Paul Pillar

Beau Geste Meets Popular Unrest

American public discourse about foreign relations has always had a streak that is more romantic than pragmatic, and that is more about making a statement regarding America’s own aspirations and principles than about achieving any particular result overseas. The good aspect of this streak is that the principles involved are noble principles on which the great majority of Americans can agree, and in this respect one can say that the policy courses to which this mode of thinking leads are noble and honorable. The bad aspect is that this way of thinking about foreign policy is so self-referential and so focused on gazing at our own principled navels that it dangerously disregards the practical consequences of U.S. actions overseas. It disregards how easily those actions, however well intentioned, can be counterproductive. It is an approach that gives so much emphasis to feeling good about ourselves and our principles that it can have damaging consequences to other U.S. interests because we just don’t think about all the ways those interests can be affected.

In recent times the most conspicuous, but not the only, manifestation of this romantic tradition has been neoconservatism.  The aforementioned attributes of this manner of thinking (or of not thinking) were in full display when the neocons prevailed during the presidency of George W. Bush, especially with their never-mind-the-consequences launching of an offensive war in Iraq. Because this frame of thought is so self-referential and self-assured, even that disastrous experience has not been enough to divert them from this line of thinking.

And so, in response to the waves of unrest in the Middle East, we get something like William Kristol’s column today. It caught my attention as it did the attention of Jacob Heilbrunn, who aptly points out how deficient it is in any practical advice for the administration to do anything differently, beyond that we should do something “aggressive,” including “considering the use of force.” It is worth dwelling on Kristol’s piece a bit longer, not just because of its practical deficiencies but because it is a splendidly naked example of the kind of unthinking, feel-good tradition I am talking about. Kristol gets in some of the mandatory Obama-bashing, of course, but he is relatively gentle on that score. Most of what he says is an honest conveying of the self-assured, principle-wallowing approach to foreign policy, and as such demonstrates why it is devoid of any useful practical advice.

Kristol’s language is as high-flown as one will ever find on an op ed page: as a matter of “honor and duty,” the “forces of civilization” must act, and so forth. He seems to assume that the more the United States does in the way of “aggressive” efforts, the better off the situation will be—oblivious to how easily (as I have addressed earlier) U.S.-initiated or U.S.-promoted efforts in the Middle East in particular turn out to be counterproductive rather than productive. He probably does assume that but he also doesn’t care that much about specific outcomes in the region. In the opening sentence of his piece, Kristol says it is “possible, and probably likely, that the Arab Spring of 2011 will fail.” But whether specific outcomes are attained in the Middle East are less important to him than achieving that warm feeling in the tummy that comes from being part of the forces of civilization that are doing their duty and acting honorably in accordance with their principles.

I suppose achieving that feeling could be defined as a U.S. interest. After all, Bhutan defines its interests in terms of Gross National Happiness. But what the United States does in the world has far more extensive and significant consequences than what Bhutan does, including many consequences that greatly affect other U.S. interests. Unrestrained romanticism inevitably bumps up against reality. Among the consequences are ones that can cause so much trouble for the United States that it would be harder to indulge in more of the romanticism in the future.