War and Foreign Policy

WAR AND FOREIGN POLICY….Atrios writes that looking at which wars a person has supported is a lousy proxy for how good their foreign policy judgment is:

There’s this attitude out there where one’s foreign policy abilities are judged by whether you supported the right wars, with people like Peter Beinart checking off their little lists.

….Wars are failures. A primary purpose of sensible foreign policy is to stop them. When wars happen, our foreign policy has failed. That isn’t to say there’s never a point when they’re necessary or justified, but that point is simply an acknowledgment that the people in charge failed.

No argument: war represents failure. What’s more, as he says in a later post, foreign policy has a lot of moving parts that can’t simply be reduced to war vs. no war.

At the same time, I think that looking at someone’s record of support for various wars is more meaningful than he suggests. The problem is that foreign policy, largely because it is so complex, is a domain of platitudes. Should the United States defend its interests? Of course. But which interests? Should war be a last resort? Publicly, nobody would disagree. But who’s to say when every other option has been exhausted? Are there times when the United States might need to fight a preventive war? Yes. But under what circumstances?

Windy paragraphs often conceal more than they inform, and it’s impossible to come up with a magic formula that answers these questions. But there’s one concrete thing you can do: take a look at someone’s past record. Bill Kristol has never met a war he didn’t like. Theory aside, that tells you where he stands in practice. Al Gore thought it was in America’s interests to fight in the Gulf War, in Kosovo, and in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq. That gives you an idea of where he draws the line. Nancy Pelosi supported Kosovo and Aghanistan, but opposed the Gulf War and Iraq. Her line, in practice, is a little bit different than Gore’s.

In general, it’s hard to fudge on war: you either support it or you don’t. After you’ve examined everything, talked to everyone, and thought long and hard, you draw together everything in your experience and make a decision. The gears may turn in private, but the final result represents one of the ultimate tests of someone’s foreign policy judgment.

So: which wars did you support? Any of them? None of them? Some of them? Does it make sense to support a politician who appears to have the same judgment about these things that you do? It’s obviously not the only thing you should look at, but it seems like it ought to be one of the things.