Friday, December 21, 2007

Phronesis

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

There was a flurry of interesting posts in the blogosphere today all talking about "experience" as it relates to HRC and Golden Boy Barry, with an emphasis on foreign affairs. Matt Yglsias, quoted by Kevin Drum, trots out the tired old argument that HRC would very likely end up going to go to war to remain popular, yadda yadda, while Obama and Edwards will be willing to try "bold strokes" (we'll really try to ignore the masturbatory langauge here...) that will break open log jams in foreign affairs. Kevin respectfully disagrees:
And while Matt's critique of Hillary is persuasive, here's the flip side: do you think the world is really likely to be moved by bold strokes? It's possible that my skepticism on this is due more to our age difference than anything else, but I'd say the odds are slim. The institutional forces at work are huge, and I think they mostly respond to patient pressure, smart and knowledgable diplomacy, well-timed compromise, and a clear sense of how the world really works and where you can successully insert a helpful wedge. People who parachute into gigantic institutions — and this is the biggest institution of them all — thinking that they can cut through all the various Gordian knots with bold initiatives are likely to be disappointed.

Next up is Mark Schmitt in The American Prospect making sharp observations that the next Democratic President is going to need to work with a Senate where Republicans have 40 (or more) votes and can filibuster. It will take a negotiator and someone who understands "bipartisanship" to win over the needed 3-5 swing votes as well as hold the entire Democratic causcus. He thinks that Obama's experience as a community activist demonstrate he knows how to listen to the other side and will, with this demeanor, win over those votes. His chief piece of evidence is that Obama once drew HRC into a clumsy response to a debate question. (How this shows Obama can negotiate rather than take advantage of a gaffe, I'm not sure, either.)

I think Mark is formally correct, but willfully blind to the effort Hillary has made in the US Senate to make the kinds of connections and forge the relationships that will draw the fence sitters over to her side, as well as knowing what arms to twist to keep her own players on the right side of the game. But Mark is one of the few people out there to actually argue that involvement in the institution may actually be an advantage - in short, that "experience" is a clear advantage and virtue to possess.

My third read of the day was Joe Wilson's post on Larry Johnson's No Quarter blog, where he blasts the argument of people like Little Matt that there is some kind of virtue in being a clueless git in foreign policy. He is pissed off at those who airily dismiss significant, hands-on experience of foreign policy. It's worth an extended quote:

Yesterday the London Times reported central questions about Senator Obama’s shocking dearth of international experience: “Fresh doubts over Barack Obama’s foreign policy credentials were expressed on both sides of the Atlantic last night, after it emerged that he had made only one brief official visit to London - and none elsewhere in Western Europe or Latin America.” It also reported: “Mr. Obama had failed to convene a single policy meeting of the Senate European subcommittee, of which he is chairman.”

These basic facts, coming from a major foreign newspaper, are a sobering counterpoint to a gushing Boston Globe editorial that endorsed Obama for having “an intuitive sense of the wider world with all its perils and opportunities.” Intuition may be a laudable quality among psychics and palm readers, but for a professional American diplomat like myself, who have spent a career toiling in the vineyards of national security, it has no relevance to serious discussion of foreign policy. In fact, Obama’s supposed “intuitive sense” is no different from George W. Bush’s “instincts” and “gut feeling” describing his own foreign policy decision-making. We have been down this road before....

Senator Obama echoes and reflects the same attitude of contempt [voiced by Bill Kristol] for “on the ground experience.” Acting on his superior “intuition” he has proposed unilateral bombing of Pakistan and unstructured summits without preconditions with adversaries such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il. As we have learned, the march of folly is paved with good but na├»ve intentions....

In the run up to the war and thereafter, I was in frequent discussions with senior Democrats in Washington, including Senator Clinton, and I was keenly aware of her demand for the full exercise of international diplomacy and allowing the weapons inspectors to complete their mission. Many of the most prominent early opponents of the war, including former General Wes Clark and former ambassador to the United National Richard Holbrooke support Senator Clinton for President, as do I. We do so because we know that she has the experience and the judgment that comes from having been in the arena for her entire adult life–and from close personal participation with her in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. And we have trust in her to end the war in Iraq in the most responsible way, consistent with our national security interests.

We know that she has won and lost but always fought for her beliefs, which are widely shared within the Democratic Party. The battles she had been in have been fierce–and the battles in the future will be no less intense–and she has proven her steadfastness and is still standing. She does not have a cowardly record of voting “present” when confronted with difficult issues. She does not claim “intuition” as the basis of the most dangerous and serious decision-making. What she has is deep and vital experience, more important than ever in restoring our country’s place in the world.

Wilson gets to the meat of the "experience" question - it's not just being able to pop off good sound bites during an election campaign. It's being well versed in the whys and wherefores of the foreign policy world (which last time I looked was waaaay bigger than just Iraq. ) Even as he himself opposed the Iraq war, he does not condemn HRC for having voted the way she did - he doesn't try to put her reaoning and larger concerns into a yes/no sound bite. Most of all, he points out the deep problem of going on "intutition" and engaging in "bold moves" when you don't have all the facts you need, are not trusted by foreign allies to have their interests in mind, and have not established an interlocking and coherent policy that actually advances the interests of the US. You end up threatening potential allies with bombs while conceding to much to foes.

Finally, here is Steve Clemons in his own blog The Washington Note, also commenting on the London Times article:
If I'm being asked to support Obama because of innate instinct, I refuse. I would say the same about Hillary Clinton if asked. What we need to know about all of these potential candidates is not only how they operate and work but what the basis of their experience is. Then, for me, I want to see some evidence that the candidate is thinking creatively about how to leapfrog out of today's national security and foreign policy morass into some more stable order that propels American and global interests back in a positive direction....

I hate this debate about experience vs. identity in making this choice. Both candidates have strengths and weaknesses.

But with me, experience -- or demonstrating bold capacity to requisition that experience -- is the primary driver of my political support. Obama supporters, I hope, will drop this cult-ish promulgation of identity politics and will get back on the experience track.

And this brings us back to where we started, which is why experience matters, and why bold stroking of the alleged advantage of ignorance is not going to hack it, even as it leaves Barry supporters satiated. Experience does not mean what people think it means, or rather, we need a better working definition of "experience".

HRC detractors tend to reduce experience to its lowest common denominator - having been in the general vicinity of something for a while and having done a few things while you were there. Measured in this way, it is possible (by squinting really hard) to dismiss her activities as First Lady to insignificance (Shew was just playing hostess, like Nanacy Reagan!) and (by turning a blind eye) to inflate Barry's average legislative record into some kind of savant performance of mind-boggling brilliance and bipartisanship. (Aside - wait, I thought part of HRC's sins against the nation was that she was too bipartisan and tried too hard to reach out across the aisle? Oh, my head hurts.)

What Joe Wilson, Steve Clemons, Kevin Drum and many other bloggers are trying to point out is that what really needs to be discussed is what the Greeks called phronesis - wisdom in determining ends and the means of attaining them. The point is not just to take bold strokes, but to have done the home work, laid the ground work, made the connections, and have established, in Rummy's immortal and glorious words, what the known knowns, the knowns unknowns and the unknown unknowns will be. Bold strokes in foreign policy succeed because they have foundations beneath and channels in which to move. Those that aren't prepared end up like, well, Bush's current war. Or Bill Clinton's non-response to Rwanda. Machivelli famously says that fortune is tamed by those who have both the foresight to prepare and the virtu to act. You can't vote "present" when the unthinkable happens (WTC, Katrina, implosion of the financial markets) - you must act.

It's not just having an appropriate response to a particular event. It's about having a cascading set of possibilities and pathways that can come out of an very unexpected turn. Do you imagine that Al Gore would have failed to use the WTC attack to promote a bolder foreign policy, one that looked poverty, extremism, trade, and, yes, the use of natural resources and protection of the environment? Barry has a knack for giving compelling speeches, but the force of one person's personality is not foundation enough for a foreign or domestic policy platform.

HRC is the walking, talking personification of phronesis. It doesn't mean infallible, but it does mean fully aware of the world around her, the conditions on the ground and the possibilities on the horizon.

Anglachel

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