Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2002
By: Kevin Drum

NEGOTIATION OR APPEASEMENT?....OR IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?....Josh Marshall wrote a piece yesterday that's gotten a bunch of blogospheric attention:

This entire crisis [in North Korea] -- and it's foolish to pretend it's not a crisis -- is an administration screw-up of mammoth proportions. The administration is trying to portray this as just another crisis that happened on their watch. But that woefully understates its own responsibility for the situation we're now in.

I think he's right. Every administration comes into office claiming that the previous administration had a terrible foreign policy: there was no overarching vision, they merely reacted to events as they happened, and the end result was a huge mess.

But as Harold Macmillan famously pointed out, the greatest challenge of any administration is "events, dear boy, events," and smart politicians leave themselves as much room as they can to respond when events overtake them. Bush's needless tough talking for the past two years has done just the opposite, narrowing his options to the point that he has almost none left.

So now we're left in the worst possible situation. We can't negotiate with North Korea because Bush has repeatedly stated that he wouldn't do it. Military action has no support either. So what's left? We'll "privately" negotiate with the Koreans through third parties, which provides the maximum possible scope for misinterpretation and error, all the time pretending that we're doing no such thing. This is just dumb.

I wish all the "tough minded realists" out there could get one thing through their heads: negotiation is not appeasement. It's just negotiation. It's only appeasement if you negotiate badly and cave in on things you shouldn't.

So let's get ourselves back to the table and start negotiating. After all, what other options are there?

Kevin Drum 3:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ANALOGIES....Atrios makes the following observation today:

If there's one thing I've learned about arguing with conservative assholes - never use analogies. never use comparisons.

Well, I don't know for sure if this is something that's unique to conservatives or to assholes but it definitely rings true. I've noticed that whenever I write something using an analogy, I get a bunch of mail arguing that the analogy isn't perfect and that therefore my entire argument fails.

Note to the world: analogies are never perfect, they're just meant to be, well, analogies. If used well, they can help you understand an argument better, but it's the argument itself you should pay attention to.

Kevin Drum 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC WATERS....The California Coastal Commission is one of the most hated government bodies in the state. Hated, that is, if you're a property owner, because it enforces coastal protection provisions enacted by California voters in 1972.

Approval from the commission is required by anyone making a change to their property, and usually it takes the form of some kind of deal: the commission approves the change but only if the property owner installs a walkway from the road to the beach, for example. These deals are despised by property owners because California law says all beaches are public property, while property owners do everything they can to keep the hoi polloi far, far away.

There have been innumerable well-financed court challenges to the commission, and now one of them has finally succeeded. A state appeals court ruled yesterday that the commission is unconstitutional because a majority of its members are appointed by the legislature and can be fired at any time. The reasoning goes that commission members don't want to get fired, so they are essentially under the thumb of the legislature, and this violates separation of powers provisions of the state constitution.

In a practical sense the whole thing is ridiculous, because far from being under anybody's thumb, the commission has a reputation as one of the most maddeningly independent bodies around. In fact, it's this very independence that drive property owners nuts.

And in a theoretical sense, it also doesn't matter. If the ruling is upheld, then the legislature changes the law to provide for fixed terms and life goes on. Big deal.

So any way you cut it, this suit accomplishes nothing and the ruling is meaningless. I don't get it.

Ann, am I missing something here?

UPDATE: Well, Justene Adamec doesn't think I'm missing anything. Whew.

Kevin Drum 9:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON FOREIGN POLICY....OxBlog also has several posts today on the subject of rhetoric and unilateralism:

Anyway, the real issue here is how supporters of American foreign policy can address the perennial argument that America's record of immoral actions in the Cold War invalidates any aggressive initiatives the United States plans today....I think the proper response is to admit what the US did wrong and shift the discussion to the merits of its current policy. As Ken Pollack tells the WaPo, what we did in the 1980s "was a horrible mistake then, but we have got it right now." The worst thing to do is come up with defensive justifications of immoral acts.

If only life were so easy. "Yes, we had it totally wrong in the 80s in the Middle East, and we were totally wrong about our frequent invasions of Latin America too. Appalling bad judgment, that. But we've got it right now."

When a person shows bad judgment about something, we watch them carefully and demand consistent evidence that they have reformed before we trust them again. The same is true of countries. It may be that we have it right now, but we should hardly be surprised that the rest of the world does not simply take our word for it.

Kevin Drum 9:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND UNILATERALISM....A BOGUS CHARGE?....I got an email the other day telling me I should lighten up on Bush: judge him by his deeds, not his words, it said. Today, Dan Drezner says essentially the same thing:

In its first six months, the administration committed the cardinal sin of assuming that it should reflexively oppose any policy initiative supported by the Clinton administration. No doubt, this led to some process-oriented mistakes, such as pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol. However, both domestic and foreign critics need to get over their first impression on this score.

There is something to this: in the high-profile case of Iraq, Bush eventually chose to work through the UN and so far has taken no unilateral military action. However, there's more to it, and Drezner tackles that too:

A few weeks ago, a high-ranking White House official gave a talk on homeland security at a University of Chicago workshop on security....The talk didn't go well. The presenter's cocksure demeanor and refusal to recognize the valid questions from the audience led me -- an administration supporter -- to find the administration's arrogance insufferable. It's this arrogance, this refusal to even consider the value of alternative viewpoints, that causes so many within the chattering classes to label it tone-deaf.

This boils down to the following criticism: this administration doesn't take the time to listen carefully to an alternative position and then delineate in full why that position is wrong -- it just says so at the outset. In diplomacy, such things matter.

Yes, these things do matter, but for more than just for rhetorical reasons:

  • The administration is full of people who know very well what the conventions of diplomacy are. The fact that they choose to deliberately ignore them suggests that they also have contempt for the underlying multilateral processes themselves.

  • Drezner suggests that there's a good reason for the arrogance: they really know what they're doing. But I thought that "trust me, I'm from the government" was a conservative joke, not a liberal one?

  • There's a big difference between truly working with allies and simply threatening them if they don't go along. Sure, most of them will go along eventually. After all, what choice do they have? But this bears the same relationship to "consultation" that assault does to negotiation.

Words matter, as conservatives are so fond of telling us, and when Bush warns the UN that if it doesn't back us in Iraq we will do the job ourselves, his message could hardly be clearer or more unilateral. Intentions are often revealed simply through emphasis, and the Bush administration has consistently emphasized military action and talked very little about what happens after the tanks have done their job. In Iraq, the aftermath of war is far more important than the war itself, and the fact that Bush seemingly doesn't care much about it is extremely troubling.

We should be putting as much energy into seeking and reducing the root causes of terrorism as we are into destroying the proximate causes. Unfortunately, that seems to violate some sacred conservative principle that I'm not privy to, and we are all going to pay the price for this. Like a medieval doctor making a problem worse because he doesn't understand anything about physiology, we will flail around the globe fighting fires, but the problem itself will never go away. That is a high price to pay for the temporary warm feeling we get when we give those effete Europeans the rhetorical finger and tell them to get the hell out of the way and let the Americans solve all the world's problems.

Kevin Drum 8:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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