Friday, December 22, 2006

The most contrarian position is the one which is clearly wrong

Shorter Peter Beinart:

The "reality based" liberals who oppose the war are the real neocons.

It would be ten times funnier if the joint advocacy of the Iraq war by Peter Beinart's TNR and the neocons didn't lead to thousands of American and Iraqi deaths.


Aaron said...

Even shorter (and more accurate): "Neocons sold out."

Tommaso Sciortino said...

A political movement is as a political movement does.

Aaron said...

eh, ideas are important

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Agreed. However we shouldn't confuse a movement's rhetoric with what actually animates them and motivates their actions. That kind of thinking would lead you to believe that the pro-life movement is really about saving lives rather than forcing people into more traditional lifestyle choices.

Neocons (of both the hardcore and TNR variety) might have had some good rhetoric but when the rubber met the road we found that their real unifying principal was the rejection of liberal internationalism. That's what underpinned their arguments even as they claimed to be following in the footsteps of the great liberal internationalists like FDR and Truman.

Aaron said...

well, but neither should we treat the neoconservative movement as though it's monolithic. I mean, it goes back some time and has several different factions:

Aaron said...

also I don't think that what you describe is an accurate rendering of the neocons' intellectual animations, but if you read the wiki article, you'll probably gather as much.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

According to you, what's the animating principal behind Neo-conservatism? Surely a bunch of people don't all adopt the same political label without having at least a vague sense that they all agree on something.

Aaron said...

well there's the list in that conveniently-linked wiki article, which is pretty good:

1. Economics: Cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady, wide-spread economic growth and acceptance of the necessity of the risks inherent in that growth, such as budget deficits, as well as the potential benefits, such as budget surpluses.

2. Domestic Affairs: Preferring strong government but not intrusive government, slight acceptance of the welfare state, adherence to social conservatism, and disapproval of counterculture

3. Foreign Policy: Patriotism is a necessity, world government is a terrible idea, the ability to distinguish friend from foe, protecting national interest both at home and abroad, and the necessity of a strong military

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I saw that too but I think it's clear that Neocons are more focused on foreign policy than domestic. I think it's clear that the description that their foreign policy is a direct rejection of liberal internationalism which sought international institutions, containment for enemies and diplomatic engagement rather than rejection of regimes we don't agree with.

Aaron said...

I mean, that's especially true of the neocons that go to work in the Pentagon, but if you read the original writings of Kristol and those dudes (as we did in Jon Lee's decal), you'll see that there's (clearly) a very wide range of neoconservative thought. And I'd argue that patriotism and manichean foreign policy views are affirmative principles that are (clearly) as strong as, say, the rejection of the UN.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I don't quite understand what "patriotism" means in this case but surely a Manichean foreign policy view requires a rejection of the liberal internationalism which puts its faith in international institutions.

Aaron said...

"Patriotism" means roughly the opposite of "anti-Americanism" in this context; it is definitely possible to divide the world up into good and evil without rejecting multilateral institutions -- I'm not even sure how the two are related, honestly.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I'm curious as to how "anti-American" is a useful term for describing any domestic political distinction. Iranian Mullah's are anti-American, yes. But it's hardly a distinguishing characteristic to call yourself "patriotic".

Oh wait! I have an idea that actually might work. Patriotism is a useful term when discussing Neocons because they hold the wacky belief that there is a sizable anti-American force in American politics. This goes along with their other fundamental misconceptions like believing that liberals are really isolationist.

Ok actually let me refine that further. Neocons seem to think that America has too many draft-card burning flower-power hippies.

As for dualism, let me say this. I agree that it's possible to divide the world into bad and good and still believe in multilateral institutions. However in practice what you get is Neocons arguing that we shouldn't engage in diplomacy with any "evil" regimes. That's why we aren't talking to North Korea, Iran, etc. Hell, we aren't talking to Syria and they aren't even on the same level of badness as the other two.

Aaron said...

Well, there is a school of thought in some foreign policy circles, however minor, that American power is devoid of credibility and a force mostly for imperial aggression; it probably reached its peak during the time that our parents were in college and the primary neocon figures were shaping their worldviews. "Patriotism" in this context probably refers to the belief that the U.S. is a force for good in the world and all that.

North Korea is actually a point against your second argument, btw; the argument isn't that we shouldn't negotiate with them, it's actually that we should only talk to them through multilateral, 6-point talks. And the reason that we should be wary of Iran and Syria isn't that they're "evil," it's that they're going to ask for large requests from Western powers for minimal concessions.

Aaron said...

And, come to think of it, if you were right about the "in practice" part of your equation, there probably wouldn't have been any push for UN sanctions against either North Korea or Iran.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Most American political movements see American power as a force for good. Outside the Chomskyites (who have about as much power as I can't think of a movement that even questions it. "Defining" yourself by the absence of something rare is stupid. Hey, do you know what makes me me? I'm not an egg-laying mammal. Oh wait. I just wasted your time. Ditto the claim to "patriotism".

Tommaso Sciortino said...

As for Bush and N. Korea I’ll let John Kerry answer this one. (from his televised debates with Bush):

“Colin Powell, our Secretary of State, announced one day that we were going to continue the dialog of working with the North Koreans. The president reversed it publicly while the president of South Korea was here. And the president of South Korea went back to South Korea bewildered and embarrassed because it went against his policy. And for two years, this administration didn‘t talk at all to North Korea.

When you say "…the reason that we should be wary of Iran and Syria isn't that they're ‘evil’…”. I think you’re overstating my argument. I was just saying that a Manichean world view leads to discounting negotiations and international frameworks that restrict US power - the basis of liberal internationalism. Neocons rejection of liberal internationalism is part of the belief that diplomacy doesn’t work. (The other part is restrictions on US power. Neocons don’t have any problem with the UN when they support us. It’s that they feel there is no need to respect the institution when it doesn’t.) And believing that diplomacy won’t work is pretty much the same as believing that it’ll lead to "large requests from Western powers for minimal concessions". I.e. it leads to bad deals that we’d be fools to take anyhow.

So Bush isn’t even talking to Syria to find out what they want. We literally have a ban in place preventing government officials from even talking to Syria’s ambassador. We're simply assuming that no deal can be worked out. Weather you believe there can be no deal because "Syria is evil" or "negotiation between conflicting powers is useless" or "undemocratic nations can't be reasoned with" or "talking won't accomplish anything" it's all the same: it's because they think liberal internationalism doesn’t work.

Aaron said...

1. While the Chomsky wing is indeed descendent in the present day, as I said, this was not the case during the 60's, when many of the prominent neocons shaped their worldviews.

2. I actually think that this is one of John Kerry's more disingenuous lines; presumably he's getting upset for not engaging NoKo bilaterally. I mean, do you dispute that we've been pretty insistent on six-party talks?

3. Still waiting for an explanation how an administration as manichean as this one would possibly want to push for sanctions against North Korea and Iran if their worldview is indeed fundamentally incompatible with multilateral organizations, in principle or in practice.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

"1. While the Chomsky wing is indeed descendant in the present day, as I said, this was not the case during the 60's, when many of the prominent neocons shaped their world views."

I don't think Chomsky was all that powerful even in the 60's but it doesn't change my point: Now, in 2006 is makes no sense to define a political group as "not anti-american".

"2. ...I mean, do you dispute that we've been pretty insistent on six-party talks?"

No. I'm just saying that ignored N Korea for two years, spurned bilateral talks and burned bridges for cheap political points by calling N Korea an axis of evil.

I'll grant you that N Korea isn't as good an example of neocons spurning liberal internationalism as some. But that's mostly because N Korea is a particularly problematic for neocon policy. We can't invade or "get tough" because they already have the bomb. A much better example is Iran, Iraq and Syria where - as I said - we have the ridiculous policy of literally *not talking to them*.

"3. Still waiting for an explanation how an administration as manichean as this one would possibly want to push for sanctions against North Korea and Iran if their worldview is indeed fundamentally incompatible with multilateral organizations, in principle or in practice."

Ah. My fault for putting it in parenthesis. Here's what I wrote one post ago:

"Neocons don’t have any problem with the UN when they support us. It’s that they feel there is no need to respect the institution when it doesn’t."

Aaron said...

1. Tom, all intellectual movements are in some part defined by the traditions that they either grow out of or grow away from, and neoconservatism is no different. The idea that America was a force for imperial ill on the world stage was unquestionably ascendant during the 1960's and the rejection of this model and the substitution instead of a more affirmative, pro-American philosophy is a cornerstone of neocon thought.

2. So, wait... a greater respect for multilateral institutions necessarily leads to more constrictive, bilateral talks with North Korea? This doesn't make much sense; besides, the main reason for not conducting the bilateral talks is that these will just be opportunities to extort aid money without real concessions. In order to have productive conversation about disarmament, China and South Korea really do need to be in the room, sorry. We just don't have much leverage otherwise.

And as I've said before, there are a host of reasons that negotiation with Syria or Iran is kind of a dumb idea right now, quite aside from the fact that they're "bad" or "evil" or whatever.

3. Look, let's step back for a second because you're conflating things. I don't dispute that the neoconservative position towards the UN is one that is characterized by skepticism. What I do dispute is the idea that this position is necessarily born out of an ideological sense of good vs. evil. Many neocons have certainly condemned the UN, but they mostly do so on the fairly pragmatic grounds that it's corrupt and dysfunctional (which it manifestly is); in this position, they're not so very different from realists. Also, it's worth emphasizing that your parenthetical basically describes, in private, how most nations, even those that make a big show of respecting the UN as an institution, view and treat it anyway.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

1. Ok. I have no problem accepting that Neocons define themselves as patriotic just so long as we make it clear that they think this is a meaningful term nowadays because of basic misconceptions about the strength of modern-day anti-Americanism (which isn't the same as opposing American imperialism where it has occurred).

2. I think you're making a false dichotomy here. The idea was to try *both* bilateral and multilateral talks. But anyway this is a minor point I don't care to argue further.

Saying that "these will just be opportunities to extort aid money without real concessions" isn't an argument. It's a statement. Specifically it's a statement of philosophy consistent with the neocon worldview. A world-view which automatically assumes that negotiation doesn't work. Is this becuase they believe the other party we're negotiating with is evil? Maybe. But maybe they have some other reason. Again such skepticism of negotiation isn't compatible with liberal internationalism.

3. I generally agree with your comments. However while some have stuck to the "narrow" argument against the UN others have attacked the fundamental legitimacy of any such body. John Bolton didn't appoint himself to the UN.

Aaron said...

1. I think that it's unfair to say that defining oneself as patriotic in this context is meaningless just because the country has mostly shifted away from the opposite point of view. I'm willing to agree, though, that this kind of self-definition is much less controversial, and thus much less politically potent, since the political upheavals of the 1960s.

2a. I really like that you say that you don't want to take this argument any further immediately before introducing another paragraph of argumentation.

2b. What I presented was indeed an argument; much like your second post in this thread, it was merely one that lacked much supporting evidence (though you do seem to have skipped over subsequent sentences). But I do like the general idea of showing hostility towards unsupported theses.

2c. Liberal internationalism is not synonymous with boundless, foolish optimism, nor is it the case that healthy skepticism about the parameters of negotiations is incompatible with this philosophy. For more on this point, I suggest that you review Clinton's evaluation of Arafat post-Oslo, for one.

2d. Two-party talks with North Korea, as I said earlier, are tricky because all that we can bring to the table is carrots in the form of aid money; we are essentially dealing within China's sphere of influence. Indeed, when we tried direct exchanges during the 1990s, we didn't exactly achieve banner results. Another argument worth noting is that two-party talks aren't exclusively our choice, and that NK has gone back and forth on this issue.

2e. Calling somebody a neocon for expressing skepticism about North Korea is kind of a low blow.

3. Again, it's true that the neocons are generally hostile to the UN, but I'm still not sure that this opposition is essentially ideological rather than practical.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Ok. I'm not interested in arguing whether or not Neocons are justified in their beliefs.

I'll just say that Neocons are prone to discount diplomacy in favor of "getting tough". This is in opposition to Liberal Internationalism which saw fit to keep diplomatic channels open even to countries like the Soviet Union. LI recognizes that we can't negotiate with everybody (they fought WWII remember) but basically you should keep the diplomacy going until you decide to use deadly force. So, Al Queda doesn't get an ambassador but Syria does up until we call for the carpet bombing.

Tommaso Sciortino said...