Monday, January 10, 2011

How the dialogue about "progressive national security strategy" is destructive both to progressives and national security

Several different discussion threads have been kicking around in my mind in recent weeks and have lately converged around the question of how security policy is and ought to be informed by politics. Jason’s been writing here about grand strategy and peer competitors; the SECDEF’s statement last week on budget efficiencies sparked conversations about the big-picture strategic implications of various defense spending philosophies; and a number of commentators have touched on what it means to advocate for “progressive national security policy.” Robert Farley has taken up this latter question at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, and he’s made what I think is a meaningful contribution to the discussion.
I also happen to think he’s very wrong.
Farley and I had an extended exchange about this on Twitter on Friday night (look at @drfarls and @InkSptsGulliver on 7 Jan, if you're interested. There's probably some easier way to do this, but I don't know what it is), and he basically cleaned my clock. (I’d excuse my poor performance by noting A) that we were jumping around on a number of different lines of inquiry, and B) that most of the conversation took place during my commute home on public transportation.) Rob is undoubtedly correct to say that politics plays a role in basically every aspect of security policy and national security strategy – that is, in everything from the way we conceptualize the values we’re trying to defend to the formulation of the policies and strategies we use to defend them… at least so long as we’re willing to stipulate that a fundamental belief in the importance of physical security and territorial integrity is a matter of political ideology. I’ll concede that there may be instances where a state (or a political actor within that state) is willing to bargain things that most people consider to be foundational national interests in order to achieve gains in other areas, but I think it’s also fair to say that there’s a well-nigh overwhelming socio-political consensus in the U.S. about the importance of those fundamentals. Even the most ardent libertarian would grant that defense against invasion is a legitimate constitutional prerogative of the federal government. But as I’ve alluded to in the comments on this post, political philosophy as concerns the appropriate relationship between government and governed and one’s interpretation of the social contract will certainly inform the way that individual citizens think about grand strategy (though less so, I believe, those citizens’ interpretation of vital national interests).
All of which is really a digression on the point that I really want to make, which is this: I think that it’s senseless and even counterproductive to try to talk about a “progressive approach to national security,” whether that means the conception of a “progressive” grand strategy or the construction of “progressive” policy options. Rob argues that progressives too often cede ground unnecessarily to conservatives when it comes to foreign and security policy, and he may be right about this. But that’s a political problem, not a policy problem. And “conceding ground” in a political debate may negatively impact policy formation, but only if your bad/good spectrum is built on fundamentally progressive metrics. That means you’ve got a tautology on your hands: progressive policies are good because they secure progressive goals, i.e. progressive is good because it’s progressive. So yeah, by that logic, any time progressives lose a debate to conservatives, it’s bad.
Here’s the problem with that, though: most people, when they think about national security, aren’t particularly concerned with labels like “progressive” or “conservative.” If they’re particularly broad-minded and forward-thinking, they might evaluate policy based on whether or not they think it’s consistent with their own personal views of what America is all about; that is, whether it’s consistent with their worldview and their grand strategic preferences. But most people don’t look at things like that – they just ask whether a policy “makes us safer” or not, and on this question they’re subject to the explanatory rationale provided by national security analysts – or more often, if we’re being realistic, to the bullshit spin provided by politicians and politically-minded pundits.
Farley recognizes this, and it’s central to his warning to progressives not to absent themselves from discussions of policy, strategy, doctrine, budgeting, and so on. Heritage and AEI understand that security policy is contested politically just the same as domestic policy, he says; why can’t the left recognize this and engage on those terms? If the conversation is being shaped by political hackery, then progressives need to hack harder! But this approach overlooks an important truth: conservative think tanks don’t explicitly advocate for conservative security policy – they argue for “good” security policy! They argue as if any policy but their chosen course imperils American lives! That’s why open advocacy for “progressive security policy” – either for progressive ends or progressive means – is necessarily counterproductive: because it emphasizes ideology and explicitly recognizes the primacy of the political. (What right-minded non-political national security pragmatist wants to self-identify with “progressive” or “conservative” policy prescriptions? It’s the rhetorical equivalent of the Bush Doctrine – a quest to accumulate enemies through inelegant phrasing and forced decisions.) Heritage cares just as much about Republican wins, sure, but they’ve developed a grammar of national security that doesn’t openly politicize it. If the public thinks you’re willing to prioritize political advantage ahead of effective policy, then they’ll doubt – with good reason! – your commitment to real security.
Paul McLeary has a great piece today that bears on this subject, entitled “Progression through unlearning.” In it, he highlights the way that conservative “defense defenders” are spinning Secretary Gates’ budgetary announcements to suggest that austerity measures will imperil our security and fundamentally alter America’s role in the world. Tom Donnelly, Mackenzie Eaglen, and Jamie Fly did exactly that in the National Review. But their piece is instructive: nowhere do the authors suggest that cuts are bad for conservative policies or conservative grand strategy. They merely beg the grand strategic question, proceeding as if global dominance is the only means with which to ensure American security. And then there’s the magic bullet for those who seek to privilege the defense budget in a time of sweeping cuts: an appeal to the social compact.
Gates’s argument is that defense dollars are not “sacred.” That is true, but that is also to trivialize the fact that national defense is different — a qualitatively different obligation of government than providing social services, health care, “internal improvements,” or economic development. And there is a moral dimension to defense spending, especially when only a few do the fighting and dying for the many.
It is ironic that the White House chose to announce defense spending cuts just as the House, by its public reading of the U.S. Constitution, tried to call the federal government back to its first principles. If there was one thing the Framers understood, it was that security was the first priority of the national government.
Now this is where Farley’s vision of “progressive defense theory” can come in handy! One can contest this reading of the obligations of government. But even more importantly (and probably more easily), one can contest this definition of security, instead elaborating the ways the modern threat environment has changed the way we understand this concept and must necessarily impact the means we employ to ensure it. This is where you talk about the whys and wherefores of your grand strategic concept, where you explain that “security” ain’t just about force-on-force anymore. This is where you get into human security, the “three Ds” (with emphasis on diplomacy and development), an intelligence- and policing-based paradigm for counterterrorism, and the many other elements that could make up whatever it is we want to call a “progressive approach to national security.” But for God’s sake, don’t use that term! Call it a modern approach. Call it a nontraditional approach. Call it an updated approach! But whatever you do, don’t use the language of domestic politics – it cedes the moral high ground, turns off the audience, and implies all the very worst things conservatives want people to believe about the way progressives/liberals/Democrats/non-neocons look at defense.


  1. Interesting post - I very much like the point about labeling. However, I think you've gotten the philosophical arguments here a bit off. Here's why.*

    In this sentence,

    "Political philosophy as concerns the appropriate relationship between government and governed and one’s interpretation of the social contract will certainly inform the way that individual citizens think about grand strategy (though less so, I believe, those citizens’ interpretation of vital national interests"

    you make clear you're operating under the assumption that national interest is somehow independently knowable outside an appeal to political philosophy. The reason that doesn't work (and I'm condensing a 100 page thesis into a few sentences here, so tell me if it's unclear and I'll expand) is that, fundamentally, we can't develop an adequate account of what it means for something to be in the interest of a nation without an account of what's good for that nation. The notion of the good for a nation - say the population of the United States - is defined by one's political philosophy.

    Take the example of economic growth. We might, based on a consequentialist/welfarist account of the good, think that all economic growth is in the interest of the United States because growth, in the long run, most improves people's lives based on metrics like life expectancy, infant mortality, etc (even if you disagree empirically, assume the point for the sake of argument). However, if one's view of political philosophy is more concerned with reducing inequality than brute metrics of welfare in a developed economy, you might not think that all economic growth is in the interests of the United States because you don't think that growth is necessarily good for the population. We can't have an account of what's good for the United States - meaning what's in the U.S.' national interest - without first committing to one of these, or some other, philosophical views. Values determine interests.

    The point here is that while Farley's talk of "progressive foreign policy" may not be politically savvy, it does usefully distinguish an approach to international relations founded on progressive values rather than conservative ones. If I'm correct that values shape interests, and the common assumption that conservatives and progressives have fundamentally different views of political philosophy is also correct, then it's meaningful to speak of "progressive" and "conservative" approaches to foreign policy.

    *I apologize for any typos - I'm rushing this out in between some work.

  2. Zack -- I probably wasn't clear enough about this, but I agree with you and concede your point that different ideologies/value systems will inform differing conceptions of interest. I suppose I sort of equivocated on this point, and might have even contradicted myself, but it's part of what I was trying to say when I acknowledged that Farley whipped me in the Twitter debate. So: yes, political ideology is influential in the way we each evaluate "national interests" (though, again, less so when we're talking about "VITAL national interests").

    And again (I didn't emphasize this in this particular post, but I've addressed it elsewhere in comments), the act of even defining what "national interest" means is fraught: what is "good," who is the "nation," etc etc. But for the purpose of IR modeling, we've got to make some kind of utilitarian abstraction.

    Your final paragraph is back to the friction point for me, though: I don't see any utility in distinguishing "progressive approaches" from "conservative approaches" AS A MATTER OF POLICY. When you talk about formational ideology, that's a conversation about politics. Furthermore, you can cobble together a whole bunch of policies that are purportedly "progressive" in their rationale and formulation, but which result in a general pattern of state behavior that is decidedly non-progressive. You're also, in that case, working backwards: trying to jam behaviors into endstates, which really just ends up as bullshit excuse-making and spin about how the stuff you're doing really IS the best thing to get to the desired endstate (see Neoconservatism, philosophical justifications for). And this is the kind of thing that pisses people like me (who don't self-identify as progressives, and are far more concerned with policy effectiveness than ideological orthodoxy) off and makes us think you care more about ideas than reality.

    On the other hand: When you conceive of a "progressive" image of America and enumerate "progressive" interests, then pursue the policies best suited to achieving those things, you're often going to end up with specific positions, actions, and policies that can't be described as "progressive" in any meaningful sense. (An example here might be hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could be considered "progressive" as a question of defense spending and readiness, but not as a matter of democracy promotion or human-rights protection.)

    So which is the "progressive approach"?

  3. Wow. Talk about an odd convergence. I was walking home today thinking about this very issue.

    To put it simply, it is the lack of knowledge on strategic studies that hurts the progressive (I will be grossly generalising here) side on issues of national security. They ceded the ground when they stopped studying it beyond a reference in a Chomsky book.

    First off, progressives have mostly walked away from any real understanding of military doctrine/order of battle/systems utility. Yes, examples will obviously exist, but those on the ‘professional left’ have no understanding of doctrine or strategy beyond using the misquote of Clausewitz’s dictum, “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” (And yes, I’m watching you Blackfive. You guys make this mistake every single time you post the quote. It’s ‘policy’ not ‘politics’.)

    This would have to change for something to arise that really challenges the status quo. You at least must have a modicum of understanding as to how military force is put into effect before demanding it is used. What RoE’s are and why they matter. Why COIN is more useful over maneuver blitzkrieg and vice versa depending on the circumstances. Once you understand doctrine and its need, the rest follows nicely.

    Second, they have eschewed seeing Grand Strategy as anything more than ‘defeat the enemy’ when one arises. That is strategy, not Grand Strategy. You actually have to have a plan for the entire country, your allies, and your enemies. A concept of the future has to be enunciated as well. And then you have to put it into action. That is Grand Strategy.

    Similarly, the linkages between the dimensions of strategy, to use Colin Gray here, do not exist in so many articles/ blog posts/position papers. You actually have to think and then create a country-wide and global apparatus necessary to defend a country/state system. If you neglect any one sector, the whole thing begins to come tumbling down.

    Third, simply stating the defense budget needs to fall does not make anyone a defense expert. You have to state why and in what areas things need to be cut. Saying $200b shouldn’t be spent on F-22s because the Taliban doesn’t have an airforce does more to prove why you shouldn’t be listened to than anything else.
    And when there is a how and why description, there always seems to be a lack of acknowledgement of the impact such cuts will have on capability and the effect on future scenarios.

    Fourth, the lack of acceptance of consequences. This one really gets my goat.
    If you’re going to demand the US get out of Japan/Germany/Mid East, you have no credibility until you sit and describe the consequences of your actions.
    If you cannot conceive of the consequences of a nuclear arms race in North Asia, a resurgent Russia slapping Europe around on energy, or a ME teetering on the edge, internally and regionally, you do not deserve to talk about foreign policy.
    You’ve already mentioned the pull out of Afghanistan, so I won’t go there.

    That said, if one does want to achieve these goals of a US pullback, creating options for how this would occur without drastically changing the strategic situation – that would likely be a negative for the US - should be your focus.