If It Ain’t Broke

I have a combination of lavish praise and criticism for this Michael Hirsch article on foreign policy doctrine in The Washington Monthly. First, lavish praise. It’s the first article I’m aware of to seriously argue a point that I had hoped to be the first one to argue: We don’t need “new ideas” in American grand strategy. The old ideas were basically fine. Then came the combination of 9/11 and George W. Bush’s decision to abandon the old ideas in favor of new and terrible ones. The confluence of the 9/11 disaster and the disaster of Bushism have convinced many people that the old ideas are discredited or inadequate, but actually everything was fine until Bush tried to abandon the tried and true path of prudent internationalism.

I think this is very right and very important. Everyone should read the article, study the argument, and take it to heart.

Hirsch then kind of grafts this doctrinal point onto a point about Barack Obama which, in turn, is parasitic on an argument about two of Obama’s advisors — Samantha Power and Tony Lake. Hirsch argument about those two might be right, but I don’t think he really brings the proof. It’s also always worth asking “compared to whom?” Lake and Power, as best I can tell, have a much better track record over the past 4–5 years than do most comparably establishmentish national security people.

UPDATE: Let me say more. This is not to deny that pre-Bush US foreign policy entailed, over the decades, some very serious pragmatic and moral flaws. I think it used to be the case, however, that the main elements of US strategy were basically sound, and presidents sometimes made bad decisions. Bush has turned things on their head and adopted a fundamentally flawed strategy from which he occassionally deviates by doing non-catastrophic things. In particular, it’s as if Bush ransacked post-WWII history looking for the areas where American policy has been at its worst — Indochina and Central America — and decided to apply the animating spirit of those errors across the board. This is sort of the argument of Empire’s Workshop by Greg Grandin and also sort of the argument of The Folly of Empire by John Judis both of which deserve more attention than they got.