Meta-Methodology; Dichotomies vs. Grids; Ideas, Interests, Intuitions and other Explanations of Policy Preferences, Etc.

by Tom Farer

Colleagues, The pan of discourse is beginning to sizzle. A delightful sound. So rather than racing on to another main issue I attempt to address in my book, in this post I stop and engage with discussants.

Let me start with Ken Anderson in part because his very interesting categorization of ways of thinking about strategy lubricates a segue to Mark Shulman and arguably Chris Borgen as well. For those who need a memory prod, he identifies three of these strategic paradigms about strategic paradigms. One, which I apparently share with Ken himself, proposes the possibility and necessity, I would contend the inevitability, of thinking in terms of a broad diagnosis of the jihadi terrorist phenomenon and an appreciation of the resources available for responding to it and the costs within a grand strategic framework of one or another tactical response, all then woven into a Grand Strategic Response. Persons within that category of thinking may and in fact do disagree about the appropriate contents of that Grand Strategy, but there is a discussion for another time. The second category is defined by the claim that the furious disagreements among grand strategists reflecting deep, visceral disagreement within the larger polity condemn us to respond only at the tactical level, i.e. to abort particular terrorist operations and eliminate specific terrorist groups in cases where the threat is palpable and more or less immediate, so most reasonable persons involved in decision-making will agree on the need to act and disagreement about means will be modest and therefore manageable. The third category contains the thesis that the nature of this particular threat, namely its loose networked character, makes strategy the hostage of “tactical level considerations.”

My experiences both in government (Pentagon and State Department) and as a long-time observer of foreign policy in this and other countries and even a participant in tactical operations (the UN intervention in Somalia in 1993) have confirmed for me the importance of J.M. Keynes’ famous claim I quote at the beginning of my last chapter:

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

This is an important but partial insight, as Keynes himself doubtless appreciated. For as Mark Shulman suggests, ideas influence but are probably not the only determinants of behavior and the relative attraction of the particular ideas sucked up by individuals and groups from the buffet of narratives on offer at any given time itself needs explanation and that explanation may not lie in the realm of more deeply buried ideas.

Putting that cluster of conundrums aside for the moment, my point insofar as Ken’s conceptual categories are concerned is that the choice of tactical options, indeed the very recognition of certain options, will be influenced, however unconsciously, by large premises about cause and effect, about policy inputs and expected policy outputs (the guts of grand strategic visions), except, arguably, where the tactical context is extremely narrow, e.g. a terrorist group is about to release a genetically modified ebola virus in the New York Subway.

Chris Borgen is quite right in identifying a greater diversity of views about US foreign policy than my liberal-neo-con framework of argument implies. His analysis somewhat parallels that of Barry Posen, I believe it was, who not long after the end of the Cold War identified four schools of thought about the future direction of US foreign policy: Isolationism, Off-shore Balancing with regional prioritization, Unilateral Global Engagement and Multi-Lateral Global Engagement. The isolationists of right and left have yet to get much political traction. Neither have the Off-Shore Balancers, despite their much greater respectability within the foreign policy community. So particularly since 9/11, the main debate, as I see it, has been between the Unilateral Engagers led by Neo-Cons (as chief publicists and rationalizers for the position) with allies self-imagined Nationalist-Realists like Rumsfeld and Cheney. Liberals (but not all Liberals) have been in the vanguard of the Multi-lateral engagers although with some allies at least vis-à-vis neo-cons among persons who self-identify simply as Realists. I have dichotomized my discussion precisely because I believe that at this historical moment, the main debate is between uni-lateral and multi-lateral global engagers.

On a different issue: My thanks to Kristen Boon for calling my attention to the U.S. claim, embedded in a Clinton era report to the Human Rights Committee, that the ICCPR does not apply in times of war. Certainly the Bush Administration has spoken and acted as if it shared that erroneous and perhaps it is not too strong to say “insidious” view. It is insidious because the ICCPR’s wide net will catch anyone who is declared by the great Decider or any other official to fall outside the protections even of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Thus no human being is left in a condition of normative nakedness. As I note in my book, there is nothing in the history or the language of the ICCPR on which to ground a reasonable argument that it was not intended to apply once armed conflict begins. Rather the contrary. By virtue of being about human rights, the Covenant purports to declare the rights of all human beings at all times in all places and the corresponding duties of states. Moreover, the Covenant takes explicit account of exigent circumstances, primarily if not exclusively threats to public order and security, takes account of them both in its qualified statement of certain rights like freedom of association and in its provision for the suspension of the majority of its guarantees “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” Few threats other than armed conflict or the looming danger of catastrophic attack by terrorists could satisfy that standard.

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