Foreign Policy Micro-Initiatives

Matthew Yglesias comments (“Resilience,” The, 30 October 2007) on Robert Kagan’s Sunday editorial (“Free Elections Come First,” The Washington Post, 28 October 2007, p. B7):

The unfortunate reality for those like Kagan who’d like to believe that an incredibly aggressive, violent, coercion-oriented US foreign policy is the height of moral probity is that living conditions around the world are, in general, improving for the better without us. There are major exceptions in Sub-Saharan Africa and North Korea but there’s nothing about a glance at those places — Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories — that have benefited from American “democracy promotion” policy that would make any sane person think we need to Kaganize our approach to Russia or China.

This should not be to say that the U.S. should sit passive, but rather than blowing the entire budgetary and soldierly load on one or two high risk foreign policy extravaganzas, what the U.S. should pursue is multifaceted, low-grade, low risk diplomatic pressure and programs across a wide range of countries and issues. It has a higher probability of success, failures have less consequence and unlike massive military interventions, history is on our side here.

Unfortunately foreign policy thinking under the tutelage of George W. Bush, et. al. and the right more generally has taught the country to love the spectacle. The slow, meandering work of diplomacy is no longer enough to capture and hold the imagination of a people who have come to expect “shock and awe,” explosions, daisy-cutter bombs, multi-million dollar airplanes and soldiers looking like a bunch of badasses. No besuited pencil-necks touting human rights reports will suffice for this appetite.

In this regard the President and Congress are no longer really strategists who take as their primary object the international situation, so much as senior public relations people involved in the creation of images for mass public consumption. The images then become the raw material of a primal American dialog about manliness, virility, strength, fear, safety, children, et cetera that takes place in an almost entirely solipsistic fantasy world. So the terms of our foreign policy debate have become whether or not a scrawny Greek guy looks convincing driving a tank, how manly George Bush looks in a flight suite and who would be better received serving Thanksgiving dinner at a surprise visit to a FOB.

The problem with foreign policy micro-initiatives is that they don’t enter into the symbol system of U.S. political dialogue.