good case in point: when terrorists are launching missiles into your population centers, it's not something to just handle diplomatically. I mean, what do you think Bush would do if Quebecois nationalists were shelling the northern US border?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Well, the hawks won out in Israel and now Hezbolla is stronger than ever. Are we to assume that you oppose the more limited strike suggested by the hawk's opponents, or are we just pretending that there was a sizable faction of pacafists suggesting Israelis twiddle their thumbs?

Paul said...

Certainly, poor risk assessment is a universal human tendency. But it's worth noting that while people with pacifist instincts might overestimate the risks of military intervention, they probably won't do so by very much, since most military interventions will, in fact, be very bad.

For instance, it's only at the margins that you find predictions about the invasion of Iraq that significantly overestimated the negative consequences. That's not because opinion was homogeneously optimistic; it's because it was hard to imagine the situation being significantly worse than it is today.