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Foreign Policy and "First-Order" Questions
I’m a bit worried that some people mistook my post on the “inappropriateness of a left-right spectrum on foreign policy” last week. In some ways I did, as Dan Lehr put it, “[celebrate] the end of the old ‘left-right/war-peace’ dichotomies.” But this does not mean that other dichotomies, or dichotomies in general, are inappropriate. Brent Scrowcroft and I may agree on many things now, but this convergence, in my view, is an accident of recent history. It tells us little about our compet
Tuesday, December 2,2008 02:53
by Shadi Hamid Democracy Arsenal

I’m a bit worried that some people mistook my post on the “inappropriateness of a left-right spectrum on foreign policy” last week. In some ways I did, as Dan Lehr put it, “[celebrate] the end of the old ‘left-right/war-peace’ dichotomies.” But this does not mean that other dichotomies, or dichotomies in general, are inappropriate. Brent Scrowcroft and I may agree on many things now, but this convergence, in my view, is an accident of recent history. It tells us little about our competing visions of a global system, about the ends of foreign policy, and, then, how means and ends are to be matched. Grappling with these same issues, and taking a more positive view, Ilan says

There is relatively universal agreement among [liberals, liberal hawks, and realists] that we need to begin withdrawing from Iraq, focus more on Afghanistan, opt for direct diplomacy with Iran, reengage with the world, improve our image, strengthen our alliances, close Guantanamo and deal with global warming and energy security.

He is of course right. But the fact that agreement on these issues would be cause for relief, or perhaps even celebration, is itself a grim indictment of our foreign policy discourse. The lowest common denominators are quite low. That aside, my bigger problem with this emerging “consensus” is that it fails to address what one might call “first-order” questions. Glenn Greenwald, in a very interesting post, touches on this here.

For starters, were we against the war because of its consequences or despite its consequences? I worry that the answer to this question is no less clear today than it was several years ago. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t have a clear answer myself. Was there something morally wrong with launching the Iraq war in and of itself, and, if so, what is the nature of the "moral" component in this case, but, more importantly, in so many others? Is what makes such wars immoral the fact that they are pre-emptive, or is it that preemption, as a matter of fact, fails much more often than it succeeds? In other words, if pre-emption was successful from a pragmatic standpoint, would it be less immoral? Or would the very fact of its efficacy negate, or supercede, moral considerations?


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