I’ve been watching the upcoming election with some amusement – I wish I could muster enthusiasm instead – and thinking about how to decide who I’m likely to support.
On a range of domestic issues, I ought to be clearly an Obama supporter; but issues are one thing and competence, experience, and judgment another. And, as ought to be clear to most of the folks who read me with any interest at all, I’ve been willing to put my domestic agenda on hold while we deal with the problem of a hostile movement within a newly powerful Islamic world.
So I sat down and tried to map out the conditions for making a decision based on that one issue. And I came to an interesting hypothesis that I’d like to try out on the hawkish readers here.
It just may be the case that hawkish folks like me would see our policies better off – far better off – with a Democratic president in 2009.OK, go pop a few blood pressure pills and come back so I can explain why.
It starts with my belief that we’re in for a long war. Like the Cold War, I’m hopeful that it will be resolved with few people dying in combat. Very hopeful…
…and like the Cold War, I believe that our opponent both needs to expand for internal reasons, and will ultimately collapse – absent being nuked into oblivion for doing something foolishly violent – for internal reasons. The issue is hanging on long enough for that to happen.
Today, that’s not going to happen; it’s not going to happen because in our toxic political environment, the war has become a Republican war. The Democrats – for domestic political reasons as much as for ideological ones, I believe – see the very real (and typical) fatigue with the war as well as the litany of problems that any war brings with it as a club they can use to beat the Republicans with, and they fully intend to keep using it. The unintended consequence of that division is that the very real enemies we have, both the core of the violent Islamist movement, and more important the larger body of those who are sympathetic or blackmailed into supporting them, see that division and are confident that they are backing the stronger horse.
The recent moves by the Gulf Council to patch things up with Iran are, in this model, largely a product of the bet by the Gulf states that US domestic policy will preclude any aggressive effort to check Iranian power, and that the Iranians see an uncertain US leadership as unable to press them without reckless escalation on their part.
So first, and foremost, we need to be clear that in this contest we are united as we are not today. How best to do that? I’ll get back to that.
There’s another reason that goes with this.
If you’re a hawk, ask yourself – what if we’re wrong?
There’s a problem in interpersonal violence that I think scales well to interstate violence; you usually don’t know for sure in the real world when you’re in a fight until it’s too late. And in making the decision to fight in most circumstances, the risk you take is that you start a fight when there wouldn’t have been one if you’d acted otherwise.
A long time ago, I talked about ‘threat assessment‘:
The best class I have ever seen (although I did not take it) in dealing with this issue is the IMPACT/Model Mugging series. They teach their students to actively interact with potential threats, which allows you to make the determination of risk at a range you select. When I walk up, the IMPACT student is taught to say “Excuse me, but you’re coming too close to me,” and then escalate from there depending on the response. If this were directed at me (affable, but sometimes irritable), I’d back up, and probably shake my head at the oversensitivity and lack of trust in the modern world. The Bad Guy won’t, and that difference in behavior lets you know what you are dealing with.
My role model Clint Smith puts it pretty well: “You better learn to communicate real well, because when you’re out there on the street, you’ll have to talk to a lot more people than you’ll have to shoot, or at least that’s the way I think it’s supposed to work.“
I’ve consistently said that we aren’t – yet – in a real war with the nations of the Middle East, and that it would be a profound error to act as if we were. In response to a post here on why we needed to immediately act against Iran, I responded:
Why are we talking in the face of a ticking bomb?
Well, because to quote someone smarter than me, “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ while reaching for a stick.”
While we’re doing that, a few things may happen. The dog may stop growling. We may get a stick.
Or we may get bitten.
I don’t want to get bitten by a dog. But my willingness to risk a dog bite goes up when I’m carrying a gun.
Because I can say with a lot of confidence that the dog will only get one bite.
I’ll add to that some history, from Michael Oren’s ‘Power, Faith and Fantasy,’ which suggests that we’ve had intermittent, low-level conflict with the nations of the Middle East as long as we’ve been around. Clearly it’s a different game today, with higher risks and more connections for both sides. But a level of discomfort and conflict isn’t new. And if it isn’t new, maybe it’s something that we live with, within boundaries – just as we lived with the depredations of the Soviet and Chinese states during the 50’s and 60’s.
So in the face of those who say that Rudy G is in “his prime terrorist-killing years” or that John McCain may be a little old but will still kick some ass, I’d ask this:
First, wouldn’t it be good to have the whole country – or at least much of both parties – lined up on one side when it comes to this conflict? And second, isn’t it reasonable to try to see if we’re really at war or if – note that this isn’t a position I believe in, but it’s one I can see believing in – we’re at risk of causing one?
Obama’s article in Foreign Affairs was, to me, a mess. His faith in negotiation and persuasion is touching, but in my experience negotiation where one side doesn’t see any downside to no negotiated outcome is typically not successful; and the histories of wars past are full of those who – whether negotiating with the Barbary Pirates, the Ottoman Empire, the Nazis, or the Soviets – felt that as long as negotiations were ongoing, regardless of what was happening outside, things were going well. But I believe that even Obama loves this country and is certainly smart enough to change his stance if facts prove him wrong. I cite Obama here not because I’ve decided to support him – I haven’t – but because it’ll be him or Hillary for the D’s, and he is certainly more dovish than she is.
So let’s take a moment and discuss whether – in the context of a generational conflict – we’d be better off strategically if the Democrats won next year.