Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Vicious Cycles

Kevin Drum identifies the vicious cycle of Republican foreign policy: (1) act tough, (2) acting tough creates bad will, (3) bad will eventually manifests itself in some foreign policy crisis which requires (4) acting tough.

The perverse nature of this cycle is that the final step may very well be the best approach in that point in the cycle. Certainly acting tough with a Hitler is the right call. But the essence of Republican foreign policy is not simply to act tough when tough times call for it but to act tough every single day. You run around with a chip on your shoulder daring people to knock it off and eventually someone will. And that's all the excuse you need to punch even harder.

Kevin correctly identifies the political problem this presents for more sensible foreign policy advocates. Most people aren't paying much attention until the crisis rears its ugly head. So most people learn that acting tough is the best policy because they don't see anything else going on.

But liberal foreign policy is about reducing and minimizing the crisis in the first place. And doing so requires something more than a simplistic "act tough" approach. But that more "nuanced" approach can be painted easily by the demagogues who will simply portray all of foreign policy as if it were in a constant state of crisis. We are not stuck at 3AM.

The Republican foreign policy, as outlined by the neo-cons, is all about maintaining a permanent sense of crisis.

And this vicious cycle applies to economics as well. Republicans push the idea of "tax cuts yesterday, tax cuts today, tax cuts tomorrow!" as the be all and end all of economics. Yet sensible economic analysts know that there are times when tax cuts make sense and times when they don't. But, as in the cycle identified above, the time when tax cuts often do make sense (during a crisis) are often the only time people are paying attention. This allows Republicans to paint all tax cuts at any time as a reasonable policy.

This is why I tell politicians I meet that they should always respond to the "taxes, yes or no?" question with a simple, "taxes are not an ideological issue for me." Taxes are simply a tool by which you can execute economic policy. But they are not the only tool and they can be used in many different ways.

Similarly, armies are just a tool by which you can execute foreign policy. But they are not the only tool and they can be used in many different ways.

I am reminded, once again, of Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine". Klein correctly identifies that "disaster capitalism" is based on the idea that a population kept in a state of constant crisis will be much more compliant in the face of proposed solutions, regardless of whether those solutions actually have any merit in addressing the crisis. When things are bad people just want "someone" to do "something".

Democrats must, unfortunately, re-educate voters on this every election season in order for them to remain viable. They must put forward policies that show they understand that, in times of crisis, acting tough may be necessary. But they must also push the idea that a well-rounded policy must work to avoid crisis as much as it plans for how to deal with crisis.

It's a harder selling point. But it is absolutely essential if we are to prevent the crisis-mongers from ruling our lives.

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