The VSP Club

THE VSP CLUB….Does the foreign policy community in America provide a level of technical expertise similar to that of, say, the economic policy community or the professional climate change community? Atrios says no. It’s just a club designed to protect the status quo:

The “foreign policy clerisy” apparently exists to close off public scrutiny of or wider debate about America’s appropriate role in the world, to limit the range of options which are “on or off the table” and which are open to public debate or discussion. They exist to monopolize debate and have veto status over club members. Members of the community are clearly chosen for the ability to perpetuate this agenda, rather than for their expertise.

True enough, perhaps, but there’s a flip side to this. Via Matt Yglesias (who agrees with Atrios), comes this from Steve Clemons (who also agrees with Atrios):

Clemons…gives voice to something that I think a lot of us tend to suspect, saying he was one of the few members of [the foreign policy community] to go on television and speak against the Iraq War not because he was the only one to think it was a bad idea, but “because everyone else was a coward.”

“People like me,” he says, “were being fed quite a bit of inside information from people who were every bit as horrified” but very few people said anything….His perspective, he says, is that Washington is “a corrupt town.” From that perspective, he says that “the political-intellectual arenas is essentially a cartel” — a cartel that’s become extremely timid and risk-averse in the face of a neoconservative onslaught.

In one sense, this just confirms Atrios’s point: a powerful and groupthink-oriented foreign policy community was able to silence dissidents and ensure conformity, thus providing the appearance that everyone worth listening to wanted to go to war with Iraq. Skeptics calculated that they’d better shut up if they didn’t want to be blackballed forever from the pages of Foreign Affairs or Meet the Press.

And yet….something is missing here. All social communities (including the blogosphere, by the way) have tools at their disposal for stifling dissent, but what about the dissenters themselves? Were there really large numbers of skeptics who burrowed into their bunkers because they were afraid that if they spoke up they wouldn’t get invited to the next CFR roundtable on the Middle East? Frankly, if that’s all it took to shut them up, that doesn’t speak very well for the home team. Maybe the apostates deserve some criticism too.

My own view is a little different, though. Sure, the war skeptics might have been afraid to go against the herd, but I think that was just an outgrowth of something more concrete: a fear of being provably wrong. After all, everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was a brutal and unpredictable thug and almost everyone agreed that he had an active WMD program. (Note: Please do some research first if you want to disagree with this. The plain fact is that nearly everyone — liberal and conservative, American and European, George Bush and Al Gore — believed Saddam was developing WMDs. This unanimity started to break down when the UN inspections failed to turn up anything, but before that you could count the number of genuine WMD doubters on one hand.) This meant that war skeptics had to go way out on a limb: if they opposed the war, and it subsequently turned out that Saddam had an advanced WMD program, their credibility would have been completely shot. Their only recourse would have been to argue that Saddam never would have used his WMD, an argument that, given Saddam’s temperament, would have sounded like special pleading even to most liberals. In the end, then, they chickened out, but it had more to do with fear of being wrong than with fear of being shunned by the foreign policy community.

At any rate, it would be instructive to find out who these closet doves were and invite them to a Foreign Affairs roundtable to talk about why they knuckled under to the hawks prior to the war. To the extent they were willing to be honest, it would be a pretty interesting conversation. I won’t be holding my breath, though.