Limits and Possibilities

It occurs to me that yesterday's post on the politics of foreign policy to some extent invites a reading as a "pundit's fallacy" type argument in which I'm saying that if only politicians adopted my policy preferences they'd be more successful. I don't actually believe that. There are plenty of things I think would be a good idea that would be hard to sell politically. Cutting the defense budget as proposed here, for example, is probably asking for a world of trouble. Similarly, a practical politician probably shouldn't talk about the "enduring legacy of imperialism" or whatever else.

Nevertheless, there's no sign that in August of 2000 the American people were crying out for a policy of routine torture, indefinite detention without trial, preventive war, and escalating hostilities with countries all around the world. Someone who started proposing that stuff would have been dismissed as a lunatic. What changed, obviously, was 9/11 happened. But even then there wasn't some immediate and obvious grassroots surge of belief in the idea that Baathist Iraq was linked to al-Qaeda through the mysterious ether of "Muslim totalitarianism" or that Iran is the locus of an "Islamofascist" movement that is the root cause of the attack.

Rather, 9/11 was a shock to the political system that created an opening for Bush and his allies to implement a number of policies along with a broad superstructure of ideas to support them. In the intervening years, however, Bush has become unpopular. And he hasn't become unpopular by coincidence, he's become unpopular largely because people don't like the consequences of the post-9/11 policies he's implemented. Under the circumstances, I think one ought to have a presumption that if there's some new bad idea that Bush implemented in the wake of 9/11 that it's probably possible to mount a persuasive argument against it. The trouble is that in the short-run, it's usually easy to just accept the existing super-structure of ideas and try to conduct politics from inside it. That, though, is hard to do effectively. It would be better to take a little time to explicitly spell out for people the notion that all this bad stuff in the world doesn't just keep happening by coincidence that, rather, it all falls out from wrongheaded big picture ideas that need to be replaced by the different big picture ideas of the American internationalist tradition.