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Monday, February 28, 2011

"Better" outcomes- self interest and idealism in American Foreign Policy

In my last Post, I wrote about the uncertainty that certain foreign policy actions by our Government would lead to "better" long term outcomes.  I did not define "better", but that, of course, is a central question.  What should the Government of the United States by trying to achieve with its foreign policy?  In the long term as well as the short term.  My answer below is, admittedly general, but I think makes an importan point or points.

Historically, a great many scholars have write about the intertwining and tension between the ideas of "idealism" and "self interest" in American foreign policy.  It started with the founders and continues today. Today, you get the simple version of my own, non expert, opinion, to wit:

1. The principal foreign policy goal of American foreign policy should be to advance the self interests of the United States of America (not exactly the same as the interests the American people, and certainly not the same as the interests of the current Government of the United States of America, but those are pretty meaningless distinctions for the purposes of this Post, and two that can - and have been - argued by lots of people).

The principal goal of any State is to protect itself and its citizens.  Read the preamble to the Constitution.  It's about protecting the American people and their rights.  However, to effectively do so, the State (any State) must both continue to exist and be as strong in relation to the rest of the world as it can be.  This strength may be military, moral, economic or whatever, but if the State is to effectively protect the interests of its people in a world environment filled with terrorists, dictators and other economies, it should be as strong as possible.  Whether and how it should use that strength is another question.  And of course, there are cost/benefit constraints which are very real.

Other States really make no bones about this.  America, however, was very consciously founded on the idea that certain political ideas and structures were intrinsically universally good.  The original big ideals (and we have tweaked and added to them) were a) liberty/freedom from Government interference and coercion, b)self determination, and c) a democratic form of government. (The latter two relate to the idea that Government should be based on "the consent of the governed").  I plan to discuss these ideas and how they have developed more specifically in a later post, but for the moment assume that we have long wanted to "push" the idea that democracy and self determination are good.  "Freedom" is a bit trickier, as it requires some definition of "freedom to what".  However, despite number 3 below, I am putting this "desire to spread the word" behind self-interest in importance as a foreign policy goal.

(Where I'm heading, as you may have guessed, is the issue of how we should deal with Governments that support the current international goals of the United States, but range from benign to not-so benign dictatorships.  Two good examples are former President Hosni Mubarek of Egypt and the current King of Bahrain.)

2. However, that goal - promoting self interest - should recognize long-term as well as short term self interests.  To put it simply, it's not wise to back eventual losers.  Unpopular, corrupt and minority-dominated governments are often perceived to be less stable in the long term.  All of the Middle Eastern rulers now at risk (unless you put Iran on that list) have been supportive of the U.S. war on terrorists and have been at least reasonably supportive of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Israel.  Here we have a dilemma; we want and need support of our short term interests, like the war on terrorists.  If we don't get it, it is more likely that the terrorists will succeed in blowing up or otherwise killing more Americans.  To be avoided.  So we almost have to support less-than-wonderful people. (This is not new; we have long supported all sorts of dubious people, including the Taliban, strictly because they were anti-Communist).  But our long term interests suggest this could become a problem in that successful revolutionary forces are quite likely to blame the United States for supporting the old regimes.  It's not a problem with an obvious solution, and that's even before we get to point No. 3.

3. It is in the the long term self interest of the United States  to actively promote American political ideals and systems to the rest of the world.  Advocating these ideals because they are "right" or "moral" is reasonable, but that's not my point here.  Self interest is. 

First, I believe (and it may be wishful thinking) that democratically elected governments are more peaceful and stable in the long run, and thus, make better friends and partners. 

Second, such Governments are more similar to our own, and thus are likely to be more sympathetic to our own ideas and interests, and to work with us in promoting our ideals. 

Third, America is still a moral force; large numbers of people and throughout the world really expect us to do the "right thing", whether it benefits us or not.  It gives us at least some moral credibility that other nations do not have.  Although we've done a lot to damage that over the years, and some people just plain hate us (in part because of the threat of our ideals), it seems to me that the rest of the world (as well as our own people) expect us to act morally-which is reflected by the fact they become so angry when they believe we are not.  Having moral credibility is in our self interest. I'm not going to bother to explain that one unless people ask me to.

Fourth, we, the American people, need to believe that we are acting idealistically.  Our ideals are a large part of what makes us a Nation.  Citizens of other States often base their national identity on a common language or religion or ethnic background or long history or even on who their enemies are.   We really don't.  Our Nation was consciously founded - artificially created - based on certain political ideas.  While we have come to share a common language and culture, we are an acknowledged nation of immigrants who adopted that language and culture after we arrived here.  My grandparents emigrated to this country in the early twentieth century, but Washington, Jefferson and Madison are my Founding Fathers.  Viscerally, they belong to me as much as they do to someone descended from the revolutionaries.  The main thing that holds us together in a sort-of-spiritual sense is certain shared political values.  Even if we don't agree (to put it mildly) on what all of those values are, a real (or perceived?) belief in democracy, freedom and self determination is a large part of what makes us Americans.

4. Another long term self interest of the United States is in promoting the belief that we do not abandon our "friends".  Back to Mubarek and the King of Bahrain.  If we want leaders to support us, it's not a good idea to appear to abandon them or throw them to the wolves when the going gets tough, simply because the next King or Dictator from whom we seek support may well take that into consideration.  We've become spoiled since 1989 or so, as perhaps the only game in town.  Not necessarily true anymore, given the economic and military rise of China.  Another dilemma.

The result is that our Government, of whatever party, has to walk several lines.  We have to seek support on certain critical issues - like terrorism - wherever it can be found, but we have to try to avoid backing "bad guys", but we (maybe) have to show some loyalty to those very "bad guys".  Not an easy task. 

My complaint is not about the Government here, it's about my fellow citizens, who think all of these choices are easy and self-evident.  My point is that, even with a primarily self-interest analysis,  it's both complicated and hard.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Middle East, Afghanistan, and the relationship between Control, Responsibility and Authority

My daughter and I were recently discussing the current situation in the Middle East, and particularly the urging of various parties that the United States do "more" in one or another nation to support one (or the other) side.  My daughter opined that our Government should generally try to stand back and let the citizens of those countries work out whatever they were going to.  Her reasoning was, as it often is, multi layered, nuanced and convincing.  It triggered a series of thoughts -  about the relationship between "control", "authority" and "responsibility" in both a general and foreign policy context  -  that make me even more inclined to agree with her.

Since this train of thought came from one of my children, let's start with children in general.  As parents, we have at least legal (and hopefully other) authority over our children.  We are also legally responsible for them, and may feel that responsibility emotionally even long after they have become adults.  Control over how they act is usually a matter of degree, and normally decreases as a particular child grows older. 

I remember being struck as a young parent with just how limited my control was.  I was a youngest child, and had little experience with babies, and was actually somewhat taken aback when I realized that there were times that, no matter what I did, my infant daughter was not going to stop crying and go to sleep, at least for a while.  I had responsibility for her.  I had at least theoretical authority.  But my practical control was very limited.  Picture my shock when, my kids, at maybe 18 months of age, both gave me clear evidence that they were not merely "babies", but independent people, with their own strong ideas about how they and the rest of the world should act.  Anyway, I had lots of responsibility, less authority and even less actual control of my children.

When I started practicing law, the same kind of disparity arose in another form.  I was responsible (at least to the partners) for how "my" cases were handled, but my authority to do certain things was limited (and not always made clear), and my control was mythical, given the existence of clients, witnesses, opposing counsel, judges and juries.  My professional life involved a combination of trying to keep my responsibility in line with my authority in any given instance (I had to actually say things like: 'If I'm going to be responsible for doing X, I need to have more authority about how it will get done"),  and fighting with the other side (and sometimes my own) to try to control outcomes for the benefit of my clients.

As a result of this and other experiences, I concluded that if I were going to be responsible for something, I wanted as much authority and control over it as I could get.  And that if someone else insisted on taking authority and/or control, they had better be prepared to accept some responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions.  Of course, real life is much messier.  Most of the times, all of these things are shared somehow, and control (by anyone) is often an illusion.

We come to foreign policy.

We, as Americans, assume that our Nation can do anything anywhere in the world if it puts its mind to it. (And maybe further- JFK told us we would put men on the moon in 10 years, and we believed him).  Unfortunately (??), this idea American control over outcomes is simply not accurate. We can probably blow anyone up (if we can find them), but we can't make foreign politicians not corrupt, religious loons become tolerant, or a free people elect those candidates we would like them to (Hamas, anyone?). 

Worse, for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to our military power, our wealth, and our aforementioned confidence, large chunks of the rest of the world also seem to believe that we have more practical control than we really do.  Thus, the Palestinians think we can control Israeli policy, some Egyptians seemed to feel that the U.S. was responsible for either propping up Mubarak or for enabling his opponents (or both), lots of people think we should do something to ensure a "good" outcome in Bahrain, or Yemen, and that we should do much more to support anti-Government forces in both Libya and Iran.  Everyone (including our own journalists and politicians) thinks we should DO SOMETHING! to ensure the victory of good vs. evil in the world.  (As I pointed out in another post, I can usually find at least one set of "bad guys" in these situations; that doesn't mean that their opponents are "good guys").

Sometimes, I listen to native experts from the affected countries calling for American action, and I wonder how many of them will blame us if our intervention leads to bad results.  Certainly, there are large factions of "revolutionaries" in those countries who would immediately see any American action as a form of Imperialism, and would use that as a rallying cry to do whatever.  I'm drawn back to the "children" analogy.  All teenagers want their parents to help and protect them (although they may not admit it), but we know who they are going to at least partly blame if things turn out "badly".  OK, this is part of the job description with my children.  Middle east political movements are not the "children" of the United States.

Maybe the smartest thing that George H.W. Bush did as President was to generally stay out of the demonstrations and revolutions when the Soviet Bloc disintegrated in 1989.  Sure, there was no question about whose side we were on, and our people and press, as well as our diplomats, made that clear.  However, we were not shipping guns to anti-Communists in Eastern Europe.  Nor were we talking about sanctions or "no-fly"zones.  Aha, you say.  That was totally different. We could've empowered the old regimes and even started a major war if we had done too much.  Exactly my point.  It was painfully obvious (at least to most of us; there were many who did call for more active intervention) that we could not reliably control even short-term outcomes.  The problem is when one gets to somewhere like Egypt or Bahrain or Libya, we could well have a lot of control over short term outcomes;  the problem is with longer term outcomes.

The easiest example of this is Afghanistan.  Did we have the ability to overthrow the Taliban, at least in the short term?  Yes.  Did we have the power to create a modern western democracy there?  Right now, that's not looking good.  To go back a step further - did we have the ability to help the resistance throw out the Soviets in Afghanistan?  Turns out we did.  Did that turn out to create a "better" Afghan government?  My opinion is not.  No translate that "lesson" to Egypt or Libya or Bahrain.  Will assisting in the overthrow of those established governments result in a "better" outcome?  (I'll get to "better" in a minute, or maybe not until the next post).  Maybe and maybe not.  Each of these countries is different, and no one really knows what will happen in any of them.  "Wait", you say; "we couldn't do worse than Qaddafi".  I disagree;  He's awful, but I can imagine worse.

I am going to save "better" outcomes for the next Post.

So what should we do?  What I think the Administration is doing.  Think.  Don't act hastily. Realize that each country is different, realize the dangers of appearing to take responsibility in situations you can not practically control.  In short, try to not rush in to dramatic and forceful unilateral action.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thoughts on the furor in Wisconsin

Well, I'm back.  Sorry about the two month gap.  There has been a lot I've wanted to write about, but I've been busy.

Most readers are familiar with the drama/dispute that has been taking place for the last week or ten days in Madison, Wisconsin, and I am about to repeat what those readers already know, but my foreign readers (yes, there appear to be some) may need some background.

A new Republican Governor and legislature have been attempting to cut back (using the term loosely) certain benefits of most unionized public employees in Wisconsin.  There have been mass protests, and the Democratic Senate members have left the State to prevent the State Senate from convening - due to the lack of a quorum.

I have a lot of problems with the Republicans here, and some with the Democrats (I don't like parliamentary tricks to keep a legislature from just voting stuff up or down).  My biggest annoyance, however, is with the way the Republicans are to misrepresenting their reasons for what they are proposing. Blatant intellectual dishonesty and political distortion just really get to me.  The Governor keeps talking about the need to save money and plug current State deficits by cutting certain benefits, but the unions and their Democratic supports have said they are OK with that.

So what are the Republicans proposing?  Broadly speaking, it is a single bill which, among other things:

1.  Forces the public employees to pay a much larger share of the cost of their medical and other benefits right now.  (This is what the unions have agreed to), and it would clearly save the State money right now.

2.  Severely cuts back the issues on which the unions have a right to collectively bargain, and even caps the amount of raises that can be bargained for.  This would not save any money now, but the argument can be made that the State and local governments in Wisconsin have been getting "stomped" by the unions, and that the governments need help from state law in order to keep the unions from walking over them in future collective bargaining.  This may be, in some sense, true, and, if so, would save the state and local governments money in the future;

3.  Requires frequent votes to recertify unions and allows union members to prevent their dues from being used for political purposes.  This saves no money.  It is clearly designed to cripple the public sector unions generally, and particularly their ability to donate money to political causes.

My (who-the-Hell-is-he-anyway) thoughts and proposal:

Collective bargaining rights and benefits given thereunder are not God-given.  They are a creature of law.  The rights of public employees to benefits or to collectively bargain at all are rights given by the laws of the State of Wisconsin.  And what the State gives, the State, through its duly elected representatives, can take away.  So if the Republicans have the votes to do so, that's life.  Although others might disagree, I do not think that passage of the law in question would be the end of the world for anyone.  I do think most of it is a bad idea, but not one that justifies indefinitely grinding government to a halt.  Remember, the next Governor and legislature can change the law back if they see fit to do so.  (Aren't regular elections truly wonderful things!)

So, my suggestion:  1) Republicans -divide the current bill into at least three parts.  2) Democrats -  come back.  3) Everyone - Debate the bills for a reasonable time.  Amend them if you like.  Vote them up or down.  Go on with life.  But stop bullshitting about  alleged purposes.

The first part of the bill described above will then pass.  Whether increasing required contributions from state workers is how to solve Wisconsin's public deficit problems is subject to reasonable dispute.  I think it should be part of the solution, but I can cheerfully argue either side on that one. More to the point, it's what the Governor and Republican representatives promised to do if elected.  And they won. Further, it does help solve a legitimate budget problem, and Wisconsin State employee contributions would become closer to the average of all public employees (and would still be lower than the average contributions of those in the private sector).  Will it significantly hurt a number of less-than-rich people?  Yep, and I'm not unsympathetic.  However, times are bad, and the State does need more money.

The second and third parts of the current bill might or might not also pass.  Most of the Republicans in the legislature (and certainly the Governor) would favor passage, but the idea of taking away rights from working Americans,  basically just to take away those rights, may not sit well with the voters of Wisconsin.  I find the third part of the bill particularly offensive, and nothing more than an attempt to further stack the deck in favor of "corporate" as opposed to "worker" interests, but that's only my own view.  Wisconsin citizens voting in 2012 might feel differently, but I'd like the Republicans to put their money where their mouths are.  If it's a good idea, stand up and vote for it; don't try to pretend that you're doing it to close a budget gap.  Me, I think the Republicans are too chicken  - and too dishonest - to do this.